The Impact of Migrant Labour Infrastructure on Contract Workers in and from Colonial Ovamboland, Namibia, 1915 to 1954
This thesis explores the ways in which migrant labour infrastructure and the related operating practices of the South African colonial administration impacted on workers in and from the colonial north-central part of Namibia, formerly known as Ovamboland. This study stretches from the Union of South Africa’s occupation of the region in 1915 up to 1954 when the last Native Commissioner for Ovamboland completed his term of office and a new administrative phase began. Infrastructure refers to the essential facilities that an institution or communities install to use in order to connect or communicate.4 Vigne defines infrastructure as the mode of connections between techniques, practices, social values, cultures, economies and politics.5 This dissertation deals with two types of infrastructures. The first is the colonial infrastructure, which was comprised of tangible facilities such as medical examination procedures, transport, housing, rations, sanitation and postal and remittance services. The second type of infrastructure was an intangible one, based on cultural resources that included domestic rituals performed around contract labour, human infrastructures and practices of hospitality (uukwawo wanankali), all were rooted in the pre-colonial Aawambo beliefs and practices, which passed on through generations even under colonial conditions. The thesis starts with the preparations and arrangements commonly done for a man leaving home for the recruitment centre, when he is away, and when he returns from contract. It also reveals how the ancient Oshiwambo custom siku lyoye siku lyamukweni (a similar proverb is ‘every dog has its day’) was employed by homestead owners as they welcomed strangers into their homes which later included the migrant labour community. The dissertation goes on to examine the entire recruitment process, explaining why and how the recruiting organizatclassified the workers, and explores the implications of the mandatory medical examination. It also articulates what okaholo (the contract) signified to all parties involved in the migrant labour system. The thesis then investigates how workers coped in the new milieu with compound accommodation and communal sanitation systems, unfamiliar climates, as well as different nutrition and diseases. It examines how workers adapted to a new social setting: without family structures and women; with new liabilities to care for their sick colleagues; dealing with death and the impact of workplace mortality on others and families back in the sending area. The thesis also explores the infrastructure in which migrant workers from colonial Ovamboland engaged before they were introduced to the infrastructure of contract labour. It analyses the approaches and arrangements regarding mortality within which institutions were operating and how those strategies were implemented. The final chapter considers why the colonial administration redirected some of its new technologies and facilities such as remittance and postal services to the migrant labour system in order to serve the contract workers and broader community of Ovamboland. It also deliberates on what the contract labour infrastructure meant to such a society, indicating how people made use of the infrastructures as well as the social impact of these new communication networks. I learned that the colonial infrastructure introduced from 1947 of postal and remittance services served people in ways that were not as oppressive as the other features of the existing migrant labour system infrastructure. The colonial administration ensured that these facilities reached and were accessed by beneficiaries in rural areas of Ovamboland, who greatly benefited from the new services. I argue that many Aawambo eventually adopted these colonial means of communicating (letter writing in particular), a mode they employed across many years, even when the contract labour system was over.