In the twentieth century, South Africa became internationally infamous for a pervasive system of racial discrimination. Less widely acknowledged is how fundamental migrant labour was to the making of modern South African society. Nowhere else in the world have urbanisation and industrialisation been as comprehensively based on migrant labour as in South Africa. Migrancy and institutionalised racism fed off each other and shaped the lives and deaths of millions of people. And, as the tragic events at Marikana have underscored, it is a system that haunts South Africa's present as well as its past.
The main aim of this book is to portray migrant experience, agency and humanity in thought, action and expression – dimensions that are often neglected in overviews of the migrant labour system. It can be read on its own, but it was conceived during the planning of an art exhibition on migrant life entitled ‘Ngezinyawo — Migrant Journeys’, which opened at the Wits Arts Museum in April 2014. It is our hope that this book, together with the images, artefacts and soundtracks in the exhibition, will provide an enriched perspective on the history of migrant labour.
Migrants have often been presented as victims tossed to and fro on currents entirely out of their control. In this view, they have no agency and certainly no part in shaping the development and the form of the system. While there is no doubting the asymmetries of power in the making of an economy based on migrant labour, there is a considerable body of research from recent decades that has qualified this account, showing how migrant struggles and choices helped to shape the system. What has also emerged much more clearly is how migrants found ways to assert and express their humanity. They crafted rich forms of art, dress, dance, music and song. They created a myriad of social forms – from burial societies to mine marriages – to sustain them in desolate and often dangerous environments. They conjured forms of masculinity that enabled them to conceive of their lives as the heroic struggles of warriors in a peculiar form of purgatory. As the twentieth century progressed and growing numbers of women travelled to town, their presence created new economic and social practices and added vivid strands to the tapestry of city life.