Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

The Impact of Labor Migration on African Families in South Africa: Yesterday and Today

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

The Impact of Labor Migration on African Families in South Africa: Yesterday and Today

Article excerpt


In debating the issues related to families in general, and African families in particular, family sociologists have two general points of view: the first being an alarmist view, according to which botii the individual family as well as die family as institution are in a process of decline (Mabetoa, 1 994: 90). The second approach perceives die family as displaying flexibility despite an environment characterized by uncertainty (Viljoen, 1994: 95). One thing that does seem clear is the fact that most family sociologists in South Africa are of the opinion that family life in this country must be viewed in the context of a rapid changing social reality. Therefore the family may be seen as an institution undergoing a constant process of (necessary) change.

Due to the fact there is no single picture of die nature of family structures in Soutii Africa, especially in as far as the different ethnic groups in the African population are concerned, it is important that the Parsonian picture of extended families evolving into western nuclear families due to urbanization must be seen as an oversimplification of the reality. This is especially true when taking into consideration the impact of the migrant labor system on the family and domestic life of the African population of this country.

In this article I briefly elaborate on several of the major foci regarding die possible impact of labor migration on die family life of African people in South Africa. By way of introduction, a historical picture of the migrant labor system in South Africa will be sketched. Thereafter, some findings of two recent qualitative studies on family life and the migrant labor system will be discussed, in trying to address the question: Does labor migration have an impact on family life and relationships of African people, and if it does, to what extent and in what way?

The concept migrant labor refers in this context to "a process involving people [both men and women] who work too far away from home to be able to commute (i.e. return home on a regular and relatively frequent basis, e.g. at least once daily or weekly)" (Gelderblom and Kok, 1994: 257). This process involves both the temporary migration of unskilled and semiskilled workers as well as die phenomenon of so-called 'brain drain' (or skilled labor migration) (Matlosa, 1995 : 1). Labor migration may also be either internal (where migrant workers remain in dieir country of origin) or external in nature (where migrant workers move temporarily from one country to another) (Cobbe, 1994: 2). These characteristics of labor migration have been evident since the beginning of the migrant labor system in South Africa.


Up until 1870 subsistence agriculture was the predominant economic feature in South Africa. This changed however with the discovery of diamonds in 1867 and gold in 1886, bringing about not only an economic explosion but also initiating an era of political and social transformation (Gelderblom and Kok, 1994: 68). The impetus in economic activity, especially in terms of the growing mining and secondary industry sectors as well as commercialized agriculture led to an increasing demand for (cheap) labor (Stahl, 1981:7). This process was accompanied by the incidence of widespread urbanization.

According to Gelderblom and Kok (1994: 68) two characteristics of the South African society had a profound impact on the nature of urbanization in this country. In the first place, it is important to note that colonialism heralded the domination of the indigenous population. White people in South Africa therefore held the monopoly on political power. In the second place ownership of land was organized in terms of racial classification which led to the division between so-called platteland farms owned by white people and the rural reserves owned by African people. The largest component of the unskilled labor force destined for the expanding mining and secondary industries came from these reserves. …

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