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In the Penumbra of Historical Writing: African History through African Eyes

Worker-nationalist links also need to be viewed with reference to gender, ethnicity and orality. Belinda Bozzoli and Mmantho Nkotsoe's detailed life-histories of a group of Bafokeng women, who shared lives as educated Christians and domestic workers, is a pioneering attempt to reveal the hidden lives of "ordinary" women. Although this marks a new achievement there is reluctance to discard old definitions. Thus the "women of Phokeng" are somehow not altogether genuine "workers" either because they are educated, or return to rural locations.23 Yet capitalism finds it useful to educate peasants to become workers so that it may better exploit their labour-power. The fact they are educated (and usually this much-touted education was very limited and menial-oriented) does nothing to lessen their intrinsic quality as wage-earners.

Although it is normal to restrict the conception of a South African working class to the somewhat artificial (ethnic) boundaries of the Union, and to view African nationalism there as a purely South African affair, we follow the spirit of Denoon's dissatisfaction with the limitations of "national histories in general" and the imperfections of "closed" histories.24 The black working class was multinational in composition, divided into ethnic groups. The mine workforce contained a large proportion of Mozambicans and Basotho, and migrants from Zimbabwe, Malawi and other countries penetrated deep into South Africa in search of work, some becoming South African labour leaders, such as Kadalie, others returning home to apply political experience gained, such as Nyagumbo in Zimbabwe. Conversely, blacks also migrated from South Africa to places such as Namibia, and the early history of the labour movement of that country cannot be written without reference to the role there of South African workers.25 Are Mozambican migrant workers, working on the Rand or farms, part of South African labour history? Should nationality, drawn by colonialism, be used to divide the history of workers? There were similarities in the attitudes of South African and Mozambican nationalists towards black workers, and vice versa. The Mozambican Grêmio Africano "elite" organisation made initial efforts to organize labour in 1911, founding the Uniâo Africano: "a class association in which all African workers can . . . demand their just dues . . . composed of all working-class people . . . Workers of my race and color unite!"26

That there was never a total alienation between workers and ANC is seen even in the first decades of Congress history, which I have chosen to illustrate as it is usually regarded as the epitome of such dichotomy. More obvious links abound from the 1940's. ANC-worker connections were mediated through proximal habitats and shared oppression engendered by white supremacy, but also through culture and literature, oral or written. The historiography of black workers is meagre and often written by whites, in English, although this was rarely the language most workers thought or spoke. Applied to workers' culture, oral history offers the prospect of viewing history from below, capturing accounts of the rank and file, to complement records left by leaders, which may have hagiographic limitations.27 The modes of operation of both the ANC and black unions were influenced by this deeply rooted African tradition. Veteran unionists, schooled in Marxism, may draw on oral traditions about African leaders. When a black worker is asked about the ANC, care should be taken to understand the inherited tradition that may inform the answer.28

Co-founder of the ANC, Pixley Ka Seme, whilst still a student, lamented, "Oh, for that historian who, with the open pen of truth, will bring to Africa's claim the strength of written proof." Some blacks regarded their history as "completely monopolised by the official historians in the service of the ruling classes,"29 and indeed there were few "official" black historians, although early writers such as S.E.K. Mqhayi, Silas Molema and T. Soga, and others more renowned for literary or journalistic works did write African history. Tim Couzens and Brian Willan state that given the severe economic and political constraints of Africans making a living as writers

"in any consideration of black South African literature close attention must be given to journalism. . . the one medium through which writers could find the semblance of an audience. For the early African writer his purpose - the education and representation of his people - was usually the same whether he chose to express himself in the form of the novel . . . journalism, . . . historical writing, or . . . semi-autobiographical works."30

Magema Fuze, Rolfes Dhlomo and others wrote in African languages, making their work inaccessible to some Africans, yet grappling with social change. Fuze articulated a mood of nationalism wider than Zulu concerns, urging people to "unite in friendliness . . . Do not merely look on heedlessly when others are being exploited" and seeing the Bambatha revolt as ignited by unjust taxes: "Wo! The whole country was roused to anger to the point of extinction by water."31

History of a sort was written by black nationalists, some of whom had indirect links with workers, and to a large extent the cream of black literati were attracted to Congress. Writers, especially journalists, were frequenfly associated with the ANC, such as H. Selby Msimang, Selope Thema and Richard Godlo, all ANC office bearers, and the literary figure and journalist H.I.E. Dhlomo was a leading figure in the formation of the ANC Youth League in Natal in 1945. Z.K. Matthews, Msimang and Xuma penned autobiographies, and James Calata wrote a short history of Congress. Josiah Gumede gave great attention in the 1920's to Pan-Africanism in the pages of the ANC newspaper Abantu-Batho, constituting an alternative discourse to professional history for blacks.32 One cannot take this line of argument too far, however, for the impact on black workers of literature and newspapers is problematic. Little is known of reading habits of early black workers, although illiteracy was declining quite rapidly among urban blacks by the 1920's, and the CPSA made attempts to hasten and exploit this through night schools. Although the ANC could have reached only a small fraction of blacks, they influenced those more organised groups, and there was a mushrooming effect as newspapers were passed form hand to hand or read aloud. In this sense the ANC was a carrier of black literary resistance.33

Dismissed as pro-capitalist for his opposition to radical socialism,34 Sol Plaatje, first ANC secretary, situated rising black nationalism in an historical context, and, more implicitly, raised questions about the plight of black labour, in his polemical work on the devastation of the 1913 Natives' Land Act, Native Life in South Africa, also writing journalistic pieces on amalaita gangs and sufferings of black labourers. Interviewed by the British socialist Labour Leader in 1919 he noted "the only people from whom we have any sympathy and support are the International Socialists, and, unfortunately, they are an insignificant minority." In 1927 he described the wretched conditions of black diamond labourers on the Lichtenburg mines.35 Chris Saunders can rightly deride radicals' "co-option" of such early African writers, yet it would be churlish to deny that Plaatje the author, activist and lobbyist must have seemed a dangerous individual to the Union government of 1913 - as indeed archival evidence shows.36 Part of the paradox - that Plaatje was both pro- and anti- worker - lies in his own working years, in the lowly position of blacks in South African society, and in the political necessity of building a Congress constituency. He received only a few years formal education, and worked as a teacher, postman, and interpreter, before becoming a journalist. His paradoxical position was to be mirrored in the careers of many "moderate" ANC leaders over the years, such as Makgatho, Gumede, Msimang and Xuma. Like early Afro-American historians, Plaatje displayed a distinctive, ironic historiographic style, contrasting white racism with black multi-racialism and "genuine" nationalism, using the prevailing discourse of the day, and irony, to re-create in the colonizer's language past African history and dignity.37

Similarly, Rolfes (R.R.R.) Dhlomo, a mine clerk before becoming a leading journalist on the satirical Sjambok, Bantu World and Ilanga wrote short stories on the lives of black miners, such as "The Death of Masaba" and "Murder on the Mine Dumps" that are, in the words of Tim Couzens, authentic and "about the only imaginative data we have from the black side." Dhlomo was by no means a revolutionary, writing quaint articles for the women's page of Bantu World, but he condemned miner exploitation, and his representation of mine life indicates the closeness of destinies of black strata. His brother was an ANC figure. Later writers such as Alex La Guma and Peter Abrahams continued this approach of trying to mirror working lives.38

Although early African leaders were better educated than workers, links to black workers began to develop, direct or indirecfly. A.K. Soga was influenced by socialist ideas, and as editor of Izwi Labantu frequently drew attention to the conditions of black workers, characterising supporters of Union as "gentry (the capitalists) . . . this will be a glorious country for corporation pythons and political puff-adders, forced labour and commercial despotism."39 Other leaders, if not socialists, addressed the concerns of poor and workers. Early labour protests were articulated in various political arenas before black workers formed their own class organisations in the 1920's, and even after this the weakness of these groups left a vacuum into which nationalists stepped.40

If Congress' formation in 1912 was largely the work of the new "elite," their aims were broader - the unity of the entire African peoples. It is important to distinguish the difference between leaders and their support base. "ANC" is often a shorthand for "leaders," but is a totality of individuals and structures, and popular images. Some clues to interactions of early leaders with workers are found in Mweli Skota's The African Yearly Register. Mweli Skota, elected ANC Secretary General in 1923, had served as a mine clerk in 1910-11. Josiah Gumede, a teacher and landowner, became ANC President in 1928 and visited the USSR. C.S. Mabasa worked as a teacher and clerk, and "took a leading part during a strike for increase of wages."" The vacillating nature of leaders' links with black workers was vividly demonstrated by Transvaal Congress "on-off" support for strikes in 1918-20, as shown by Bonner. Career paths blocked by discrimination, some blacks from small, unstable middle strata turned to politics. Albert Nzula, a teacher, became the first black secretary of the CPSA in 1928. A.W.G. Champion, a mines policeman in 1913-15 and mine clerk from 1917-25 (he also claims to have been a miner) became an ICU/ANC leader and businessman. Alfred Cetyiwe worked in Kimberley, became a worker leader and was active in the ANC. S.B. Macheng, not educated, laboured on the Rand mines and was a chief organiser of the Bechuanaland and Griqualand West Congress. T. Tladi, an ANC member, was a carpenter of Benoni. Thomas Zini, President of the Cape Peninsula Natives' Association (CPNA) and a migrant worker took part in Congress' founding conference. Many leaders had some experience of working life, even if they graduated to plusher jobs: Plaatje started work as a letter courier, Z.K. Matthews' father was a miner, Walter Sisulu worked down the mines, and Dr. A.B. Xuma worked as a labourer in furnaces, coal yards, building sites and stables in the United States when a student.41

Certainly in this period, characterised by Elaine Friedland as "parliamentary nationalism," "petit-bourgeois" strata dominated the peak leadership. Walshe claims the Transvaal Congress excluded those it claimed to speak for, such as Sotho labourers. Potekhin characterises pre-World War One Congress as bowing to colonialism, after which it moved to a stage of "bourgeois nationalist reformism," an improvement from "cringing feudal comprador organisation." Yet a glance at ANC Secretary-Generals from 1912-55 shows that from 1917-23, 1927-30, and 1949-55, even this high position was held by people with known worker links. H.I. Bud-Mbelle (1917-19) and Saul Msane (1919-23) had both been involved in the 1918-20 strikes and the International Socialist League, later becoming more conservative. E.J. Khaile (1927-30) was a communist, and Walter Sisulu (1949-55) began as a worker. Labour issues were strong in declarations of these early days__the Presidential Address of S.M. Makgatho to the annual conference in 1919 noted that "our first strike for 6d a day over 2/- and 2/6 was met . . . by violence, arrests, heavy fines and imprisonment." Mabaso and Bud-Mbelle authored a leaflet addressed "To our people in Town and in the Compound," that bluntly stated: ". . . We want rights. We want living. We want money."42 So it went on, decade after decade__advance, retreat, making and breaking links with workers.

The ANC in its first decades was small and many African workers probably knew little if anything about it, although many urban Africans lived close together, and the identity of Congress, once established, could easily spread. Eddie Roux and Phil Bonner validly characterise early Congress "solidarity" as localised and largely spontaneous.43 However class alliances, due to the fluidity of classes themselves, are rarely rigid and immobile. What we see across the decades is a shifting pattern of alliance forming and breaking, re-forming and splintering again.

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The ANC & Historical Tradition : Congress as a Contested Terrain

Eski'a Mphahlele claims the ANC has long "had strong links with the trade unions," and that teachers' unions were intimidated away from the ANC, an image also strong amongst a new generation of African writers, such as Francis Meli, who wrote the first detailed history of the ANC by a member. Meli drew on the work of Lionel Forman, an ANC historian (of the 1950's) particularly concerned with the intersection of national and labour movements. Congress by this time was more involved in just such an alliance, and much ANC writing from then on mirrored a concern to maintain this alliance. But the combination of class with national factors should not exclude their separate existence and [inter] action. Though the founders of the ANC may have been largely lawyers, doctors and other kholwa they nonetheless were progressive for their time, argues Meli (as does Walshe) and he sees a close connection between class and nationalism. The formation of a black proletariat inclined these workers to see themselves

"as drawn into a single fraternity by their economic interest and this led to a consciousness that all Africans had a common political destiny. This was a prerequisite for an all-embracing African nationalism . . . the emergence of the African working working class . . . tended to enhance not so much class as national consciousness."44

Lodge has surveyed the ANC's multiple historical traditions, how the "ANC as a community (or at least its leadership) understands the South African past" and to what extent this reflects a nativist or African nationalist tradition. The conflicting versions of Nelson Mandela's image__rural patriarch, working class hero or democrat__are proof of its complexity. But complexity per se reveals little, and Lodge's choice is selective. He does not consider the writings of Xuma, Gumede, or Calata. His unwillingness to acknowledge the plurality of ideology in the modern ANC, despite his clear recognition of the body's "many historical memories," is possibly due to his reliance on a certain currenfly popular image of the ANC-in-exile. Lodge criticises Meli for failing to stress class tensions in ANC history. The latter asserted "there is no historical justification for an artificial demarcation between the ANC of today and the 'early ANC.'" This is a sensitive question, as Inkatha has sought to stress just such a dichotomy, and may explain Meli's guarded response. Yet Meli clearly refers to "the social composition of the [early] ANC and its leadership, which consisted mainly of ministers of religion and lawyers and was definitely not working class" and notes occupations of the first Congress Executive. There can be no fruifful dialogue because Meli and Lodge employ different conceptions of the South African social structure__Meli is more concerned with national liberation than with stratification, and Lodge, accurate in his evaluation of class differences, does not give much attention to national/colonial issues.45 The downplaying of African resistance in the ANC is nothing new, according to Thomas Dube, who criticises Edward Feit's Urban Revolt in South Africa, and Margaret Ballinger's From Union to Apartheid for brushing aside resistance efforts. The ANC, claims Dube, far from being no mass party, created a whole network of branches in rural-urban areas from the 40's onwards.46

Whatever one's ideological perspective, links between the ANC and workers have deep roots in history and culture, and are not simply some shifting tactical manoeuvre by an "elite" leadership. Although it is valid to see internal class stratification in black communities and the ANC, these divisions have co-existed for a long time, locked together by the structural and political restrictions of society. These links are apparent today, and also have regional parameters that tend to overlap with national boundaries once set by colonialism.

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