Diamonds and Migrant Labour in South Africa, 1869-1910

The 'pass laws' and migrant labour of apartheid in South Africa today have their origins in the policies designed to control the black workers in the diamond mines a century ago.

Racial discrimination in South Africa is based on the migrant labour system. Unlike other South Africans, Africans are treated as foreigners outside strictly defined areas of residence, the so-called 'homelands', and their movement is controlled by the notorious system of pass laws. Typically, men contract to work in the major cities while leaving their families and political rights behind them in the 'homelands'. Migrant labour has ensured a supply of cheap wage labour to the mining sector and secondary industry, and is a system which has been condemned throughout the world.

Migrant labour is not a system unique to South Africa. Migrant labourers from countries in southern Europe contract to work in France, Germany, Sweden and Britain on a large scale. They are genuine foreigners, and while they suffer from different forms of exploitation and prejudice, in time they are allowed to settle with their families in host countries. What is unique about South African migrant labour is the prohibition on internal migrants from settling at their work places. The system is far more pervasive and coercive in South Africa than in Europe. In South Africa it has existed in different forms for over 140 years.

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