A diamond mining compound c1883

A diamond mining compound c1883

Shown here is a photograph of the compound at the De Beers diamond mining location in Kimberley which dates from 1886 to 1888.

A ‘compound’ is, or rather became, a kind of total institution, as an enclosed area within which a group of workers could live and move from its living spaces to their working places without leaving until their (fixed term) contracts of employment ended. Within the compound would be found sleeping accommodation, the provision of basic rations, cooking facilities, stores via which rations could be supplemented for those with any money (as pay was usually made at the end of the contract, this was often on tick), and access to workplaces. If they left for social or other reasons, there were rigorous procedures for ensuring no diamond smuggling could be involved.

The compound is a quintessential feature of the material organisation of labour in South Africa and has been since the mid-nineteenth century and discoveries of diamonds followed by gold and other minerals. It still exists in a modified form in the hostel system, wherein migrant workers from many different parts of South Africa and also countries beyond are housed during the period of their employment contract, typically in mining but in some other sectors as well.

Much attention is given to segregation policies and practices occurring post-1910 and the Union of South Africa. While obviously crucial, it is also important to recognise that there were antecedents upon which such things were built, thinking and practices which informed structures of perception and possibility and policy. The compounds are one of the essences of segregation, with those who lived and worked in them treated entirely as engines of labour and separated off from any and all who were not part of the labour process.

A Trace on the compound will appear in due course.

Last updated: 19 December 2019