This dissertation, based primarily on archival and oral evidence, examines labor tenancy and "customary law," institutions of central importance for rural social relations in settler-dominated Natal, South Africa. Both institutions depended on hierarchies of gender and generation but were fraught with internal tensions and contradictions.
From the late 1920s through the mid-1940s, labor tenancy and the rural social order experienced a crisis of control that was reflected in cries of farm labor shortages and complaints about a loss of control over African youths and women. The state and African elders attempted to reassert control of women and juniors partly through the "customary law" regime.
This thesis looks at economic and social changes affecting labor tenancy and uses court records to examine conflict within the labor tenant household. It thereby departs from previous studies of rural and agricultural history in South Africa by focusing on relations within the Afican community rather than on conflict between Africans and the state or between Africans and whites.
The study advances scholarship in both rural and legal social history by locating processes of change in the lived experiences of ordinary people. It shows that labor tenancy exacerbated tension within rural African households and that this effect was amplified by industrial growth, which provided new opportunities to the youths and women on whom the system of labor tenancy depended. It shows that Africans were not mute victims of colonial rule, but that their ongoing struggles over control, custom, and the meaning of social practices were important facets of the development of colonial institutions affecting land, labor, and law, and their ongoing legacies.
The dissertation also contributes to an understanding of the nature of the encounter between western legal concepts and practices and ongoing African social processes.