The Politicization of Black Labor: The 1935 Strike
In 1935 a massive strike among the black mineworkers on the Copperbelt revealed both widespread grievances against the companies and a willingness to protest labor conditions through collective action. The question arises whether this behavior proves a growing consciousness of class and commitment to class action among the mineworkers. Most studies of the period reject this possibility, dismissing the strike as “riots.”1 An important recent contribution by Charles Perrings, for example, concludes that the structural migrancy of the mine work force limited the consciousness and action of the copper miners in 1935. Reacting against Phimister and van Onselen’s preoccupation with the work place as the source of African worker consciousness, Perrings stresses the need to understand the limitations placed on consciousness by dependence upon two different modes of production. He explains Bemba militance in the strike as a reaction to constricting economic opportunities outside the mines, and the greater determination of the Roan strikers as a response to frustrations over recent reductions in the work force.2 Perrings’ call to assess the consciousness of migrant workers within the totality of their social existence is well taken. It appears, however, that he ignores a number of important variables affecting worker attitudes and behavior, such as the impact of the compounds and the production process, the skill structure of the work force, the experience of collective action, and government policy. He thus underestimates the consciousness and organizational capacity of the 1935 strikers. The daily experiences at work and in the compounds led to a rapid understanding among the miners of both their common interests and their exploitation by management; despite plans to return to the rural areas, the stabilization policy of the mines created a group of workers who increasingly understood that collective labor action was their most effective weapon in the struggle against capital. The conjuncture of particular historic forces in 1935 enabled these miners to translate this understanding into strike action on the Copperbelt.
THE 1935 STRIKE
Before 1935, both Rhodesian Selection Trust and Anglo-American management believed their black employees accepted, and even liked, working and living conditions in the copper mines. Citing plentiful supplies of voluntary labor, as well as low absentee and desertion rates, management complacently assumed their employees were “perfectly happy.” The compound managers congratulated themselves on their contented and peaceful compounds. Schaefer described Mufulira compound as “one of the happiest compounds I’ve ever had.”3 Even the lowering of wages and living conditions after 1932 failed to worry management. Indeed, Roan’s general manager, F. Ayer, insisted that “our wages and bonuses and the things we have done—[are] more than we need to do for [the black miners].”4
This complacency was rudely shaken in May 1935, when a massive strike broke out, engulfing one mine after another. Events started at Mufulira on Tuesday May 21st, when the compound clerks, led by Mateyo, spread the word of a tax increase and called for a strike. The Mufulira clerks sent letters to the compound clerks at Nkana and Roan, urging them to join the work stoppage. Mufulira leaders were predominantly clerks and a few mine policemen.5 Strike leaders held many small meetings throughout the compound urging people not to work. A number belonged to Mbeni and used the Mbeni association to help organize the strike. Fred Kabombo, a Watch Tower leader, urged support by his coreligionists.6 The response was dramatic. By Wednesday, 600 of the 3,000 miners at Mufulira refused to work, and by that evening, all work had stopped. In an effort to end the shutdown, District Officer John Moffat met with the strikers that afternoon to hear their complaints, and later that night arrested eight of the most outspoken strikers at the meeting. The arrests, along with Moffat’s promise of a government investigation into work complaints, convinced the strikers to return to work, and by Thursday afternoon, the 23rd of May, production resumed on the mine.7
Meanwhile, the news of the strike had reached Nkana by letter and in person. Stories of victory of Mufulira encouraged the Nkana clerks to start their own strike, and by the 24th, posters calling for a strike blanketed the compounds. Written in Chibemba, which was fast becoming the lingua franca of the Copperbelt, the posters demanded a wage increase and threatened violence to those who refused to strike on Monday May 27th.8 The compound clerks, particularly Herbert Kamanga, a Nyasa, and Isaac Ngumbo, who had been in the 1927 Shamva strike in Southern Rhodesia, were key organizers. At Mindolo, most of the leaders were capitaō.9
The clerks and other “big people” (mostly experienced workers) held meetings on Saturday. One witness reported a meeting, primarily of mine clerks, held at a nearby stream, and other meetings with larger crowds were held in the compound. As at Mufulira, the leaders used whatever organizations they could to muster support. There were many informal meetings in the compound, and though little is known of them, one witness claimed two leaders on Saturday were preaching violence. Several Watch Tower members were important strike organizers. Mr. Wright, a capitaō and Watch Tower member, preached strike support at meetings of Watch Tower followers. The Mbeni did not figure as prominently as at Mufulira, but the Mbeni organization still assisted the strike.
On Sunday the 26th, four Bemba speakers organized a large meeting. The leaders, several of whom belonged to Watch Tower, addressed the crowd “trying to get people to state definitely that they would start the strike. They also suggested that those who refused to start the strike should be beaten and assaulted.”10 The meeting agreed to strike, and before sunset the crowd marched to the road, and forcibly removed two hundred workers from the concentrator. “Hostility was directed against anyone who wished to work. It was not a personal matter.”11 Despite the arrests of seventy-five ringleaders, on Monday night strikers again blocked the roads to the mine and leafletted the compound. Several lorry loads of scabs broke through the miners’ pickets, but production was effectively stopped. However, the arrival of troops from Lusaka to patrol the compound frightened the strikers and the night shift turned out in the normal manner. A few miners tried to keep the strike alive, but with the arrival of the British South Africa Police on May 31st, opposition soon evaporated.12
The Roan miners struck after both the Nkana and Mufulira strikes were over. Roan had been relatively peaceful, but visitors from Nkana and Mufulira kept people informed and conceivably urged similar strike action at Roan.13 On the 28th, a Rhokana worker was seen distributing leaflets demanding a strike. That evening, a large group of workers (Spearpoint claims they were largely Bemba although he was not there) met in the football field to arrange a strike the next day.14 Notices appeared in the compound claiming that “Nobody must go to work. . . . We shall die. They will kill us.”15
As at the other mines, strike leaders used every weapon available to organize the strike. They called on ethnic groups, Mbeni, and Watch Tower to mobilize support. Informal meetings throughout the compound enlisted support for the strike, and by the next morning, all but a few miners had joined. Some of the more ardent strikers forcibly kept potential strike breakers from going underground. Several mine police were assaulted; eighty African Northern Rhodesian police soon arrived, and without provocation began to attack both strikers and bystanders. European officials barely restored order as tempers flared on both sides, and with tempers at fever pitch, representatives from both sides agreed to meet on the football field. The shouting and chaos were too much for the officials, and they dismissed the meeting. This angered the strikers, who had expected to reach an agreement which they could then discuss at the Boma (the building housing local government officials). Instead the police drove the strikers to the compound office and then ordered them back to work with ominous threats. Enraged, the strikers began to throw stones, sticks, bottles, and any available sharp objects. In the pandemonium, the police and their white supervisors lost control and opened fire, first above the heads of the strikers, and then into the crowd. Six men were killed and twenty-two wounded.16 The strikers temporarily withdrew; shortly afterwards, two platoons of Northern Rhodesian Regiment troops arrived from Nkana. For two hours, the strikers, police and troops exchanged insults and threats. The strikers protested loudly about taxes, bad food, low wages, and police brutality. They complained to a government official that “they were trying to talk with the Government, and the Government had killed them like cattle.”17 The crowd finally dispersed when the soldiers fired over their heads. That afternoon, several district officers met with the strikers on the soccer field to discuss grievances. The workers reiterated earlier complaints, particularly the need for higher wages. Since the government wanted more money, they “must tell the mines to give us more money.”18 Emotions ran high, but there were no threats or violence. Keith (DC, Luanshya) mollified the crowd with promises of an investigation, and by late Thursday, most workers had returned to work and the strike was over.19
THE STRIKE: A BEMBA RIOT OR EARLY WORKER PROTEST?
Most studies of the strike have accepted the Russell Commission’s conclusion that it was basically a spontaneous reaction to a tax increase and was dominated by Bemba-speaking miners. Elena Berger even calls the strikes “the 1935 riots.” Both Henderson and Perrings see the strike as an attempt by workers to resist deteriorating living standards. They see the strike as a spontaneous upheaval, “the protest of the desperate,” led by that “most coherent and troublesome group in the Copperbelt labor force,” the Bemba-speaking peoples. While Henderson accepts the role of the Bemba without question, Perrings further explains Bemba militancy as a response to the Congo border closure, a move which increased Bemba vulnerability to job insecurity and the rising cost of living.20
On closer examination of the evidence, the argument for Bemba dominance in the 1935 strike is not convincing. Most accusations against the Bemba came from mine authorities, government officials, or from evidence given by Nyasa and other non-Bemba to the Commission. A careful reading of the strike commission’s evidence reveals that many witnesses referred to Bemba speakers, rather than to the Bemba themselves. For example, the so-called Bemba meeting at Luanshya was led by two Bemba speakers, but of the twenty-one leaders arrested at Roan, only four were Bemba. Only 1,500 to 1,600 Bemba miners worked at Roan, out of a total of 4,370.21 By 1935, many non-Bemba spoke the language. According to Musumbulwa, most Africans could speak “town-Bemba” within a year on the Copperbelt. It is not surprising then, that Mateyo, although a Nyasa, addressed the miners at Mufulira in CiBemba.22 At strike meetings, whether addressed in Bemba or any other language, appeals were aimed at all workers, not at a particular ethnic group. This was especially true at the large meetings held on the football fields. The leaders asked all workers to join the strike, and animosity was aimed at non-strikers, rather than any particular ethnic group.23 The Bemba, because of their numbers, and undoubtedly because of their economic insecurities, played an important role in the strike, but to see the strike as a Bemba affair is to agree with District Officer J.S. Moffat, who carried his stereotype of the fierce Bemba into an urban context, developing a new caricature of “the wholly industrialized Wemba . . . a most unpleasant person indeed.”24
Even granting the Bemba a less pivotal role in the strike, can one legitimately claim that the strike was anything more than a spontaneous outburst or riot? Certainly one cannot equate the 1935 strike with the better organized strikes of the 1940s and 1950s. The lack of formal worker organizations limited the chance for long-term gains by the strikers. On the surface, then, the 1935 strike resembled a riot. However, on closer examination, both the attitudes and the behavior of the strikers cannot be explained simply as “the protest of the desperate.” Rather, the strike suggests that deeper changes were occurring on the mines, changes which signalled growing worker consciousness among black miners on the Copperbelt.
In the first place, the organization of the strike was more deliberate and complicated than one would expect in a riot. Such organization cannot be explained as a momentary upheaval, a simple spontaneous reaction to a tax increase. The strike leaders used letters, posters, various compound organizations and both large and small meetings to organize the strike. The strike leaders at all the mines unanimously called for worker unity, insisting that all miners stop work until mines increased wages. They turned a deaf ear to all who tried to stop them, including tribal elders. Indeed, at Luanshya the elders took refuge in the compound office with management. Except for the momentary violence at Roan, the strike leaders asked for and mostly obtained a unified response from workers. The strikers intimidated potential strike breakers with threats, but little direct violence. Neither Europeans nor European property was damaged; government and company officials circulated among the miners without fear.25 As one close observer put it, “The strike was reasonably well organized.”26 It was too well organized to be described as a riot.
The grievances expressed both during and after the strike revealed a developing consensus about the miners’ common position in an exploitative set of production relations. Although the tax raise was the proximate cause of the strike, there were deep-seated issues which had caused collective grievances. One miner told the Commission that a strike would have occurred “even if the tax had not been increased, because the hearts of the people were not right.”27 Numerous witnesses before the Commission likewise alluded to general discontent among the workers. One informant recalled “constant complaints among the workers about conditions, especially among the educated people.”28 This is understandable because most of the more educated miners had been in the employ of the mines long enough to observe the disintegration of living and working conditions during and after the Depression. However, whether long- or short-term employees, all miners demanded better treatment. As Sylvester Nkoma recalled, “All the people at that time had a lot of complaints about conditions of employment, about poor wages, about poor housing, and things.”29 When the Bemba paramount chief arrived to talk to the miners, he was told that “we are suffering and we know what we want.”30
The miners universally condemned both their wages and the system of compensation for accidents and death. Witnesses complained (to the strike commission) that compensation money never reached the relatives of deceased miners. They rejected the award of one year’s pay for the loss of a limb, and asked that miners with partial injuries be given some kind of surface employment rather than being dismissed.31 Long-felt grievances about wage reductions erupted into demands for a wage increase. Isaac Munkhata testified that Roan workers protested that “their wages which had been cut have not been given back to them.”32 Complaints were also lodged against the system of deductions and bonuses, which aggravated and confused miners, particularly as they differed from mine to mine. As Mufulira miners told the Commission, “if we received more money we would not complain about the tax at all . . . our main complaint is money. The people made the noise about the tax because they wanted more pay from the Europeans.”33
Strikers at every mine also protested inadequate food rations. Even a witness favoring the companies, Lubita Mukubesa, admitted that at Nkana “people do complain about the rations and say they are very small.” Bemba Paramount Chitimukulu, in his tour of the mines after the strike, discovered that inadequate rations was a major grievance. Mufulira miners complained about meat supplies, and one witness claimed that “I get more food in the gaol than I get at the mines.”34 Married miners were the most vocal. One witness testified that his family always ran out of food on the weekends, and another reported having to buy food daily for his wife and children.35 These purchases drained the mineworkers’ small incomes. The steady stream of visitors into the compounds only aggravated matters, creating even greater strain on the miners’ limited resources.
Compound conditions were roundly criticized as well. The strikers complained about the small houses and general overcrowding. Mukubesa told the Commission that “the houses [at Nkana] are too small, and sometimes there are four or five people in the hut,” which brought on sickness. Kambafwile at Mufulira also testified that the houses were too small, noting that workers often had to sleep outside in little shelters. In the Roan single quarters, according to Julius Chattah, “you will find that four, five, or six laborers live in one hut.” Miners disliked sleeping in the same house with their children and the badly built latrines which accommodated both men and women under one roof—both contrary to custom. They accused the beer halls of overcharging, selling bad beer, and being poorly run.36
Many strikers complained bitterly about assaults and verbal abuse from Europeans. Chola Linyama recalled a lot of Africans “getting knocked on the job” at that time. Witnesses to the strike commission protested the frequent assaults, particularly at Mufulira. Babu Time, a Nyasa at Nkana, testified that “if I make a mistake the European looking after me can make trouble and beat me.” Even the Roan medical doctor, Charles Fisher, testified that he had seen four or five miners who had been struck by Europeans.37
The strikers unanimously assailed the African mine police for their brutality. The Mufulira mine police were accused of mistreating workers as well as lying to compound officials. A witness claimed that “if you obey the mine police, then you are all right. But if you find it is not good to do what they tell you, then you are in trouble. . . . If you swear at them [the mine police] they take you to the Compound Manager and your work is finished. . . . This happens very often—every day.” During the strike mine police were widely suspected of being “company men.” The head policeman at Nkana discovered after the strike that people would not tell him the causes of the strike “because they think I will go and tell the Bwana.”38
In summary, the evidence suggests that by 1935 most miners had developed some awareness of their common interests as a group, and an understanding of their position within the copper industry. The grievances expressed during and after the strike reveal a growing sense of exploitation. But this consciousness remained expressed and understood primarily in racial terms, for the dramatic difference between the living standards and authority positions of European and African mineworkers undermined potential identification among miners across racial lines. The strikers complained bitterly about the abusive language and behavior of the white miners.39 However, the strikers did direct their complaints toward management, and opposed collaboration between management and the African mine police, showing some recognition that the opposition between management and workers transcended racial barriers. Thus while the evidence in no way suggests a well-articulated class consciousness, it does indicate some awareness of both worker identity and the conflict of interests between management and themselves among the black miners.
SOURCES OF WORKER CONSCIOUSNESS
How can we explain the development of these new attitudes among the miners, despite the fact that most mineworkers were migrant laborers? Certainly many factors impeded the development of worker consciousness. The constant flow of laborers in and out of the compounds, as well as the diversity of ethnic backgrounds among the miners, had an unsettling effect. It encouraged workers to stick with their own kind, rather than identify with their class as a whole. Dependence on the rural economies, moreover, kept short-term workers preoccupied with their rural ties: new employees generally looked for relatives when they first came to the mines. Language and cultural similarities drew those of common backgrounds together in the compounds, creating social ties along ethnic lines. One informant recalled that “the Bemba-speaking people stuck together” in the early years, as did the Lunda and the Nyasa. Certainly much of the daily socializing in the mine compounds centered around ethnic, or at least linguistic, groupings.40
Other factors encouraged in both short-term and longer-term mine employees the development of a common sense of identity. The compounds were organized around the concepts of industrial time and work discipline, which all miners had to adhere to. Miners were rewarded for successfully adopting these principles, rather than for their allegiance to traditional values. In fact, ethnic identity and status had little impact on one’s position in the mines, both in employment and living conditions. In a subtle but unremitting manner, the process of living and working in the mines forced all black miners to adopt some similar values, at least for the duration of their employment. The internalization of these values generally increased with the degree of stabilization of the workers. Those workers with the greatest dependence upon wage labor and the longest experience in industrial production were the most apt to adopt such values.
Experiences in the work place often emphasized similarities among the black mineworkers. First of all, many black miners were manual laborers, and so did similar work. In the 1920s management rotated these workers from gang to gang, which reinforced their common status. Miners met one another as they waited at the shaft or worked together in the mines. Several informants recalled friendships based on such experiences.41 The dangers of mining also enforced cooperation among underground miners. The democracy of fear forged bonds of trust which often transcended ethnic and occupational labels, and sometimes even racial divisions. As one informant remembered, “Underground we were all miners together. When danger came, we would help each other like brothers.”42 Thus, the daily experiences in the mine exposed the similarities among the black mineworkers, and indeed all copper miners, and encouraged the growth of class identity.
The structure of the mine compounds also facilitated worker identification. Houses were small, crowded, and crammed closely together. Little privacy existed. Workers were in constant touch with one another in their neighborhoods. “They had to learn about meeting each other, because you remember in the early days each tribe only heard the stories told by their own people. When they came to the Copperbelt they had to meet many new people and hear how they live and so on.”43 The daily activities of the women and children also centered around their neighborhoods. The women met each other on the food lines, in the welfare classes, and at the beer halls as well. Children played together at the welfare centers and playgrounds; men worked and played with those on their shift; everyone met at the cinemas, sports events, and other recreational activities. People came to recognize each other, especially those from the same neighborhood or on the same shift. The miners and their dependents got to know each other in the daily round of life’s activities.44 This constant interaction facilitated the perception of common interests, and encouraged identification among the workers and their dependents.
The pressure to cooperate forced miners and their dependents to overcome many of the language and cultural barriers between the different ethnic groups. Initially, language problems interfered with communication in the compounds, but ingenious solutions were soon found. In the earliest years, each ethnic group informally appointed “interpreters,” usually more senior mine employees, who had been on the mines for a while and knew several languages. Some workers used Fanagalo, or Chilapalapa as it was known in Northern Rhodesia. This patois of Zulu and English evolved in South Africa and had become the language of the mines in Southern Africa. Many South African whites knew Chilapalapa, so it was convenient to use in the work place. However, it was created to facilitate European dominance, and was consequently disliked by most Africans. Instead, a form of Bemba known as “town-Bemba” evolved as the common language of the Copperbelt, being used for work, at home, socially, for education, and for public speaking.45
Traditional dancing groups on weekends also helped break down barriers between the different ethnic groups in the compounds. Management encouraged these performances, for they appeared to be harmless amusements. The dances were not designed as cross-cultural learning experiences, but they became as much for the workers. On Sundays, each ethnic group would get together to dance in the area designated for it. Spectators moved around the compound watching the different performances. One informant recalled that “we learned to mix freely with the other groups. Say you happened to be a friend of mine, then I [would] have to take you to my tribal group’s dances. Then you watch. After finishing there, we go to your tribal dances.”46 Learning about the different foods, dances, and other cultural artifacts of the different ethnic groups became a hobby for many workers and their families. Friendships grew up between people of different backgrounds. One informant recalled “that when I was child of about four years, I remember a person, we were going around together, and I took food from his parents and he had food from my parents. They were Lunda and we were Bemba, and my parents never regarded them as scavengers.”47 The dances symbolized the common bonds between workers. Traditional enemies and allies alike danced next to one another in the mine compounds. Old rivalries turned to friendly competition. If the weekend dances realized management’s desire for harmonious compounds, they also inadvertently helped the miners and their families to overcome some of the cultural barriers which could have impeded cooperation at the work place.
This internal communication was supplemented by frequent visits between mines. For example, miners and their dependents regularly trekked between Nchanga and Kitwe on weekends, a walk of about six hours. This inter-mine travel revealed the similarities of life at the different mines.48
Within the mine work force, the more skilled stabilized miners, both underground and on the surface, developed a keen awareness of their common interests. These miners were still a small percentage of the labor force. They had worked at the mines long enough to develop a community of interest with each other. Their higher wages, better housing, and supervisory status separated them somewhat from other black miners. Most were married. Many aspired to a European style of living, adopting customs such as tea drinking, European dances, and clothing made in England. The similarities in authority, material culture, and expectations drew the stabilized miners together. Spearpoint reported that they “have a tendency to isolate themselves. . . . These people form a definite social group quite shorn of anything tribal, they live in a world entirely different to the other natives; one finds members of different tribes mixing very freely and all meeting on a common footing.” As an informant recalled, “The more educated miners used to stay to themselves a lot, they had their own amusements.”49
Occupational divisions could have undermined worker identity among the miners, but in this period the mines deliberately adopted a labor strategy which minimized divisions in the work force. The compound managers assumed that a peaceful contented work force was a productive work force. In order to promote harmony, the Copperbelt mines carefully scattered the different ethnic groups throughout the compounds. They allocated housing by seniority, family size, and marital status. With the exception of the mine police, no group of miners lived apart from his coworkers. Despite somewhat better conditions for higher-grade miners, all compounds inhabitants came under the same authority system, one that emphasized similarities rather than divisions in the work force. Even skilled underground miners, mine police, and clerks could be discharged if a European employee accused them of wrongdoing. As one informant recalled, “No one felt safe from the compound manager and his police.”50 All African workers had to live in the compounds. Race defined housing, wages, general living conditions, and job opportunities. The dual wage structure and de facto color bar on the Copperbelt limited the gap between elite and unskilled miners. Even the more skilled miners could only progress a limited way up the mine hierarchy. Consequently, although the stabilized miners developed a strong identity as a group, mine labor policies unwittingly facilitated the perception of similarities, and thus helped to build identification among the mineworkers.
The structure of the mine townships also clarified the common position of the black workers in relation to European employees. Black miners and their dependents lived in clearly demarcated areas separate from the European housing areas. They were not allowed to loiter in the European areas, nor to be there at night. The mine townships exposed the hierarchical division between black and white mine employees. The European townships were permanent and daily symbols of the gap in rewards to black and white mine labor. Black mineworkers and their dependents could see that “the copper mines built cheap houses on the African side, but on the European side you can see they built big houses. . . . The people could see that the whites lived much better.” Africans could come to the European football games only if they “didn’t sit where the Europeans were sitting.” As John Chisata recalled, “The people knew whites are superior and black inferior,”51 and the townships daily reminded them of that fact.
The visible gap between European and African miners’ living conditions exacerbated feelings of exploitation among the black miners as well, particularly the more stabilized miners. While strike complaints reveal that most miners felt exploited, the stabilized miners took rather strong exception to the higher standard of living of the Europeans. More than other black miners, they depended primarily on wage labor for their livelihood, and expected to remain dependent upon wages. Living expenses in town continued to rise, which strained earnings and heightened awareness that the gap in rewards between European labor and themselves did not correspond to the gap in skill levels.52 Every time they walked through the European townships, or saw a European drive by in a car, the stabilized miners were reminded of their relative poverty. As Eliti Tuli Phili, a Nyasa clerk at Roan, told the Commission, the mineworkers “have seen that they started work at the same time as the European, and the European at once is able to buy a motor car and he gets a lot of food at the hotel. The natives complain about this. . . . They do the same kind of work.”53 In the same vein, a World Council of Churches’ study of Copperbelt labor conditions in 1932 concluded, “That the Rhodesian Native harbors grievances against the White man is unquestioned in spite of his recognition of the values to be gained from the adoption of elements of the White man’s culture, and that these grievances are expressed most vigorously by semi-detribalized individuals longest in contact with the Whites is equally known.”54 An explicit understanding of the opposition between management and workers, rather than between racial groups, would develop later; at this point stabilized black miners resented the better living conditions of both white miners and management.
COLLECTIVE LABOR ACTION ON THE COPPERBELT
If one accepts a growing sense of identification and awareness of common exploitation among the black miners on the Copperbelt during this period, why did this awareness not lead to collective labor action long before 1935?
The evidence suggests that most mineworkers before the Depression only vaguely understood the collective nature of their class interests and the potential power of collective labor action in pursuit of class interests (i.e., worker consciousness). In the early years of the mines, the slow development and often partial nature of worker identity and opposition among the miners undoubtedly inhibited the development of worker consciousness. The high turnover rate of labor, the ethnic diversity of the labor force, and the absence of a tradition of collective action against capital impeded the growth of worker solidarity. The competitive wage labor market in Northern Rhodesia before the Depression also reduced the need for workers to understand and carry out collective labor action. The labor shortage permitted miners to improve conditions of employment by simply changing employers. If a worker was dissatisfied, he could simply desert; the mines tried to prosecute deserters, but with little success.55 Desertions were frequent.56
Thus, before the Depression, the political economy of Northern Rhodesia encouraged workers to act individually rather than collectively to improve the rewards for their labor. African workers understood their market value in the wage labor market, and used that knowledge to maximize their earnings. By 1930, many Northern Rhodesians chose to work on the Copperbelt because of the high wages. The Annual Report that year noted that “the habit of going abroad to work is already losing its hold.”57 As we have seen, experienced miners gravitated to the Rhodesian Selection Trust mines because of its better conditions. Inexperienced unskilled labor went to the less popular Anglo-American mines. As these workers gained experience, they frequently moved over to the more desirable mines. As one would expect, Nkana had the greatest difficulty obtaining labor. A pattern of mobility developed, in which black miners actively sought to improve their economic position by moving around the Copperbelt. One informant’s father worked 3-1/2 years in Katanga in the early 1920s, then went to Nchanga for eight years, to Mufulira for eight months, then back to Nchanga, then to Bwana Mkubwa for six months, and then back to Nchanga.58 Other informants, and the work histories taken by J. Clyde Mitchell, reported similar experiences.59 Thus, black miners eagerly pursued their economic well-being, but this pursuit was affected by the nature of the class struggle in Northern Rhodesia at the time. As long as individual labor action brought some rewards, the miners had little incentive to organize more complicated and alien forms of collective action.
The most common expression of labor protest on the job, absenteeism, also discouraged collective labor action. Absenteeism enabled miners to protest conditions without actually leaving. For example, absenteeism at Roan increased sharply when hours were extended. Slow-downs and general uncooperativeness were also frequent on the mines. Spearpoint claimed that the African miner was “a past master at finding means to defeat any rules which have been instituted to encourage regular attendance, regular hours, and regulations for efficiency.”60 These were rarely cooperative efforts, involving at most small groups of miners.
Thus, the ability to improve the rewards for one’s labor individually undermined the development of worker solidarity and collective labor action before the Depression. As long as the labor shortage allowed miners to improve their working conditions by desertion and job mobility rather than cooperative efforts, collective struggle was unlikely since there was no incentive for it. As long as this situation continued, circumstances on the mines did little to reveal the power of collective action to protect worker interests. Only when the nature of class relations changed, and individual efforts failed, would workers begin a search for new weapons in the struggle against capital. Out of the search, a new consciousness would emerge.
ASSOCIATIONS IN THE COMPOUNDS
Despite the lack of collective labor protest before 1935, many miners cooperated informally for their mutual benefit. Neighbors frequently shared food and cooking responsibilities. Sometimes organized around ethnicity, these groups often simply included people in the same neighborhood. Neighbors sometimes pooled their wages, with one man drawing two salaries for a month, and the next month the other man getting both paychecks. This provided more cash for purchasing consumer goods, as the better-educated miners organized large orders to England for mail-order clothing. Such cooperation allowed them to escape the carrying charges for individual orders, and often involved quite substantial amounts of money. In 1933, for example, Spearpoint, discovered Roan miners spent £764 on such clothing.61 Neighbors also helped each other hide illegal beer or guests from the mine police. One informant recalled how his mother brewed beer and sold it in the neighborhood. Once when the police discovered the beer, his mother went to the neighbors, and left him to take the blame. The neighbors pretended the beer brewing was just a prank to protect their beer supply.62 Similar stories were told about illegal residents. Although on a small scale, these efforts revealed an early ability to cooperate as workers.
Miners also formed organizations for protection and support. Mbeni dance societies, which were established in the late 1920s, provided mutual aid as well as recreation for members. These were confined to ethnic groups, with Kalela being essentially “Bisa,” Mganda essentially “Nyasa,” and Mbeni essentially “Bemba.” Competition remained within each group, rather than between them. The dance teams “contributed to assist members in distress, pay a fare back to a rural area and buy some goods to take back with him if a member is destitute, pay for a box as a coffin to ensure that a member dying in town had a proper funeral.” Despite its traditional orientation, Mbeni gave its members the opportunity to “act out” with appropriate costumes and gestures some of the new roles established by colonial society. By playing out these roles, Mbeni members learned behavior appropriate to long-term participation in the emerging colonial society of the Copperbelt. On a more practical level, Mbeni provided mutual aid and fellowship. However, by encouraging members to practice roles appropriate to urban colonial society, Mbeni implicitly advocated African participation in that society. As one might expect, Mbeni attracted members from those miners most committed to urban life.63
The Watch Tower movement also had special appeal to miners committed to long-term participation in the colonial economy. Watch Tower spread throughout the Copperbelt in the early 1930s under the leadership of “prophet” Andrew Kasembala. Originally from the U.S. and South Africa, Watch Tower was both anti-white and anti-colonialism, prophesying the eventual end of white domination. Kasembala told his followers that “we natives will soon be mixing with the Europeans, sitting down and eating food at the same table, and they will shake us by the hand. The white men who refuse to mix with us will be told to go home.” This message imparted to urban Africans an ideology legitimizing their claims to full participation in the emerging industrial society of the Copperbelt. It probably enjoyed the loyalty of the more stabilized miners who believed they deserved to be accepted in colonial society, and felt most rejected by “the racialist abuse and social exclusivity which typified colonial behavior toward socially aspirant Africans.”64 This elite group, “those who wore European dress, used tables and chairs in their huts, owned bicycles, and frequented Bible classes rather than the beer halls,” made up the majority of Watch Tower members. On the mines, Watch Tower galvanized a considerable number of unskilled workers as well. In 1935, the government estimated 50% (perhaps as many as 70%) of the miners were Watch Tower adherents.65 While undoubtedly inflated to justify blaming the 1935 strikes on Watch Tower, this figure suggests that the Watch Tower message was received by a broad spectrum of miners. For along with being anti-white and anti-colonial, Watch Tower opposed the uneven distribution of wealth in colonial society and proved an important institutional framework for miners critical of the colonial system.
The church groups in the compounds also encouraged acceptance of a western style of life. They stressed living more like Europeans, encouraged learning English, and provided important leadership experience. The African Methodist Episcopal Church, with its South African black leadership and its black American origin, was the most outspoken advocate of racial equality.66 However, all the churches, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church, expected African equality to emerge slowly under the guidance of benevolent Europeans and “properly enlightened” Africans. Many churches were linked to ethnic groups, which undermined their ability to facilitate worker solidarity as well.
Thus, although miners cooperated both informally and formally before the 1935 strike, their collective life never included the entire work force. None of these organizations advocated unified worker action. Watch Tower, although it did “generate ideas of confrontation and a vocabulary of protest”67 and an institutional framework for organizing anti-colonial protest, never articulated a proletarian movement in the conventional sense of the term. Conflict was predicted along racial rather than class lines. Nor did Mbeni appeal to the entire work force. Church groups spoke vaguely of the brotherhood of man, but the racial segregation in the churches undermined the practical application of this ideology.
WHY COLLECTIVE LABOR ACTION IN 1935?
Given the lack of either an ideology or institutions based on worker unity before the Depression, we are left with the task of explaining why and how a Copperbelt-wide strike was mounted by the African miners in 1935. What was it about 1935 that caused the miners to protest for the first time on a large scale, how was the cooperation achieved, and what did the strike indicate about the level of class consciousness and action among the black mine workers?
A number of structural factors certainly heightened the impact of the 1935 tax increase, the most important being the growing dependence of mineworkers on wage labor in an increasingly unfavorable labor market. Opportunities for Africans to earn money in agriculture were being strangled by government protection for European farmers. Tax, land, and labor policies pushed Africans into the wage labor market just when the Depression had created a labor surplus on the Copperbelt. The mining companies now had the upper hand in the labor market and more control over labor. Inefficient or uncooperative workers were simply discharged. Those workers who kept their jobs were increasingly committed to wage labor, particularly longer service miners, many of whom expected to remain on the Copperbelt until retirement or longer. As a Bemba Chief told the Commission, “Many people on the mines had no intention of returning home, and the number of people who are staying here for longer periods is increasing.”68 The women were particularly reluctant to return to the village. “They have a much better time at the mines.”69
The stabilized miners had come to expect a certain standard of living which was increasingly difficult to attain. They set the pattern for “proper behavior” for all ambitious workers. Indeed, Spearpoint noticed that “natives spend most of their money on purchasing clothing and luxuries in the way of foodstuffs. The men buy a decent suit, hat, and shoes and for their women they buy whatever they can. They hold tea-parties for their friends.”70 Such luxuries became necessities if men were to maintain respect and attract desirable women in the compounds. As a result, miners’ small salaries were constantly stretched to the limit, and many workers were in debt. In 1935, a welfare officer at Luanshya reported that “there are few natives in Luanshya who are not in debt.”71 And it looked like conditions would not improve in the foreseeable future.
By the mid-1930s, a crisis of expectations had developed which was only worsened by the recognition that wage reductions made during the Depression had never been reinstated. Meanwhile the cost of desired goods continued to rise. Every visit to the fully-stocked shops in the townships heightened awareness of the miners’ reduced spending power, causing even more rancor. This was all the more difficult to accept when the African miners compared themselves to their more affluent European colleagues. Indeed, the Inspector of Police at Ndola believed this “universal envy of Europeans” would have led to disturbances “if not now, later.”72
Widespread dissatisfaction among the miners was further aggravated by dramatic cuts in the mine work force in April 1935, due to production restriction. Roan was the hardest hit. Between April and June of 1935, its labor force fell by one-third. The other mines continued their construction programs although even they were cutting back inefficient workers.73 When the new tax increase for urban dwellers was announced in early May, miners were already feeling the press of hard times. The tax added yet another burden. In a time of minimal job security, the levy aggravated an already volatile situation and led those most severely affected into a desperate strike for higher wages.74
This explanation is sufficient if one accepts the 1935 strike as a spontaneous upheaval or riot. However, although objective economic circumstances can explain the miners’ strong reaction to the new tax, they cannot, by themselves, explain how this reaction developed into an organized strike. For this we must look at the class struggle in Northern Rhodesia in this period. As we have seen, no compound organizations embraced the entire black work force, nor had there ever been a large strike. Before the Depression, African miners had improved their position through individual action. But this form of labor protest lost its effectiveness in a declining world economy, and workers had to negotiate within the industrial system, or leave it altogether. Limited collective action became one of the few means of protesting conditions for those miners unwilling to leave employment. Small groups of workers downed tools to dramatize their complaints, refusing to work until a particular problem had been solved. In order to maintain production, management generally tried to straighten out disagreements with limited concessions if they involved scarce experienced mineworkers.75 Thus, growing dependence on wage-labor in an increasingly competitive labor market drove workers towards limited collective action.
However, a number of factors stymied the development of more broadly-based labor action. The concept of collective action, such as a strike, was still foreign to most miners. Only a few workers who had been employed in Southern Rhodesia or South Africa had ever been involved in a large work stoppage, most notably the 1927 Shamva Strike in Southern Rhodesia. Some of the clerks and underground workers also learned about strikes from their European supervisors, and they brought some knowledge of strike action to the mines. It is not surprising that one of the few abortive strikes on the Copperbelt was organized in 1933 by Henry Chibangwa, a miner who had been in the Shamva Strike and was a member of Watch Tower.76 Thus, although some black miners had strike experience, for most miners the strike was still an unfamiliar weapon.
Management did everything it could to discourage collective labor action as well. The increased commitment of African workers to wage labor, and the large pool of surplus labor, allowed management to dismiss dissidents. Nkana managers deliberately hired young workers because they were more amenable to discipline. Management also discouraged collective protest by refusing to meet with groups of workers. Instead, they dealt with individuals only, claiming that it was necessary to maintain control in the compounds.77 Spearpoint supposedly allowed workers to protest through their tribal representatives, but such protests were strictly confined to domestic matters. On all the mines, workers were denied an institutional framework through which they could present group protests, and individual protestations were blocked by the threat of dismissal. As much as possible, the mines closed legitimate avenues for worker unity.
Public policy did little to encourage worker solidarity and collective labor action among the black miners. The government emphasized traditional ties among Africans. Urban residence was permitted solely for the purpose of wage labor, and African workers were treated as members of an ethnic group first and as workers last. All problems were referred eventually to traditional leaders. Although the district commissioners were supposed to help Africans, in fact they had limited access to the mine compounds, and left discipline primarily to the compound managers.
Considering the pressures on miners not to engage in collective labor action, and the insecurity of the labor market, how does one explain the 1935 strike? One would expect a tendency to persevere except under the most extreme provocation. Indeed, this is what happened at the mines until 1935. In order to explain how this stoicism was transformed into at least a sporadically organized strike, we need to discover the mechanisms that brought the workers together, despite the absence of both a well-articulated ideology of worker solidarity and collective action, and institutions based on that ideology. The strike overcame this formidable barrier. The question is: how?
As we have seen, the answer lies largely in the nature of the compound, the common experiences of workers, and the leadership of the relatively skilled, longer service workers. It should be recalled that the compounds housed all African workers, which encouraged bonds of mutuality. The compactness of the compounds enabled information to spread rapidly and easily throughout the work force. Meetings in the compounds could be arranged quickly through word of mouth. Strike leaders were able to spread strike information through whatever groups they identified with, be they ethnic, religious, or any other type. According to witnesses, such meetings, as well as small informal meetings among neighbors and friends, were common during the strike. Larger meetings at the compound football fields enabled the strike leaders to bring all the workers together to organize strike action.78
Organizers planted followers at strategic routes in order to funnel as many people as possible into the large meetings. Indeed, when Muwamba arrived at Luanshya, he was directed to the meeting at the football field, despite being a complete stranger. Posters were put up all over the compounds for those who could read. The compound not only assisted the spread of strike information, it made it easy to identify and coerce those unwilling to strike. It thereby assisted the organizers in creating identification and loyalty among workers, and also made anyone not a part of this group automatically an outcast. It helped momentarily crystallize worker consciousness and a sense of commonality not ordinarily felt by most miners. Because the compound was the one institution based on the African work force as a whole, it became the means by which certain militants organized a mass strike.
Rather than dismiss the role of the Nyasa clerks as mere “slogan-writers and advisors,”79 it seems they were the essential ingredient in the strikes. Both A. T. Williams (District Commissioner, Nkana) and Scrivener blamed the Nkana disturbances on the Nyasa clerks. Reverend Moore claimed that “the Mufulira clerks wanted a wage hike, and used the tax to make a row.” Then, “the Mufulira clerks wrote the Nkana clerks telling them to strike.”80 These elite workers, the clerks, the capitaō, a few mine policemen at Mufulira, and the more skilled underground miners supplied not only the communication and organizational skills necessary for coordinating the strike, but also a sense of solidarity needed to pull together the many disparate groups in the work force.
These miners had worked on the mines for longer periods, were accustomed to urban life, and many planned to remain on the mines for the forseeable future. More than any other miners, they were able to see beyond ethnic divisions to a future based upon participation in the colonial economy. Although not conscious of themselves as a class in opposition to other classes, they had a growing sense of pride and group identification. They envisioned their future, and their children’s future, within the new colonial structure. “They wanted their children to get more education, so they could have a better future.”81 Because of this commitment, such workers were able to identify with each other as fellow workers, rather than as members of a particular ethnic group. As one informant recalled, “The educated people, they were all together. They understand things, and they were not happy.”82 It was this class feeling which provided the rhetoric of worker unity necessary for a successful strike.
Corporate labor policies unwittingly motivated the stabilized miners to extend this class feeling to the work force as a whole. In 1935, no opportunities existed for the more experienced miners to improve their standard of living. Compound administrations deliberately minimized divisions within the compounds. Because of both factors, the more ambitious workers could not separate their well-being from the mass. When the tax increase eroded their already meager financial status, they could not successfully fight for changes by themselves. Large-scale labor protest could only occur if they joined forces with the rest of the miners. As Chisata recalled, “In my view, they [the elite miners] realized that if they united [with other miners] they could be much stronger.” Indeed, Scrivener perceived this when he told the Commission that the Nkana strike was the result of “a band of avaricious clerks and fairly well educated people, who expected that if rises in wages were obtained they would also benefit.” Similarly at Mufulira, Moffat concluded that a few mine police and a certain number of clerks organized the strike.83 Thus corporate labor strategy left the elite miners no choice but collective action; no other avenue promised to improve their position on the mines.
The stabilized miners used their prestige in the compounds and their leadership in compound organizations to obtain the cooperation of the rest of the miners. They had a disproportionate influence in the compounds. According to Spearpoint, “These are the natives who will, and in fact are, molding the minds of their less coherent fellow tribesmen in the industrial areas.”84 They led various “tribal dance societies,” welfare activities, and religious groups, and used their leadership positions, particularly in Mbeni and Watch Tower organizations, to spread information about the strike and mobilize support. Such organizations became important mechanisms for forging a consensus on tactics. However, neither Mbeni, Watch Tower, nor any other compound organizations provided an ideology of worker solidarity or a mechanism for organizing the entire work force. Watch Tower encouraged rebellion against authority, but this rebellion was not framed solely around worker interests. The Mbeni “were used . . . as a sort of agent, acting on instructions, and somewhat reluctantly.”85 Both organizations were used by strike leaders to mobilize support, but ethnic groups and informal and formal meetings in the compounds were equally important. The stabilized miners’ determination to use compound organizations for strike mobilization explains the effectiveness of the miners, not the organizations themselves.
The behavior of the strikers at the different mines also suggests the more skilled stabilized workers were the key ingredient in the strikes. If the strikes merely reflected a dislike of mine conditions, then Mufulira, with its harsh compound administrators, or Nkana, with its inferior compound conditions, should have had the most serious episodes. If the percentage of Bemba were the critical factor, Mufulira, with its 80% Bemba work force, should have had the best organized strike. On the other hand, if stabilization were the key, then Roan with its higher percentage of stabilized workers should have been the site of the most militant strike.86 This is indeed what happened. Roan strikers were more unified, more hostile to non-strikers, and more persistent in their demands. Even after the shooting on the 29th, Luanshya miners remained militant. “The mine compound was quiet; but pickets of strikers were placed on the gates to prevent natives from going to work. The natives appeared to be quiet and happy: but they said they were still on strike.” At an afternoon meeting on the 30th, they repeated their demands “for the mines to give the natives more wages.”87 Some of this tenacity has rightly been explained by the economic insecurities accompanying cutbacks in the Roan work force. However, the evidence suggests that the stabilized miners at Roan were the more crucial factor. These miners were not only more dependent upon wage labor, many of them understood the need for collective labor action. The organization of the Roan strike reflected the greater understanding and commitment of the stabilized miners. Most miners cooperated with little coercion, and successfully cowed those few who would not go along. The call for worker solidarity seems to have hit a much deeper chord at Roan, which, I believe, is best explained by the higher percentage of stabilized miners at that time. The budding consciousness and organizational capacity of these miners, although still fragile and uneven, provided the cohesiveness and determination for the Luanshya strike.
In conclusion, the mining companies and the colonial state inadvertently provided the ingredients necessary for collective labor action on the Copperbelt in 1935. Experiences in the mines and the mine compounds facilitated the development of a sense of identity and exploitation among the black miners. Initially the balance of market forces permitted workers to resist as individuals, but the global Depression and state support for settler agriculture reduced the effectiveness of such measures, and encouraged collective action. Although structural migrancy inhibited this process, corporate labor policies, the Copperbelt compound system, and the production process intensified the impact of industrial labor even on migrant workers. This was particularly true for the more proletarianized miners who had more opportunities to develop a collective identity, and a greater understanding of and need to organize. The more proletarianized miners, and indeed most miners, surmounted the limitations of structural migrancy during the 1935 strike. Thus, historical circumstances on the Copperbelt permitted the development of a degree of worker consciousness and collective action not predictable in purely structural terms.
Clearly, despite the limitations of migrant labor, participation in the industrial process had already changed the attitudes and behavior of many Africans involved. The 1935 strike proved conclusively that African miners under the leadership of the more proletarianized workers could overcome ethnic and occupational divisions in order to support their common self-interest. Now that the miners had stopped production once, a precedent of collective labor protest existed on the Copperbelt that could be used in the future. A small number of workers had already demonstrated they could temporarily arouse the less articulate miners to collective action. No worker institutions had been formed. And yet, the potential for worker organization was now a certainty. The question was not whether African miners could organize, but rather, when and how they would do so in the future.