The History of Migrant Labour in South Africa

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The migrant labour system marks a period in which African men were integrated into wage labour. Black men changed from being farmers in their own lands to being cheap labour in the mines. African men from the Bantustans and from other neighbouring countries left their families behind to work as contract labourers in the mines. The migrant labour system is the evidence of how legislation was used to the benefit of mining magnates and white workers to oppress African workers. African migrant labourers did not only work as cheap labour, but they also worked under harsh conditions as they were also victims of abuse by their white supervisors.

From peasants to migrant labour

The control over African labour began in 1834 after slavery was abolished. The abolition of slavery led to constant labour demands that were influenced by the discovery of diamond and gold in South Africa[1]. It was then only through cheap wage labour that African labourers could still be controlled as slavery was no longer an option. The large part of South African history is centred around the transformation of the majority of the country’s people. The rural African population changed from their pre-colonial status as pastoralist-cultivators to their current status as subsistence rural dwellers. The inability to sustain themselves through agriculture made them rely on wages earned in white industrial areas or on white farms for subsistence[2]. The vital post-mineral era was one in which non-market forces prevailed. It was an era in which economic and political power bearers utilised discriminatory and coercive measures to marginalise the African peasantry. The economy was built with a structure that favoured market forces for the white capitalist sector[3].

Moreover, the reduction in the productivity and profitability of African agriculture as well as the consequent increase in Africans’ reliance on wage labour, is a significant component of the character of capitalist growth in South Africa[4]. African employment in the mines was due to deprivation in tribal areas as a result of soil erosion, population growth and land occupation by whites[5]. Things became more difficult for farmers in 1886 after the discovery of gold as it meant more labour would be needed[6]. Black labour on Witwatersrand mines was short of 100 000 men by the turn of the century[7]. There was competition between the farms and mines about African labour[8]. This meant that mining magnates and farmers had to find ways to attract African labour.

The Integration of Africans into wage labour in the mines

Between 1890 and 1914 there were challenges with labour and capital and as a result during this period Southern African labour was either forced, cheap, resembled bondage or modern slavery[9]. Black men were forced to migrate while in the process their land was dispossessed[10]. It was not only because Africans were forced to work in the mines but also the spreading knowledge about work in the mines played a role in the integration of Africans in the mines. In addition, agents also painted a rosy picture about the advantages of working in the mines for Africans and as a result it was perceived as a privilege to have worked in the mines among African tribes[11]. Workers worked under exploitative conditions as the death rate of workers in 1903 was eighty per thousand and Black workers were frequently assaulted by whites[12]. It was not only South Africans who worked as cheap labour in the mines but also African men from other neighbouring countries such as Mozambique, Swaziland, and Botswana.

Composition of labour

By 1936, South Africans made up 58 percent of the Black labor force. However, when recruitment in the North was reopened in 1973, the number decreased to 22 percent[13]. Mozambicans were mostly preferred, because they lasted in jobs and did not have problems with working underground[14]. In 1961, Tanzania officially ceased with recruitments to South Africa as a form of protest against apartheid government. In 1966, Zambia followed while on the contrary Malawi continued to supply migrant labourers to South Africa and this was because of economic dependence, and it was only in 1974 that Malawi withdrew 120 000 migrant labourers[15]. This withdrawal by Malawi was the first to have major repercussions on demand patterns[16]. The recruitment of foreign migrant labourers was later influenced by the independence of the most powerful states in the region which were a political threat to South Africa. The rise in the price of gold, lengthy recession which was made worse by drought and the changes in internal political and economic policies in South Africa also influenced the recruitment of migrant labourers[17].

Recruitment organisations

Recruitment organisations were established to further integrate Africans into the migrant labour system in the mines. The Chamber of Mines established The Native Labour Department in 1893 to focus on resources in the former Transvaal. The Department was established to primarily focus on the recruitment of Black labourers from Mozambique[18]. It was later replaced by the Rand Native Labour Association which its role was to supply labour force to mines while also ensuring there was no competition between mines[19]. The Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WNLA) also referred to as Wenela was later established in 1900 and its initial role was to recruit labourers from Mozambique for different industries, It was later limited to gold mines and also expanded recruitment to other parts of Southern Africa[20]. The other reason for the formation of Wenela was to monopolise recruitment to prevent competition for labour by mines[21]. Although Wenela was to recruit all black labour for the industry, it took time for mines to stop competing for South African labour[22]. A few years after the establishment of Wenela, it became enormously powerful and influential to such an extent that by 1907, it had already recruited 100 082 Black labourers from Transvaal, Bechuanaland, Swaziland, Cape Colony, Mozambique and British central Africa Protectorate. The highest number of labourers which was 47 656 was recruited from Mozambique Wenela recruitment expanded even more in the 1930s, it expanded to Bechuanaland, Nyasaland, Northern Rhodesia, Angola, and Southwest Africa[24]. Recruitments were accompanied by agreements between South Africa, Nyasaland, and Northern Rhodesia in 1938 although the Inter-Territorial Migrant Labour later replaced it in 1947[25].


There was a need to organise labour supply in the mining industry and as a result significant legislative and administrative effort was required[26].The pass laws were first introduced by the Chamber of Mines and these pass laws demanded that African miners wear a badge or a metal plate on the arm[27]. The Glan Grey Act of 1894 was established to enslave Africans through the introduction of tax. Cecil Rhodes, the prime minister of the Cape Colony at the time described the introduction of tax as removing the Native from life of sloth by teaching them the importance of labour and to make them contribute to the prosperity of the state by giving return to good government[28]. This was a way of trapping Black people into the service of white employers[29]. Although such laws were not helpful in increasing labour supply, they were evidence of the power of mining financiers to create law into their own favour.

Involvement of the state

State support was needed by the mines in enforcing legislation and administration because Africans were not willing to accept mine labour and mostly underground work[30]. The reluctance of African labourers to work in the mines was also attributed to their unwillingness to break with their tradition, not wanting to work for foreigners who talked a strange language and having to leave their wives and families behind[31]. Despite the mining owners’ wishes, black labour was not available and those who agreed to sign employment contracts were not reliable workers, as they constantly fled and looked for work on the Rand[32]. Even in the early difficult years of diamond activity which marked the development of the mining sector in South Africa, African labour was in demand to such an extent that wage of African labourers was as high as those paid to white workers overseas[33]. This then made the mines to be dependent on the government. Dependence on the government was also necessary because of the competition between the different mines, the government was used to maintain discipline[34]. In 1900, the mining magnates approached Transvaal government requesting that labour requirements be a state enterprise, but they were turned down[35]. After the Anglo-Boer war, Randlords exercised power through the state as the state became sensitive to their needs[36]. They believed that good governance should come with abundant labour as abundant labour would enable cutting down wages and by 1906 there was an improvement in the flow of African migrant labour in the mines[37].

The Colour Bar

The first legal colour bar in the economy was adopted by the Volksraad in 1893[38]. Workers were imported from Europe and the difference between skilled and unskilled labour began. Skilled men were white people while unskilled men were Black people and white men in the gold mines perceived themselves as aristocracy of labour[39]. A clause in the first mining stipulated that only white people can do the actual blasting although it was later dropped in 1896[40]. The job of engine drivers was reserved for whites only and the regulations had to be tightened up with the importation of labour from China in 1904[41]. The importation of labour from China was accepted by whites on a condition that the employment of Chinese was only limited to enumerated list of capacities in order to prevent Chinese from competing with skilled and semi-skilled whites[42]. This was a way of reserving jobs that were meant for white people. During this time, the number of white labourers was larger than usual, and it was not only Chinese who were a threat to white labour as in 1907 whites protested to prevent Black people from doing skilled jobs[43]. Despite the fact that the strike was defeated, it had the consequence of forcing the government to impose a strict rationing of civilized labor to indentured locals in the mining industry[44]. As a result, the challenging periods between the end of the Anglo-Boer war and the Act of Union, white miners in the Witwatersrand were able to maintain their status of privilege[45].

Through the Mines and Works Act of 1911, the status of white miners was further entrenched as this law allowed the Governor General to establish regulations that required certificate of competency for performance for diverse types of works and these certificates were only issued to whites in the Transvaal and Free State[46]. When in 1897, the Chamber of Mines attempted to reduce the wages of all its employees, white employees went on a strike and their wages were never reduced and Black workers’ own were reduced[47]. After the successful strike of white workers and after their unions gained recognition in 1913, black workers decided to protest against their working conditions. One of the grievances by black workers was the colour bar as it prevented them from getting promotions and even after the protest, it was never removed[48]. When the Chamber of Mines was under pressure from white trade unions in 1918, they decided to preserve the status quo on the mines with regards to the employment of black people and white people[49]. The reason for this agreement was to prevent the crumbling of the colour bar which would have not been prevented by legislation due to labour shortages[50].


The chairman of mines, Albu in 1897 noted that it was necessary for the wages of natives to be reduced because they needed to reduce their expenditure as mines and to also prevent the natives from becoming rich in a short period of time[51]. The Chamber of Mines ensured that the wages of the labourers never increased as it would take long for them to return to the mines, so by paying low wages they ensured they returned to the mines within a short period of time[52]. Wage reduction was implemented three times by the mines, in 1890, 1896 and 1897 to ensure profit maximisation[53]. The formation of the Labor Association in 1896 was accompanied by an agreement to cut pay, which was enforced by wage sheet inspections[54]. As a result, by 1899 the Chamber of Mines was successful in raising the black labour force to 99 000 men at the lowest wage rate ever since the establishment of the mining industry[55]. Also, when Wenela was set up, the Chamber of Mines lowered wages from R5 to R3 a month before the Anglo-Boer war[56].

It can be concluded that the migrant labour system was all about profit maximisation of the mines and this could only be achieved through the exploitation of African labourers. Even when African labourers raised their grievances, their voices were never heard, and it was only white workers who were protected. The colour bar which was reinforced by racism also played a part in the exploitation of African labour as higher positions were only reserved for white workers. Legislation also reinforced the idea that skilled and semi-skilled workers were only white through the certificates of competency that were issued only to white workers.

[1] Seabela, M. 2021. A brief history of labour control in South Africa: Migrant Labour and the Recruitments, 1890s-1970s. Available: A brief History of Black Labour

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