Question about migrant labour in apartheid South Africa

January 17, 2008

There’s something I have trouble understanding: why did apartheid South Africa import labour from Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland in such big numbers (we’re talking about millions of workers here) ?

Usually, such migrations have something to do with shortages of labour as the local population moves up the social ladder (as it happened in Europe or in the Gulf) and happen in situations with minimal unemployement. But from my understanding, there has always been unemployement (and therefore a labour reserve) in the black south african population.
Then it could have been about wages, labour from Lesotho or Botswana being cheaper than local workers. But with a system designed to depress black wages, with the black workers having little political or union power, with limitations on black freedom of movement, with residency tied to employement (continuous AND in the same firm) in cities, I have a hard time picturing an inflation of black worker’s wages. Unless… such a rise managed to slip through the cracks because black workers were that productive or the demand for labour that high or labour somehow pressured for it through (illegal) strikes or other political actions.
The other explanation could have been that imported labour was used to depress the cost of labour even further. After all, foreign migrant workers had even less chances of organizing themselves as they had even less rights than south african blacks and probably felt little solidarity with the plight of the locals (and local labour most likely had little sympathy for them). Divide and conquer basically.

Other suggestions ?

(This is also a nice way to find out if I have southern african readers.)

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