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The New International, Spring 1957

A. Giacometti

The Labor Movement in Tropical Africa – III

Concluding a Study of the African Working Class

(March 1956)


From The New International, Vol. XXIII No. 2, Spring 1957, pp. 94–101.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Social and Economic Problems

IN THE PRECEDING PAGES, we have attempted to draw a general outline of trade-unionism in the main territories of Tropical Africa. Brief and fragmentary though this survey may be, it still provides the elements for a tentative evaluation of African trade-unionism.

We have seen how African trade-unionism has developed from small nuclei of militants to a mass movement that has become a decisive force on the continent, that has given shape to an amorphous proletariat, as well as a consciousness and a perspective. We should now turn to some of the problems and difficulties that subsist, before we can concern ourselves with the task of the labor movement in Africa and its place in the world labor movement.

We have seen earlier how migratory labor and the instability of the urban proletariat inhibited the development of labor unions in the early stages of the change from a subsistence economy to a market economy. Hand in hand with the problems that arise from the existence of a floating, amorphous “new” proletariat, go problems of inexperience and of scarcity of cadres. The lack of organizational experience, in routine matters as well as in tactical and political questions, which contributed to destroy the South African ICU, now plagues contemporary African unionism, particularly in regions such as French Equatorial Africa, East Africa or Madagascar.

Georges Balandier writes the following about French Equatorial Africa:

... the district towards the “elites” who formed the labor unions, rivalries which lead to fragmentation, the difficulty of submitting to the payment of dues, the lack of confidence in the efficiency of such organizations (of which extraordinary and immediate results were expected), also explain the mediocrity of trade-unionism at the present time.

Balandier also mentions “the clumsy use of the strike, which is often decided on without precise demands, without clear aims; the labor inspector, in certain cases, must seek for the cause of the strike by questioning each striker individually. Let us take note, during the year 1949, in industry, of a ‘solidarity strike’: it shows the rise, among a better organized and more conscious group, of a certain sense of trade union tactics.” [70]

A trade-unionist from Madagascar confirms this, even as he describes the recent growth of trade-unionism in the island:

In spite of this development and of the effort of the leaders, it must be recognized that the trade-unions still lack a qualified cadre, familiar with tradeunion discipline and action, conscious of the importance of its task, militant in the struggle and completely disinterested. Several scandals brought about by the dishonesty of certain organizers cooled off much of the interest of those who hesitated to join trade-unions; in 1946 the failure of the strikes called by the CGT did not contribute to dispel the indifference or the pessimism of the workers. [71]

Naturally, the lack of cadres is also a result of all kinds of restrictions and discriminatory measures imposed by the local administration. As soon as a new union threatens to become important, it may be dissolved on any pretext. For example, the Uganda Association of Car Drivers was dissolved in 1949 for failure to register its members with the authorities since 1945, when its secretary was deported. [72] In French territories, African trade-union leaders must have a certificate showing they have finished grammar school – this in countries where 90 per cent of the population is illiterate and only 18.2 per cent of school-age children actually attended school. [1*] Moreover, a person can be barred from holding functions in a labor union if he has been condemned for a “criminal offence.”

The lack of experience and the lack of cadres is also reflected in the excessive fragmentation of the tradeunion movement. There are very few great, industrial unions, such as the African Mineworkers’ Union of Northern Rhodesia or the Federation of African Railwaymen in French West Africa: too often unions are formed on the enterprise level only, even when the enterprise is quite small. The example of Nigeria is instructive in this respect, especially considering that Nigeria has one of the oldest trade-union movements in Africa. The following shows the structure of the Nigerian unions in 1948: (source: Naville, Note sur le syndicalisme; see reference [32]).



No. of



Less than 50 members



50 to 250 members



250 to 1,000 members



1,000 to 5,000 members



Over 5,000 members



All the preceding weaknesses may be considered as “infantile” disorders of African trade-unionism. In part, they are of a type that all working-class organizations had to face in the early stages of their development; some of them are tied to the structure of the colonial economy in Africa. Obviously, too, the problems that arise from migratory and unstable labor – also the prevalence of small-scale undertakings – accounts to some extent for the great number of tiny unions. Finally, social, ethnic, and cultural differences, still play a role less and less so, however, for trade-unions have succeeded in doing what “neither politics nor religion” could do: create a sense of unity, not only among the wage-earning working class of various tribes and languages, but also among it and the peasantry.

A second important category of problems arises from the relations between European and African workers. Two things should be noted here from the outset: first, that this problem is more important for the European workers and that it is mostly their task to settle it. If for no other reason, then because the African workers will soon be able to afford to ignore their attitude, and will be in a position to proceed regardless, if necessary against them.

Secondly, that the problem is one which occurs in its sharpest form in the British territories. In the territories under French rule, the “assimilation” policy of the government has made possible a much greater degree of co-operation between European and African workers, especially in the ranks of the CGT where it was made a matter of official policy. In the Belgian Congo, the policy of the government, enabling Africans to learn skilled trades, will also help the action of a unified labor movement when it arises, as it must.In the Portuguese territories, prejudice did not exist up to now in a form that would have segregated the lives and the work of the different races. Today, however, the Salazar government is importing “poor whites” from Portugal into the colonies, as it is unable to provide adequate living standards for them at home. The existence of this new mass of poor white labor is creating a situation where prejudice may become powerful.

In the British territories, on the other hand, we have a traditional and deliberate policy of fostering racial divisions in order to make co-operation against the colonial regime impossible. In all territories of East and Central Africa there are separate trade-unions for Europeans, Asians and Africans, just as in Cyprus there are separate unions for Greek and Turkish workers.

But administrative policy is just one of the reasons for the hostility of European trade-unions against the African workers. The other, more important, reason is the policy of the mining companies who, in effect, bought the support of a small group of European workers in order to be able to exploit more easily a vastly larger group of African workers. We have seen that in 1953 the 5,879 Europeans on the copper belt had a payroll that was twice as large as the payroll of 36,147 Africans. In South Africa, 50,579 European mineworkers were paid £28.9 million, while 411,563, Africans were paid £18.3 million [74] Pierre Naville writes:

As (the whites) enjoy a dominating and exclusive position on the labor market (higher wages, better jobs, social legislation, favorable prices, etc.) they have an evident tendency to refuse to associate their fate to the fate of slaves, whose exploitation benefits them indirectly. It would have required a great deal of heroism on the part of the white workers (whether “little” or not) to sacrifice voluntarily the considerable advantages which capitalism grants them. [75]

These purely economic reasons for prejudice have become complicated in time by social and psychological factors. The task of counter-acting these and of fighting the official policy of the majority of European unions, devolves mainly on the minority of advanced European workers who have understood two things:

  1. that their lasting interests demand co-operation with the people who make up the majority in the country that they have chosen as their homeland;
  2. that their lasting interests are identified with the destruction of colonialism, a system that has proved itself incapable of seriously developing and industrializing a country that is theirs, as well as the Africans.

By the example of South Africa, it has become abundantly clear that the policy of discrimination and “apartheid” not only leads to the destruction of the African trade-unions, but of the European labor movement as well, and to the stagnation of the whole economy for want of skilled labor. Colonialism under all its forms is blocking the future of the European working-class as well as the future of the Africans – even though it grants to the former immense and concrete advantages at the present time.

The racist leadership of the European unions has usually identified the “cheap labor” policy of the large mining companies, which tends to replace higher-paid European labor with lower-paid African labor for the same jobs, with any policy that would lead to an advancement of the African workers, including a socialist approach. Yet the differences are essential. The policy of the companies is against the interests of both African and European workers: the African unions are not interested in having a small number of their members advance into underpaid skilled work. Neither are they interested in a variation of the Belgian formula of creating a small “middle-class” of Africans in skilled and technical jobs that may be used as a buffer between the administration and the mass of unskilled, underpaid and undernourished workers. Such is the policy that the Economist suggested at the time of the Rhodesian miners’ strike in 1955:

The constructive issue is for the Africans to get a ladder of advancement to take the minds of the best of them off their ill-directed strike. That would not be rewarding irresponsibility but a shrewd investment in African privilege. [76]

What the African workers are interested in is a radical change in their living standard, not a position of privilege for a few among them. This is the policy the AMU of Northern Rhodesia has been trying to apply. This is also the policy that deserves support by the European workers: only a massive increase in the wages of the great mass of unskilled African workers can provide the basis for “equal pay for equal work” in the skilled jobs. By increasing the purchasing power of the African workers, it also makes possible the development of a significant internal market and of an industry of consumers’ goods, in short, it makes possible the development of the country.

The companies and the administration, however, think differently. A Board of Inquiry of the Northern Rhodesian government has recently

“... recommended a policy of advancement of African workers in the copper mines to better jobs and has concluded that the establishment of the principle of awarding to promoted Africans the European rate of remuneration would be an effective bar to the advancement of Africans in industry and would disrupt the African wage structure throughout the Federation and seriously threaten the national economy.” [77]

In short, in spite of the tremendous wealth of the country, and in spite of the fabulous profit of the mining companies, the economy of Northern Rhodesia is organized in such a way that to pay decent wages to the vast majority of the wage-earning population would “seriously threaten” it! This is a statement well worth meditating for both European and African workers, along with the question of how an economy could be organized that could develop the country while ensuring a fair living standard for all.

On the international level, important problems have always been raised by the relations of the African unions with the trade-union movement of the colonizing countries. Invariably, these movements would take the same attitude as the European unions in Africa: ill-concealed hostility, mistrust, at best, neutrality towards the new African labor movement, which would, on the contrary, need every form of assistance more experienced labor movements could give. Almost all tendencies in the European labor movement, each in its own way, would seek to impose its own aims on African trade-unionism, trying to turn the African unions into passive auxiliaries of policies often determined by the colonial administrators. What, for instance, is an African worker to think of this startling piece of information which was distributed after the war with the approval of the British TUC:

It must be understood that Trade Unions exist only to try to get the best possible working and living conditions for their members. If a government brings about these conditions itself, then you will see that unions become unnecessary. But if a country is poor, neither a government nor the Trade Unions can make it richer except by trying to make its production bigger and better.

The theory of the “unnecessary unions” is a perfect rationale as much for Haile Selassie's Ethiopia as for Stalinist Russia – the only question is who is to decide when a government brings about the “best possible working and living conditions.” As to the country's wealth, could it perhaps be increased by stopping the flow of profits to foreign capitalists and see that the profits are invested in the country's industry? No, that would be meddling in politics and, as everybody knows, “politics are not of the first importance to a trade union. Officials who use a union for politics should be removed as quickly as possible.”

Elsewhere, the author of this stupid and patronizing little pamphlet writes:

“We repeat, because we cannot say it too often, that Trade-Unions are meant to avoid and not to bring about strikes.”

In short:

“It is clear that one of the first aims of Trade-Unions is to see what they can do to increase production. In that they will be trying to do the same thing as the management and the two should be able to work well together.” [78]

This is only a striking instance among many – when the European unions were trying to be helpful.

The reputation of European reformism is one which the ICFTU managed to live down only in recent years: not because the European reformists had a change of heart [2*] but because the rising strength of Asian and African trade-unionism makes the international body more dependent on their support.

The Stalinists soon attempted to utilize the headstart the revolutionary policy of the early Comintern and of the Red Trade-Union International gave them over the reformists, who had no such past to appropriate. Before the war, Stalinist influence existed only in South Africa, where social-democrats and revolutionary socialist tendencies were also represented. After the war, Stalinist influence became predominant in French West Africa through the channel of the French CGT. The Secretary-general of the CGT in the French Sudan, Abdoullaye Diallo, became one of the vice-presidents of the WFTU, while the CFTC (which also includes Moslem workers in Africa) became the only non-Stalinist federation of any importance.

However, remote as Russia and China may be and close as capitalist imperialism may be, the African workers have nevertheless had occasions to experience Stalinism as an enemy of their real needs and interests. In South Africa, as elsewhere, the CP supported the war and all measures that were justified by its prosecution, including all restrictive measures on the labor movement. In the Cameroons, the civil-servants of the CGT soon found themselves called upon to strike for demands such as “the release of Alain Le Lép.” [79] More recently, the contrast between the uncompromising struggle waged against colonialism by labor unions such as the Tunisian UGTT, the Moroccan UMT or the Algerian USTA, and the treasonable position of the French Communist Party in the Assembly and in the labor movement, has greatly contributed to enlighten the African workers as to the real nature of Stalinist “help.”

The first consequence of these experiences occurred in February 1956 in the African stronghold of Stalinism, French West Africa, where a group of trade-unionists left the CGT to set up their own, independent trade-union, the “Union Générale des Travailleurs Africains.” The group was led by the Secretary-General of the old CGT, Sekou Touré and took more than half of the old CGT with it. The Stalinists have maintained their influence only over the Sudanese CGT and over half of the Senegalese CGT. [80] The new union is actually only the juridical expression of a reality that has always existed: the African workers of the CGT have never been Stalinists, nor have they belonged to the CFTC. [81] Claude Gerard writes that:

“if unity of action does not exist between the leaderships of the different federations, it unquestionably exists at the base. The African workers find almost always in a strike, or when another occasion appears in the course of their action, the traditional African community spirit which makes the strength of their country. For this reason, any leader who allows himself to be indoctrinated at an international congress must, after his return, align himself on the positions taken by the mass of African workers, who know how to keep their common sense and their freedom.” [82]

An increasingly independent African labor movement has arisen: the Catholic unions are compelled to admit non-Christian workers and to loosen their ties with the Catholic Church; the Stalinist unions are losing strength; the unions that grew up under the tutelage of reformism develop a new, militant class-consciousness. These trends all point in the same direction: towards a unified, independent African trade-union movement.

This is as yet a long-term perspective: African workers still lack information about their movement in other parts of the continent, as communication is difficult and information is suppressed by each government. But the trend is determined by the fact that in each territory the trade-union movement faces the same problems as in the others. Although French and English policies differ, segregation in the British territories has fostered a national consciousness that has developed in the French territories through a demand for equality within the same system; migratory labor has made organization difficult in all territories, but has also favored the spreading of information and news; the unstable and mixed character of the urban labor force has been an obstacle to trade-unionism but even more so a means of turning the trade-unions also into parties, co-ops, schools, thereby establishing their social and political leadership over all other classes in the population.


The African labor movement is about to be thrown into crucial battles just as it reaches maturity. It will have to battle against all kinds of outfits that overrun Africa today and that seek to replace the traditional colonial systems with more streamlined forms of exploitation.

For powerful sections of the European bourgeoisie, the exploitation of Africa is the last means of maintaining a certain independence from American capitalism. This is the origin of various “Eurafrican” schemes, aiming to establish a condominium of European capital over the French, the Belgian and the Portuguese colonies.

“To lose Africa and to decay politically and economically – or to keep it by integrating it to an increasing extent with Europe, and thereby to reconquer economic independence and future possibilities” – this is the problem as seen by the spokesmen of that group. [83]

Another scheme would establish an Anglo-American condominium over the British colonies, which would be shared with the Union of South Africa. This is a plan that took shape during the Second World War, and was described by Padmore as early as 1944. [84] It has an economic basis in the participation of American capital in mining (South Africa, Rhodesia, Belgian Congo, Gabon, Cameroons), in oil (Ethiopia, Mozambique), in rubber plantations (Liberia), etc.

A third conception, based on the preceding one, is that of Africa as a vital strategic link in the NATO defense system. There have been five international conferences since 1950 to discuss the use of Africa as a base for the defense of Europe. At the present time, the continent is studded with American bases: Robertsfield in Liberia, Wheelus Field in Libya, Nouaceur in Morocco. In the Belgian Congo two bases have been built at Kamina and Kiton which, in case of war, would become part of the “Atlantic” defense system. Only recently, the Union of South Africa leased a naval and air base to the U.S. Armed Forces.

Neither should it be forgotten that Tropical Africa possesses all the raw materials that are indispensable for the prosecution of modern wars, in particular over half of the world's production of uranium in the Belgian Congo and in the Union of South Africa.

Finally, Russia has tried to get into the act by recent offers of technical and military assistance to Libya and to Liberia – propaganda move, perhaps, but its significance is that of staking out a claim.

It is hardly necessary to draw attention on the dangers that the rivalry of these imperialist enterprises represents for the African peoples. The last war earned them conscription of labor in Kenya, the prohibition from striking and from assembling in South Africa, and other repressive measures. It is clear that if Africa is to be a base for the defense of Europe, both economically and politically, the populations that inhabit it will have to be weapons to any part of the Congo and kept quiet, if necessary by force. In his description of the air base at Kamina, the reporter of the New York Herald Tribune wrote:

The base maintains transport aircraft capable of lifting any complement of airborne troops with jeeps and automatic probably, should the occasion warrant, outside that territory.

The base has two “global missions,” one of which is “to protect Belgium's rich uranium mines at Shinkolobwe, 85 miles southeast of here, and its rich copper deposits in the same general area.” The other is “to form a nucleus for the protection of the entire southern half of Africa, and probably extend that protection even further, should another world war occur.” Kamina, Kitona and “a rapidly growing naval installation at Banan, on the cost” will control the mouth of the Congo river. “No one needs to tell a military geographer how this will contribute to the control of all Africa, except the Nile basin and the northern frontier.” [85]

“Control” and “protection” against whom? Surely not against the Russian army, especially not in the southern half of the continent. These bases, as the others, are sharp points directed against the African people's efforts to gain control of its own countries and destiny.

The struggle against the military and economic might of imperialism will require a union of all labor organizations on the whole continent, an All-African Federation of Labor, forming the basis for a united and independent revolutionary-nationalist movement.

Even though the African labor movement is small, it is alone in a position to lead the struggle for political independence and for social and economic emancipation. Its task today is one of co-ordination and unification on the basis of a common program.

The task of the European and American labor movements is, above all, to stop the repression campaigns their own governments are preparing even today. The helicopters that will be used against the coming African revolutions will be American-made, and will perhaps belong to the American army. It is the responsibility of the American labor movement to see, even today, that the American army should not become the policeman of colonialism.

March 1956.

* * *


1*. The percentage is an average of all African territories under French rule. The minimum was French West Africa with 7.6 per cent, the maximum Madagascar with 41.31 per cent. [73]

2*. The scandalous attitude of FO towards the new Algerian union federations again proves that they didn't.

* * *

Reference Notes

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

71. Georges Balandier, Le travailleur africain dans les ‘Brazzavilles noires’.

72. Rakotobé, op. cit.

73. Naville, Note sur le syndicalisms en Afrique Noire.

74. A.L. Dumaine, La signification réelle du deuxième plan, Présence Africaine, April–July 1955.

75. Breen, Sachs, op. cit.

76. Naville, Note sur le syndlcalisme en Afrique Noire.

77. The Economist, January 29, 1955.

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

79. W.S. Mare, African Trade Unions, London 1946.

80. World Trade Union Movement, February 16–28, 1953.

81. France-Observateur, March 8, 1956.

82. Gerard, op. cit.

83. Eurafrique, January 1955. For a more detailed analysis of the various neo-coloniallst and imperialist schemes see: Pierre Naville, L’Afrique, enjeu stratégique, Présence Africaine, August–September 1955 and: Francois Sengat-Kuo, L’Europe à l’heure de la panique, Présence Africaine, April–July 1955.

84. George Padmore, Post War Condominium, Politics, May 1944.

85. New York Herald Tribune, October 26, 1955.

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