New Books | Dock workers in Durban

Migrant workers once moved about eight million tons of cargo a year on Durban’s docks. Their conditions of labour made Durban’s and South Africa’s labour markets highly coercive.

Many Africans from what was known as rural Natal, including Zululand, sought wage labour in Durban. For most, the port city was closer than the Rand (short for Witwatersrand), now Gauteng, allowing them to visit home more often. Wages in the city were also higher than on white farms. Many found employment on the docks, mostly at the Point, the northern promontory enclosing the harbour. It was the location of some of the first port facilities and the most important site of shipping activities between 1910 and 1950.

After the completion of the railway to the Rand and the dredging of the harbour entrance, shipping grew sharply if unevenly throughout the first six decades of the 20th century. By 1910, Durban handled almost 40% of the country’s imports by volume and more than three-quarters of its exports. Durban also became an important coaling stop. Bunkering mostly took place on the Bluff, the southern headland enclosing the bay.

The Point remained the main center for general cargo activities until the 1970s, when Durban’s first container terminal was built. The most important, labour-intensive and skilled sector in the harbour was the handling of break-bulk cargo, which is cargo that is neither containerised nor bulk and thus needs to be loaded and unloaded piece by piece, bag by bag, drum by drum, crate by crate.

Before the introduction of containers, African migrant labourers did most of the work by hand. There were two main groups of dock workers. Stevedores worked in the holds, stacking or unloading cargo, and shore workers handled the cargo wharf-side. In Durban, shore workers were also known as railway workers, as the South African Railways and Harbours (SAR&H) employed them. Stevedoring generally required more skill, was more dangerous and earned higher wages.

Coalers were a third group of workers; they were among the lowest-paid labourers in the port. Bunkering was carried out exclusively by hand until 1907, after which mechanical coaling appliances took over. Smaller amounts of coal, however, continued to be bunkered by hand into the 1950s. Gangs of 10 to 15 would carry heavy baskets over narrow and often unprotected gangways. Bunkering a ship could easily take 24 hours of continuous work.

The Durban labour question

Dock workers were among the largest groups of workers in the city and were pivotal to the smooth operation of the harbour. Dock labour was therefore central to what was known as Durban’s labour question: how to increase the supply of cheap and disciplined African labour? The vast majority of these workers were casual, or togt, labourers. While the share of togt labour was declining, the majority of dockers were still casual workers by 1959.

By the 1950s, Zulu workers had come to monopolise the sector, but this had not always been the case. Workers from southern Mozambique were prominent in stevedoring in the 1880s and 1890s, and Durban’s small Zanzibari community, which descended from East African Muslim slaves liberated in the late 19th century, was also involved in dock work in the early 20th century.Togt labour was thus prevalent, but it was also controversial and had been since the 19th century. Casual dock workers were notoriously difficult to discipline and often earned much more than contract labourers. Officials and newspaper commentators believed togt drove up wages and discouraged stable employment. They considered it to be the crux of the city’s labour problems.

Casual workers refusing to commit to long-term contracts were deemed to be lazy and idle. Apart from a labour problem, togt was also considered a moral and social issue, as expressed in a report from the Natal colony’s Native Affairs Commission: “It is a class of labour which is under very little or loose control, a circumstance which is detrimental to morality and social order among a people to whom restraint in a form more powerful than public opinion or conscientious scruples is still necessary.”

But, togt served a purpose for both workers and harbour employers. Labour needs followed the unpredictable rhythm of shipping, and casual labour offered firms the flexibility they needed. Organised labour has frequently denounced casual work for offloading the insecurities of the maritime sector onto the labourers, but Durban’s employers stressed that dock workers preferred togt and would not accept weekly or monthly contracts. This was at least partly true, and several interviewees had been offered and had refused permanent employment.

For workers, casual labour offered higher wages than did most other jobs and an opportunity to escape many of the punitive measures of South Africa’s pass and labour laws. For example, casual workers could leave a job with poor working conditions or low pay after one day. Monthly workers, in contrast, were limited in their ability to look for new work by the requirement to have your previous employer sign your pass.

Gang leaders as middlemen

Despite these advantages, dock labour was also backbreaking and dangerous. Accidents were frequent occurrences, and mechanisation at the beginning of the 20th century was limited to cranes. All cargo had to be loaded onto and unloaded from nets attached to these cranes or winches by hand. Subsequent innovations did not substantially change the nature of dock labour until containerisation eliminated much of the manual labour in the 1970s. Thus, when in the latter half of the 1950s the port handled about eight million tons of cargo per year, this was mostly lifted, carried and stacked by hand by a few thousand African workers.

Togt dock labourers presented themselves for hiring each morning. The absence of long-term contracts and the nature of the workplace, which was difficult to supervise, created a double challenge for employers: securing reliable access to labour and disciplining it. In Durban, as elsewhere, shippers relied on intermediaries to navigate these issues. These African intermediaries supervised and hired gangs from those workers who presented themselves.

Companies bought not only labour through these gang leaders but also its administration and supervision. Consequently, employers knew very little about their workers. These gang leaders, known in Durban as izinduna (singular, induna or headman), were quintessentially ambiguous figures: at the same time labourer, labour contractor and supervisor. Workers needed them for employment. Management needed them for access to labour, supervision and workplace discipline.

Apart from getting the job done, the role of izinduna was not strictly defined. The induna gave the worker access to a job, and the worker helped the gang reach its quota. A relationship of mutual dependence could thus develop between workers and their immediate supervisors, replete with patronage, favoritism, bribery and victimisation.

Claims to tradition or common ancestry could result in preferential hiring, protection and access to pilferage opportunities. Indeed, workers often expressed their relationship with the foremen in the language of kinship. But the relation between izinduna and workers was certainly not without conflict and some izinduna were seen as mere “boss boys” – that is, creations of the employer.

The relative agency and independence of togt workers, compared to other African labourers, concerned employers and authorities. By outsourcing hiring and workplace supervision to intermediaries, employers gave up much of their control over the workforce while togt workers had nothing to lose in a labour conflict but one day of pay. Moreover, employers were often in fierce competition for the best stevedoring labour, and the system of daily hiring allowed workers to use this strong bargaining position on a daily basis.

Advantages of togt labour

As a result, togt workers earned wages significantly above the average for African workers. But employers maintained a labour pool in excess of their usual needs by rotating hiring, thus creating downward pressure on wages. Many dockers were hired just frequently enough not to be too discouraged and to stay in dock employment. This surplus could also serve to deter strikes.

Many togt labourers worked for private stevedoring companies and, despite official reservations, the parastatal SAR&H also employed casual workers. In fact, the railways employed about half of all togt workers at the Point and established first claim on their labour by housing them.

Several stevedoring companies similarly had their own compounds, which created some stability in the work patterns of many casual workers. Through free housing, employers exerted control over a group that was notoriously difficult to discipline. Workers living in these compounds were required to offer their labour first to the company that houses them. Only if their regular employer did not need them could they seek employment elsewhere.

Most dock workers lived near the Point and thus very close to the white residential and commercial areas of the inner city and the beachfront. Moreover, togt workers did not necessarily work every day and all day. They could have a considerable amount of (often involuntary) free time. This presence of Africans without apparent purpose, that is, not currently working for white employers, invoked fears of crime and disease among white Durbanites, as well as complaints about drunkenness, prostitution and indecency.

White fears

An outbreak of the plague in an interracial informal settlement at the Point in 1902 and the presence of amalaita youth gangs engaged in petty crimes and street fights further fuelled these fears. Most activities by Africans other than working, eating and sleeping came to be construed as unwanted behaviour. This absolutist perception of authority banked on the notion that young African men, separated from the authority of their elders, needed to be reined in. Durban’s labour question and the problem of the relative independence of togt workers thus came to be understood as a police problem. A language of order, control and segregation justified the interventions that made Durban’s, and South Africa’s, labour markets highly coercive.

This is an edited extract of Ralph Callebert’s On Durban’s Docks: Zulu Workers, Rural Households, Global Labor (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2018). Reprinted with permission.

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