Skip to Content

South Africa: Make Crime Pay

 The above is the title of an article by the Johannesburg correspondent of the Economist, which in its issue of September 6th, presents us with an interesting sidelight on labour relations in South African agriculture. It appears that in the Kroonstad district of the Orange Free State,

      “the new goldfields nearby are drawing labour away from the farms; and in any case the Africans are showing an increasing aversion to farm work. Under the masters and servants act, a farmer can still pursue a runaway worker, and have him first fined, and then forced back to work. But the Africans, it seems, now resent this."

 Obviously the good farmers of Kroonstad had got to find a solution to this distressing dilemma. They might raise wages, and thus make farm work more attractive. (They might, but not if they could avoid it.) There must (they reasoned) be some way out of the difficulty. And there was.

 During the last year or two, the article continues, the South African Government

         “has pursued a deliberate policy of building ‘outpost’ prisons in rural areas, and allowing farmers to hire convict labour from them.’ There are now 12 such outpost Jails in South Africa, but until recently there were none in the Free State. “The farmers of Kroonstad district therefore applied to the government for a prison in their area. As there was apparently some difficulty in finding the money for it, the farmers hit on an ingenious expedient.”

Any private enterprise enthusiasts who may be reading this should follow the next bit carefully.

      “A leading Kroonstad farmer, Mr. George Verster, organised 22 other farmers into a private company, on a normal shareholding basis. The farmers subscribed £12,000 in £1 shares and elected Mr. Verster their chairman. Mr. Verster then approached the government with the proposition that the company build and equip a prison, if the government would stock it with convicts.”
       “The government was enthusiastic about the proposal, and it was arranged that when the new prison was built the government would supply 350 African convicts whom the Kroonstad farmers company could hire by paying the state 1s. 9d. per head per day” (the convicts, of course, get nothing).

 It’s amazing. Crime has now donned the mantle of virtue, ascended to the Elysian fields of commercial respectability, to be sanctified in the name of profit. But hold hard—of course only the “best type” of convicts are employed, this is those who are serving sentences “of from six to fifteen years for slaying or wounding fellow Zulus in tribal fights. Thus they are not ordinary criminals, and by working for Mr. Verster and his friends they will be removed from contamination by hardened, habitual criminals.” Presumably by this is meant those revolting specimens of abysmal depravity the perpetrators of theft.

 The only snag that the farmers of Kroonstad had to overcome was the fact that the cost of building and equipping the desired penal residence, was just over double the amount subscribed. What did they do about it? Use convict labour to build it! In this way you can build a £25,000 jail for £12,000. This we may presume is what in bourgeois circles is known as thrift. The name of the new prison is Geneva “perhaps in grateful recognition of the fact that the South African Government does not subscribe to the I.L.O. Convention against the hiring out of Convict labour for private profit.”

 We note that one of the many merits of this scheme is that it is “ thoroughly democratic.”

       “By this is meant that under the rules of the company, the farmers will be treated in exactly the same way as far as getting convicts is concerned, whatever the differences in the size of their contributions to the scheme."

 When opening a new—civic building—if we may be permitted the phrase, it is customary to enliven the proceedings with a little ceremony. So the new jail was formally opened by Mr. Swart the Minister of Justice, accompanied by the Director of Prisons who, strange as it may seem, is Mr. George Verster’s uncle, Mr. Victor Verster.

Mr. Swart made a long speech (there were doubtless other long speeches) in which he:

      “Stoutly defended the jail farm system . . . praised Mr. Verster and his fellow farmers for their excellent idea (which he frankly confessed would save the state a lot of money), remarked laughingly that the convicts were lucky fellows who would get plenty of fine fresh air, and finally promised that, as Minister of Justice, he would see to it that 'many more’ farm jails were built in the shortest possible space of time."

 The jollifications were concluded by the unveiling of a commemorative tablet and the consumption of numerous cups of coffee and plates of cake. We are not a little puzzled by the fact that the principal participants in the scheme were not invited to this “tea party.” But perhaps they would have been embarrassed. As it happened, the press in the person of the Johannesburg Star, took a rather poor view of this business, regarding it as “morally reprehensible” and as an “investment in Crime,” since it is now in the interests of farmers to build prisons and the state to keep them filled. But it appears that both the farmers and the Minister of Justice are impervious to criticism, and are firmly convinced that they are helping the convicts by what is called “rehabilitating them” and “helping the country” (time-honoured phrase) by providing cheap labour. “What other country, they may well demand, can point to such achievements? When was there ever such a magnificent example of philanthropy and five-per cent?”

Ian Jones