Strike action and self-help associations: Protest and culture of African workers after World War I, Zimbabwe

Yoshikuni, Tsuneo
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The years immediately following the armistice of the First World War witnessed the rapid growth of labour movements throughout the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, despite the region's relative weakness of capitalist penetration, the period was punctuated by stirrings of industrial discontent among African workers, apart from a contemporary spate of strikes by European workers in settler-dominated southern Africa. The places affected ranged from Freetown to Cape Town, from Lagos to Lourenco Marques, from Nairobi to Johannesburg and many other industrial centres. Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, was no exception. In the period from 1918 to 1921 African workers are known to have mounted several work stoppages in major towns, railways, mines, etc. throughout the colony. None of these disputes was more than a 'skirmish', lasting only a short while, but together they constituted a militant strike movement or movements. The first part of this essay is an attempt to describe this upsurge of labour protest. The protest on such a scale was perhaps the earliest of its kind in the colony's history and much of it has so far remained in obscurity; as such, it deserves to be accounted in detail. The image of the African worker that can be obtained from the first part is, insofar as its concern is restricted to the protest scenes, inescapably a very much simplified and abridged one: he is to be depicted as a man rationally and milltantly responding to economic realities of an industrial society. In order to probe more deeply into the character of the African worker, the labour protest of 1918-21 needs to be placed on a wider historical canvass. For this purpose, the second part of this essay addresses itself to a case study of the Tonga or Zambesi municipal workers in Salisbury (Harare) who staged a strike in August 1919. Its emphasis is upon penetrating the interior of the world which African migrants created in the face of everyday problems—a world, made of intimate human ties, where people found natural and effective forms of self-protection and self-assertion in the industrial situation.
African Studies Seminar series. Paper presented 26 October 1987
Working class. Zimbabwe. History. 20th century, Strikes and lockouts. Zimbabwe. History. 20th century, Fraternal organizations. Zimbabwe. History. 20th century