Prison Farm

Bourke-White persuaded an Assistant Commissioner of Prisons to let her photograph a convict farm in the Bethal District of the Transvaal. This contact sheet and the photo below indicate that she began by photographing tPrison Farm Laborhe prisoners in the yard of Leslie Jail, followed as they were loaded onto trucks to be transported to a nearby privately owned farm, and then took more pictures as the prisoners set to work chopping maize stalks under the gun of the farmers who owned the fields. The Assistant Commissioner admitted that “The industries are absorbing a lot of Natives, so without these I don’t know what the farmers would do.” Pressed further by Bourke-White, he insisted that if she “could see how they live in their primitive conditions in their Native reserves, you’d see how vastly better off they are here.” Biting her tongue, Bourke-White later wrote sarcastically  to a friend that “To hear the officials talk there are so many free advantages that it almost makes you want to go to jail as an attractive proposition.”


Africans stopped by the police who failed to show a pass to be in a “white” area would be arrested. Up to 300,000 Africans a year fell afoul of the pass system. Many found themselves sent to work on prison farms like the one Bourke-White managed to photograph in Bethal.  “The authorities are both sensitive and proud of them,” she remarked on the prison farms. “Sensitive because they have been so loudly criticized, and proud because they’ve been such a paying proposition….”

 “It is impossible to avoid the ugly suspicion that keeping the jails full is not too indirectly related to keeping readily available and cheap labor on the farms.”–MBW

Chain GangBourke-White had observed a similar system of Black prison labor in a segregated society when she traveled the U.S. South in the 1930s with novelist Erskine Caldwell.

This photograph, from the book Caldwell and Bourke-White wrote together, You Have Seen Their Faces (1937) is of a chain gang in Hood’s Chapel, Georgia.

“IT ALL GOES BACK TO THE FACT THAT IT IS HARD to get the native to work on the farm, and cheap labor is in great demand among the farmers. Natives go first to the mines and avoid the farms because wages there are so low, the hours so long. But politics comes in, for the government tries hard to woo the farm vote.”


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