In 1885, 15 years after diamonds were first mined at Kimberley, mining companies began to introduce a system of closed compounding to house their black labour force.
Essentially, closed compounds were securely fenced and guarded barracks, located adjacent to or near the mine in which black workers were forced to live and spend what leisure there was available to them for the entire term of their contract.
Prior to 1885, diggers accommodated black workers on their compounds or encampments in tents or sheds. These workers, however, were always free to come and go after working hours and to make their own way to and from work.
Closed compounding impeded such freedom of movement.
The mining magnates who spearheaded the introduction of this accommodation system – men such as Cecil John Rhodes and Joseph Robinson – argued that such a system was necessitated by two significant factors.
Firstly, closed compounds would, it was believed, prevent the theft of diamonds.
Illicit diamond trading was one of the most significant challenges confronting mining companies throughout the 1870s and 1880s, with between one-third and one-half of all diamonds being stolen and traded illicitly.
Owing to the inherent racial prejudices of the time, most white people believed that black workers were natural thieves and that they were primarily responsible for the high rate of diamond theft from the mines.
In an attempt to reduce diamond theft on the mines, a searching system was introduced in early 1883, some two years before closed compounding. All workers below the rank of manager had to enter and exit the mines through a limited number of guarded entryways, each of which had a search house. Black workers had to strip naked each time they passed through and be prepared to undergo intimate and degrading body searches. Whites did not have to take off their clothes and only had to undergo a limited visual inspection.
However, this searching system apparently failed to reduce the rate of diamond theft on the mines and the mining companies began to believe that such a system could only be effective if workers were also housed in securely fenced compounds, which hindered any interaction between black mineworkers and illicit diamond buyers.
The second factor that prompted the introduction of closed compounding was the move towards underground mining.
This type of mining required a regular and disciplined supply of labour so that the machinery could be worked efficiently and to its full capacity.
Further, the introduction of underground mining necessitated a fundamental change in the social organisation of production and in the exercise of authority and supervision in the workplace.
Mining companies argued that the building of large compounds to house their black labour force was an intrinsic part of the reconstruction of the production process.
Ultimately, closed compounding, which promised total control over black workers through their ‘incarceration’ in fenced and guarded institutions, seemed the ideal system to prevent theft and to discipline labour.
The first company to implement closed compounding was the Compagnie Fancaise des Mines des Diamants due Cap du Bon Esperance, also known as the French Company, which was the second-largest mining firm operating on the Kimberley mine. In January 1885, the French Company placed its 110 black labourers, who had been recruited from Natal, in a set of barracks they were not permitted to leave, except to go to work, for the duration of their six-month contracts.
The Kimberley Central Diamond Mining Company followed suit two months later with a compound for 400 black employees.
De Beers Diamond Mining Company closed its compounds a year later– in mid-1886.
Although the men employed by the Kimberley Central and De Beers companies at first refused to accept these new prisonlike living conditions, they were soon replaced by men recruited directly from rural societies and their strikes were broken.
A description of the Kimberley Central’s closed compound by a contemporary observer is worth quoting in full to give a sense of the physical layout of the structure: “At first sight, the new compound strikes the observer as admirably adapted to the purposes it is intended for. In the words of one of our honourable judges, it may well be described as (for the K*****) and ‘eligible residential situation’.
“Plenty of breathing space is granted him within its four walls, and room for the full indulgence of the antics in which he delights to disport his supple limbs. Entry is obtained through a guardhouse at the corner, which is turreted, and on the summit a big ‘C’ is a landmark. Along one of the four sides of the enclosure are ranged the offices and sleeping rooms for such white employees as choose to avail themselves of the accommodation, the general store, refreshment room, K***** dining room, dispensary, infirmary, etc, whilst the remaining three sides are devoted to the K***** sleeping rooms, capable of housing about 400 boys. Clean urinals and latrines are provided, and also the unusual luxury of a bath in the centre of the enclosure, the use of which the boys were not slow to appreciate.”
The basic structure of the compounds was similar in all cases, varying only in size.
The largest was the De Beers West End compound, which covered four acres and was built for 3 000 men.
Following the successful amalgamation of the diamond mines under De Beers Consolidated Mines in 1888, the closed compound system became compulsory for all black mineworkers and, by 1889, all 10 000 black mineworkers in Kimberley were accommodated in closed compounds.