One of the most significant factors in the liberation of Africa was the growth and development of the trade unions. In fact, the African trade unions were decisive in the liberation of many countries. Despite this, the contributions ofthe African trade union movement are often overlooked or ignored when discussingAfrica's liberation.
The earliest African labor unions grew out of the harsh conditions of colonialism in the early 1900s. The imperialist powers viewed Africa as a vast reservoir of material and human wealth to be extracted and shipped to Europe andthe United States In order to extract this wealth, the colonial powers transformed Africa's economic base from one of subsistence agriculture and small-scale industry to one of large-scale industrial extraction and export.
This meant forcing African farmers to become industrial workers which, in turn, meant the destruction of cultures that were thousands of years old in some cases, as well as the destroying the social and family lives of million of people.
Consistent with the imperialists' racist ideology, Africa's people were viewed solely in terms of production. To this end, villages were categorized according to the number of "fit adult males" they could provide for labor in the mines, onrailroads and for work in processing plants.
Two methods were used to create a pool of labor: The first was to impose a steeptax on each head of household or head of a village which could only be paid in cash. The second was a system of "forced labor" which Henry Nevinson, who studied the African colonial system in the early part of the century, called "modern slavery."
The first forced African society into the money economy of modern capitalism. This made Africa dependent on the colonial powers, further strengthening imperialism's control. In order to get the money to pay the taxes, Africans had to go to work in the cities for European or U.S. corporations.
African land ownership was limited to under 10 percent in most colonies. The rest was given to corporations or colonial settlers and used to produce cash crops for export. This resulted in a once self-sufficient continent having to import food.
Many corporations, frustrated with the pace of change, turned to the colonial administration and "contracted" for forced laborers -- people basically kidnapped from their villages and forced to work for the corporations.
The use of forced labor became so extensive that by the early 1950s, the colonial administration in Angola reported that they had "about 400,000 voluntary workers and 379,000 contract workers" -- a typical ratio throughout Africa.
Conditions on the job for both "voluntary" and forced laborers were deplorable -- no health care, no sanitation, cramped living quarters, long shifts and no contact with their families.
These brutal conditions and the system of forced labor gave the first impetus toworking class organization. By the 1920s trade unions had developed in places like Tunisia, Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and South Africa to fight for better wages and working conditions and the end of modern slavery.
These earliest trade unions were illegal and strikes were viciously crushed. Strikes often ended with dozens of workers killed and hundreds more arrested andpressed into forced labor.
However, the working class continued to expand throughout the continent as the pace of industrialization, resulting from the ever increasing greed of the colonial powers and the monopoly corporations, accelerated. And with the expansion of the working class, came the further development of Africa's labor movement. In this regard World War II marked a turning point.
In describing the war's impact on Africa, Basil Davidson, one of the world's foremost historians of Africa, wrote, "Nothing like this had been seen since theBritish industrial revolution." This "African industrial revolution" resulted from the Nazi conquest of Europe and the subsequent disruption of production there. Also, the war stimulated demand for the production of war materil and the mining of basic resources. Consequently, most African cities tripled or quadrupled in size between 1940-45.
The war also stimulated the nascent liberation struggle. Thousands of Africans either volunteered or were pressed into service to fight against Nazism. For theAfrican soldier, it was a war against racism and colonialism.
A Nigerian serviceman serving the British in India wrote home in 1945 saying, "We all overseas soldiers are coming back home with new ideas. We have been toldwhat we fought for. That was freedom. We want freedom, nothing but freedom."
And Davidson writes, "They (African servicemen) fought as equals alongside whitesoldiers. They won battles in distant lands, and this made nonsense of the colonial-white claim to superiority. Many learned to read and write; not a few received technical training. They deepened their understanding. They welcomed the ideas of freedom."
The prominence of the Soviet Union and the prestige of the Communist parties in the colonial powers grew as a result of their leadership of the anti-fascist struggle -- adding a further element to the growing political struggle on the African continent.
Returning African servicemen had made contact with resistance leaders and trade union leaders in the colonial countries -- providing a source of organizational and ideological experience.
Also, during the war, the British lifted the ban on trade unions and leading British trade unionists went to Africa to help build unions. In 1945 the French did the same in its colonies. The African labor movement could now function legally, opening the door for mass development.
With the war over, Africa was plunged into a deep economic crisis as production shifted back to Europe and the U.S. African workers responded with a mass strikewave to demand better wages and working conditions. One such strike occurred in South Africa in 1946 when 75,000 mineworkers struck for higher wages. Even though the strike was broken by a police assault, it served as an inspiration throughout all colonial Africa.
Within months strikes erupted in Tunisia, Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania, Sierra Leone and Guinea -- all for higher wages and improved conditions.
A strike by railway workers in French West Africa forced France to abolish forced labor in 1946 -- the first such major victory by African trade unions.
With the emergence of the mass, militant trade unions after the war, the tide had turned against colonialism. By 1950, the trade unions had thrown their weight behind the independence struggle, going beyond the fight for wages and conditions. What had been tiny independence movements, became mass parties basedin the working class.
Algerian independence fighter Messali Hadj said that independence could not be won without "a party of workers with revolutionary ideas." This position became characteristic of the independence movements throughout the continent as the economic and political struggles became linked.
On January 8, 1950 the trade unions in Ghana launched a general strike to demandtotal independence. By the time the strike ended, Britain had granted autonomy and promised full independence -- realized in 1957.
At the same time, the Sierra Leone Trades Union Congress, under the leadership of Siaka Stevens, began a pro-independence strike campaign. Independence was wonin 1961. The same thing happened in Gambia which won independence in 1965.
The leaders of the independence struggle fully recognized the vital role of the working class in the fight for independence. With the birth of the All-African Trade Union Organization in 1961, Kwame Nkrumah, the Ghanan independence leader,said, "The development of a united African trade union movement will give our working classes a new African consciousness and the right to express themselves in the councils of world labor, unfettered by any foreign view."
With growing class consciousness came the development of socialist consciousness. Many early trade union leaders were Communists who had come into contact with the resistance movements in Europe.
For many emerging countries, independence and socialism became synonymous as a result of the work of the Communist leaders. Angola, Mozambique, Congo, Algeria,Zaire and Benin were among the most prominent examples where the first steps were taken to build socialism after independence was won.
Despite formal independence, Africa's fight for liberation continues today. Subjected to neocolonialism and trapped into the old colonial economic relations, many African countries are still fighting for real independence.
Here to, the trade unions are playing a vital role. In Nigeria oil workers have waged a militant struggle against the military dictatorship and its neocolonial corporate backers. In Algeria and Tunisia, the labor movement is in the forefront in the fight for democracy and human rights.
And, probably the most prominent example, the South African trade unions helped lead the fight to bring down apartheid and are carrying that fight forward todayto guarantee that the promises of liberation are realized.
The African liberation struggle demonstrates the importance of the unity of trade union and political activity. It is that understanding of the continued unity of economic and political struggles and the leading role of the working class that will produce future victories in Africa's fight for full sovereignty and equal development.
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