Migrant labour: historical legacies and contemporary realities

Mandela Initiative newsletter (Issue 2, March 2017)



Dual families and multiple parenting responsibilities often lock miners into debt that exacerbates poverty and inequality

Migrant labour is deeply rooted in South Africa’s colonial past. It emerged during the diamond rush in the second half of the 1800s, and extended two decades later to the Witwatersrand gold rush. With mining ownership restricted to a few, control over migrant labourers – where they lived, and how much they earned – was easy. Sixty years later the resultant migrant labour system became central to the apartheid government’s strategy to keep cities white by controlling black workers’ movement through pass laws.

“There is no migrant system like this anywhere else in the world” explained the Mandela Initiative’s national coordinator, Francis Wilson, an emeritus professor at the University of Cape Town (UCT) to participating researchers, government officials and development practitioners. A key feature was the compound system that provided same-sex accommodation (for men only) and where (only black) workers had to live.


Possible changes in the demographics

South Africa’s migrant labour force peaked in 1986, with an estimated 560 000 migrants on the mines. A data comparison between 1993 and 2008, presented by Professor Dorit Posel (Wits University), showed that dual household members and temporary migration have continued post apartheid. Reasons for this persistence included conditions which made it risky to migrate with whole families, the cost of living and accommodation, and cultural or social attachment to the place of origin. There has been, however, a considerable drop in labour migration across especially African rural households after 2005. This, said Posel, is an indicator that migration patterns are changing, although more research is needed.

The gender profile of migrancy in the Eastern Cape is also changing, according to Dr Monde Makiwane (HSRC). Analysis of provincial Census data showed that more young women were leaving the province than in the past. This, he said, is not a bad development, as women are more likely than men to send remittances back home. Push factors for migrancy were largely the lack of jobs, poor schooling infrastructure, and poor roads and health facilities.

Migrant labour

Photo: Ben MacLennan/Special Collections/UCT Libraries

Alienation and a dual existence

The effects of internal and cross-border labour migrancy on social structures and relations featured prominently during the two-day event. Delegates spoke of the duality of life for migrant labours and their families at their places of origin, as well as at their work spaces. “The story of Marikana is the story of deepening social and institutional alienation driven by migrancy”, explained Gavin Hartford (independent consultant): “It involves dual families and multiple parenting responsibilities which often lock miners into debt that exacerbates poverty and inequality.”

Two decades into democracy, there is little social structure support for migrants who are trying to cope with two families on one salary. Housing is a major issue for mine workers who live in self-built shacks which, according to Hartford, were encouraged by the introduction of a living-out allowance that benefitted them more financially than staying in company housing. A collaborative research initiative, StepSA (Spatial and Temporal Evidence for Planning in South Africa), proposes to use semi-formal housing to assist the development of informal settlements. Explained Dr Catharine Cross (independent consultant): “What works is when people are able to build their own houses, with title deeds. An option for mining camps is the concept of inheritable shacks that give outsider families access to the mining economy.”

Development in migrants’ rural home areas

Another legacy of migrant labour was that productive capacity was not developed in the rural areas where workers came from. However, the picture might be changing, indicated Professor Michael Aliber (Fort Hare University). The tentative findings of his study of rural livelihoods and post-1994 social change in the former Transkei showed that R1.7 billion was invested in traditional areas, compared to R834 million in urban areas.

“The more things changed in the hostels, the more they stay the same”

“While social grants are relatively important in the former homeland, there’s more going on: unemployment basically has decreased as much as in towns, although unemployment is still higher in rural areas.” Aliber’s analysis showed that salaries, wages or enterprises were the major forms of income in the former homeland, and there was evidence of a peak in employment in construction in traditional areas.

Hostels: Places of perplexity

Pointing to the “paradoxes between policies and people’s reality” was Dr Nomkhosi Xulu (Durban University of Technology), who studied migrant hostels in KwaZulu-Natal. These were changed to community residential units (CRUs) after 1994, but are shared with unease with women and children as they are still seen as spaces for men. Units are often occupied by more than one family – a reality also observed by workshop participants during a “talking tour” to a local CRU.

Dr Xulu summarised: “These are now spaces of perplexity. They reflect the plans, hopes and dreams of the post-apartheid era, but are not the nice CRUs meant to house families. They are spaces of paradoxes: happiness, crime, unsatisfied needs, livelihood struggles… They didn’t reunite families as intended, but constructed new living relations. The more things changed in the hostels, the more they stay the same.”

Women and gender roles

Participants often raised the roles and needs of women affected by migrant labour – the “country wives” staying behind at the place of origin, the “town wives” supporting men at the location of employment, those following their men with aspirations for a better life or because they fear losing him to another partner, and the vulnerabilities brought on by these relationships.

Presenting on notions of gender and identity was Dr Asanda Benya (UCT), who worked and lived with mine workers for her studies on migrancy and “mining femininities”. She experienced these women as constantly negotiating different “gender scripts” in different spaces: in their homes where they provide “invisible labour” determined by mining activities, underground in the mine where different femininities are expected, and back at their rural “home home” where they struggle to relate to and integrate with traditional gender roles.

The research agenda

The action dialogue has surfaced numerous research gaps and possibilities: An interdisciplinary and multiple-university enquiry involving local researchers from communities affected by migration; archives on former homelands’ relationship with migrant labour which should be documented; and paying special attention to cultural dynamics in detailed life histories of roleplayers in the platinum mining strikes. Longitudinal data on labour migrancy are needed; as are empirical studies on migrancy and livelihood patterns in former homelands, on the drivers of migration change, on the implications for women and children who move or stay behind, and on the status of the old compounds and the experiences of inhabitants. Questions were raised about policy responses to Zimbabweans who have taken on a permanent presence in South Africa.

The organiser of the dialogue, Dr Leslie Bank (HSRC and affiliated to Fort Hare University), expressed the hope that the network that was established with the event will activate research partnerships to help close these evidence gaps.

Dialogue programme


This article was written by Charmaine Smith, communication manager of the Mandela Initiative, and edited by Francis Wilson.