Bourke-White made an effort to understand the dynamics of the migrant labor system that provided the manpower for the mines around Johannesburg. The impoverished land to which Africans were confined made labor in “white” areas of South Africa a necessity, whether on farms, in mines, or domestic work in white homes. Although many miners came from beyond the borders of South Africa, the Eastern Cape area–the home of the Pondo and Xhosa ethnic groups–was also a major recruitment area. Bourke-White travelled there to photograph recruits for the mines and illustrate the migrant labor system.
“Its such a treadmill. For when the miner finishes his contract he uses up all his free time getting home again, and before he has time to turn around he must be on his way back to earn more taxes.” –MBW
Upon reaching the mines, migrant workers had to sign long-term contracts that required them to work for a period up to eleven months without leaving the mining district. With no other residential rights in a “white” area, most of the migrant workers spent their time in the cramped and dirty mine compounds in which they lived.
Those migrants who found some kind of work in the city of Johannesburg itself, needed to carry a pass with them at all times. These passes showed where an African worked and lived, the length of his contract, his region of origin, and the limits of his residence rights in a designated “white” area. Hundreds of thousands of Africans were arrested each year for minor pass violations. As Bourke-White quickly discovered, these pass laws represented the single most pressing daily humiliation and grievance of African life in apartheid South Africa, and became the focus of organized protest.
“Now that I have seen the compounds where the gold miners live…I can’t see any difference between those and the prisons,” Bourke-White observed. “These men are behind barbed wire, they’re locked in at night, they can’t stir without their wretched `special’ passes.”