How the twilight of SA’s migrant labour system spawned a social apocalypse

How the twilight of SA’s migrant labour system spawned a social apocalypse
Pupils pass by old toilet facilities at a primary school while construction of new toilet blocks takes place in Libode in the Eastern Cape. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Forced by poverty and Randlord scheming into SA’s mines, men from neighbouring countries and the Bantustans could at least support their families. But now the lifeline of remittances has dried up.

Once exploitable, they are now expendable. 

But they have reinvented themselves in ways that haunt the industry that milked their toil in South Africa’s mines to build Africa’s most industrialised economy while providing global markets with a mother lode of gold and other commodities before tossing them on history’s scrap heap. 

Many are Zamas, still working the gold veins in appalling conditions to feed transnational networks of organised crimes. Others have been recycled into recyclers, collecting garbage in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs for resale. Some are raiding cattle along the Lesotho frontier, while their former comrades in the mines drawn from southern Mozambique have helped decimate the rhino populations in Kruger National Park to feed illicit Asian demand for horn. And the rural regions from which they were drawn, including the old Transkei, remain outposts of subsistence farming and poverty, producing a wave of “semigration” to urban areas lacking jobs.   

The late singer-songwriter Johnny Clegg once sang that “the warrior’s now a worker, and his war is underground.” Many of these workers are warriors once again and their war is yielding bitter dividends in blood and treasure. 

They represent a growing underclass spawned by the decline of South Africa’s once vast mining migrant labour system, which once employed almost 500,000 foreign workers. That number now stands at 35,000. Remittances from the wages of Lesotho nationals working in South Africa’s mines amounted in 1987 to an astonishing 236% of the mountain kingdom’s GDP. They now equal 21%, a “remittance shock” without parallel in modern global economic history.  

The expansion of the migrant labour network throughout the 20th century had massive regional and global consequences. As the curtain closes on it, the stage is being set for new roles for men hailing from the former Bantustans, Lesotho and Mozambique, and the seismic shocks unleashed by this unfolding drama are also wide. It is a reckoning the Randlords never anticipated.

The legacy of the rise and fall of the migrant labour system – and the ANC’s subsequent failure to redress the fallout through corruption and incompetence – is on glaring display at the Vulingcobo Junior Secondary School in the former Transkei, reached by several kms of rough dirt track off the N2.

Dr Mandla Yawa, whose undergraduate studies were funded by Lonmin. He went on to obtain a PhD in parasitology. (Photo: Felix Dlanglamandla)

Mandla Yawa points at the school’s pit latrines, obscenities resembling buckets opened on both sides. Protruding in the open air from a concrete base sprinkled with rat droppings, this indignity once passed for “sanitation.” 

“I was using toilets like this,” Yawa, 31, said. A few metres away stood concrete outhouses, foul smelling and lacking toilet paper, that initially replaced the latrines. Nearby: new brick ablutions encasing proper toilets and sinks being erected by Yawa’s employer, metals producer Sibanye-Stillwater.  

South African mining companies are increasingly filling the gaping voids of the failed ANC state. This is part regulatory obligation as they require a “social and labour plan”. It is also rooted in environmental, social and governance concerns – ESGs – which the corporate world has embraced in the face of growing public, regulatory and investor pressure for a kinder approach to capitalism. 

Much of this expenditure is targeted at infrastructure around the mines, where there is an obvious return. The industry needs functioning roads to operate, solar plants to supplement Eskom, and surrounding communities to have a semblance of service delivery to keep social unrest in check.

A pupil at Vulingcobo Junior Secondary School using an old pit latrine toilet in Xhora, near Elliotdale, in the Eastern Cape. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)


In former “labour ending areas” such as the old Transkei, these projects can also perhaps be seen as reparations. 

“For decades, our people served the mines. They were the beneficiaries of the migrant labour system. They still have a lot to do,” Tsipa Simpiwe, a district circuit manager for schools in the old Transkei, told DM168 on the grounds of another Sibanye project – the Skhenjna High School, a new and impressive looking school the company is building at a cost of R72-million. 

Sibanye employee Yawa, who comes from the former Transkei and recently showcased some of the company’s social projects in the region to DM168, is emblematic of this process of atonement, his tortured family history an unflattering mirror on the migrant labour system. 

His older brother Cebicile Yawa was among the 34 miners shot dead by police during a violent wildcat strike at Lonmin’s Marikana mine in August 2012. His father is a silicosis sufferer who recently received around R150,000 in compensation as part of the R5-billion class action suit spearheaded by human rights lawyer Richard Spoor on behalf of gold miners who contracted the incurable lung disease inhaling silica dust underground. 

After his brother – the family breadwinner – was killed fighting for R12,500 a month, Lonmin funded Yawa’s undergraduate studies. He went on to obtain a PHD in parasitology – parasites such as ticks are a danger to the cattle revered in his rural Xhosa culture. Sibanye, which in 2019 acquired Lonmin’s assets, hired him in 2021 – a hopeful turn in the family history.

Yawa seems genuinely proud of the projects, which will make a difference in people’s lives. Given his background and academic success, he is aware of education’s life-changing potential. 

“This will be a proper school,” he said on the grounds of Skhenjna, a hive of construction activity amid several new brick buildings containing all the things a school should have, including labs and a library. It will be opened in February and the administrator Simpiwe said eight cows will be slaughtered to mark the occasion – a ritual underscoring its importance to the community. 

Such communities were ill-served in the past and remain underdeveloped in the face of the ANC’s shambolic governance and local obstacles to economic advancement, including the inability of subsistence farmers to gain secure tenure to their overgrazed land.  

At the Vulingcobo JSS, the new toilets will be welcomed.  So would a meal. The children were released from school at noon the day DM168 visited because the daily meal they are supposed to receive from the department of education was not provided. Hunger awaited many at home. 

This perpetuates past patterns of underdevelopment inflicted on the region to ensure a steady supply of exploitable migrant workers to the mines, sewing the seeds for the bitter harvest being reaped by the system’s demise.   


For decades men from the Bantustans and neighbouring states provided a vast reservoir of migrant labour that was ruthlessly exploited by South Africa’s mining industry.The gold price was fixed for much of the 20th century, posing a Randlord dilemma: how to suppress costs to maintain profits?

The answer lay in one cost the mines could control: wages. For over half a century the real wages of migrant black mineworkers actually declined according to numerous historians – a feat of exploitation that paid massive dividends for the Randlords. Subsistence African farmers lacking education, in rural regions subjected to growing poverty – not least because of falling wages – and coerced in numerous ways, represented ripe fruit to be plucked for profit.

At its peak almost 500,000 foreign mineworkers were recruited to South Africa’s gold mines. By the 1970s, a series of crises forced the industry to look to the Transkei and other Bantustans – islands of rural poverty that were fictional “states”, a mirage also used to justify black disenfranchisement under apartheid – for cheap labour. The Transkei, Lesotho and Mozambique would emerge as the major sources, providing 60% of the mine labour work force from 1989 to 1996. 

A little known facet of this arrangement – the Deferred Pay Interest Fund – in the Transkei has been unearthed by historians Michael Glover and Duncan Money of the African Studies Centre at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands. Long before Sibanye and other companies began spending money on social projects there, the industry was making “social expenditures” – but in ways that entrenched the region’s dependency on mining. 

“For much of the 20th century, a portion of the wages owed to African mine workers was deferred and remitted to them only at the end of their contracts … Mine workers did not receive this interest; it was, instead, deposited into a fund controlled by the mining industry,” they write in a 2021 article in the Journal of Southern African Studies. 

“Although the fund had a mandate to spend on welfare projects in labour-sending regions, patterns of spending clearly show how it was used to support the reproduction of the migrant labour system. Payments were used as patronage for local elites  … payments were consistently directed away from education for able-bodied students, because education would reduce the pool of unskilled labour on which the gold industry relied. Money that, arguably, rightfully belonged to mine workers from the Transkei was used to perpetuate their dependence upon migrant labour to the mines.” 

Dependency was locked under a system so underhanded that it used the workers’ hard-earned money to bribe local power-brokers such as traditional leaders, whose support was crucial for recruitment, while underspending on schools that would have given their children a glimmer of hope.

This tsunami of migrant labour has subsequently ebbed and slowly been reduced to a trickle. 

“At about 35,000 of 460,000 employees, the number of migrant workers from neighbouring countries is a quarter of the levels a decade ago,” the Minerals Council SA said in August. The numbers from the former Bantustans have also declined, though this data is harder to pin down.

Part of this is explained by the overall decline in mine employment as shafts have plunged deeper or closed and as mechanisation has been rolled out where South Africa’s arduous geology allows. In 1987, when South Africa was still the world’s top bullion producer, its gold mines employed 554,000 people. By 2021, that number stood at 94,000 and South Africa is now barely in the top 10 for production, according to Minerals Council and World Gold Council data. For the entire mining industry, current numbers are almost half of the 1980s figures.

There has also been a pivot to recruiting from “host communities”. Impala Platinum’s recruitment policy for example for the past 15 years has been within a 60 km radius of its operations. 

“There is a focus now on the communities around the mines, where people in the past were reluctant to work in the mines. What is happening now is a crisis of unemployment is pushing a lot of people from such communities to want those jobs which were once done by migrants,” Dr. Crispen Chinguno, a senior lecturer at Sol Plaatje University, told DM168. 

With an official unemployment rate of almost 34%,  South Africa’s jobless cannot afford to be fussy. For the old labour-sending areas, it is catastrophic. And one factor behind this pivot to local content may have been the Maikana Massacre and the renewed scrutiny this brought to the migrant labour system.

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One lens through which to view the issue are the remittance flows from mineworker wages to the labour-sending areas. Lesotho provides the most striking example.  

According to World Bank data back to 1975, no economy has been as remittance reliant as Lesotho.  

In 1975, remittances from its nationals working abroad – almost all of which would have been from wages earned in South Africa’s mines  – equaled 81.4% of Lesotho’s GDP, the highest such ratio of any country measured that year. Lesotho would hold that title for over three decades.

By 1987, foreign remittances amounted to 236% of Lesotho’s GDP. The highest ratio since 1975 recorded in any year by another country was Bosnia in 1998, when remittances to the Balkan state reached 48% of its GDP – still far behind Lesotho that year, by which time the metric had declined from its 1987 peak to 68%. Lesotho’s No. 1 spot on this front would only be overtaken in 2006 by Moldova and Tajikistan. 

In 2020, Lesotho’s global ranking in this regard had fallen to 14th, when remittances amounted to 21% of its GDP. This can only be called a “Remittance shock”. 

In Lesotho – one of the world’s poorest countries with a population that is 70% rural, in a harsh, high altitude environment ill-suited to crop yields – there are few alternatives to that income. 

Pudeletso Salae, a Lesotho national who was an organiser when the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was formed in 1982 – he was Cyril Ramaphosa’s NUM first assistant  – told DM168 that the loss of this income was fraying the landlocked nation’s social fabric. 

“The impact of these retrenchments is causing poverty, it’s causing crime because men are moving around the villages and no longer working like before. And the worst part of it is agriculture. We don’t have enough arable land in Lesotho for people to produce,” Salae, who has also worked with the NGO the Mineworkers Development Agency, said in a telephone interview from his Maseru home. 

The former Transkei has also undergone a “remittance shock”.

In 1970, about 70% of its GNP or gross national income was derived from migrants’ wages, according to the study on the Deferred Pay Interest Fund cited above. 

“In the late 1980s, Francis Wilson and Mamphela Ramphele calculated that wages from the mines were by far the most important source of income for households in the Transkei. In households with incomes less than R1,500, 66–71 per cent of income came from wage remittances from mining,” the study says. 

Duncan Money, one of the study’s co-authors, told DM168 that in the 1980s, such remittances would almost certainly have been on a Lesotho kind of level level in terms of their importance to the Transkei economy. 

“The almost total lack of other industries or forms of livelihood in the Transkei at the time strongly suggests that the situation was the same as Lesotho. Men go the mines, and they send money back, and they come back sick or crippled,” he said. 

Sixanaxa Nizi is a former mine worker who returned to his home at Xhora in the
Eastern Cape after losing an arm. (Photo:Felix Dlangamandla)Sixanaxa Nizi is a visible example of this, having returned to the region missing his right arm. A jovial man wearing a worn Cosatu baseball hat, he told DM168 that he lost the limb in a conveyer belt accident while working on the coal mines near Witbank in 1975. He remained on the job until 2009 in positions not requiring physical labour. 

 Using his left his arm to hoe his modest garden about 40 kms from Mtatha, he said the only other option for his generation was herding livestock. Three of his sons have gone to the mines but have been retrenched – economic casualties of the sector’s decline and decreased reliance on the labour-sending areas. 

 Makaula Ngonangona, 61, walked past, a stout man with a cattle prod and a few cattle. 

 “You must get a job to buy cattle,” he said matter-of-factly. He started in 1981 and finished in 2020 with Samancor’s chrome operations outside Rustenburg. 

 For decades, “poverty wages” were the norm in the sector. But for subsistence farmers they were a lifeline. 

 Lydia Dyasi, who has taught at the Vulingcobo JSS since 1997, said she owed her education to her two brothers who worked in the mines. 

 “I’m here because my brothers worked in the mines,” she told DM168. She recalled past Decembers when her brothers would bring the family new clothes and food. And they could accumulate that key asset: livestock.

 “There were many cattle and sheep, cattle over cattle, sheep over sheep,” she said. 

 But how do young men from the Transkei and Lesotho now raise cash for cattle for lobola – an exchange with deep cultural resonance and the forging of obligations – and to establish a rural homestead?


Lydia Dyasi, who has taught at the Vulingcobo school since 1997. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)


In his latest novel “Wayfarers’ Hymns,” Zakes Mda takes readers on a lyrical journey into the world of Famo music, an accordion-infused genre of the drinking dens of Lesotho migrants who toiled in the gold mines as wage workers and now attack the reef as Zamas. 

“The mine was abandoned ten years before by the mining companies, but not by the hundreds of people who established their homes in the shacks… most of the residents were descendants of miners who came from different countries in Africa, and now had no other home but this one,” Mda  writes of the Durban Deep on the West Rand. The work is fictional, the setting is not. 

The consensus is that most Zamas are from Lesotho and Mozambique, descendants of the foreign miners Mda evokes. In 2016, The Minerals Council estimated 70% of Zamas were undocumented foreigners, a state of affairs that stirs xenophobic embers. 

“These young men who are now going back to South Africa to look for employment, many are now Zamas. Many are dead because they are fighting among themselves. Very few of them manage to come home alive to support their families. Some of them when they come back they have silicosis as well. They go underground and inhale that silica dust,” Salae said.

Intergenerational tensions and a warrior ethos seem ingrained in African cattle cultures, historians such as John Illife have noted – livestock represents an asset to protect and plunder. Heap hopelessness and humiliation on young men from such societies which are also steeped in patriarchy, and you have a recipe for the violence that defines the Zama world, as well as – perhaps appropriately – that of the cattle raiders.

Dr. Jane Buys, a security analyst with Free State Agriculture, told DM168 that in recent years there has been a surge of cattle and sheep rustling along the Lesotho-South Africa border, involving heavily-armed gangs linked to organised crime syndicates. She said the livestock is “laundered” and even winds up in Gauteng markets, but Buys said most of the rustlers come from Lesotho. 

“These criminals operate in a very organised way and they are heavily armed. They are not afraid of conflict situations with whoever they are confronted with. Even if it is the SANDF, the SAPS or the farmers. We have shooting incidents at the border involving all of these parties,” she said.   

In the Zastron area of the Free State, she said commercial livestock farming has become unviable in the face of the onslaught. 

With its organised nature, weaponisation, risk and reward, the livestock raiders share common ground with the Zamas, and both are clearly products of the plunge in employment opportunities in South Africa’s mines. 

DM168 recently highlighted the plight of Tanisko (not his real name) from Lesotho, drawn into the Zama world in Krugersdorp after his work as an informal recycler – a hardscrabble role that many young men from Lesotho have also taken up – came to an abrupt end.

The dangers Tanisko and his comrades endure – he found himself trapped with 11 others in harrowing circumstances for two days at the old Crown Mines before he was rescued by fellow Zamas – speak to sheer desperation. 

This is an echo of the past, when migrant mineworkers also driven by desperation died in their droves. While the formal the mining industry has made huge strides in safety – the death toll reached a record low of 51 in 2019, though it has spiked higher since – in 1986 it stood at an appalling 800. Exploited in the past by the formal mining industry and its global financiers, these men are now exploited by transnational criminal networks operating in the shadows of the informal sector.  

The Minerals Council estimates South Africa’s mining industry spends R2.5-billion a year on security, much of it aimed at curtailing Zamas who also target working mines, using bribery and intimidation to gain access. You can retrench them or stop hiring, but their children will come back to bite you.   

“The losses to crime run into billions of rands a year. Whatever the actual number, the impact on operating mining companies, mining employees, communities, and lost taxes and royalties is huge,” the Council says. 

This makes the issue material for investors, domestic and foreign, as well as for the broader South African economy. Its tentacles reach far and wide. There is an elaborate VAT scam for laundering gold through the Krugerrands and the scrap jewellery space that deprives SARS of tens of billions of rand in lost revenue. Billions of dollars worth of gold is smuggled out of Africa every year to the United Arab Emirates, a 2019 Reuters investigation focused on countries to the north found. Security sources say that is also a destination for much of South Africa’s illicit gold, which means the global supply of the precious metal is tainted with blood.

Other Asian countries are also a destination, as they are for the illicit trade in rhino horn which has seen thousands of the iconic pachyderms slain in South Africa, notably in the Kruger National Park where their numbers have fallen by as much as 70% the past decade or so. Many of the poachers come from impoverished rural communities in southern Mozambique that once sent men to South Africa’s mines. 

Rebecca Witter of Appalachian State University in North Carolina has recently made this link in an article in the academic journal Conservation and Society with the provocative title “Rhinos as the ‘Mine’.”

“…for the ancestors of George, Eli, and Morris (a trio of Mozambique rhino poachers whose real names are concealed), working underground was a risk worth taking. First, the work could be lucrative, providing men with money to purchase food, cattle, guns, and ivory; to pay colonial taxes and recruiting fees; to offer lobola or bride price; and to establish independent homesteads apart from their parents,” Witter writes.

Witter further notes that going to the mines was a rite of passage for such men that affirmed their dignity and status.  

Rhino poaching in some ways has now assumed that role, economic as well as cultural. One of the poachers, George, revealingly referenced the rhinos as “the mine. 

The end game for the migrant labour system is not the only cause of these complex trends – illegal gold mining, rhino poaching, livestock raiding. But it has played a starring role.

Workers at a sheep-shearing shed in Lady Frere, Eastern Cape. (Photo: Felix Dlanglamandla)


There are initiatives to right the wrongs of this past and chart a better future. It is easy to be cynical about this stuff, but the process of healing and redress needs to start somewhere. 

The Sibanye projects DM168 visited – including two assisting emerging wool farmers to get their product to market – are linked to its “Marikana Renewal” programme. Sibanye, which did not exist when the massacre took place – it started as a Gold Fields’ spin-off in 2013 and then expanded into platinum – launched the programme to honour those killed and finance development projects around Marikana and in the former labour sending areas, where many of the murdered miners originated. It includes educational funding for the children of the men who died in the tragedy and the building of homes for their widows. 

Sibanye to its credit has also returned the Marikana mine to profitability, saving 30,000 jobs in the process. And its workforce is much better paid than it was a decade ago, when a violent wildcat strike was launched for R12,500 a month. 

Data compiled by Sibanye shows that from 2013 to 2021, the wage for entry-level workers at Marikana climbed just over 90%, while cumulative CPI was 45.7%. That represents real wage growth of 44.8% and the most recent pay hike – part of a five-year wage deal – mean entry-level workers earn a basic monthly wage now of R15,500 per month and with other benefits the package is over R20,000. By year five the basic wage will be north of R20,000 and the entire package or cost to company over R34,000. 

Many of these workers will not hail from the old labour-sending areas, especially the foreign ones. The future prosperity of the mining sector and its more equitable distribution of capital will leave behind the men whose brawn helped build it initially. Renewal efforts are welcome, and should be applauded. But the legacies of the migrant labour system are not easily undone. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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