P214 – Forces of African Labour: Strikes and Workers Unrest in Africa since 1800
10 July, 14:00 – 15:30

Bellucci Stefano / International Institute of Social History and Leiden University


This panel seeks to explore the historical trajectories of labour strikes and other forms of labour unrest in Africa, covering different “industries”, including agriculture, over the last two centuries. Participants in this panel will present empirical historical data on African labour unrest since 1800. Similarly to Silver’s “Forces of Labor” (from which the panel borrows its title), the general assumption is that labour unrest is rooted in the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production itself. As capitalist modes of production increasingly subject the African population, commodifying ever more areas of life, workers reacts. There are at least two forms of labour unrest: “Marxian” struggles in which workers fight to claim a greater share of profits and control over the work process; and “Polanyian” struggles in which workers fight against the spread of self-regulating markets and their pure subjection to market forces. African labour history poses further challenges, such as those based on the analysis of the existing relationship between strikes with waged or unfree labour (tributary, slave, indentured, etc.). Exploring the differences or similarities between free and unfree labour or waged and non-waged labour, both in relation to strikes, could greatly help (a) to understand and explain when, if, and how capitalism historically developed in the African continent; and (b) whether or not it is possible to talk about a history of “African” capitalism.

Pouvoirs ouvriers africains : grèves et protestations des travailleurs d’Afrique depuis 1800
Ce groupe de discussion a pour objet l’étude de l’évolution historique des grèves et des autres formes de conflit de travail en Afrique, couvrant, pour les deux derniers siècles, différentes « industries » (diverses branches d’activités) y compris l’agriculture. Les participants à ce groupe vont recueillir des données empiriques de caractère historique sur la problématique du conflit de travail en Afrique depuis 1800. Dans le prolongement de l’ouvrage de Silver « Forces of Labor » (pouvoirs ouvriers), qui a inspiré le titre de la table ronde, l’idée-force est que le conflit de travail trouve sa source dans les contradictions du mode de production capitaliste lui-même.

La population africaine s’est vue de plus en plus soumise aux modes de production capitalistes, et face à cette marchandisation progressive, les travailleurs ont dû réagir. Cette réaction s’est traduite en au moins deux formes de conflits de travail : la lutte « marxiste », où les travailleurs se battent pour avoir une plus grande part des bénéfices, ainsi qu’un majeur contrôle sur le processus de travail ; et la lutte « polanyienne », où les travailleurs se battent contre la propagation des marchés autorégulateurs et leur soumission aux forces du marché. L’histoire du travail en Afrique présente des défis bien particuliers, il en est ainsi de l’analyse du rapport entre la grève et le salariat ou le travail forcé (tributaire, esclavagiste, contractuel, etc.). L’examen des disparités ou les similitudes du  travail forcé/libre, contracté d’une part, et du salariat/travail non-salarié d’autre part dans leurs rapports respectifs avec la grève, pourrait contribuer à une meilleure compréhension générale et fournir des explications sur la question de  savoir si et, dans l’affirmative, comment le capitalisme s’est historiquement développé sur le continent africain. L’étude de ces rapports pourrait également nous éclaircir sur la pertinence de parler de l’histoire d’un capitalisme « à l’africaine ».


Paper 1

McQuinn Mark / School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

Explaining Tanzanian Trade Unions Conflicts with Representatives of Capital and the State from the Colonial Period to the Present: How Marxian and Polanyian Approaches can be Interrelated

This paper provides a historically grounded analysis of contemporary disputes in Tanzania between trade unions and representatives of capital and the state. Recent labour struggles in Tanzania have been mediated through the changing position of trade unions following the liberalisation of the economy, which was accompanied by the move to multiparty liberal democracy during the 1990s. The labour regime and labour processes have undergone significant changes in Tanzania in the post-liberalisation period, with the representatives of capital gaining in their ability to determine the nature of labour relations.
Tanzanian workers have reacted by instigating a number of class-based (‘Marxian’) struggles at the point of production in attempts to claim a greater share of profits and control over the work process. Moreover, ‘Polanyian’ actions based on trade union attempts to limit the spread of self-regulating markets, through increasing institutional power and creating alliances across social classes

Paper 2

Tembo Alfred / Centre for Africa Studies, University of the Free State, SA

Northern Rhodesian Copper Mines, the State and Grounds for the Miners’ Strike of March 1940

Under Emergency Defence regulations, strikes were prohibited in British colonies during the WWII for fear of inhibiting the movement of essential supplies. This did not prevent their occurrence. Six months into WWII, a three-week strike of European and African miners took place on colonial Zambian Copperbelt and threatened Allied supplies of the much-needed copper. It occurred barely five years after the first and more bloody African miners’ strike in the country. This strike has a special place in the annals of Zambian history. As an event it is celebrated as a critical episode in the history of African miners’ struggles against a labour repressive copper mining industry. Its specificity and timing, however, cannot simply be explained by the politicisation and increased militancy of the workforce against institutionalised colour bar, contrary to older academic arguments. These factors, as important as they are in their own right, must be interpreted in the light of the structural processes and political economy of copper mining in wartime. It is the argument of this paper that the strike’s occurrence should be understood against the background of particular developments during the Second World War: a general labour shortage, high cost of living, shortage of essential commodities, and high inflation. As significant was the fact that the strike happened within a context of innumerable industrial action in the region both during and in the immediate post-war period.

Paper 3

Hashimshony-Yaffe Nurit / The Academic College of Tel Aviv Yaffo

Are we facing new mode of Africans protests? Africans striking in Tel Aviv

January 2014 witnessed a mass event. Tens of thousands Africans left their working places, marched in Tel Aviv main streets declaring three days of strike. Eritreans and Sudanese entered Israel illegally until 2012 asking for asylum in Israel. Israeli policy denied their right to asylum and regard Africans as infiltrators and illegal workers. Therefor Eritreans and Sudanese leaving in Israel are lacking official refugee status or social support and are forced to work as unskilled labour. Against this background African workers are violated and the strike may seem as workers unrest, but as unprotected asylum seekers it may seem as Human Rights protest asking for asylum. In a case were African migrants are asylum seekers with no official recognition, they are waged labour but unfree at the same time. The paper will demonstrate different aspects of the strike, as a call to protect workers’ rights as well as a demand to have political rights. These manifest the strike roots are in the contradictions made by capitalist mode of production and especially its globalized nature (although not a pure ‘Marxian’ struggle ). While international forced migration is widespread phenomenon, is it a one-time event –or- a new form of workers unrest? I will suggest the convergence of workers and political rights is the current mode of unrest, and its occurrence outside of Africa offer a possible answer to the question of “African” capitalist nature from a global perspective.

Paper 4

Landricina Matteo / Università di Roma Tre, Italy

Labour unrest and political strikes in the Gold Coast / Ghana 1945-1966

In the post-war period the economy in the African colonies was firmly in the hands of foreign private or state-led corporations, or of the white settlers in southern Africa. As workers agitation thus inevitably tended to be politicized, the African trade unions movement became often part of the anti-colonial struggle. However, the persistence of labour unrest also after independence shows that workers were seriously concerned with the improvement of their own conditions, regardless of who was in power. Ghana was the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to become independent in 1957 and held a leading role in the first years of decolonization. The workers in the Gold Coast / Ghana were among the first to experience the change — and in some respects, the absence of — brought by political self-determination. The most significant episodes of labour unrest between 1945 and the fall of the CPP regime in 1966 were: the gold miners strikes of 1947, before the arrival of Nkrumah; the railway workers strike of 1950, in support of the nationalist agitation; the second strike of the gold mines in 1955, when the Nkrumah was heading the government; and the political-economic strike of the railway workers in 1961, which constituted a serious threat to the stability of the regime. Analyzing these episodes will hopefully allow to shed some light on the relationship between labour movements and both economic and political power in Africa in the decolonization period.

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