Challenging cheap-labour theory: Natal and Transvaal coal miners, ca 1890-1950

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


In the first half of the twentieth century, South Africa's two main coal-producing provinces, Natal and the Transvaal, were regarded as having separate industries. Comparing the two, the article shows that their geology, markets, ownership and organization were distinctive. In contrast, the patterns of labour struggles were alike, reflecting labour processes, racial divisions, and legal and ideological frameworks that were similar. The historiography of South African mining labour has emphasized the role of black migrants, who 'oscillated' between the mines and the rural areas from where they originated and to which they retired. While structuralist analyses argued that migrancy was the bedrock of a cheap-labour system that underpinned white power, leading social historians stressed that migrants were primarily rural men. The account presented here rejects the thrust of both positions, showing that a high proportion of coal miners settled around the mines. More of them would have done so had this been permitted, and the same applies to Africans working on the gold mines. Given that cheap-labour theory strengthens the exceptionalism that runs through much South African history, rejecting it can open up new possibilities for comparative study. In passing, the article reveals that black workers participated in the militant 1913 strike by the Witwatersrand's white mine workers.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)47-70
Number of pages24
JournalLabor History
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2008

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management


Dive into the research topics of 'Challenging cheap-labour theory: Natal and Transvaal coal miners, ca 1890-1950'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this