‘Kaffir Employment Act’ 1857 no.27

‘Kaffir Employment Act’ 1857 no.27

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘‘Kaffir Employment Act’ 1857 no.27’ http://www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/Traces/KEmplAct and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.


1. The document show in the photograph here is part of the Pringle collection, in the Cory Library in the Eastern Cape. On the surface seemingly mundane or incidental, it is a fascinating sign of the times and context in which it originated; and it and many others like it were used routinely from the late 1850s on by Dods Pringle and those who worked for him at Lyndock and his other farms, and other white farmers too.

2. As perusal shows, it is a form, in English, printed for use in the 1860s, under the terms of two 1857 Acts passed by the Cape Legislative Assembly. These were ‘Kaffir Employment Act’ no. 27, and the ‘Kaffir Pass Act’ no. 23, of 1857, with the ‘K word’ now one of great opprobrium in South Africa, on a par with the ‘N word’ in Britain, the US and elsewhere. Pringle, like other employers, was required to maintain this paper trail; in this case, the bureaucracy ensured and had been designed to ensure large degree of a labour immobility.

3. These two Acts of the Cape Assembly were passed in the wake of the Eighth Frontier War (1851-1853) and around the ‘great cattle killing’ millenarian movement of 1857 among the Xhosa people that led to thousands of deaths by starvation and a flood of desperate people into the white-controlled labour markets of the Cape (and also the Transvaal, Free State and Natal). The effect of the Acts was that black people generally (not just Xhosa) had to be registered in employment by a named employer, who filled in the form shown here and lodged it with the local Civil Commissioner. And once such a contracted ended, the worker concerned had fourteen days to find successor employment.

4. The form is quite complex and would have been completed in circumstances in which, due to translation and literacy matters, the workers concerned might not appreciate exactly what it was they were signing up to, particularly with regard to remuneration and also the duration of the contract. However, their signature – more usually in the 1860s their mark – was nonetheless legally binding.

5. The document is a printed form wherein key information was written by one person about another, and communicated to a (local, usually known and made) third party. It was in fact a communication from a named employer to a local Civil Commissioner, an administrator in the local government structure, and about an employed person.

6. The Pass Act (1857 no.23) provided a parallel document, the pass, which authorised the worker in question, to go from a specified A to a specified B in a specified period of time. The pass was issued to the worker and they had to carry it with them if they went outside their place of registered employment, so that, if a third person (white) questioned them as to why they were not at their place of employment, this was produced as ‘good, authorised, reason’. The third person here was not an official, and who they were could not be known in advance, because it could be anyone who was white. The pass was a communication from the employer to unnamed others, implicitly white others, about any black person seen to be ‘out of place’.

7. In both the case of the pass and that of the registration form, the worker concerned was the object of attention, of regulation and authorisation. Agency and communicative purpose lay elsewhere, and can be seen here in a form designed to minimise the agency of the worker.

Last updated: 29 December 2017