The Management of African Wages at the Mines: Law and Policy Before 1948




Africa labour, Industrial Conciliation Act, Wage Act, Native Grievances Inquiry, African Wages, Native Economic Commission, maximum average wage


The re-enactment of the context and the purposes of past laws obviates the resort to “principled forgetfulness”, since South African law is recalled in manner that is connected to its morality. The discussion of officially recorded policy vis-à-vis Africans at the mines and other relevant spaces reveals that from its formation the Chamber of Mines had a strict policy of keeping African wages particularly low. Sanctioned policy and practices facilitated this outlook in the implementation of labour law. Additionally, unsatisfactory employment conditions routinely short-changed workers of the amounts due. This evaluation demonstrates how the prohibiting of Africans from reaping monetary advancement, from the profits of mining, was the cornerstone of economic development and attainment of prosperity by white society in South Africa.

The Industrial Conciliation Act is notable for banishing Africans from recognition as employees who could engage in collective bargaining, and served to further impair the already precarious position of African workers. Ironically, though Africans could not bargain, the determinations of industrial councils were permitted to change their employment conditions, in order to maintain the priviledge of white workers. Under this regime African wages remained extremely low, in line with supposed tribal needs, while the “civilised” community reaped far greater benefits. The effects of this were evident in the heightened economic pressure experienced by African workers and their dependants. By 1944 there had been hardly any increase in the wages of African mineworkers, but the working conditions had become more onerous. Invariably the rationale was that an improvement in the wages of African workers would have the effect of dislocating established economy processes, thereby impeding the welfare of the colony. This was the rationale despite evidence clearly showing that the wages of Africans were so inadequate that they resulted in the widespread hardship and worsening impoverishment of African communities.

This retelling of the historical law coupled with prevailing attitudes, that presented African workers as peripheral in the larger tale of productivity, has the objective and effect of rearranging the narrative somewhat. Undoubtedly the story of Africans is still being told through the colonial blueprint of labour and its management, but by reading the law focusing on Africans, rather than the community it was intended to serve, the noticeable spillage of vexed African presence disturbs the integrity of the law. A shift in consciousness is likely to occur as the counter-narrative, hidden within the hegemony, animates.


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Industrial Conciliation Act 11 of 1924

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Native Labour Regulation Act 15 of 1911

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How to Cite

Maqutu, L. (2022). The Management of African Wages at the Mines: Law and Policy Before 1948 . Potchefstroom Electronic Law Journal, 25, (Published 31 May 2022) pp 1 – 32.