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Book Review Notes: Keep on Knocking.

This is the first book I will be doing a review on in a segment of the blog I’ve titled Book review notes. I’ve titled it so because for the books I will be reviewing from now on, I will be taking their most potent points that I enjoyed from the book. They will not be too many or too few points, most probably ranging from 8-12 points per book. I hope you enjoy the reviews and learn something from them as I have learnt too.

1. Keep on Knocking is a book that paints a broad landscape of labour history from 1900-1997. What it lacks in detail, it makes up for in creating a pattern of how labour has progressed in the country. Written Brian Raftopolous and Ian Phimister (noteworthy labour academics) it is very telling of labour history in Zimbabwe.

2. The Trek to South Africa. An underappreciated reality of the labour discourse in Zimbabwe is how the route to South Africa has always been an option for labour and more worryingly, to the detriment to labour in Zimbabwe. Keep on knocking shows how The Rand where gold was found (now Johannesburg) where the preferred destination sites from workers across Southern Africa. What this does is create an avenue for workers when their prevailing conditions are not conducive. Ofcourse workers do have the right to freedom of movement but I imagine that the militancy of Zim labour would be a lot more powerful if there was not ‘a way out.’

3. Tiny beginnings. It was interesting for me to see that trade unions did not magically appear as we understand them today. Their early formation days has a lot to do with Burial associations and humorously enough the Watch Tower Church which did a lot in creating worker agitation in the then centre of capital accumulation in Rhodesia, Wankie Colliery mine. They all culminated with the formation of the Industrial and Commercial workers Union in the 1940s. They did not have great immediate success but established the ground for more effective work by workers against capital later on.

4. The source of bargaining power. It is common knowledge amongst labour practitioners and academics that not every time is the best time to negotiate for labour. There is always a need to establish your bargaining power against your employer. The book shows how economic variables such as Labour supply, the war 1919 and 1945 World Wars and inflation were key situations that aided in advancing labour issues. The First world war was a blessing to white workers, whereas the second world war ushered black people into the forefront of labour issues.

5. State and capital are twins that love each other. As someone from the Born free generation, all I have known is the state and capital (businesses) being best of friends against labour. This book reminds us how this has been a trend that started as early as the 1920s. Firms such as Wankie colliery, farmers managed to gain super profits because the state willingly protected businesses. In some cases they would be one when the Wankie colliery boss was also an MP. When it was called upon, the state was willing to use its strength against usually the key Labour unions such as mining (Hwange), against railway workers, and now doctors. The logic has always been that the state needs key industries to keep working. They have never seen that they need workers to keep going.

6. Racialised unions. The lives of white workers in the colonial era was interesting. They had massive success against big business in 1920. Their continued relevance and strength however became more reliant on exploitation of black workers. Skilled jobs were protected for white workers, white and black workers could not belong to the same union. This was the contradiction of white workers. They benefitted from race, but they were exploited because they are labour, nonetheless their racial privilege relied on black workers exploitation. White workers effectively gave up the right to strike by increasingly becoming bureaucratized and paternalized with the state by seeking laws that protected them from black Labour competition. This situation is telling of the gender dynamics we have in post-colonial Zimbabwe. Replace the white worker with the male worker, and the black worker with the female worker. Instead of unity amongst workers, the state and businesses constantly create fissures (in this case a patriarchal one) which then makes the workers weaker. The classic ‘divide and conquer’ tactics.

7. The Skokiaan This felt like a side note in the book but it was important to me in explaining the experiences of workers pre-independence. The Skokiaan was a beverage made in the townships. It was important because it was extra income that workers needed to survive. This shows how wages were generally poor. If one didn’t have skokiaan, they usually relied on agricultural produce (as did a number of Zezurus). This flies in the face of an often-romanticized version of pre-independence labour history in which older workers argue, “back in the day of the white man, everyone had a job, had food”. They could be forgiven since they are comparing a previous time with the current regime but to then say one was better than the other is a hope for better times, than a historical fact.

8. Funding headaches- A recurring issue is the lack of funding that black trade unions were subjected to. Starting with the quasi worker associations such as the burial associations in the early part of the century all the way past the halfway point, funding affected trade unions such as the Federation of Bulawayo African Workers’ Union (FBAWU) and Reformed Industrial and Commerical Union (RICU) run by the legendary Charles Mzingeli. So even though there were successful strikes such the 1948 General strike, the trade unions relied on international funding which was complicated by the Cold war politics. This does however show how Zimbabwe’s labour history is much informed by regional and international situations.

9. Labour links to nationalist organizations. The most important aspect I learnt from this book has to be the strong link between labour and the nationalist organizations. I personally knew labour played a role in liberating Zimbabwe from colonial rule, but underplayed the significance. This is the danger of the what Terrence Ranger calls “Patriotic history” which defines the history of Zimbabwe beginning and ending with efforts made primarily by liberation guerrilla forces. This patriotic history has ignored how labour was the foundation for the rise of Joshua Nkomo, that labour was a key cog in frustrating the Ian Smith government. This is the danger of the single story which has the aim of strengthening the hand of the liberation-military dogma which has allowed war veterans and the military in Zimbabwe to have a disproportionate influence on national affairs, at the cost of the voice of labour.

These are my favourite points from this book. Aspects I did want to add have to do with the lack of gendered history of labour in Zimbabwe as well as looking at the strong influence of foreign nationals from Zambia, Malawi on the industrial growth of the nation. These issues I hope to tackle more deeply in future. It is a must read for history lovers, union workers and sympathizers.

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