In 1887 Zululand was annexed by the colony of Natal and the Zulu were gradually stripped of most of their arable land. There was widespread poverty, made worse by a series of natural disasters. In 1903 an epidemic of East Coast fever decimated the cattle, there were swarms of locusts and enormous damage was caused by a severe hailstorm in 1905. All these factors led it a serious economic depression. Africans had to pay a Hut Tax and a Dog Tax, and were subjected to a system of forced labour called isibalo, which caused widespread hardship and resentment. White farmers occupied more and more land, establishing farms and sugar plantations. After the South African War there was a shortage of agricultural labour. Rather than work for the white farmers, the black workforce was increasingly attracted to the gold mines of the Witwatersrand, where they could earn better wages In 1905, in an attempt to increase the supply of labour and force more black men into becoming agricultural labourers, the Natal government under Charles Smythe, imposed a Poll Tax of £ 1 on all men over the age of 18. To pay the tax, African men would have to work for cash. Gandhi captured the proletraisation process in his book, Satyagraha in South Africa,
In order to increase the Negro's wants or to teach him the value of labour a hut tax have been imposed on him. If these imposts were not levied, this race of agriculturists living on their farms would not enter mines hundreds of feet deep in order to extract gold or diamonds, and if their labour were not available for the mines, gold as well as diamonds would remain in the bowels of the earth. Like, the Europeans would find it difficult to get any servants, if no such tax was imposed.”
Chiefs and their subjects were required to report to the offices of their respective resident magistrates to pay the Poll Tax on 1 January 1906. However, while some chiefs ordered their subjects to pay, many people opted for passive resistance and simply refused.