The South African mining industry relied upon a massive African migrant workforce from the rural areas. Rural transformations in this migrant labor system form an important part of the story of developing capitalism in industrializing South Africa. Yet, recent historical studies on southern African migrant and rural wage labor have paid little attention to life adjustments made by the elderly and those ‘burned out’ by the mines and forced to leave formal wage employment in the urban areas. The South African segregationist state's rhetoric implied that ‘retired’ Africans could find economic security in their designated rural reserves. Indeed, legislation sought to prohibit Africans who were not employed from remaining in the ‘white’ urban areas. By the 1930s, however, the reserves were rapidly deteriorating. Many elderly Africans could not retire and were forced to seek wage labor. This raises significant questions about how retirement came to be defined and experienced by Africans in South Africa during a critical period of dramatic economic decline in the 1930s and 40s, and what the underlying material circumstances of African South Africans were with regard to adaptations to employment and ageing-related life changes. In many cases, elderly Africans were forced to forgo retirement, and find wage labor, usually in the most poorly paid, least sought-after or dangerous fields of employment. This article thus seeks to illuminate critical generational dimensions of the impact of segregation and racism in South Africa prior to the formal articulation of Apartheid.