On my way to a lesson on Wednesday evening there it was, described in relation to the issue of the Langlaagte mine, by a representative of the Zimbabwean nationals working on the site. He stated very clearly that, even though it was the amaBhunu who had taken the land from local people in the Transvaal, it was WeNeLA that had set up the system of migrant labour. They were the reason, he kept saying, why there are people from all over Africa still working in the mine to this day.
You see, I am quite open (to anybody that will hear) about my ancestors’ actions. I learned that from my mother, whose reaction to her father and grandfather’s actions led her to a life of activism and protest.
I am the great-grandson of William Gemmill, and the grandson of James Gemmill. If you know anything about the history of mining in Gauteng, you should recognise the names. If you don’t, just Google the them. There are books and articles about them – but not because of their goodness and virtue.
As my mother puts it, they were slave-traders.
William was the General Manager of Chamber of Mines, and so was James. They were not just cogs in the WeNeLA machine – they had set the machine in motion.
If you know nothing about WeNeLA, let me fill you in. It was the Witwatersrand Native Labour Agency. It was set up in 1902, together with the NRC (Native Recruiting Corporation) to ensure a steady supply of ‘labour’ to the Witwatersrand gold fields, sourced from the vast sea of subjugated people living in Southern Africa.
I can only speak of my grandfather, James Alistair Gemmill or Dada, since I actually knew him. I remember a tall and angular man, stern and not prone to smiling, who would chew his porridge precisely thirty times while presiding over the silence of the breakfast table. I remember some of the conversations (and fights) that occurred, but mostly I remember how infrequently I saw him in the almost ten years we shared on earth. I now know why, apart from character clashes between my parents and grandparents – it was because of what Dada and his father stood for.
It was only really after Dada died that I began to understand where the big house in Westcliff, and the trips abroad, and all the wealth had come from. It was partly because I was just then growing into awareness of the world around me (attending political rallies with my parents, in various parts of KwaZulu, may have had something to do with it), but also because my mother spoke more about it than she had before.
You see, hidden in the background of all the sepia pictures of intrepid 1920s and 30s explorers roaming through Nyasaland, Rhodesia, Tanganyika and Portuguese East Africa, stopping under flatcrown acacias for tea served by red-sashed and white-gloved servants, being entertained by crowds of eagerly smiling locals, were the pictures hidden in two old albums stamped ‘WNLA’, which I would only see as a 19-year-old, on one of our infrequent visits to my ageing grandmother:
a group of voiceless men stand ready to board a train at some distant dusty rural station, their families left with an advance on their pay to sweeten the deal.
a line of naked dark-skinned men, standing hunched in modesty and shivering at the cold of Joburg, wait as a doctor administers penicillin, reusing the same needle.
a concrete room with more naked men, this time washing off the last traces of home with what looks like cold water.
a place deep in the bowels of the earth, a single sodium lamp peppering the rocks and flesh and metal with yellowish light, men not even caring about the strange man taking pictures of them.
It was then that I realised what my mother meant, why she had become the person she had, and why I continue to do what I do to make amends for my ancestors’ actions – ukhokho nomkhulu were slave-traders, locating and exploiting obscenely cheap sources of labour and creating a cycle of migrancy and dehumanisation which continues to this day.