The heavy influence of mandated labor and social policies in the agricultural and mining communities of Natal and Mozambique, served to support the corporations responsible for production while inhibiting, to small and large degrees, the ability of the workers to participate in the customs they knew and greatly valued. As the African labor population attempted to conform to the new structure imposed upon them by law and employment policy, mainly regarding issues of work time-season cycles and logistical functions within housing compounds for migrants (Iliffe 225), they faced dire circumstance that caused them to recreate their home environment to achieve some level of comfort and solace. These manufactured adjustments made within the labor communities effectively intertwined structures of tribal hierarchy, gender identification, social, and political roles, with the new overriding demands of their employers. While some of these behaviors were traditionally rejected in tribal life as sinful, and sometimes harmful, they were oddly and uniquely accepted when operating within the confines of the labor communities.


Historian Keletso Atkins writes in The Journal of African History, that “time was at the nexus of the Kafir labour problem” (230), where master-servant dynamics did not serve the new sense of team and partnership that was needed for attracting a labor force and inspiring productivity, new ways of work/life modes were enforced. But moving forward into this new era required a merging of African modes of space, time, and movement, which Africans were hard-pressed to adopt with new “rules” that benefited economic interest. Given that the white capitalist made little effort to assimilate into African cultures (233), the language barrier contributed greatly to African resistance to the European linear-based time and calendar seasons, as it was perceived as a manipulative attempt to cheat them out of pay. The capitalist response was to discourage repeated oppositional behavior by publicly beating and flogging the disobedient workers. Ultimately, however, this backfired and drove labor away from their service and into the hands of competition (232). Later, religion and morality were used as tools to encourage the moral valuation of “steady work” (Harries 195).

Contributing further to the disruption of African social structure, the housing and other support systems established by the white rulers that were made to keep the workers in productive mode, undermined their hierarchal tribal systems. As the wives were excluded from the lives of their husbands (Harries 199) while the workers resided in boarding houses or compounds close to mines in areas like Johannesburg (Van Onselen 6), unorthodox sexual practices and gender confusion ensued (Harries 207). This included men marrying boys and pretending they were “wives” in what was called, “bukhontxana” (Harries 200-201), along with rampant promiscuity and alcoholism that became pervasive in the communities. Furthermore, African eating systems were changed to accommodate work-production cycles, from two times per day, to three, and against their collective will, the men were no longer allowed to eat in large community but were broken into shifts (238). Yet eventually, as the capitalists tried to make worker life more amiable, markets were created inside the migrant communities (Harries 199), mainly by wives-allowed back into married housing. Also, markets developed in the cities that surrounded the agricultural or mining areas and allowed for slightly increased living standards of the migrant and local workforces. However, conflict arose out of these mixes of white capitalist and black lower income families and employees, and gave rise to class consciousness and warfare (Harries 225).

Overall, the imposition of western thought and structures that dominated the southern African regions during the post-colonial period not only changed the physical practices of tribes, but disrupted and often destroyed social structures and traditions. While the Africans clung to their norms and traditions, creating new variations and interpretations of them as necessary, they suffered with life inside a super-imposed Western-structured sphere.

Works Cited

Atkins, Keletso. ‘Kafir Time’ Preindustrial Temporal Concepts and Labour Discipline in Nineteenth-Century Colonial Natal. Vol. 29 No 2. London : Cambridge University Press , 1988. JSTOR . <;.

Harries, Patrick. Work, Culture, and Identity: Migrant Laborers in Mozambique and South Africa c. 1860-1910. Ed. University of Cape Town History Department. Johannesburg : Witwatersrand University Press, 1994. ,pdf. Feb 2017 2017.

Iliffe, John. Africans: The History of a Continent. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Print .

Onselen, Charles van. Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand 1886-1914. Vol. 1. New Babylon : Longman, n.d.

Professors Note:

Good, you raise the important point that Africans’ abilities to adapt to new work and social conditions did not make them immune to suffering. The reality of this suffering is something that is down-played, to a certain extent, in the readings for this week.  Nice work here, Teri!