Diamonds and Migrant Labour in South Africa, 1869-1910
The 'pass laws' and migrant labour of apartheid in South Africa today have their origins in the policies designed to control the black workers in the diamond mines a century ago.

Racial discrimination in South Africa is based on the migrant labour system. Unlike other South Africans, Africans are treated as foreigners outside strictly defined areas of residence, the so-called 'homelands', and their movement is controlled by the notorious system of pass laws. Typically, men contract to work in the major cities while leaving their families and political rights behind them in the 'homelands'. Migrant labour has ensured a supply of cheap wage labour to the mining sector and secondary industry, and is a system which has been condemned throughout the world. Migrant labour is not a system unique to South Africa. Migrant labourers from countries in southern Europe contract to work in France, Germany, Sweden and Britain on a large scale. They are genuine foreigners, and while they suffer from different forms of exploitation and prejudice, in time they are allowed to settle with their families in host countries. What is unique about South African migrant labour is the prohibition on internal migrants from settling at their work places. The system is far more pervasive and coercive in South Africa than in Europe. In South Africa it has existed in different forms for over 140 years.

So how did it all begin? In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, during the period of Dutch rule, slave labour dominated the wheat and wine farms of the Cape Colony, but there were also pockets of wage labour in the main towns. After the arrival of the British in 1806 and the abolition of slavery in 1834, wage labour spread unevenly through town and countryside. The first major growth of wage labour occurred after 1869, following the discovery of diamonds between the Vaal and Harts rivers, some 700 miles from Cape Town.

Fortune hunters flocked to the 'river diggings' and then to the 'dry diggings' a short distance away at Kimberley, where one of the four mines turned out to be the most valuable four acres of real estate in the world. The mine, also called Kimberley, was so fabulously rich that by 1872 there were 10,000 men picking, digging, shovelling and sorting its diamondiferous ground. The majority of manual labourers were Africans and for them wage labour, let alone minework, was a new experience.

Wage labour was a novelty because no such relationship existed within independent African chiefdoms. Bonds of kinship determined production and reproduction within economic systems based on subsistence agriculture and the herding of cattle. Chiefs and lineage heads governed access to land, controlled the allocation of labour and ensured the payment of various forms of tribute. Crucially, marriage was controlled by the elders who owned the herds of cattle necessary for bridewealth. So, when Africans went to work in the diamond mines they were not 'free' wage labourers, in the sense of labourers 'free' from the land and labourers 'free' to sell their capacity to work. In any case, their social responsibilities denied them the freedom to dispose of their labour as individuals.

Africans went to work in the Kimberley mines for a variety of reasons. Many went to earn cattle for bridewealth or ploughs to improve their farming for the market. Others went to earn guns on the instructions of chiefs and elders. Take, for example, the Pedi, a Sotho people who lived in the north-eastern Transvaal and dominated the Kimberley labour market in the 1870s. Before the discovery of diamonds the Pedi had been travelling to the Cape Colony for some forty years or more to work as migrant labourers. They earned money because their chiefs understood the importance of acquiring guns to protect themselves against white settlers, who had begun to move into the Transvaal region in the 1830s and 1840s. The Pedi sold their labour to buy guns because they did not have easy access to commodity markets for agricultural produce. In this respect the Pedi differed from other African peoples, who were able to sell produce rather than labour for guns. In the 1870s the need for guns grew as the pressure of white settlers on African land increased. Consequently, the discovery of diamonds was opportune for Pedi; Kimberley was a shorter distance than the eastern Cape, wages were higher and less time was spent in working for a gun and/or bridewealth.

The diamond mines provided the largest and most accessible labour and gun markets for Africans from 'the interior of southern Africa. Africans went to do a spell of minework, which became culturally institutionalised as a rite of manhood. They left at the command of their chiefs and were subject to headmen in the mining camps. They commonly worked between three and six months in the mines, bought guns or other commodities and then left for home. Some never returned, others made it an annual affair. Yet, in the early days, they remained cultivators and pastoralists who complemented their primary activities with a stint in wage labour.

Such Africans were not ideal mineworkers. They were unaccustomed to the heavy work of digging and loading, but more importantly, most did not stay long enough to learn industrial discipline. Mine- owners tried to control the supply of labour to the mines through recruitment, government sponsored schemes to protect the labour routes to the mines and the informal system of labour touting. They were not as successful as they would have liked.

Mine-owners also explored ways of controlling and holding Africans once they were in Kimberley. From 1872 all Africans (Pedi, Sotho and Tsonga from outside the boundaries of the Cape Colony were in a majority) had their freedom restricted by the pass system. This was a complicated set of changing controls which attempted to inhibit desertion. At its heart was the pass an African received once he had made a contract to labour for an employer. Without such a pass Africans were liable to arrest and imprisonment for up to three months. Despite the rigorous application of the system, it did not guarantee the uninterrupted labour of African mineworkers.

In Kimberley Europeans were dependent on an anonymous African workforce for the first time in southern Africa. Africans made up nearly 90 per cent of the mines' labour complement: this varied from 10,000 men during slumps in production to 30,000 during boom periods (1878-81, 1886-90). Between 50,000 and 100,000 Africans went to Kimberley in any one year. This was a far greater movement of workers than had ever taken place in southern Africa before. While Africans did not settle permanently in Kimberley, they threatened new political and social problems, and aroused deep felt fears amongst Europeans.

What could European mine owners do to dominate and discipline such a labour force? What they would have liked to do - to turn them into slaves or indentured labourers on long contract - had to be balanced against what was possible. For the first fifteen years of diamond production all the cards seemed to be in the hands of African workers and their chiefs. Wages were high, the pass system was ineffective, workers were more suited to pastoral or agricultural pursuits and they were subject to recall at a moment's notice if their chiefs required their military service. In this period of South African history there were numerous colonial wars which were bad for mining in the short term. In such a situation the strength of African workers lay in their ability to withdraw their labour at will. The mine-owners' problem was simple: their workers were not dependent on mining for a livelihood.

In the early 1880s a number of changes tipped the balance of power against Africans in the labour market. Firstly, after 1880 the growth of joint-stock mining companies, in place of numerous small diggers, provided the political and economic cohesion to push through radical solutions in the industry. Then, the onset of a deep depression from 1882 to 1885 bankrupted weak mining companies and encouraged the destruction of worker organisations. Next, after 1885, the development of underground mining, which precluded the close supervision of the labour process possible in open-cast mining until then, made new forms of control desirable. Finally, the wholesale conquest of African chiefdoms in southern Africa pushed a considerable number of Africans off the land and into the colonial economy. These conquests of, for example, the Pedi and the Zulu, were quite remarkable. In the space of thirty years or so, between 1870 and 1900, all independent African chiefdoms were subordinated to colonial, imperial or republican rule. These military conquests were in no small measure influenced by the increasing labour demands made by the diamond and gold mining industries on the African societies of southern Africa.

Joint-stock companies, the depression, underground mining and the conquest of African chiefdoms all shaped the decision to introduce closed compounds in 1885. Compounds provided the framework for the total control of African workers. Once inside these military-style barracks, workers lost all access to the outside world for the length of a contract. In 1902 Gardner Williams, General Manager of De Beers, described the largest compound:

Fully four acres are enclosed by the walls of De Beers' Compound, giving ample space for the housing of its three thousand inmates, with an open central ground for exercise and sports. The fences are of corrugated iron, rising ten feet above the ground, and there is an open space of ten feet between the fence and the buildings ... Iron cabins fringe the inner sides of the enclosure, divided into rooms 25 feet by 30 feet, which are lighted by electricity. In each room twenty to twenty- five natives are lodged. The beds supplied are ordinary wooden bunks, and the bed clothing is usually composed of blankets which the natives bring with them, or buy at the stores in the compound, where there is a supply of articles to meet the simple needs of the natives. Besides these stores there is a hospital and dispensary... In the centre of the enclosure there is a large concrete swimming bath.

While this description contained some recent improvements, the basic features of the compound had been the same since its inception. The compound system denied Africans the freedom to respond to market forces and to sell their labour for the highest wage. It enabled the mine owners to turn the initial disadvantage of migrant labour into the great political and economic advantages of cheap and controlled labour, a system so advantageous to mining capitalists that it continues to operate throughout the mineral industries in South Africa today. The mine-owners justified such a system of compounds to a colonial governing class, which believed in free trade (and to metropolitan Parliament, which kept a watching brief on 'slavery'), by arguing that they were being extensively robbed by their African workers and that compounds were the only fail-safe way of protecting themselves. Diamonds were often very small and easily stolen. A worker in the claims could unearth a stone with his toes, swallow it and wait for it to appear again in the course of nature. From there it was a simple matter to sell it, for a fraction of its value, on the illicit diamond market in Kimberley. IDB (illicit diamond buying) kept a vast quantity of money in circulation to the benefit of local traders and merchants. It was the extent of this illicit trade, argued mine-owners, that had so seriously undermined the profitability of the industry and exacerbated the crisis diamond mining faced during the depression.

Yet this was a self-serving justification and one which played on an issue, the defence of private property, with which the governing class in the Cape Colony was most likely to sympathise. For one thing, it was next to impossible to judge how many diamonds were being stolen, and mine-owners took advantage of this by magnifying the extent of theft to explain away their failure to make a profit. For another, reckless promotion and speculation during the formation of joint-stock companies in 1880-81 had so inflated the market value of the diamond industry that it was impossible for many companies to declare dividends at all. Who was the real villain: the diamond thief in the pit or the dishonest promoter in the board room? And who was to say the diamond thief was black rather than white?

Of course, mine-owners wanted to prevent theft, but they wanted compounds for other reasons as well. Most managers and directors had noted the advantages in labour efficiency, discipline and cost that Cecil Rhodes' De Beers Diamond Mining Company derived from the use of convict labour. They wanted to imitate the convict labour system without turning free workers into slaves. In time, though, the compound system turned the distinction between waged and convict labour into a matter of words, rather than the fundamental divide between free and unfree labour.

The development of underground mining was experimental in nature as there were no tried mining techniques for Kimberley's type of diamondiferous ground. Going underground was tunnelling into the unknown in more sense than one. It was vastly expensive and the stakes were high for those companies who mastered the underground caverns. A constant supply of Africans accustomed to minework was essential in such a situation. Workers had to be encouraged to remain longer than three months so as to increase labour efficiency. The coercive features of the compound system played a crucial role in turning migrant labourers into experienced mineworkers, good at drilling, loading and picking. That was its essential function.

Once Africans were isolated from the towns and camps in closed compounds, labour discipline was easier to enforce. Absenteeism declined, piece-work was introduced and liquor and women were forbidden. Mineworkers worked full twelve hour shifts, although they did not necessarily work a full week. Isolation also made it easier to force down wages, as strikes could be put down by compound guards as faction fights. And it is remarkable how the wages of workers were forced down to the maintenance costs of convict workers by the middle 1890s.

In short, the compound was the key institution of labour control in early industrial South Africa. It provided the link between a capitalist enclave in Kimberley and its labour- supplying hinterland. The mine- owners had struggled to control the supply of labour throughout the 1870s and 1880s, but had failed in the face of the greater control of chiefs and elders over the labour-power of their young men. In the 1890s it was the compound system that turned migrant labourers into experienced and cheap mineworkers, while reducing the threat of an organised working class in Kimberley.

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