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The New International, Winter 1957

A. Giacometti

The Labor Movement in Tropical Africa – II

The Status of the Trade Union Movement


From The New International, Vol. XXIII No. 1, Winter 1957, pp. 46–62.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The analysis of the trade union movement in tropical Africa is the second in a series dealing with the problems of the working class movement in that area. (The last article appeared in the Summer 1956 issue.) The concluding article, concerned with the economic and social problems in tropical Africa, will appear in the next issue.

* * *

THE EXAMPLE OF CHINA in 1927 and of Russia in 1917 shows that even a numerically weak working-class can play a decisive social and political role. Its ability to do so depends on the extent to which it has become conscious of forming an independent community of action, with its own historic aims that require specific political and social tasks.

The history of African trade-unionism, the elementary form of class-consciousness, will tell us to what extent this process is advanced in Africa.

Trade-unionism made its first appearance on the African continent in 1881, the founding date of the South African Branch of the Amalgamated Carpenters’ and Joiners’ Union, with two locals, one in Durban and one in Capetown. [36] This union, as well as the South African Typographical Union which was founded next, in 1888, were practically British unions. So was the “Knights of Labor” an organization probably founded by miners who had worked in the United States, and who called a strike at Kimberley in 1884. British workers dominated the labor movement in South Africa for a long time, until the Rand strikes of 1907 and especially the strikes of 1913–1914, in mining and railroads, in which workers of Afrikaaner origin played for the first time an outstanding role.

At the end of the first world war, a new strike wave took place under socialist leadership. In 1919 a power and streetcar strike was called in Johannesburg, in the course of which the workers started operating the streetcar service themselves, under a Board of Control which they had set up for this purpose. This strike ended in a complete victory. A month later, municipal workers in Durban took control of city offices and started to run the services. The Town Council of Durban immediately came to terms and the demands of the workers were met.

This period of struggle culminated in the Rand strike of 1922, which represents a sort of turning point in South African labor history. Its cause was a wage cut by the mining companies and the replacement of 5,000 European workers by African workers at one tenth of the pay. On January 1922, 30,000 European workers went on strike. The government immediately proceeded to mobilize troops. On March 10 fighting broke out, and lasted for nearly a week. Tens of thousands of troops were mobilized, and Fordsburg, a working class district, was shelled by heavy artillery. After the repression, 18 strike leaders were sentenced to death, and four were actually executed.

The strike failed, mainly because it was not extended to other industries, because the African workers were not involved in it and because no attempt was made to mobilize popular support. Its failure was “disastrous for the future development of trade-unionism in South Africa. The best men were either lost in the struggle or black-listed out of employment.” [37]

After 1922, the European labor movement became increasingly flabby as a whole, and particularly in its key sectors: mining, railways and steel. The miners’ union eventually became saddled with a corrupt and ineffectual leadership, which greatly facilitated its capture by the Nationalist Party in 1947. The railway unions, which had played a leading role in the labor movement of the early 1920’s, declined into insignificance. The Iron and Steel Workers’ Union was also captured by the Nationalists. The unions in the secondary industries, on the other hand, retained a great deal of militancy, but they remained a minority. As a whole, the European labor movement would revise its attitude and its tactics towards class-collaboration, in the face of a rising labor movement among the African workers.

AS IN ASIA, THE FIRST stirrings of African trade-unionism in South Africa were a sequel of the first world war, which had favored the development of an industry employing a relatively stable African labor force. The first African labor union appeared in 1919: the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU). Although it had no color bar in its constitution, it was mainly composed of African workers. It was not only a trade-union, but also a general protest movement of Africans, and included from the start many people who were not wage-earners. In this, it showed a characteristic which is typical of African trade- unionism in general: the linking of economic and political demands, which is inevitable in a society where economic and political oppression is so closely intertwined. In spite of strongest government opposition, the ICU rapidly became a powerful mass organization. By 1925, it had branches in almost every part of South Africa, and was sending out organizers to Southern Rhodesia – which were turned back at the border. Proper records of membership were never kept, but its membership was estimated at about fifty thousand at its peak.

The ICU was a forerunner of African trade-unionism also in its weaknesses. From the start, it suffered from fatal flaws in its organization. It was a loose and sprawling movement of protest, fighting against all forms of oppression, half union, half party. Its leadership did not have the necessary experience to cope with the complicated tasks such a body had to face. There were no properly elected organs or executive officers, no clear program, no control of the finances – this in a large, composite movement fighting on many fronts where a firm organization would have been most needed. In 1926 it split; expulsions were followed by resignations, counter-organizations were set up. By 1931 the ICU was practically dead.

As a result of an ICU split, the South African Federation of Non-European Workers was set up in Johannesburg. It mainly organized workers engaged in secondary industries (laundries, clothing, furniture making, etc.). At its peak, it had 12 unions with altogether 3,000 members, and looked like it might succeed the ICU as the leading organization of African labor. However, as the result of factional fighting, it collapsed soon afterwards.

Simultaneously with the rise of the ICU, labor organizations had begun to penetrate among the African miners on the Rand. In February 1920, 71,000 unorganized African miners went on a spontaneous but very well organized strike, which lasted about a week and was crushed by police terror and persecution. Several workers were shot.

Today over 50 African trade unions exist in secondary industries and in commerce. Only a few of them function properly, and they are making little headway, forced as they are to live under conditions of semi-legality, constantly harassed by the government and prevented by law from functioning as real unions. During and immediately after the war, non-Europeans joined trade-unions in great numbers: 200,000 approximately between 1940 and 1945. After 1945, non-European unions declined. [38]

African men cannot by law be members of registered trade unions, but have their own separate unions, which have practically no rights of collective bargaining and are prohibited from striking under a penalty of three years imprisonment and a fine of £500. By a curious oversight in the law, African women were not included in these repressive regulations, and were able to join registered trade-unions, particularly in the clothing industry. In 1950, 75,000 Colored, Indians and African women were members of registered trade-unions, affiliated to the South African Trades and Labor Council (SAT&LC). Twenty per cent of the membership of the SAT&LC was non-European at that time; the Western Provinces Council of Labor Unions (WPCLU), a smaller local group, was composed of Colored workers in a proportion of 80 per cent. [39]

The position of non-European workers in predominantly European unions was described by E.S. Sachs as follows:

Some (European) unions have organized native workers engaged in the same industry in separate sections, and there is some form of co-operation. There are also a number of independent native unions some of which are affiliated to the SAT&LC, but which have little or no voice in that body.

In 1949 there existed a Council of Non-European Trade Unions, which was affiliated to the WFTU. (The SAT&LC never affiliated to either WFTU or ICFTU as it would have split the federation down the middle.)

The last major strike of African workers occurred on the Rand in 1946: sixty thousand miners struck for the recognition of their union (the African Mineworkers’ Union, affiliated to the CN-ETU) and for a wage raise to 10 shillings a day. According to official figures, 10 strikers were killed in the repression, and several hundred were wounded.

There has been no sign of trade-union activity among the one million African agricultural workers, except in Natal, where the Industrial Conciliation Act of 1937 prohibits unions for plantation workers.

IT IS A WELL-KNOWN TRAGEDY of the South African labor movement that, from the beginning, the bulk of European trade-unions refused to assist the attempts of the non-European workers to organize themselves.

The consequences of this policy on the part of the European labor unions have been ruinous for the labor movement as a whole – not only today, as the unions of both races are being wiped out separately, but since the earliest manifestations of this policy.

In the Rand strike of 1920, the African miners, far from receiving any support from the trade-unions, had to face the open hostility and the scabbing of the European mineworkers. “Two years later, the European mineworkers paid dearly for their stupid and backward policy, for when they came out on strike the Native workers remained at work and, with the help of mine officials, carried on mining operations.” [40] This was the first of a succession of defeats which the European trade-unions suffered as a consequence of their policy.

When the ICU appeared, the majority of European unions remained hostile and refused to take it seriously. When it grew in strength and influence, the European SAT&LC was forced to take notice of it but, in spite of a series of pious declarations, it never accepted cooperation with it on a basis of equality. The rapid decline of the ICU, caused in part by the hostile attitude of the European unions, relieved the latter of the bothersome necessity of taking a clear position on the matter and of the obligation to help build a strong African labor movement that might have helped them to survive.

Under the pressure of the Nationalist government, the divided trade-union movement has been disintegrating at a frightening rate.

By 1952, the South African trade-union movement was widely split:

  1. the South African Trade and Labor Council, then the most representative of all trade-union bodies, including at one extreme unions that support “apartheid” policies and at the other end unions that reject all forms of segregation;
  2. the South African Co-ordinating Council of Trade Unions, a fascist body controlled by the Nationalist Party, which includes the Mine Workers’ Union and the Iron and Steel Workers (21,000 members in 1955);
  3. the Western Provinces Council of Labor Unions, an independent body confined to the Cape Province. There does not seem to have been any good reason for its separate existence from the SAT&LC;
  4. a group of independent unions which left the SAT&LC on the “color bar” issue but did not join the SACCTU. Today, an equivalent body exists which is called the South African Federation of Trade-Unions (45,000 members in 1955);
  5. other independents, such as the railway unions which play a small role (73,000 members in 1955).

In 1954, the SAT&LC was dissolved, after having lost strength steadily, and was replaced by the S.A. Trade Union Council (SATUC) (149,000 members in 1955). The new body announced its intention to “focus opposition to the government’s Industrial Conciliation Bill” which aimed at splitting the unions along racial lines. However, it also expressed its willingness to accept the principle of “apartheid,” even in its own ranks, choosing a “lesser evil” policy and robbing itself of the only effective political basis from which to counter government attacks.

In February 1955, the government passed the Industrial Conciliation Act against strong protest from the trade-union movement. The new bill splits the unions and forces those that are affiliated to the S.A. Labor Party to disaffiliate (mainly the Garment Workers and the Engineering Workers). [41]

Thus, due to the chauvinistic and short-sighted policy of the majority of European trade-unions, the labor movement in South Africa – and in Southern Rhodesia – finds itself disarmed and routed by the most dangerous form of reaction that has yet appeared on the African continent.

For the sake of the future of the South African labor movement, it must be recorded that a minority among the European workers has always supported the African trade-unions.

In 1915 the International Socialist League, a small revolutionary socialist group which had left the S.A. Labor Party on the war question, for the first time explained the basic principles of trade-unionism to the African workers in their own language. Later, this tradition of internationalism and working class solidarity was continued by the Communist Party, the Trotskyist movement and certain tendencies of the S.A.L.P. When the ICU was founded, W.H. Andrews, a founder of the ISL and later of the CPSA, tried to help with material assistance, and in so doing faced attacks from the European trade-union leaders.

The Garment Workers’ Union (18,500 members in 1953) which is predominantly composed of Afrikaans-speaking women, consistently showed great militancy and true socialist spirit on this question as on others. It practiced no segregation in its locals, and in recent years helped to organize the South African Clothing Workers’ Union, a union predominantly composed of African men who, as we have seen, are legally prevented from joining any European body. Unfortunately, unions such as the Garment Workers’ have remained a small minority within the European trade-union movement.

In the other countries of Tropical Africa, trade-unionism was slow in developing before World War II. European trade unionism became important only in Rhodesia – nowhere else were there European workers in sufficient numbers to form the basis of a significant trade-union movement. African unions were inhibited by the same obstacles that confronted similar attempts in South Africa: an unstable, migratory labor force; fierce opposition from authorities and employees; lack of experience in organizational skills.

The first African union appears to have been the railway workers’ union in Sierra Leone [42], which was founded in 1917 and called a strike in Freetown in 1919. [1*]

This is all we hear for ten years or so. During the early 1930’s we know of a few trade-union nuclei in Sierra Leone in Gambia in Nigeria. In Northern Rhodesia the African miners struck in 1935 against an increase in the poll tax – characteristically a political demand. Five were killed in the course of the repression. [44] In 1940 the African miners struck again; this time 17 were killed and 65 wounded. In this manner the striking workers were forced back to work after a few days.

In 1932 the Trades and Labor Journal of South Africa reported that a Southern Rhodesia Trades & Labor Council had been formed following the example of the SAT&LC – almost certainly an exclusively European body.

In Madagascar, the French CGT (then a reformist union led by Jouhaux) founded locals for both French and Malagasy workers in 1937, most of whom were directly affiliated to French industrial federations. The first federation to be formed was the federation of civil servants.

In 1938 the CFTC followed suit by organizing the Union des Syndicats Chretiens de Madagascar, a conservative body very much under the control of the Catholic Church and harmless to anyone save its followers. The administration supported its organizing campaigns to oppose the advance of the CGT: by 1939 the CFTC claimed 13,200 members, of which 10,500 were agricultural workers, while the CGT claimed 997, of which 300 were civil servants. [45]

These feeble attempts at organization received a tremendous impetus during and immediately after the Second World War. Trade-unions developed throughout the continent. The intensification of production and of exploitation, drawing thousands of workers into wage employment, the weakening of the colonial powers, all created the conditions for an upsurge of the labor and nationalist movement which, in many cases, was one and the same. For many Africans, the war and the army acted as a school:

In World War II African troops have fought in the Middle East, Madagascar, Italian East Africa, Ceylon and Burma. The war has given new opportunities and experiences to these Africans. About 12,000 Africans from Kenya alone have learned to operate motor vehicles. The East African Army Education Corps has produced about 500 Africans trained as teachers, information officers, welfare workers, interpreters, and a Swahili paper called Askari with a weekly circulation of 8,000. Tens of thousands of soldiers have advanced further during five years of war than would have been possible in two decades of peace. [46]

In Uganda, the first nationalist mass movement was born out of a continuation of political and economic demands raised by Africans who had participated in the war.

“It occurred in 1945, immediately after the war, and it is known as ‘Number Eight’, so named after Montgomery’s Eighth Army in which many Africans had served. It involved ex- servicemen and it aimed at higher wages, higher prices for agricultural produce and – for the first time – for the participation of African-elected representatives in the central and local governments of the country. After all, the war had been fought in the interests of democracy! It was spontaneous and it aimed at achieving its ends by a general strike and the refusal to sell anything to non-Africans. All roads leading to urban centers were blocked by pickets, to prevent anybody from going to work or from smuggling food to the town dwellers. Its success was enormous, and the government retorted by calling in the troops to shoot down the pickets and terrorize the general population. Many Africans lost their lives – the number is unknown to the present day – and the “ring leaders” were, naturally, deported.

“But ‘Number Eight’ did achieve solid results. Wages were increased, as was the price paid to cotton growers. At the same time Africans were, for the first time, given the right to have some form of elected representation in local governments and the rudiments of direct, though hand-picked, representation in the central government.” [47]

A political consequence of the strike was the formation of the Bataka Party, a locally limited nationalist group. In 1949 a Farmers’ Union was formed, which simultaneously initiated a struggle for more representation in the African Parliament (where most representatives had been nominated by the governments), against the British government’s plans to federate the three East African territories and against the monopoly of Asian and European cotton ginners and exporters. The government broke off negotiations and suppressed the Bataka Party and the Farmers’ Union. At the same time, it dissolved the General Transport Workers’ Union of Uganda, since most of its leaders had been involved in the political campaign. This reaction only lead to increased political consciousness and activity: in 1952 the Uganda National Congress was formed, the first nationalist organization covering all three provinces of Uganda.

In Kenya, an East African Trade Union Council was formed in 1949. In May 1949 it claimed 5,000 members which had become 10,000 by December. In 1950 the government suppressed it [48]; in 1951 the Registered Trade Union Federation of Kenya was founded under the leadership of Tom Mboya, and affiliated to the ICFTU. The campaign against the Mau-Mau has, of course, also been used as a club against the trade-union movement, but without success so far. Of the 13 unions in existence in Kenya in 1952, 5 were African, 3 Asian, 2 African and Asian, and 3 European – the three European unions however, totalled 17 members!

In Uganda, there were at the same time one Asian and 2 African unions.

In Tanganyika, there was “only one significant union” in 1947: the longshoremen’s union of Dar-es-Salaam. In 1949 there were 7 registered unions, of which 5 were African. In 1951, there was only one left, the Asian union. However, the government reported 73 strikes in its annual report to the UN Trusteeship Council, involving a total of 7,851 workers. By 1953, there were 6 unions in existence, of which the largest was the Kilimandjaro Drivers’ Association with 421 members. At the time of this writing, these unions are about to form a Tanganyika Federation of Labor.

Here is the picture for British East Africa:



Number of




% of Total
















In West Africa under British rule, the trade-union movement has a longer history and succeeded in establishing itself more solidly earlier.

In Nigeria the Railway Workers’ Union is the oldest, and registered in 1939 under the Trade Union Ordinance. During the war unions grew rapidly, and in 1943, 200 representatives of 56 unions met in Lagos to form the Trade Union Council of Nigeria. After the war, two major strikes gave the trade union movement even greater momentum: the general strike of 1945, which started at Lagos, then spread to the railways, the plantation workers and the commercial workers; then, in 1949, the strike in the Enugu coal mines, which was brutally suppressed by the police, several workers being killed. The issue in this strike had been higher wages and better housing conditions.

More recently, 40,000 tin miners struck for higher wages in November 1955, and in January 1956 40,000 building trades workers also struck for better pay.

The largest unions in Nigeria are those of the railwaymen, coalminers, construction workers and teachers. Several unions are not affiliated to the TUC.

In the Gold Coast, a Trade Union Congress was founded in 1943. At the end of 1949 and in early 1950 the trade-unions called a general strike in support of the Convention People’s Party, which was prosecuting its campaign of non-co-operation against the British rule. A buyers’ strike took place at the same time. As a result of the strike, several leaders were imprisoned and thousands of workers were fired from their jobs and blacklisted. Today, the GCTUC has approximately 84,000 members in over 60 unions. At the date of this writing, 35,000 mineworkers have been out on strike for the past three months for a 15 per cent wage increase.

The following table shows the development of the trade-union movement in British West Africa:



No. of Unions





















Gold Coast




60 (’55)




84,000 (’55)






140 (’51)




152,269 (’51)


Sierra Leone














3 (’52)






Cameroons (B)




6 (’52)




42,300 (’53)


Togoland (B)


*Percentage of wage earners in 1952

In West Africa under French rule [2*], the CGT and the CFTC had begun to organize even before the Second World War, but only among European workers. The real growth of the trade-union movement occurred after 1944 when, as a by-product of the Liberation, freedom to organize trade-unions was granted to the natives of colonial territories. Here as elsewhere, the trade-unions were soon linked to nationalist demands.

In Upper Volta, for instance, unions arose in 1946 under the stimulus of the new nationalist party Rassemblement Democratique African (RDA); in the beginning the party and the unions had become a common office and a common leading personnel. In the Ivory Coast, an Agricultural Workers’ Union was founded in 1946 which became the basis for the RDA in this region. Acting together, the union and the party abolished forced labor in French West Africa – only then as far as the law was concerned.

The bastion of trade-unionism in French West Africa is Senegal, with its urban center Dakar – Rufisque. The majority of union members used to belong to the CGT; next came the powerful independent Federation of African Railwaymen, with 15,000 members. CFTC, in contrast to Madagascar, is a militant union which has engaged in struggles alongside of the other unions and has had to meet the same obstacles. FO does not count. In French West Africa as a whole, the ratio of trade-union members to the total number of wage-earners was 28.1 per cent in 1948, 30.6 per cent in 1950 and 26.4 per cent in 1952. The total number of trade-union members was 115,300 in 1953. The following shows the strength of each federation in 1948:










In the French Cameroons, the relations between the strength of the various federations was as follows in 1954:



No. of Unions



USAC (Auton.)












The USCC is closely co-operating with the Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC), a Stalinist-influenced nationalist party that was recently suppressed by the administration. Politically, this party could be compared to the early Progressive People’s Party of British Guiana.

In Togoland under French administration 35 unions existed in 1952 with a total membership of 4,425, mostly affiliated to the CGT, with a minority following CFTC.

The trade union movement in French West Africa has recently emerged from a major battle, which it conducted with admirable tenacity and discipline. The issue at stake was the application of the Labor Code of 1947.

The Labor Code is an attempt to bring hours, wages and working conditions in the African territories into closer correspondence with conditions in France; it is the work of liberal and social-democratic legislators, and was supported by the RDA, the SP, the CP and those members of the MRP who also belong to the CFTC. Its main provision is the 40-hour week with 48 hours’ pay, that is the law was supposed to bring about automatically a 20 per cent raise in the hourly wage rates without changing the weekly pay-check.

Understandably enough, the law met with determined opposition from the colonialist circles and their political friends in the Assembly; as a result, the discussion of the bill was dragged out from 1947, when the first bill was presented, to 1952.

In 1952, the West African CGT, CFTC and the independent Railwaymen decided to open a campaign of agitation to bring pressure on the Assembly which culminated in a 24-hour general strike on November 3. FO associated itself to the strike at the last moment; it was practically 100 per cent effective in Senegal, Sudan, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Dahomey and Upper Volta. There had never been before in the history of African trade unionism a strike that had been as effective over such a large territory. On November 22, as a direct consequence of the strike, the Assembly passed the bill which became law on December 16.

The main battle, however, remained to be fought, for the employers, backed by the local administrations, took advantage of an unclear formulation in the text to pay 40 hours at the old hourly rates, thereby cutting the wages in reality. By June 1953 the four trade-union federations (CGT, CFTC, Autonomous and FO) raised three demands in a campaign to enforce the application of the law in the spirit in which it had been framed:

  1. a 20 per cent raise in minimum wages;
  2. a further revision of the minimum wages in proportion to an increase in the cost of living;
  3. application of all provisions of the Code.

These demands were followed up by a series of strikes. The postal workers struck first on June 24 and July 6 and 7 in all of French West Africa. They were followed by the workers of Dakar who called a 48-hour strike on July 16 and 17, and the railwaymen in Niger Colony (July 27). Then: a general strike in Sudan from August 3 to August 10; a general strike in Niger Colony from August 3 to August 5; a general strike of civil servants against racial discrimination in the public services (August 10); a strike in the Cameroons from August 10 to August 11; finally, a general strike in Guinea, the most important of all, which lasted two months, from September 21 to November 25, and which was supported by the African peasants who fed the strikers.

On October 13, a 24-hour strike was called again in Senegal and in Mauritania, followed by a general strike on November 3, which lasted till November 5.

During these strikes, 8 leading trade-unionists were imprisoned, several strikers were wounded by the police in Senegal and in Guinea, and one striker was killed in Guinea.

However, on November 27, the French government sent instructions to all local administrations in the colonies to see that the principle of a 20 per cent wage raise and of the 40-hour week should be applied everywhere. [49]

The strike in Guinea was no doubt the longest that had ever been conducted in Africa. The planning and organization of the strikes, the cooperation of the various federations, the prosecution of the strikes for almost five months over a huge territory, all these elements were new. Even if the strikes had not been successful, the labor movement would have emerged from them with much greater authority and prestige.

It is clear that in Africa an action of this type, on such a large scale, is not without political implications. Some of these were brought out in Le Prolétaire, the organ of the CGT in Dakar, which wrote:

“We tell the administration calmly but firmly that, if it does not revise its position, we shall ignore it and raise demands other than economic and social. Since the African trade-unions have the support of all social classes, they shall call a Conference at which all, unanimously, shall demand a revision of the ties that bind them to the French Union.” [50]

A French army general wrote substantially the same thing, but viewed from the other side of the fence, from the administrative point of view:

“Trade-unionism (in French Africa) has reached maturity, has become conscious of its strength and has established a union which politics and religion have been unable to achieve. It is in a position to conduct an action which we can slow down only with difficulty, as there is no political or administrative system capable of counter-balancing it. Its tone and its means are well known – it talks and acts as if it represented the whole country, while in fact it is the mouthpiece of a rather weak minority – less than 2 per cent of the population – compared to the peasant mass in the countryside, which represents the real wealth of these territories but remains inert and motionless.” [51]

The agitation for the application of the Labor Code had not spread to French Equatorial Africa, where the economy is less developed and has remained largely rural. Its only major urban center, Brazzaville, on the French side of the Stanley Pool across from Leopoldville, is the center of trade-union activity. In 1949, there were three significant unions in Brazzaville: the Building Trades, Wood and Iron Workers’ Union (1,100 members) and the African Staff Association of the Ubangi-Congo Railway (250 members), both affiliated to FO; thirdly, the independent Office Workers’ Union of Brazzaville. The civil servants also set up a union which is affiliated to CFTC. Since 1944, trade-unionism has also made notable progress among the peasants, who have formed Farmers’ Unions affiliated to CGT and CFTC. [52]

In Madagascar, the trade-union movement gathered strength very rap-idly after 1944, but was smashed by the administration in the bloody repression of the 1947 “rebellion,” which had been organized by police provocateurs. The nationalist party of the island, the “Mouvement Démocratique de Rénovation Malgache” was suppressed, 80,000 people were killed in the extermination campaign of General de Hautecloque, who later distinguished himself in a similar manner in Tunisia. The leaders of the MDRM were imprisoned and deported to Corsica after a fake trial. [3*]

Here is what happened to the tradeunion movement in that period:




















The “Union des Syndicats de Madagascar” (GT), which was connected with the MDRM, lost 50 per cent of its agricultural workers and 77 per cent of its civil-service members: dead, imprisoned, compelled, to resign from the union.

In 1944, 1,200 members out of the 6,213 of the USM were Europeans. Two thirds of the CFTC membership were agricultural workers, while 35 per cent of the USM membership were civil servants. The industrial workers only represented 7 per cent of the total trade-union membership, and these in turn represented 10 per cent of all industrial workers.

Here is the breakdown according to industrial branches for each of the two federations [53]:










Civil service





Peasants and agr. w.





Industrial workers





Artisans, shopkeepers, professional










And this is a survey of trade-union strength in French Africa as a whole:



No. of






% of Wage-

French West A.





French Eq. A.


           8,000 [4*]



Cameroons (F.)





Togoland (F.)










In Central Africa, we meet another powerful trade-union movement with a long tradition of struggle: the miners of the Rhodesia “copper belt.” As we have seen earlier, the African mineworkers had engaged in strikes already in 1935 and in 1940; at that time, however, they were prohibited from organizing trade-unions and their strikes were broken by police violence. The two main mining companies (Selection Trust and Anglo-American) combined with the colonists to oppose all attempts to legally authorize African unions. In 1940 only one European union existed in Northern Rhodesia. In 1947, however, as a by-product of the “enlightened colonialist” policy of Roy Welenski, Prime Minister of the Central African Federation and former president of the European Railroadworkers’ Union, African trade unions were allowed to exist legally. [54] The first union established was the African Shop Assistants’ Union (2,500 members); then, in 1949, the African Mineworkers’ Union, which affiliated to the WFTU. Within two years, the African General Workers’ Union, the African Railway Workers’ Union, the African Teachers’ Union and the African Hotel and Catering Workers’ Union were also registered. [55] In 1953, 8 African unions were in existence, with a total membership of 50,000. The number of European unions had risen to 5. In December 1954, the 8 African unions united to form the Trade Union Congress of Northern Rhodesia, elected N.D. Nkoloma as Secretary-General and affiliated to the ICFTU. [56] Their total membership had risen to 75,000. In Southern Rhodesia, the African unions had already formed a Trade Union Council in 1953.

In 1952 the African Mineworkers’ Union fought its first great strike, which ended in a victory for the AMU. [57] The demand of the union was for a wage increase of 2/6 a day for all African mine workers. [5*]

The strike lasted three weeks: from October 20 to November 10. Thirty- nine thousand African miners went on strike, 10,000 more than were members of the union. Discipline was maintained from the beginning to the end – there were no incidents, no violence. The union refrained from picketing in order not to give the slightest pretext for official provocation and repression. Nonetheless, there was no return to work. A Rhodesian paper, the Northern News, wrote on October 28:

... the course of the strike so far has demonstrated that the African union as a whole is amenable to discipline ... and that it can conduct a total strike in a peaceful and ordered manner.

In spite of scabbing by the European Mineworkers’ Union, which opposes African advancement into skilled and semi-skilled jobs, the strike was successful: after three weeks, the union won an arbitration award ranging from ½–⅛ shillings – the equivalent of an 80 per cent raise for the lowest paid categories and of a 15 per cent raise for the highest levels. The companies had offered 3–6 pence. The signficance of the strike was well stated by the Financial Times:

This is the first time that a major African union has managed to bring its members to the point of using industrial force. Clearly a new power has arrived in Africa whose potentialities are tremendous. [59]

The membership of the AMU, which had been 28,000 before the strike, rose to 31,000 after the strike – 2,000 miners joined the union at Broken Hill. The union started consolidating, raising its dues from 6d. to 2/6, abolishing the check-off system and collecting dues directly from the workers. After these measures, 19,000 workers remained with it, which is an achievement. It started publishing the African Mineworker, a monthly with a circulation of 4,000. In June 1954 it won annual holidays with pay and pensions for miners over 50 years of age with 20 years employment in the company – a symptom both of the growing stabilization of the labor force on the mines and of the union membership itself. Later in 1954 building trades workers of the African General Workers’ Union struck for higher wages, and the Nchanga Branch of the African Mine Workers’ Union came out on a solidarity strike – the second solidarity strike in Tropical Africa. [6*]

By the end of 1954, the union was ready to resume its campaign for higher wages, this time with a demand for a 10/8 shillings increase per shift for the unskilled workers. This would have meant a 200–300 per cent raise for almost all of the African miners, i.e., a radical change in the whole wage structure of the country and a frontal attack against the “cheap labor” policy of the mining companies. The companies flatly refused to discuss the union’s demands. [7*]

When the strike vote was taken, 18,110 voted for the strike, 365 against. On January 3, about 37,000 African miners were on strike in the main centers: Roan Antelope, Nkana, Mufulira and Nchanga.

As in 1952, the European Mineworkers’ Union officially decided to scab; this time, however, many among its rank and file refused. The official organ of the Roan Antelope Branch went as far as to condemn the decision to scab as “an uneradicable slur on the good name of the union and its members.” British unions, in particular the NUM, came through with financial support.

On January 25, the mining companies began retorting with mass-dismissals, importing entirely new workers from Tanganyika to replace the strikers. The press announced nonexistent “back-to-work” movements, as the companies sent loudspeakertrucks into the compounds urging the strikers to go back to work. The strikers again did not picket or demonstrate – again there was no incident.

On March 2, after 58 days, the strikers went all back to work together, on the following terms: in spite of the fact that they had 7,000 “surplus” miners from Tanganyika left over, the companies agreed to re-hire all dismissed strikers, at previous rates of pay, without loss of vacation, pension or seniority benefits. The wage demand was submitted to arbitration, and the government eventually awarded the union a much smaller raise than it had asked. [60]

As a demonstration of disciplined power, this strike represents a landmark in African trade-unionism, along with the 1952 strike and the labor code strikes in French West Africa. As the Economist pointed out, “the genii of African organization and solidarity will not be forced back into the bottle.”

The political significance of the strike was brought out in a report in the New York Times:

Most leading Northern Rhodesian African political leaders – the report said – are affiliated with the African Mine Workers’ Union. The union has become the spearhead of African political aspirations, which are regarded as equivalent to immediate advancement of Africans to many jobs now limited to Europeans. [61]

In Southern Rhodesia, the trade-union situation is comparable to the one that exists in the Union of South Africa. Very little is known as the government published few data on this subject. It is known, however, that early in 1954 a strike was called by the African mineworkers in the Wankie coalmines; troops were called out by the governments on this occasion. In June 1954, there was a European railways strike; its leader was deported to England. [62]

In Nyasaland, at the time of this writing, the unions are preparing to federate in a Trade Union Congress of Nyasaland.

Here is the strength of trade-unionism in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland in 1953:



No. of




% of Wage-

Northern Rhodesia








In the Belgian Congo, the government’s attitude towards African workers is very different, in two respects: on the one hand, it allows for much greater opportunities for social and economic advancement than in the neighboring territories, on the other hand it rigidly suppresses all attempts at organization to defend social or economic, not to speak of political, rights. Only recently, in 1953, and admittedly in order to forestall any attempts at self-organization, did the administration of the colony decide to set up its own “labor unions.” The regulation, decreed by the Governor General, places the unions in complete dependency from the government: “the formation of a federation or union of industrial associations is subject to the authorization of the Governor-General or his deputy, and the provisional formation of an industrial association requires the permission of the Area Administrator.” If the union thinks of calling a strike, “it is required that there shall be a quorum of two-thirds of the membership of the association concerned, and that action may only be taken by a three-fourths majority of the membership present.” All unions must have “European advisers,” who have to be of Belgian nationality and of “proved integrity.” Furthermore, a representative of the Administration has the right to attend all meetings of the union or of its Executive Committee. All minutes must be transmitted to the administration and a list of members must also be submitted to the authorities. [63]

According to the report of the Belgian government to the United Nations for 1952, there were 40 such “unions” in the Belgian Congo during 1951, with a total membership of 5,175. Are these “unions” even worth mentioning? Their very existence no doubt reflects a pressure from the African workers, of which thousands work for the Union Minière alone under conditions even more favorable to organization than those of the Northern Rhodesian “copper belt” miners. These are social forces of a type that once deflected Father Gapon’s “Union of Russian Factory Workers” far from the original purpose its police sponsors had assigned to it.

The European workers in the Belgian Congo are organized in unions that depend on either the social-democratic “Fédération Génerale du Travail de Belgique” (FGTB) or the Catholic Confederation of Christian Trade-Unions (CSC). They enjoy the same rights that are guaranteed to Belgian workers in their own country. This situation is a by-product of the war, which cut the colony off from Belgium and put the European workers for the first time in a bargaining position. Before the war, any attempt to organize trade-unions was immediately met with deportation or “internment.” [64]

The sovereign republic and American colony of Liberia naturally does not recognize trade-unions. Nevertheless in 1951 over 20,000 workers on the Firestone plantations struck for higher wages, “under the instigation of clerks from the Gold Coast.” Three hundred fifty miners working in the Boomi-Hills iron mine associated themselves to this strike. [65]

In Portuguese Africa, needless to say, trade-unions are illegal. The fascist “corporation” established by the Salazarian dictatorship do not even fulfill the limited purpose that the administration’s yellow unions could fulfill in the Belgian Congo: they are very small, confined to Portuguese and assimilated Africans (“civilizados”) and of no relevance to the masses of African labor.

Yet, trade-union organizations had manifested themselves in these territories whenever they had an opportunity. In 1928, two years after the present regime came to power, it decreed a labor law that was relatively liberal, and which met with angry resistance from the trading companies and from the colonists. To counter-balance this resistance, and to enforce the application of the law, groups of African workers formed organizations, which were all suppressed when it became clear that the government had no intention of applying its own law.

One of these organizations was the “Organisaçao Africana do Trabalho” which was founded in Mozambique, probably late in 1928 or early in 1929. Its mimeographed constitution states its aims as follows: “to protect the workers ... against exploitation, injury, physical mistreatment, defamation and abuse,” to support them and their families, to the extent of the possible, in case of unemployment; draw up collective agreements, claim cash compensation for labor, regularize labor and housing conditions ... It was open “to all workers of both sexes, without distinction of class or nationality.” The constitution granted very extensive powers to the president; no information has been found concerning its strength, the circumstances of its formation and of its disappearance. [66] During the same period, an African nationalist organization, the “Liga Africana” existed in these territories. [67] The consolidation of the Salazar regime cut down all such movements, along with the opposition in Portugal.

Today, the resistance of the African workers to exploitation has to seek other channels, which might prove just as dangerous to the colonial regime. Thus, in February 1953, a decree of the governor of São Thomé, attempting to introduce a system of forced labor for the inhabitants of the island, led to widespread insubordination and passive resistance, which was met by police and military repression. The killing of a Portuguese officer (“decapitated when he rushed into the jungle after heaving a few grenades,” according to one account) led to massacres in which several hundred people were killed – estimates range from 200 (Basil Davidson) to over 1,000 (Présence Africaine). According to a rough estimate of an official on the island, about half of the population had been arrested at one time or another during the repression. The governor, however, was replaced and no further attempt at imposing forced labor on the island’s population has been made. [68] Little has become known about resistance in other parts of Portuguese Africa, other than a “growing recalcitrance of labor.”

In Ethiopia, trade-unions are illegal. Working conditions are regulated exclusively by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, according to the Factories Proclamation of 1944. Prof. D.A. Talbot, an ignorant apologist for the regime, writes with approval that the Ministry of Commerce and Industry “took the initiative to see that trade-guilds were organized, so that employers in search of workers could find them with fair facility.” [69] We have here the conception of the “trade-union” as a fish-pond from which the employers may readily supply themselves with manpower, a conception that is not new, nor confined to Ethiopia, but which certainly casts a curious light on the “progressive, forward-looking” development of the country, of which we hear so much from certain American sources. The new Ethiopian constitution of November 1955, which grants, among other things, universal suffrage, and abolished various feudal rights and privileges, does not say a word about trade-unions or labor organizations.

According to an article in the New Statesman and Nation, strikes broke out in Dire-Dawa, Assab and Massawa in January and February 1954, perhaps as a consequence of a strike in French Somaliland; they were “crushed viciously, even by African standards.” [70]

Finally, there remains Somaliland, which is at present divided in three territories, of which two are under French and British rule, while the third is a UN Trust Territory under Italian administration.

In the latter territory, a recent report to the United Nations mentions the existence of three unions in 1953, the smallest of which is affiliated to the Italian Catholic CISL. “These organizations, however – the report says – are not militant, and no serious attempt is being made to develop them.” Most trade-union members are concentrated in Mogadiscio, the only city and port of any importance in the territory. Total union membership seems to have been about 4,000 in 1953.

In French Somaliland, a Federation of Autonomous Trade-Unions (federating three unions) exists; it includes both European and non-European workers. The total trade-union membership was 630 in 1950. In British Somaliland, there were no unions up to 1952. No information has become available since.

* * *


1*. A tobacco workers’ union was already organized in Egypt in 1903. [43]

2*. Senegal, Mauritania, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Sudan, Dahomey, Niger Colony, Upper Volta.

3*. They were recently released and assigned to compulsory residence in Southern France. Part of this story is told in Pierre Stibbe, Justice pour les Malgaches, Editions du Seuil, Paris 1955.

4*. Georges Balandier (see note 52) writes that in 1949 “less than 8,000 workers” were members of trade-unions in FEA. At the time there were 62 unions in FEA, as opposed to 81 in 1953. Our figure is therefore probably below the real figure for 1953.

5*. In 1953, after the strike, the monthly wages for African miners ranged from £4/17/3 to £19/0/1, while monthly wages for Europeans ranged from £89 to £108. (£1 is equivalent to a little less than $3.) In other words, the 5,879 Europeans were drawing more than twice as much in wages and salaries than the 36,147 Africans. [58] There had been other strikes in Northern Rhodesia: a railway strike in 1947 and a miners’ strike already in 1948.

6*. The first occurred in Brazzaville in 1949; see Balandier, p. 25.

7*. Not that the companies can’t pay. In 1950, out of a total income of £55.2 million from the Northern Rhodesian mines, profits and royalties (after depreciation) totalled £31.1 million, of which £22.8 million was sent abroad to British, American and South African shareholders. Since then, profits have been even greater. For instance the Rokhana Corp. Ltd., whose total issued capital is £3,328,000, made a total profit of over £12 million in 1952, i.e., a rate of profit of over 350 per cent. There was a dividend of 225 per cent. The rest of the companies show similar results for the foreign shareholders. The increase demanded by the AMU would have cost the companies less than £7 million. (Socialist Review, March 1955) In 1947, profits and dividends accounted for 43 per cent of the total value of exports from Northern Rhodesia. (Naville, see ref. 10.)

* * *


36. For the history of the South African labor movement, see E.S. Sachs: The Choice Before South Africa, London 1952 and: Trades and Labor Journal of South Africa, October 1933.

37. Sachs, op. cit.

38. World Trade Union Movement, August–September 1950.

39. Ibid.

40. Sachs, op. cit.

41. For an account of government policy and trade-union splits since 1954: Free Labor World, February 1956.

42. Padmore, op. cit.

43. World Trade Union Movement, Dec. 5, 1951.

44. Padmore, op. cit.

45. Charles Rakotobe, Le mouvement syndical a Madagascar, Revue d’action populaire, 1953.

46. Russell Smallwood, Development in East Africa, The Fortnightly, November 1944.

47. Abu Mayania: The Struggle for Democracy in Uganda, United Asia, March–April 1955.

48. World Trade Union Movement, June 20, 1951. For other data concerning the trade-union movement, see: Information on Industrial Relations in Non-Self-Governing Territories As Furnished Under Article 73e, United Nations, March 22, 1955. Pierre Naville: Note sur le syndicalisms en Afrique Noire, Présence Africaine, 13, Paris, 1952.

See also reports of colonial governments published each year by the United Nations under the general titles Information from Non-Self-Governing Territories: Summary and Analysis of Information Transmitted Under Article 73e and Report to the Trusteeship Council.

Unless otherwise noted, all data concerning the trade-union movement are from the above sources.

49. Claude Gérard, Batailles syndicales sur le continent africain, Le Trait d’union des syndicalistes, Nr. 19–20, Jan.–Feb. 1954.

50. Afrique-Informations, No. 17–18, 1954. Numéro special: Les grèves en A.O.F.

51. General Jean Marchal, L’Afrique tropicale francaise et ses problèmes, Revue de Défense Nationale, July 1955.

52. Georges Balandier, Le travailleur africain dans les ‘Brazzavilles noires’, Présence Africaine, 13, Paris, 1952.

53. Rakotobe, op. cit.

54. A. Dalgleish, In Northern Rhodesia, Free Labor World, July–August 1953.

55. Naville, Note sur le syndicalisme en Afrique Noire.

56. Le Populaire, December 29, 1954.

57. The following account is taken from World Trade Union Movement, December 1–15, 1952.

58. David Breen, Imperialism in Rhodesia, Socialist Review, March 1955.

59. Financial Times, October 14, 1952.

60. Breen, op. cit. and World Trade Union Movement, May 1955.

61. New York Times, January 7, 1955.

62. The Economist, July 17, 1954.

63. Information on Industrial Relations in Non-Self-Governing Territories, op. cit.

64. P. Omer, Panorama social du Congo Beige, Les Cahiers Socialistes, Brussels, July 1947.

65. R.L. Buell, Struggle for Africa, and Desmond Buckle, Liberia – America’s African Colony, World Trade Union Movement, Dec. 16–31, 1952.

66. Estatutos da Organisação Africana do Trabalho de Moçambique, Lourenço-Marques, no date.

67. Radmore, op. cit.

68. Buanga Fele, Massacres à São Thomé, Présence Africaine, April–July 1955.

69. D.A. Talbot, Contemporary Ethiopia, New York 1952.

70. An African Kingdom, in New Statesman and Nation, October 23, 1954.

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