Accepted paper:

Arriving on the Waterfront: Comparing Black Migration from rural KwaZulu to Durban and the US South to the San Francisco Bay Area


Peter Cole (Western Illinois University)

Paper short abstract:

During and after WWII, thousands of rural black men migrated to work on the Durban and San Francisco docks. Building on Philip Bonner's research of comparative black migration in South Africa and the USA, I examine these dockers who organized for both their own benefit and black freedom struggles.

Paper long abstract:

From 1940 through the 1960s, thousands of black men migrated from their rural homes to work on the Durban and San Francisco docks. Famously, Mahmoud Mamdani drew bright lines, in African societies, between urban citizens and rural subjects, using migrant workers from rural KwaZulu to (D)urban as a crucial case study. However, Ralph Callebert questions Mamdani (and David Hemson) regarding just how urban black dockers became. The US situation was different as African Americans did not need ask white authorities to migrate from Southern states for life in Oakland and San Francisco whereas Zulus, Pondos, and other Africans needed permission from Native authorities. Hence, although rural blacks in SA and the US shared much in common—notably, systematic racial oppression and poverty—as motives for migration, their experiences also proved quite different. Thus far, precious little comparative research exists on black migration during the eras of apartheid and Jim Crow segregation. Phil Bonner noted that, despite clear similarities, black political activism in each society evolved quite differently during and after WWII. Yet once on the Durban and SF waterfronts, black male dockworkers shared much in common; they both organized on the job where they used direct action tactics. These black workers possessed real power, as they performed vital work at a logistical choke point in each city's most pivotal industry and became well organized. Thus, despite racial oppression, black migratory workers periodically used their newfound leverage for their own benefit and on behalf of black freedom struggles.

panel P138
Encounters of the Urban and the Rural: Labour in Durban/KwaZulu