Wenela and a brief history of migrant Labor in South Africa

The wealth of South Africa was built largely by African labor. When present-day South Africans are complaining that foreigners have taken their jobs, it might be that there are other factors at play apart from the inundation of the job market by foreigners. Could it be that the economy has deteriorated in the past few years such that jobs are becoming scarce? Those are problems that could be addressed by the government and its fiscal policies which have perhaps been neglected. Before apartheid, the economy of South Africa was initially very labor-intensive. Low-skilled black workers from within the union and outside the country were sought and employed when gold was discovered. They were paid low wages compared to their white counterparts and the discriminatory practices and other factors led to the gradual introduction of full force apartheid. During South Africa’s heyday, there was low unemployment compared to today and the quality of life was even better than other African countries. Some might be nostalgic of those days although they weren’t as rosy, just like the Israelites reminiscing the days of Egypt.
The same can be said of the economy of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe with differences unique to each of course.

In 1971, there were some half a million migrant laborers in South Africa and almost 50 years later, the population has quadrupled but the economy is not in its best form. It probably is worth throwing into the mix here that prior to the arrival of Europeans the vast majority of what is now known as South Africa was largely KhoiKhoi and the San nation. Later, the likes of the Zulu, Sotho, and others established their nations and fought with one another for domination.

By 1886, gold was discovered at Witwatersrand and by some accounts, the land was mostly desolate with the latest inhabitants having been the Sothos whose paramount, Mzilikazi subjected them to Mzilikazi’s relentless attacks which greatly thinned their numbers and thus, the labor required to work in the mines of gold was extremely limited. European mine owners thus looked elsewhere for more labor and the first port of call with abundant labor was Portuguese East Africa, now Mozambique. There, the Tongas and Shanganis were sought to work in the mines due to their prior mine work experiences. The Pafuri Border post was then set up to process labor from Mozambique. Around 1896, an association of employers ran the Employment Bureaus tasked with seeking and providing labor for the mines. At the end of the Anglo-Boer War post-1902, many mineworkers were resigning or deserting with some dying from mining-related activities and illnesses, the Witwatersrand Native Labor Association (WNLA) was formed as one of the several labor recruiting agencies. It incorporated in 1901, and Teba emerged also as one of the top ranking. Teba was a local reference to the name of one of the recruiting agencies’ principals, a fellow named H.M. Taberer, who ran Eksteens which was in the business of recruiting laborers for the Corner House Group of Mines. It was instrumental in the formation of the Native Recruiting Corporation (NRC). These recruitment agencies got foreign labor for the mines initially from Mozambique but due to increased demand and low supply nearby, they went as far as Mauritius, Liberia, Egypt, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and other countries. Close to 64,000 Chinese indentured servants were also shipped to Witwatersrand to work in the mines between the years 1904 and 1910 but they were unable to withstand the harsh environment of the Rand and perhaps many other factors, thus, the program to bring Chinese workers was abandoned. It is said that most local people were opposed to working in the mines which in earnest was a daunting task. Recruiting organizations had difficulties getting them to come to work. By the year 1912, most of them (recruiting agencies) joined forces and became known as the Native Recruiting Corporation Limited (NRC) that has been aforementioned. The new association was run by board members and management of the WNLA, although it was a separate entity.

I have heard stories told of families that were broken up in Zimbabwe particularly, when fathers were recruited and left for Wenela (WNLA), as leaving to work in the mines in Witwatersrand was synonymously known, never returned. Some died in the mines sadly, while some would meet and marry women in South Africa and start new families. The saddest thing about this is that perhaps some of these people attacking foreigners in South Africa could be related, given these events before this day. If only people knew and understood the implications of past events and how they all came to be where they are, we could be talking about different issues today.
The history of Southern Africa is fascinating and depressing at the same time because all that labor discussed above made many Europeans wealthy, helped them to establish a social status in South Africa which has not been broadly dealt in the mainstream discourse today. to broach the subject could be the beginning of understanding some of the causes of the inequality that is frustrating the powerless and economically starved South Africans today, coupled with a corrupt government that is failing to properly set up an economy for the benefit of everybody.