South Africa's system of exploiting Namibian labor through the migrant contract system has been justifiably condemned by politicians and academics. In this system, male workers leave their families in the labor reservoirs of Ovamboland and Kavango and take lengthy contracts to the area of white settlement. There they are employed, often under atrocious conditions, for periods ranging from 6 to 24 months at salaries which would barely qualify as "pocket money."
What few people realize is that underpinning this massive system of labor exploitation is a smaller but even more exploitative one without which the State could not have exploited the contract-migrant system in the first place. The people ensnared in this Gulag are the Bushmen, people anthropologists have come to justifiably admire as "the harmless people" living in a state of primitive affluence. In reality these are perhaps the most brutalized and victimized people in Southern African history.
Most Bushmen do not live in the splendid isolation of the Kalahari but rather in areas now claimed by white settlers. The 1970 census, which like all Third World censuses should be used with extreme caution, indicates the following broad tendencies: of the 21,900 Bushmen, less than 100 were living in urban areas, only 459 were living in the official "reserve" of Bushmanland, 6,757 were living in other reserves such as Ovamboland and Kavango while 15,121, more than 70%, were living on white farms. On the farms they are super-exploited.
The first clear intimation of their super-exploitation came in 1911 while the territory was still a German Schutzgebiet. Following the Herero-Nama war of 1904-1907, the expansion of the railway line, and the development of new veterinary vaccines, there was a massive influx of German settlers to the northeastern frontier, an area traditionally regarded as belonging to the Bushmen. But, unlike the other colonized Namibians, the Germans did not recognize any Bushman claims to land since they were "vagabonds" - no fixed address, no land rights. Bushman resistance was fierce and heroic. By 1911, the local German press was full of reports of the "Bushman Plague;" proposals by the settlers ranged from having Bushmen declared as vermin to forcefully resettling them on some faraway reserve.
But officialdom, with a keen eye to regional labor shortages, prevailed. The Bushmen were to be civilized by working on white farms and on the Luderitzbucht Diamond mines. Some Germans concluded that the Bushmen were "untrainable," being possessed by an "instinctual desire to desert." In some parts of the country whites tried to send all captured Bushmen to distant areas. Many whites gave up trying to change adults and concentrated instead on capturing children. When a party of Bushmen was captured, the children were separated from the parents and placed as apprentices under the tutelage of white farmers. These policies led to an escalation of violence so that in 1915, while the colony was being invaded in the south by South Africa, the Germans had to dispatch a special company to Grootfontein to pacify the Bushmen.
Upon taking over the administration of the territory, South Africa decided that the best way to "solve the Bushman problem" was to encourage white farmers to settle in the Bushman areas and thus drive the "troublemakers" beyond the Police Zone, the area of white settlement. The South Africans had, after all, already exterminated or otherwise forced all Bushmen out of their territory.
The South African representative assured the Permanent Mandates Commission in 1934 that this was the only policy possible: "Nothing more could be done with the Bushmen than to punish them when they had made depredations." They were "parasitic," "like wild animals," "a low type," and a "deteriorate race." Thus, most Bushmen were made available to white settlers as cheap labor. Those who did not flee lost their autonomous mode of existence and were forced to work as wage laborers even though they violently opposed these policies.
Anthropologists in this era tended to support these civilizational efforts. Thus, Vedder, the major ethnographer of Namibia, urged farmers who were allocated a farm which had. Bushmen on it to treat them flexibly. All the Bushmen really wanted was friendship and "once the younger generation of Bushmen is accustomed to work, and the older generation has died out, the matter will have adjusted itself." In southwest Africa, the initial intention with the Stocktheft Proclamation (Proc. 5/1920) and the Vagrancy Proclamation (Proc. 25/1920) was not to control blacks in general so much as it was to fetter the Bushmen. By 1927, these ineffective proclamations were strengthened considerably. In addition, it was made a criminal offense to carry a Bushman bow, but only if one were a Bushman.
The state achieved some spectacular results in supplying cheap farm labor. This was vital to the development of the area because, while it was Administration policy to encourage white farmers to settle, white agriculture, with a few large-scale exceptions, has never been profitable in the area. Indeed, so brutal were the police in rounding them up that the Bushmen reportedly welcomed the protection white farmers offered them. By 1914, it was reported that in the Brootfontein district, the area with the largest Bushman population, over half the farms would collapse if Bushman labor were withdrawn. By 1939, it was reported that Bushmen worked on practically every farm in the District. A similar situation was to be found in the Gobabis District. Today, these two districts contain between 60-70% of all the territory's cattle.
Employment on the farms was not attractive. As the Police Commissioner put it:
The natives do not like working for farmers: they say the hours are long, and they get very little food and no clothing...This is quite universal, and is something for the farmer to think about.
Contract workers were prone to deserting. In Grootfontein, only 13% of contract deserters in 1946 were recaptured. Bushmen, while "unreliable," were at least predictable. Shortly after rains, a slack period on the farms, Bushmen would leave to collect veldkos but would inevitably return to the farm after a few weeks.
As a number of officials and magistrates observed, Bushmen took up employment only in the area where they grew up. Territoriality was obviously a significant factor in their exploitation. Farmers and officials might decry the physique and "unreliability" of the Bushmen, typically as justification for their treatment of them, but the Bushmen did not leave the areas they know intimately from gathering and hunting. By maintaining these subsistence activities the Bushmen could work for little compensation.
As one magistrate put it in trying to explain the fact that Bushmen usually received no wages:
Many of them are, however, undernourished - generally because they are too lazy to work. Because of this trait, they are not usually well paid on the farms as they do not make reliable servants. They are also inclined to overindulge in the use of tobacco...so that there are some farmers who obtain their services for nothing more than tobacco and some food. It is admitted that many of them are not worth paying much more than that.
With officials adopting such a supportive stance, it is not surprising to discover that kidnapping of Bushmen from outside the Police Zone was tolerated, while the use of child labor is still allowed. The advantage of using Bushman labor was that in times of peak activity (e.g. during the harvest), the whole family worked. Wages were negligible; if they were paid at all, the sum was half of that received by contract workers, and the quality of food they received was inferior to that received by contract workers. This discrimination was justified because Bushmen did not appreciate the value of money; they were "more interested in trifles like bright buttons, beads, and pebbles." Their food rations were minimal because their families were given "grazing rights" to any veldkos they might find on the farm. Malnutrition and illiteracy were, and continue to be, major problems.
The role of Bushmen in the system of labor exploitation becomes clearer when one looks at the wider picture as depicted in the accompanying map.
Contract laborers in the Ovambo and Kavango labor reservoirs are separated from the white settlement area by large water-scarce, thinly populated expanses of savanna which are occupied by the Bushmen "beyond the Police Zone." The first two Game Reserves proclaimed in southwest Africa straddled the major labor routes to the Kavango and Ovamboland. Bushmen were allowed, indeed, they were often encouraged, to settle there, on condition that they lived traditionally and assisted officials.
Bushman banditry committed against returning contract workers was often so effective that, for example, despite the presence of a severe famine in the Kavango, the increasing of monthly wages by more than 200% and the presence of specially dug wells along the footpaths, the Bushmen effectively "dammed up" the expected stream of contract workers. The Government had to provide contract workers with armed escorts and later vehicular transport. The Administration encouraged the belief about the "wild Bushmen" in this area so as to discourage the desertion of contract laborers. Moreover, when desertions increased, the Police hired Bushmen as "special messengers" to deter deserters.
As labor reserves, the Bushmen also played an important role. After the Second World War, Bushmen began to move to the Kavango River where they became debt-bound tenants to local blacks, and thereby enabled more blacks to engage in contract labor. The 1945 census of the Kavango region, for example, points out that Bushmen constituted over one-third of the total population of that region.
To conclude, as Manchip White observed, the Bushmen are captive hobbits. They are as highly valued as servants as they are grossly ill treated and underpaid. For a year's work they might get a handful of tobacco, half a crown (25¢), an old shirt, and a tattered pair of pants. All their ancient virtues, their loyalty, gaiety, courage, skill, and intelligence, have in the end availed them nothing.
As the 1970 census demonstrates, the Bushmen have become the invisible proletariat of Namibia, and not a sound has been heard on their behalf.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.