Migrant workers as illustrated by the autobiography Kaffir Boy

The following quotes from the autobiography Kaffir Boy show the situation of migrant workers during apartheid years, told by a young South African. In this section we are concerned with migrant workers from within South Africa, rather than from abroad.
Migrant workers are often engaged in menial jobs (Lifateng, RSA)

p. 83 "It was night soil collection night, the once-in-two-weeks night on which the shit-men – belligerent immigrant workers who, because of the work they did, were looked down upon by many black people – went about the communal lavatories picking up buckets of excrement."

In this passage you can see that for migrant workers it is only possible to receive menial jobs, which are often not respected, also by the black society. Therefore even the children can afford to laugh at them and to debase the migrant workers. It makes sense that black society does not like migrant workers, because they are a competition for them and they have to apply for the same jobs.

p. 86 "Friday night a week later we crammed into an old truck with ten other people and an assortment of secondhand goods – cupboards, wardrobes, gramophones, pots, pans, tables, mirrors, cement bags, bricks, chairs and glass windows. The goods – belonging to migrant workers living alone in the city – were being sent to wives back in the tribal reserve. The truck belonged to a PUTCO bus driver who augmented his income by operating illegal monthly shuttles between Johannesburg and the Benda tribal reserve – taking goods there and smuggling back black men seeking work but unqualified to go through Influx Control."

Migrant workers have to send all money they earn back to their families . Since there are many control stations between the cities and the tribal reserves they have to do it illegally because without a passbook they cannot pass Influx Control. For the reason that they had never learned to read and write they have no chance to get a passbook from the government. Additionally they would need a lot of money to get a passbook, which is out of reach anyway. For this reason they have to get into the cities with illegal transport because they would not get through the Influx Control without being arrested. Being without passbook was a crime and black people were sent to prison by the police if they ever got caught.

Migrant workers come from poor tribal reserves like this to look for work in the cities.
Johannes is with his father in the tribal reserve. On the day of departure he asks a question that has been bothering him all along. He is talking to a boy.

p. 91 “What happened to the men of this place?” Since coming, everywhere I had been in the tribal reserve I had come across very few able-bodied men.
“They’ve gone to the cities,” the boy said. “And in a few years I’ll be going there too.”
Puzzled, I asked, “Why?”. “All men have to go to the cities to work in the mines so that people back here can survive.” Though I had seen no sign of industry I asked, “Can’t they find work here?”. “Are you crazy? What kind of work can one do in a desert?”. “Do the men ever come back?”. “Some do during Christmas, but many don’t. My father hasn’t been back in seven years”. “What?”. “But he sends us money and goods every six months.”. “Do you go visit him?”. “No, we children can’t. Only my mother does. Once a year, and when she gets back, in no time she has a baby, so I think she can only go to him to make babies.”

Here it becomes clear that migrant workers have to leave their homelands, because they are often barren. When the children are old enough they also go to the cities to work. The families in the tribal reserves depend on the money they receive. The migrant workers cannot afford to leave their work, therefore it is possible that a child does not see his father for years. Only the wives go to see them in order to get pregnant.

p. 180 "Many of the letters from the tribal reserves were about the day-to-day struggles of living there: children forced to leave school for lack of books and school fees; infants afflicted with … diseases, many dying because there was no money to pay for medical treatment; plots of land confiscated by greedy tribal chiefs and their cohorts because of taxes in arrears; crop failure because of drought and pestilence; witchcraft accusations and persecutions – the list of miseries was endless."

Even though the migrant workers are working hard in the cities, money they send to their families is not enough to improve their standard of life. So they may even commit crimes because often they do not get a job since they have no pass. Like this many of these migrant workers impoverish and become criminals.

p. 181 "Phineas was one of thousands of black migrant workers in Alexandra forced to live hundreds of miles from their families because of Influx Control laws, which discouraged black family life in what the government called “white South Africa.” In the township, no other group lived as unnaturally as the migrant workers. Housed mostly in sterile single-sex barracks, they were prey to prostitution, alcoholism, robbery and senseless violence; they existed under such stress and absorbed so much emotional pain that tears, grief, fear, hope and sadness had become alien to most of them. They were the walking dead."

Migrant workers get uprooted and basically they lose their homes. They do not feel welcome in the cities. They have to live under terrible conditions. Often the only way out of their misery is to drink alcohol and become more and more apathetic and toughen up their mentality.

p. 249 "This is how he had broken the law: because of a persistent drought and crop failure in the tribal reserve, he had brought his family to live with him in the city. He had rented them a shack, and had just left the hostel to live with them under the same roof, when the summons came."

A migrant worker is not allowed to take his family to the city, even if he is able to pay for them. The whites want as few black people in the cities as possible. Only workers are allowed to live in there as long as they have a job and a pass. Otherwise they have to go to court, where they are forced to return to the tribal reserves.

In shacks like these some migrant workers in 'Kaffir Boy' had sex with children.
p. 69-72 In the following quote Jonhannes and a couple of other kids go to a compound that houses migrant workers. A man has promised them food and money.

The man with the scarified face led us to the end of the hall where we found, sprawled leisurely on several bunk beds, muscular men without shirts on. The men told us to make ourselves comfortable while they prepared food for us. There were eight of them and ten of us boys.

The boys in the group flung themselves onto the bunk beds, giggling with the men, and went about wolfing bread, bananas and candy sticks the men had left out in the open – like bait for fish.

Soon, everyone else had eaten his fill, except me, and two of the men began giving out palmfuls of gleaming coins to each of the boys.

One of the men said: “Are you ready now?”
Mpandhlani nodded to the boys, and they began to undress…"

In this passage you can see how the men lure the children in order to abuse them. Some migrant workers become criminal. Since they are away from their families for years, they do not have any responsibilities and get delingquent. Most of them are mentally ill due to loneliness and try to satisfy their needs with the completely wrong means.


Migrant workers are people who have to leave their families and their homeland in order to find work in foreign countries or in distant cities to earn a living. In South Africa, during apartheid times, it was not possible for them to get a job in the tribal reserves because there were so few jobs. Since the land was barren it was hard to farm. For these reasons they went to the cities and they did any job they could no matter what the conditions were. Usually migrant workers had jobs in which they were paid poorly, in which they had to work long hours and in which they had to do tough manual labor. Not even the black people who lived in the cities accepted and respected them just because they applied for the same jobs. Employers liked to hire them because they were willing to accept low wages. The little money they earned they sent back home to their families in the tribal reserves. They tried to support their families as best they could. Another aspect was that migrant workers were often discriminated against. They were often the victims of alcoholism, robbery and even murder. All of these facts contributed that in some cases they did terrible things such as abusing children. Another terrible aspect of their lives was that they had to live in single-sex shacks which were in a very bad shape and very small.