In 1867 Erasmus Jacobs a 15 year old son of a Dutch farmer is credited for finding the first diamond along the Orange River in South Africa. This discovery sparked the diamond rush and eventual growth and expansion of South Africa’s mining industry in the 1870s. As a result, harvesting valuable rocks created a large demand for labor. African youth at the time worked on farms and looked after cattle. The mines offered a unique opportunity for a stable wage to pay the traditional bride price, taxes, purchase guns and equipment for their farms. This venture however came at a cost and indeed many had to leave their homelands to reside in temporary settlements in close proximity to the mines. Immigrant labor was thus born in South Africa. It was a journey of economic necessity—the pursuit of happiness and indeed a search for oases of hope.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Modern day Africans are still trapped in a web of an agrarian economy–lacking opportunity, unemployed and under-employed. The push factors are overwhelming that many are willing to take a blind leap of faith with the expectation that there will be greener pastures to graze on the opposite side of the fence. Buying that lottery ticket to the western world is irresistible for many in spite of the odds. Africans in the Diaspora leave families behind hoping to attain a better education, livelihoods and higher paying jobs while others are willing to engage in any available gig to support their dependants.
Like the miners in 1870 South Africa, great expectations seldom translate into reality for Africans in the Diaspora. Though some are able to make it and reap the fruits of their sacrifice, a majority are wounded in battle. Severe work and living conditions akin to the settlements around the Kimberly mines leave many with permanent physical and psychological scars. The job market is competitive and hostile to immigrants often ending up in positions below their qualifications. Stuck between Scylla and Charybdis, many endure work below their pay grade rather than face the embarrassment of returning to the motherland with nothing to show for it.
Immigrant labor arrangements imply that many who are non-citizens or lack status don’t have a voice in the political and decision making process. Economic turmoil and social insecurity in the west has further led to politicians exploiting growing xenophobia, distrust and branding of immigrants as criminals and moochers. Mine workers in 1870 South Africa likewise faced discrimination and their rights and individual liberties were often trampled on. They were viewed as a disposable labor force with potential recruits in the wings similar to the crowds waiting in line at the embassies of western nations in Africa to have a bite at the apple.
Whenever the roof of the mines collapsed or the poor work and living conditions took a health toll on the immigrant mine workers in South Africa, tears of a jubilant return were instead drowned by agony. Even the mine workers who made it back safe did not only return with fruits of labor but were human vectors, spreading venereal diseases and tuberculosis among African populations. Immigrant workers in the Diaspora contribute over $60 billion annually in remittances to the African economy surpassing aid and foreign direct investment. However, it hasn’t been all milk and honey for our mother nations as they have been stung by overwhelming intellectual capital flight in form of brain-drain and trampled by the herd of unfavorable terms of trade before they can even milk the cows. Should Africans continue lining up to work in the mines of the western world?