In twentieth-century South African history, from the consolidation of a racially hierarchical social order to the country's transition to democracy, ideologies and policies linking work to welfare have defined the precarious predicament of blackness in highly specific ways. Experiences of state formation and capitalist development under white rule made “natives” the target of normative interventions predicated upon the “dignity of work” as a self-justifying imperative. Therefore, while for whiteness work was allowed to operate as a foundation of socially inclusive citizenship compacts, blacks confronted ideas of wage labor and welfare as paradigmatically coincidental, to the exclusion of further expectations. Moreover, images of personal responsibility and community life attached to work ethics have shaped the imagination of African nationalist politics and its claims to emancipation. As a result, South Africa's racial order articulated two mutually exclusive modalities of being African. One is the “native” as a subject premising a politics of recognition and popular sovereignty on economic activity and participation. The other, antagonistically opposed by the former, is the black, cast as a threatening and unpredictable entity on account of its aversion to capitalist employment. The centering of African desire and well-being around labor not only has played a decisive role in structuring sociopolitical conflicts in contemporary South Africa. It also has underpinned modalities of subjugation, suffering, and invisibility that continue to manifest themselves in the violence and lethality that still pervade black workers' lives, a most dramatic example of which was, in 2012, the police killing of strikers at the Marikana platinum mine.

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