South Africa’s first pass laws for migrant workers

17th September 2010 By: Jade Davenport - Creamer Media Correspondent

In the early period of the development of the diamond fields, diamond digging was not a universal fortune-making enterprise.

In fact, for most of the thousands of claim holders on the fields, diamond dig-ging was a gamble, and one that usually did not pay off.

One of the earliest accounts of the dia-mond fields suggests that no more than five men out of a hundred would make their fortune – another five, perhaps, would pay their expenses, while the rest would not even cover their initial investment, let alone their living costs.

While the minute size of the claims was certainly a factor influencing the per-formance of diamond production, white diggers gradually decided that their poor fortunes were largely caused by their black labourers – each digger employed 15 labourers to work on each claim.

The diggers believed that their problems lay with the inadequate supply, high cost and control of labour, as well as with the apparent tendency of labourers to steal diamonds won on the claims. Indeed, there were not enough labourers on the diamond fields to meet the diggers’ production needs and the limited supply pushed up the cost of labour significantly.

Moreover, as the labourers worked on a voluntary migrant system, they came and left the fields at will, often without seeing their contracts.

The diggers’ grievances over labour supply and cost rapidly intensified as diamond production became increasingly more complex and expensive and, by 1872, they believed that, to achieve economic success, legislative measures would have to be taken to assist in the supply and control of labour – to lower the cost of labour and to stop theft by labourers.

In March of that year, the white residents of Kimberley presented a petition to the three governing commissioners of the diamond fields, which listed the legislative controls they desired. The most significant of these were that contracts between employer and employee be registered before a government official, that contracts be valid for longer than three months, that a fine of £25 or one month’s imprisonment be imposed on anyone inducing a servant to leave his master, that all employers and police be granted the right to search servants at any time, that no ‘native’ be allowed to move about the camp after 20:00, and that any person caught stealing diamonds receive up to 50 lashes and be imprisoned for three years.

The diggers believed that these measures would alleviate the challenges related to 
labour and, over the next few months, they pressured the commissioners to give their proposals legal force.

At first, the commissioners rejected the proposals, but the diggers would not relent with respect to these demands.

When peaceful measures had little effect, the diggers resorted to rioting and lynching blacks suspected of stealing diamonds.

In the face of increasing social disorder, the commissioners wrote most of these 
demands into law, which was embodied in Proclamation 14 of 1872.

Essentially, the proclamation introduced a pass system on the diamond fields to control the movement of migrant labourers.

This is the first instance in South Africa’s legislative history that a pass sys-tem controlling the movement of black migrant mineworkers was legalised. This pioneering pass system was based on the contract of service of each labourer.

To give effect to the pass laws, a servants registry office was built in July 1872, where all arriving black labourers were required to register and obtain a daily pass while seeking employment.

This pass, and another, issued when employment was secured, had to be carried at all times and shown to anyone who demanded to see it.

In addition, all labourers, on registering with the registry office, were given a certificate indicating their contract period and the wages they were to receive.

On leaving the fields, the notice required that the labourer obtain a third pass certifying that he had carried out his employment obligations satisfactorily.

Interestingly, the language of the law was colour blind and used the terms ‘masters’ and ‘servants’.

In practice, only blacks were ever registered, while all others – whether artisans or labourers, men or women – refused to submit to a system of registration, which they regarded as exclusively for ‘natives’.

Not all Africans were subject to the pass system as colonial officials distinguished between ‘civilised’ and ‘uncivilised’ Africans: Africans who were their own masters, held claim or cart licences or were independent traders were granted ‘protection passes’.

The police and the courts took vigorous action to enforce the pass laws.

The police patrolled the outskirts of the mining camps, checking whether departing black workers had the requisite passes and often searched them for stolen diamonds.

In the camps, the police patrolled the streets, frequently asking blacks for passes, as they sought to discover deserters.

The level to which the laws were enforced can be evidenced by this example: in 1872, the Kimberley magistrate’s court dealt with 4 760 criminal cases, most of which related to ‘desertion of employment’ by black workers.

Those found guilty were generally flogged with a sjambok and then sent back to their employer.

However, in practice, it was impossible to effectively administer the provisions of the pass system, aimed at controlling the movement of 50 000 black workers each year.

As a result, it was reported that half of the labourers, whose contracts should, according to the law, have been registered, were, in fact, not registered.

Moreover, the registrar of the servants office stated that a “vast number” of blacks left the fields without obtaining passes.

To enforce stricter control over the movement of black labourers, the pass laws were tightened in 1879.

However, the stricter pass laws did not give employers the control they desired.

It would only be in the early 1880s, with the introduction of the compound system, which was based on prison compound models, that employers achieved almost complete control over the movement and actions of the black labour force.