This paper reconstructs the livelihood strategies of a group of migrant workers in South Africa in the 1950s, viz. dock workers in Durban. Based on 48 interviews with workers who started on the docks between 1939 and 1959 and conducted in 2009, this paper looks at how dockers combined different economic resources at their disposal, of which wages were only one. How did they combine wages, access to land, family labour, social and political relations, etc. into coherent livelihood strategies?
This approach directs our attention to the creative responses from the periphery to economic domination and the migrant labour system. Labour migration is not just something to which Africans are forced as a result of the penetration of market forces, the degeneration of the environment or simply by physical and political coercion. It is also a strategic decision people make and think about, even if their options are severely restricted. Hence, the focus on strategies.
By looking at the reproduction of this labour force on an individual basis, a picture emerges that does not fit comfortably in common conceptions of either rurally oriented, conservative migrant labourers or of radical dock workers. I argue that an important section of this labour force could more appropriately be characterised as ‘labourer-entrepreneurs’. The acknowledgement of the importance of entrepreneurial strategies in their lives, suggests a form of agency that has been insufficiently recognised in both the structuralist literature and in the more culturally and identity oriented literature
of more recent decades.