Most societies have some defining characteristic marking their economic development. For modern South Africa this past century it could well be the cavalier manner in which it has chosen to treat its abundant resource — labour.
The past 150 years reminds most of a maize plant initially favoured by good soil and plenty of water, with great promise of quickly shooting up and standing tall in the field, only for it half way through the growing season to be struck by drought, its growth becoming stunted and the plant eventually wilting disappointingly.
With in this instance the drought not imposed by outside agents, but being entirely self-imposed by refusing to keep irrigating waters flowing.
This drought stunting growth came by many strictures.
For nearly 340 years, South Africa's modern economy component chose to control, and thereby restrict, movement of its indigenous population through pass laws, preventing a natural, free deployment of labour before the coming of democracy finally ended this practice.
This constraining feature would in the active modernising period be further refined to control and manage the flow of labour, fundamentally distorting the character and structure of the economy.
And yet the start of the modern industrialising period had been promising, initially off a very rich mining endowment.
It had started as late as 1867 deep in a continental interior only very recently recovering from devastating population movements that effectively had wiped the slate clean and had allowed all kinds of newcomers to move in and mingle with surviving remnants of the old.
This had effectively created a "new frontier" reality where pretty much anything was possible and done, with rules creating order coming only gradually into being.
The character of many of the early mining camps and resulting towns was often wild and freewheeling, with labour scarce and having to be induced with some difficulty.
Indeed, eventually there was even resort to a poll tax on the indigenous population in certain regions to induce greater encouragement to go and work on the distant interior mines to earn the necessary cash to pay the local tax, in time even searching far and wide in neighbouring territories for willing labour.
It wasn't as if early modernisation was attractive or that there was a surplus of willing labour for the rapidly expanding mining sector. Rural life was for long far too sweet for it to be otherwise (though not forever as the past century has shown).
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