On the Edge of Capitalism: African Local States, Chinese Family Firms, and the Transformation of Industrial Labor
AbstractThis research, a study of capitalism on the frontier, examines Chinese garment production and African women workers in South Africa from the waning years of apartheid to the present. It focuses on Newcastle, a former border town between white South Africa and the black KwaZulu homeland that had been economically important for its coal and steel production since the 1960s. However, the “Asian Strategy” adopted by the Newcastle Town Council in the early 1980s transformed the town into a prominent site of low-wage, labor-intensive, and female-oriented light manufacturing. The established scholarship, while providing useful explanations for the arrival of ethnic Chinese clothing factories and offering valid critiques of South Africa’s industrial policies, pays little attention either to Chinese business practices or their long-term impact on Zulu women workers’ lives.
The most important finding of this research is that, in response to harsh business and socioeconomic conditions, both the ethnic Chinese industrialists and Zulu women workers creatively utilized and reshaped existing familial arrangements and communal ties. While Newcastle’s ethnic Chinese family businesses had been built upon the production partnerships of Chinese male mechanics and female supervisors who leveraged existing family business networks to maximize efficiencies and profits, Zulu women formed female-linked families and participated in informal women’s savings clubs to maintain stability as a workforce. This research shows that the production couple and the African female-linked family, albeit profoundly fractured, were essentially capitalist families that not only smoothed the way for intensified production, but also facilitated accumulation for both the Chinese entrepreneurs and Zulu workers.
My project points to the ways in which capitalist production transplants, adapts, and refashions its material and cultural forms across the globe. Newcastle’s ethnic Chinese family enterprises constituted a distinct industrial diaspora in the history of Africa and represented one of the most flexible forms of manufacturing capitalism worldwide. When relocating to the last frontiers, they employed the most vulnerable workers on the global labor hierarchy. In examining Newcastle’s Chinese garment firms and Zulu women’s production and reproduction, my research shows the significance of gender, family, and kinship formation to contemporary capitalism’s regeneration outside its heartland.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:39987929
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