Livelihood Strategies of Dock Workers in Durban, c. 1900-1959

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Callebert, Ralph Frans
labor migration , African history , stevedoring , South Africa , dock labor , labor , informal economy
This dissertation examines the livelihood strategies of African dock workers in Durban, South Africa, between the Anglo-Boer War and the 1959 strikes. These labourers did not conform to common conceptions of radical dock workers or conservative African migrant workers. While Marxist scholars have been correct to stress the working class consciousness of Durban’s dock workers, this consciousness was also more ambiguous. These workers and their leaders displayed a peculiar mix of concern for workers’ issues and defences of the rights and interests of African traders. Many of Durban’s dock workers were not only wage labourers. In fact, only a minority had wages as their only source of income. The Reserve economy played a role in sustaining the consumption levels of their households and, more importantly, more than half of the former dock workers interviewed for this research engaged in some form of commercial enterprise, often based on the pilferage and sale of cargoes. Some also teamed up with township women who sold pilfered goods while the men were at work. This combination of commercial strategies and wage labour has often been overlooked in the literature. By looking at these livelihood strategies, this dissertation considers how rural and urban economies interacted in households’ strategies and reinterprets the reproduction of labour and the household in order to move beyond dichotomies of proletarian versus rural consciousness. The dock workers’ households were neither proletarian households that were forced to reside in the countryside because of apartheid, nor traditional rural homesteads with a missing migrant member. The households were reproduced in three geographically separate spheres of production and consumption, none of which could reproduce the household on its own. These spheres were dependent on each other, but also separate, as physical distance gave the different household members some autonomy. Such multi-nodal households not only bridged the rural and the urban, but equally straddled the formal/informal divide. For many, their employment on the docks made their commercial enterprises possible, which allowed them to retire early from urban wage labour. Consequently, the interests of wage labourers could not be divorced from those of African small-scale entrepreneurs.
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