The following text was reprinted from “Ideas and Action” Bulletin 126, published in 1978 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. It is a very colorful look into a little slice of life under apartheid, touching lightly on how those material conditions interact with patriarchy.
Migrant workers are employed in jobs which pay low wages – in public works, railways, mining, refuse collecting, brick yards, docks, steelworks and even grave digging. In 1974, of the men I knew, those who were employed by some city council as cleaners or park hands earned between 30 and 35 rand per month, those in the railways 30 – 45 rand, according to length of service and overtime. The main construction firms were paying 38 rand. With an annual increase of one rand. From this pay packet the migrant worker has to maintain himself – pay rent, food, transport, clothes and send something to his family for maintenance, insurance premiums. More of this later; first let us have a look at a day in his life.
A typical day
He gets up at 4am. He stands in the queue for his turn to wash. The queue is usually long at this time and more often than not he leaves the hostel without having washed. There is no breakfast for him. Outside where he works are women selling some kind of fat-cakes known as magwinya . These are easy to eat without tea, so he purchases four or five at tea time. For lunch he has a cold lump of mealie-pap, molatswa, which is left over from the previous night.
After work he rushes ‘home’. Getting into the train carrying africans is a feat both physical and mental. At the hostel there is a long queue for a place at the stove to cook his meal. By the time he sits down to his meal he is thoroughly exhausted. He has been literally fighting it out the whole day, like an animal. But perhaps night will bring him rest? This what awaits him:
The utensils need cleaning. He goes out into the street where there is a communal water tap, if he doesn’t want to push and fight again for the kitchen scullery. A bath before he goes to bed? Not for him. There are communal showers with no hot water, whatever the season. He shares his open room with 15 other men, irrespective of age. Washing facilities are primitive: communal toilets with rows of buckets next to each other. He watches some desperate men practicing homosexuality and prostitution openly. To add to this, police with torches may break noisily into the room looking for women who have been smuggled in, disguised. How long can a migrant worker stand this?
His reaction to this dehumanized life is not surprising. Within a week or a month he will have to find a way out. Along the street dividing the hostels from the residential houses are the women selling magwinya, sweet potatoes, etc. There are also houses near the hostels where food and drinks are sold in home-like surroundings. These places give comfort to the migrant worker. Soon he becomes an unofficial member of the family or an unofficial son-in-law. But the pay packet of 30 or 40 rand is definitely not enough for two families – and it is the family in the far-away homeland that suffers. To help out some men take up odd jobs on Saturdays and Sundays – gardening in the townships or in the towns, for whites. This helps them to get train fare money for the week. Such jobs pay them one to one-and-a-half rand a day. Some become open-air barbers, others cobblers. They never rest – small wonder their life expectation is 35 years.
The impact on the women
The life of a migrant worker at his place of work and at the hostel has a direct influence on the life of his wife and family in the bantustan. As will be seen in a later article the possibilities of agricultural production in these reserves are very limited, because: (a) they are over-crowded; (b) they are mostly arid and to make them productive would require much capital; and (c) hoes are almost the only instruments used. Circular 25 of 1967 from the secretary for bantu administration to bantu commissioners instructed them not to allow africans to rear stock, as there was not enough land even for human settlement. So the majority of families cannot use ploughs. In the thirties, forties and even the early fifties an ox-pulled or donkey-pulled plough was a common sight; a woman holding the plough, a boy of eight or ten driving the team and a girl of seven or eight sowing behind the plough. These are rare today.
The women wait anxiously for money from their husbands or sons in town. This money hires a government tractor at one pound per acre. The same money buys seed, food, pays burial society premiums, local taxes (for local administration, building dams, or chief’s transport expenses), the school building fund, school fees, books and school-uniforms. The higher the class the child is in, the more expensive it is to keep the child at school. On top of these are the food and clothes items. In 1975 a 50-kilo bag of maize-meal cost 4 to 5 rand. At a mill or maize-meal dealer in Pretoria and Johannesburg, but it costs 7 to 8 rand at Malamulele, Vendaland and Leboa. A loaf of white bread cost 3 to 4 cents higher. Fruit and fresh vegetables are hard to get; if available, they are astronomically high in price. As a result it is starchy food all round. Fresh milk is out of the question. The whole country is in the grip of malnutrition. All these problems beset women in the bantustan.
To make ends meet, for the money from Johannesburg comes irregularly and in decreasing amounts, the women have to take up jobs. The question is what jobs? In the Transkei, an ‘independent’ Bantustan, and the most developed of all, women can be seen working on the roads – digging and carrying stones and pushing wheelbarrows full of earth or gravel – or making bricks. At Gazankulu women take contracts to make bricks, building ovens and burning wood and dry manure until the bricks are red. They are employed even in building walls using unburnt bricks. They do all this in addition to their own chores. The money they get maintains the home. Some become domestic servants to the local middle class – teachers and other government servants, as well as business people. But working for masters who themselves get low pay does not bring security. They are paid more in kind than in cash. Wages are from 5 to 8 rand per month.
Some choose other means. They fry magwinya and sell at bus stops, dipping tanks, at clinics the day the doctor visits, for people wait long hours for him. They also sell to pensioners the day the bantu commissioner comes to pay out pension money. Selling to a community which is poor does not bring much profit. In Vendaland where there are irrigated gardens, on important days it is common to find venda women squatting in the hot sun with shrivelled cabbage or spinach for sale. A stray traveller might buy one, the rest go back home. Fruit such as bananas, mangoes and pawpaws, as well as oranges, also go to the local market. Those who grow these do not eat them, they want them bought so that with the money they can meet all their other needs. Others buy the fruit to sell at a profit of one or two cents!
Resettlement and women
What have the removals and uprootings of whole communities meant to women in the bantustans? The Makuleke people lived for more than a century in a well-watered country in the Limpopo-Lebyubye river valley. Like all Shangaan, their staple food was mabele and millet; unlike maize, one could get at least a bag or so even in a bad year. They had plenty of water, they had plenty of wild fruit, guinea-fowl and buck. They ate a lot of river fish and drank healthy yucema (palm wine). The liberation war in Rhodesia and Mozambique caused the government to uproot this community to an arid, reclaimed game reserve, where only mopane worms flourish. They learnt to eat these worms.
With men away in towns the government and demolishers’ vehicles did their job and women found themselves struggling to build houses during the winter months. Poles and grass were not available. Winter months passed into spring and into rainy summer. They hoed their gardens but the harvest was nil. Nothing at all. The following year, rain drowned the young crops. The third year heat scorched the crops – you could set fire to them. For four successive years there was nothing to reap. Death ravaged the settlement. In the fifth year there was some promise of a good year. But wild beasts, especially buffaloes, baboons, monkeys and buck, as well as hares, caused complete destruction. Those who set traps to catch them were jailed for five years and more. They were told they should have reported and asked the white bantu commissioners to go and shoot these beasts. The beasts ravage at night and the white commissioners are hundreds of kilometres away!
At Sibasa in Vendaland the resettlement (or rather, removal) was caused by bad physical planning. People had been resettled in the wrong place and within a year they had to be removed again. Grass for thatch is hard to get. Taking the old thatch along breaks the grass, and using it again means a leaky roof. The venda women, sitting in front of their half-thatched huts with no fire, no shelter for their pit latrines, no privacy whatsoever, were indeed a pitiful sight.
Services in the rural areas
This picture of women’s life in the bantustan would not be complete if we leave out the water problem. Much noise is made about boreholes and irrigation dams which are ‘turning deserts into gardens’. A borehole can only be useful if it strikes a vein or stream. Some of the boreholes run dry at Makuleke in Giantreef, at Matiane – places where news reporters are not allowed – and women have to travel as far as six kilometres for water. They balance about 20 to 25 litres on their heads and carry in their hands litres: to drink along the way. Irrigation dams are for watering cash crops belonging to the government.
At Mdavula, Northern Transvaal, a demonstrator organized people – mostly women and old men – to dig out the dry bed of a stream so that, when the rain came, the water would not flow away. After two rainy months the water was full in the dam. Then came a dry season, women were allowed to climb wooden steps up the dam wall and then down to the water. The tadpoles! The whole dam was black with them. Even using a spoon to scoop water you would scoop up a dozen live tadpoles! There was nothing else to do but carry these tadpoles along and strain the water before drinking.
Women’s changing role
Women’s role in the bantustans has evolved from life as a household worker pure and simple to one that combines that role with a broader economic function. They now wield authority – all authority, in the long absence of their husbands. They contribute economically to the wealth of the home. Can a man who contributes little or nothing in the home still hold sway over his wife and children? Both his wife and children have learnt to live without him. To his children he is associated with money parcels. He is a stranger to them, an uncle! To use the colloquial language of the townships.
Just as a man finds the strain of separation from his wife unbearable, the woman who remains in thebantustans has to undergo a similar strain. The result is women are ‘looked after’ by the few men, especially teachers, businessmen, extension workers, who are in the bantustans. As a result, families break up completely, others exist only in name. Often there are unwanted births. This used to be an embarrassment but now it is considered as just part of life under apartheid.