'Money with Dignity': Migrants, Minelords and the Cultural Politics of the South African Gold Standard Crisis, 1920-33

Publication Type:

Journal Article


The Journal of African History, Volume 36, Issue 2, p.271 - 304 (1995)






This paper takes as its point of departure a simple fact that has gone largely unnoticed in the historical and ethnographic literature of migrant mine labour: prior to 1933 mineworkers were paid in gold. It is argued that the ideas and practices associated with the control and transmission of metallic money were at the heart of the experience of migrant labour before the crisis and formed a major part of the self-definition of migrant gold miners during the 1920s. Moreover, both the practices and ideas of African mineworkers were reciprocally linked to the global political struggles taking place over the gold standard. From the First World War to the Christmas of 1932, the South African and Imperial states and mining capital were involved in a controversy over the form of the South African and international money supplies. Whilst in appearance an abstract and mysterious debate, the contest over the form of the money supply laid the foundations for a system of value that penetrated into the daily lives and politics of many southern Africans. Chief amongst these were hundreds of thousands of migrant mine-workers. Following from this, the paper posits a re-interpretation of the gold standard crisis. The turning point that coincided with the new year of 1933 was not merely an economic change; it constituted a major transformation of the form, value, velocity and politics of money throughout Southern Africa. Coincidently, the crisis was an economic and cultural transition for the mining industry itself and marked a dramatic re-definition of the terms of economic conflict between workers and managers. Finally, this paper calls for a new periodization of capitalist development in Southern Africa that meshes together the cultural and economic dimensions of historical processes in a manner that foregrounds the experience of the African working class.

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