South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

Migrant Labor

Video Interviews

"Those compounds were invented by the British much earlier, when diamonds were discovered..."
Video interview segment with Renfrew Christie [1:43]
November 27, 2005


Photograph: Young coal miners in South Africa
By U.N. Photo by Peter Magubane 1988


Since the mineral revolution of the late 19th century, "migrant labor" in South Africa referred not only to workers coming into South Africa from neighboring countries, but also to a system of controlling African workers within South Africa. Migrant labor provided abundant cheap African labor for white-owned mines and farms (and later factories) and, at the same time, enforced racial segregation of land. Male migrants employed by white-owned businesses were prohibited from living permanently in cities and towns designated for whites only. Hundreds of thousands of African men lived in crowded single-sex hostels near their jobs and were not allowed to bring their wives and children, who were described as "superfluous appendages."

Thus, migrant workers were divided into laborers during most of the year and full human beings – spouses, parents, and community members – during their short Christmas and Easter holidays in the rural reserves. Migrant workers were initially almost all men, who needed to earn a wage to pay hut taxes. Later, women, too, became migrant workers, chiefly doing domestic work for white families. Millions of Africans within South Africa – workers and their family members – were affected by this system. As the economy became more reliant on industry, urban migration increased further. There was pressure for reform of the labor system to allow Africans to stay in urban areas where their work and accumulated skills were needed, although apartheid still afforded them no political rights outside the so-called Bantustans. Migrancy continues to be significant in South Africa to this day.

Related Multimedia Resources:

Web Documents

Magazine Article: "Migratory Labour: The Canker in South African Society", The Black Sash
By John Kane-Berman
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Personal Letter: "Migratory Labour ... Perpetuating Poverty - Letter by David Russell to B.C. Botha", The Black Sash
By David Russell
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Magazine Article: "Migratory Labour: The Corner-stone of Apartheid", The Black Sash

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Newspaper Article: "Workers Have had Enough of Inhuman Hostels", Grassroots

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Suggested Reading

Gold and Workers 1886-1924
By Luli Callinicos [more info]

Migrant Labour: Report to the South African Council of Churches
By Francis Wilson [more info]

Class and Colour in South Africa, 1850-1950
By Jack Simons and Ray Simons
[more info]

Going for Gold: Men, Mines and Migration
By Vivienne Ndatshe and Dunbar Moodie
[more info]

AODL African Studies Center MSU Matrix NEH