Students: Mining Compounds in South Africa



University of Waterloo (Canada) / Instructor: Adrian Blackwell (2014)

Johannesburg was founded in 1887, following the discovery of gold in a nondescript and land-locked location. Within 10 years a settlement of 102,000 had been expediently built by industrial capitalists and diverse settlers, with migrant miners comprising half of its population. An abundant stream of cheap labor was required because the Witwatersrand gold reef contained deep-level, low-grade ore which, in order to be profitable, had to be extracted in massive quantities. The Witwatersrand Native Labor Association (WNLA) and the Chamber of Mines’ Native Recruiting Corporation (NRC) were establish in 1900 and 1912 to consolidate a subcontinental recruitment network which hired laborers on 12 month contracts with a single 6 month renewal before obligatory 6 month repatriation. This geography of capitalist labor exploitation overwrote existing geographies of colonialist domination.

First used to control smuggling at the Kimberley diamond mines, the compound was adopted by the Witwatersrand gold mines to manage labor. The compound system brought security to a speculative economy and became an instrument of coercion. As the design of the compound struggled to balance political, legal and physical control with spatial efficiency and flexibility, its plan evolved from rectilinear to panopticon layouts to accommodate expanding capacity while maintaining the compound manager’s centrality.
At first, each unique compound was built by an individual mine, but typical models were eventually repeated and in 1905 a Health Ordinance standardized the Rand Hut, the minimum living unit. As an architectural state of exception, the compound maintained the contradiction of superfluity whereby, as Achille Mbembe argues, the body of the laborer, the key to profit accumulation, was made simultaneously indispensable and dispensable.

Yet despite their apparently singular and hermetic nature, compounds established a network of people, goods and ideas. By 1910, there were fifty compounds housing nearly 200,000 miners, increasing to 300,000 by 1930. While fragmenting an enormous migrant population, each compound was also a point of passage in a vast geographic system that brought together African men, previously divided by language and ethnicity, as confederates. Furthermore, the Chamber of Mines regulated workers’ contracts, wages and living conditions, a measure which, though intended to eliminate competition, established a common social ground for the political development of a new black proletariat within the compounds. In early 1920, 70,000 miners went on strike, marching into Johannesburg in protest and halting production on 21 mines at a time when the reef produced 50% of the world’s gold. Unlike at Kimberley, the Witwatersrand compounds were not closed so despite mediating economic necessity and demographic influx they subverted their own fixity and capacity to control by creating a homogenizing space of social convergence.

The territorialization of the Witwatersrand gold reef was founded on a brand of capitalist speculation in which labor exploitation and racial segregation were inextricable. The utilitarian compound system marked the earliest sign of a profoundly transient and fragmented pattern of urbanization which continues to define Johannesburg. While the Apartheid amplified these patterns according to racial categorization, their existence pre and post-apartheid position Johannesburg as an exacerbated example of the polarizing tendencies of capitalist city building.

Funambulist Lubell 1
“Sources of Mine Native Labor”
Funambulist Lubell 1
Harmony mine compound, Western deep level mines (1960)
Funambulist Lubell 2
“Compound Room: Standard Type to accommodate twenty natives”
Funambulist Lubell 3
Aerial photograph of multiple compounds in 1911