francis wilson casualChristmas in South Africa is the time when, like Thanksgiving in America, we think about our families and, where possible, meet to celebrate with our loved ones. While such gatherings are not without their tensions and peculiarities, people continue to gather and celebrate as families because throughout the world families, in their diverse forms, matter. Families are indeed one of the fundamental building blocks of society, and the well-being of families is a key measure of the health of a country. With this in mind it seems appropriate to begin 2013 with a brief reflection on the state of family life in South Africa. For as we ponder the implications of widespread poverty and deep inequality it becomes increasingly clear that family structure is one of the casualties in the current state of the nation. Consider the following fact: according to a recent OECD report, in the countries of Europe the proportion of children , we have one of the highest rates of father absence in the world and only about a third of pre-school children live in the same homes as their fathers and mothers.* Two out of every three young South African children live in homes where at least one, and often both, parents are absent, while in Europe more than four of every five children up to the age of 14 live with both parents.

In addition, the data now available suggests that only one-quarter of African women aged between 20 and 45 are actually married. We would not wish to argue, of course, that traditional nuclear families are the only possible stable social structure for raising children, but they have always been a basic element. The figures cited above suggest a level of disruption and instability which needs careful attention, analysis and action by all those concerned with the well-being of our society.

Why are there so many absent fathers from homes where their children are growing up? Leaving aside divorce, which is a major factor particularly amongst the middle classes, there seem – at least at first glance – to be at least two, possibly interconnected, reasons. The first, at a structural top-down level, relates to the migrant labour system as established by the mining industry in the 19th century and consolidated by the anti black-urbanisation policies of the apartheid government until the abolition of the pass laws in 1986. The second, as highlighted in a recent paper by Dori Posel**, emerges from the base and may be related to the current shape of the cultural inheritance of all those for whom the practice of ukulobola*** is a necessary step in cementing a marriage. South Africa’s migrant labour system, developed originally by the mining industry and enforced by the pass laws, saw men leave their rural homes –mainly in the so-called ‘homelands ‘ or Bantustans – to work under contracts varying from 6 to 24 months in urban areas where they stayed in employer-built single-sex “hostels” or labour batteries. By 1972 it was estimated that no less than one in every two African men working in the cities were housed as ‘migrants’ on a single-sex basis. The impact of the system has been devastating at many levels – in terms of family and community life and in terms of generating poverty in the rural areas whence they came. The process has been documented many times but the economic consequences were brought sharply back into focus by a paper at the Carnegie Conference [No.203] where Noble and Wright from the Oxford Institute of Social Policy presented a spatial analysis of multiple deprivation in South Africa. When marked on a map, the areas in which children grow up suffering the greatest deprivation – in terms of family income, biological parenting, education and other dimensions – fall almost entirely within the boundaries of the old homelands. Any strategy to overcome poverty and inequality thus has to focus squarely on the historical dynamics which created and continue to maintain these areas as effective labour reserves of the South African economy.

For the searchlight that has been shone onto the migrant labour system by the Marikana massacre reveals that the system, far from withering away after 1994 as was generally expected, has remained basically intact with some secondary shifts which, if anything, have worsened the situation, at least within the mining sector. Instead of embarking on a massive family housing project for black miners as they had done previously for white miners, much of the industry seems to adopted the easy option of paying “housing allowances” to miners, without any serious thought about the historical context or the availability and cost of housing near the mines. The consequence, as might have been predicted, is that many miners seem to have taken the cheapest accommodation available in self-built shacks to save money to send home to their rural families and also, it is suggested (though further research is needed), to start new homes with a second partner and, possibly, more children.

The process of ending the migrant labour system within South Africa will clearly be fraught with difficulties in both the short and the long term – not least for the sending areas – but a clear policy needs to be established. Zambia phased out the system on its copper mines at the time of Independence in the early 1960s. South Africa’s diamond mines phased it out exactly 50 years ago at the beginning of the 1970s. How long must we wait for gold, platinum and other mines to do the right thing?

Exacerbating the assault on family structures wrought by 120 years of oscillating or circular migration embedded in the mining industry is the relatively more recent reshaping of the ukulobola system. Instead of being the custom which binds marriages together as it was, for example, in Pondoland in the 1930s, it has become a practice that is often unaffordable and hence more of a barrier to marriage. Quite how this ritual can be transformed to perform the effective function that it once did is a matter which requires deep thought by South Africans who understand the environment within which it exists. But clearly there is a major challenge facing institutions – including the churches – which focus on the value of marriage.

Meanwhile basic research is urgently needed to establish exactly what has happened to all the labour batteries of apartheid South Africa. How many of them have been transformed into decent housing for communities of men, women and children living normal lives? How many have become inadequate shelters for broken families? How many remain single-sex barracks generating immense pressures on the men who live within them? Ending the migrant labour system takes us to the jugular of apartheid-capitalism’s underlying structure. It is time to act.

prof wilson signature
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


* See also the discussion by Debbie Budlender & Francie Lund, “South Africa: A Legacy of Family Disruption”, Development & Social Change 42(4), 2011
** Dorrit Posel, Stephanie Rudwick & Daniela Casale, “Is marriage a dying institution in South Africa ? Exploring changes in marriage in the context of ilobolo payments”, Agenda 87/25.1.2011
*** ukulobola, to use the isiXhosa term, is the long established practice whereby the prospective groom is required to pay to his bride’s family a negotiated sum – traditionally counted in head of cattle – as a guarantee of his commitment to the marriage.