This essay questions the generally held view that the northern Nguni were not involved in the slave trade. It is shown that elements of the Ngwane (Swazi), Ndwandwe (Gaza and Jere) and possibly Mthethwa (Zulu) confederations were involved in the sale of slaves captured in the hinterlands of Lourenço Marques and Inhambane. In the 1840s the terms of the slave trade turned against suppliers as British and anti-slavery activities caused a rise in slavers' overheads, a surfeit of saleable slaves on the coast and a consequent price drop. The export of slaves through Lourenço Marques and Inhambane became unprofitable as the two trading posts were unable to compete with the safer embarkation points north of the Zambezi. As the export of slaves from the coastal settlements south of the Zambezi declined, the trade from this area took on a new form as engagé labour for the Indian Ocean islands and as non-contracted and unprotected ‘migrant’ labour for Natal and Kimberley. Slave suppliers ceased to sell slaves for export through Lourenço Marques and Inhambane because far higher prices could be obtained from Transvaal Boers and from domestic purchasers. But it was the rise of domestic slavery in the Gaza state that finally ended the maritime export of slaves as by the 1860s, with the loss of labour through warfare and increasingly through migrant labour, it was more profitable to use slaves locally than to export them.
Domestic slavery in the Gaza state is treated as a dynamic social relationship in which the slave, as against the kinsman, had no rights and was consequently entirely dependent upon his master for his means of production and reproduction. It was this dependence which resulted in the extreme exploitation defined here as slavery. Slavery should not be seen merely in a functionalist sense as a form of socio-political incorporation aimed at expanding the size of the ruling group. In a society controlled by kinship rights and obligations, slavery provided a man with a means of accumulating wealth and attracting followers. Thus slave labour was realized in the form of repatriated wages; female children born of concubines provided their fathers with brideprices while male children had limited kinship rights and were therefore more exploitable than ‘legal’ offspring. Slave labour also released Gaza Nguni women from agricultural work and allowed them to concentrate on the child-producing and child-raising activities that ensured a putative Gaza Nguni ‘purity’ and, consequently, the perpetuation of the exploitative structure of Gaza society.
In a society that had no concept of ‘free’ labour, i.e. labour freed from its former means and relations of production, the distinction between slave and non-slave labour was often blurred, and a disadvantaged kinsman could hypothetically be materially worse off than a slave. Zulu and Swazi forms of servility are examined and are shown to have been only marginally different from Gaza slavery. From this it is deduced that Gaza slavery had its roots in the relations of production taken northwards from the Nguni area. Slavery is seen as a new and more exploitative social relationship that arose in response to the emergence of new forms of production in southern Mozambique.