ESSAY ONE: Page 5 of 9
At around 5 o’clock each morning, when the fruit bats cease their ringing, and all creatures that scuttle about in the night making a din, become quiet on this coastline, a new intensive *screeching starts. It cuts the dawn’s lull to shreds. It is the voice of the lourie, the Gwala-Gwala Bird. Its name, I am told, originates from these shrieks, of horror. From the Nkandla forests to Durban’s coastline, from Khosi Bay to Port Edward, the din starts.
The Dominance of the Sugar Industry and its implications
Indian workers, after a period of arduous conditions as indentured laborers, remained in a situation of “closure” or “siege”, from which it was difficult to escape. The indentured laborers were brought to Natal from 1860-1911 in order to develop the colony’s sugar-belt because the “natives” who “contained within themselves a labour element amply sufficient, and more than sufficient for all the demands of the colonial enterprise … could not … be induced to yield back the small acknowledgement of their labour”. (42) These people who, according to colonial sources, “arrived on boats that seemed to disgorge an endless stream of human cargo, Pariahs, Christians, (Roman Catholics), Malabars and Mahomedans” (43) were to remain, as Frene Ginwala noted, in a contradictory location between African and white workers.
As a captive labour force on the plantations and mills their forms of protest consisted of outbursts of informal resistance, attempts to petition magistrates or the Protector of Immigrants, and finally participation in the enormous strikewave of 1913 against taxes. (44) These attempts were largely unsuccessful, and for most of this period they were subject to either paternalism or tyrannical abuse, as suited the needs of the burgeoning sugar empire.
Moving from the countryside with the termination of the periods of indenture, they either sought an existence as independent and self-employed entrepreneurs and traders, or joined the ranks of the unskilled in the small industrial activity of the metropolitan areas, usually at rates lower than the milling industry. However in the fifty year period from the 1860s to approximately the 1910s the indentured laborers provided the sugar barons with a guaranteed fixed wage, which allowed the development of a competitive, productive empire.
Second-wave Industrialization: Clothing Industry
The majority of Indian workers were employed in the Durban clothing industry. From the 1920s onwards, the “industry” consisted mainly of a plethora of small concerns in “cut-throat” competition with each other. Many relied on orders for “cut and trim” work (a putting-out system) from Transvaal merchants who valued the cheap labour inputs of the Durban industry. Many also relied on skilled workers who completed the whole garment at piece-rates. (45) A Wage Board investigation in 1926 expressed concern at “bad conditions in the homes of the employees, due to the low wages received”. Some factories searched employees before they left for home each night, (46) some had “rigorous systems of fines for employees who were late or absent”. (47)
In 1934 another Wage Board investigation “was asked to investigate conditions in the garment making traders as a result of allegations by the Southern Transvaal industry of unfair competition from coastal towns. The Board found that this competition was particularly strong from Durban. Not only were the minimum wages laid down by law lower than in the Transvaal, but as a result of a test case in 1933 in which the courts had laid down that no minimum wages could be fixed for pieceworkers, piecework was extensively employed in Durban. “One result of these low earnings was that manufacturers in other parts of the Union “were losing work, which because of low prices, was being done in Durban, … . The weekly earnings of many pieceworkers in Durban was shockingly low. A large amount of clothing trade … is carried out by manufacturers engaged in the ‘cut and trim’ trade for wholesale and retail merchants. It was in respect of this section of the trade that competition was keenest and this … led to very serious reductions in the earnings of employees. Under economic pressure the employees were compelled to accept the piecework rates laid down by the employers”. (48) Much of the industry was also in the hands of Indian employers who worked it as an extension of the “family-unit”, in small paternalistic concerns where remuneration hovered around one pound a week. (49) *
It was only in the 1930s that the Garment Workers’ Industrial Union formed by J Bolton started organizing Indian workers, and only by 1935 that it reached an agreement with the Garment Manufacturer’s Association (the more ‘reputable’ section of the industry) for a wage of two to two pounds ten shillings a week, as opposed to the one pound average. Furthermore, it campaigned to eradicate “sweated labour” conditions and appealed to the community to boycott all concerns which paid less than the negotiated rate. (50) The Indian workers in the clothing industry had by 1940 reached an average remuneration of two pounds five shillings paid in the Cape. (51) However by 1955 they were again the lowest earning workforce in South Africa. (52)
The Conditions of the African Workers
The destruction of Zulu autonomy by the late 19th century prompted some selective participation by African workers in Natal’s industrial life. But it was only by 1913 that a more numerous influx of African workers was generated through taxation and declining conditions in the countryside. The majority of such workers were concentrated in unskilled occupations in the burgeoning urban economy. As many social historians have indicated, Durban’s uniqueness lay in its ability even by the 1950s to rely on the strictures of influx control and migrancy to provide for its ever expanding African worker requirements. Up to the 1950s, 60% of wage earners were migrants and as such, received wages adequate for their own reproduction, assuming that the family could subsist on its agricultural output in the reserves. (53) This reliance on migrancy was complemented by the infamous “Durban system” of urban control (54) which created another captive labour force housed in hostels and barracks and isolated from much of the urban dynamics in the region. It was only after the beer riots of 1929 that locations for the “better class of native” were initiated (Lamont Location), (55) whilst those not in hostels resided in shacks on the outskirts of Durban (Clermont) or the inner city (Cato Manor). (56) The majority, tucked away in hostels or barracks and working on the Docks or for the Durban Corporation, in small industry in the Point area or in domestic service were remunerated poorly. In his evidence on the Beer Riots AWG Champion noted the appalling conditions of employment and low wages received by African workers: one to two pounds a week, a sum commensurate with the wages of “sweated” labour in the clothing industry.
The Natal I.C.U. managed to organize the majority of African workers in Durban in the 1920s, with its most organized support coming from dockworkers. Much of this mobilization took place along Zulu ethnic lines, as Wickins pointed out, and was led by an educated petty bourgeoisie who, in many a case, mobilized worker resources for their own benefit. (57) The ICU’s demise, Champion’s concentration on urban African issues, and African trading concerns left dockworkers to fend for themselves. Their self-activity and militancy developed, as Hemson argued, (58) on the basis of a ‘closed consciousness; on a captive experience which in turn met with intransigent employers. Strike were followed by mass deportations while complaints about conditions met with deafness from employers. Although under the leadership of Phungula, dockworkers became the most militant sector of Durban’s working class from the late 1930s to the 1940s, they rarely achieved substantial improvements. Gains were often offset by mass dismissals and deportation of workers back to the rural areas.