STREAM: Concepts, Classes and Workers. Revisiting ‘the making of a working class’, African case studies

STREAM: Concepts, Classes and Workers. Revisiting ‘the making of a working class’, African case studies

This stream is a thinly disguised plea for Africanists to return to the field of labour history long enough to reconsider the usefulness of that infamous concept ‘the working class’ as well as the dynamic social process that historically goes into its ‘making’. This request is motivated in particular by the conjunction of Global Labour History’s renewed interest in capitalism and unfree labour, and Slavery Studies’ creation of the concept ‘post-slave society’.

Contemporary reality has confounded earlier historians’ expectations of a ‘slave-to-worker’ trajectory both in individual experiential terms and writ-large on society. Global labour historians, struggling to encompass the non-Western experience, have tried re-conceptualizing capitalism itself to accommodate the continuing and/or recurring presence of ‘non free, non-salaried’ labour. Historians of slavery draw on the post-slave paradigm to accomplish the same. It is the goal of this stream to draw on the rich and expansive work of the latter in order to initiate conversation with the former. It has recently been suggested, for example, that the difference between slave and wage labour is merely a matter of ‘degree’ (of exploitation), not of quality. What have studies of ‘modern slavery’ and ‘traditional slavery’ in modern times to contribute to this theory? Or as recently commented upon by Benedetta Rossi, studies of workers (in her case, migrant workers), have focused on the classic characteristic of ethnicity (and one could add others such as urban-rural culture and degree of dependency on wages,for example) that the significance of their status as ‘slaves’ or freed slaves and the role of resisting or running from this status in shaping them as workers, is overlooked. Which raises the question: if entering the salaried labour force is a means by which former slaves, slave descendants and other marginalized groups like castes, acquire ‘freedom’, what does this mean for our current understanding of the exploitative nature of capitalism? Is there anything valuable to be had by re-examining the concepts of how, when and why workers become a ‘class’ in the objective sense, and how, when and why they become conscious of that identity in the context of today’s labour precarity?

This exploration can benefit from case studies everywhere on the continent and engaging with almost any era, though for purposes of coherence here (and keeping this stream from becoming a raging river overflowing its banks) it is suggested that panels engage with colonial, post-colonial and/or contemporary situations wherein ‘links’ can be made between them. They can be either theoretical or empirical in nature and drawing on any disciplines, but the real aim is to provide enough concrete African labour history ‘evidence’ involving those of marginal nature (the greatest number of whom would fall into some category of ‘un-free’ or ‘less-than-equal’) to genuinely interrogate some of Global Labour History’s theoretical proposal.

Confirmed Panels

Freedoms in the making. Labour dynamics and social upward mobility in the shadows of slavery

Chair: Ann McDougall

The slow end of slavery in Africa and the ambiguous emergence of wage labour during colonial and post-colonial periods have implied both a range of new opportunities for social and economic emancipation as well as the appearance of new forms of labour exploitation that often have overlapped with previous ones. Although scholars have analyzed in depth continuities and discontinuities of these processes in many post-abolition contexts, there is still room to explore which kinds of concrete freedoms and opportunities of upward mobility have been built under changing labour regimes, how local economic and political hierarchies reinforced or crumbled, and how these social, political, and economic processes have contributed to give new meanings to local concepts of freedom and bondage. By taking into account historical and ethnographic cases collected in different African contexts, this panel aims to show how people at the bottom of social hierarchies have actively built spaces of social and economic independence for themselves and their offspring, how they have tried to renegotiate their labour conditions in different working sectors (from agriculture and domestic labour to mining, public services,   waste-piking, petty trade and other commercial activities), and how local concepts of freedom have been elaborated at the interface of past and new forms of exploitation. The panel welcomes contributions that link post slavery studies with labour history, and that can analyze the specificities of life experiences under the lens of wider economic and political frameworks.

  • A Matter of Class, Social Prestige, and Freedom. Domestic workers in Antananarivo and Ambositra (Madagascar)., Gardini, Marco, (University of Milano-Bicocca, Milan, Italy)
  • “The Making of Boudioumane’s ‘Working-class Identity’ in Dakar, The Social Life of Bokk-Diom between Formal and Informal Sector of Waste Management”, Rimoldi, Luca (Dipartimento di Sociologia e Ricerca Sociale. Università degli Studi di Milano-Bicocca, Milano, Italy)
  • “Cash-Crops revisited Freed Slaves, Peasants, Migrants on the agricultural frontier of Southern Senegal (Kolda region, 1860s to present)”, Bellagamba, Alice, (The University of Milano-Bicocca, Torino, Italy)

Rural Labour Systems: workers, markets and mobilization from Colonial to Contemporary times

This two-part panel explores facets of Rural labour systems  including:  the nature of ‘work’ and the workers employed – in one case moving from total exploitation to blue-collar workers; the function of overarching agencies like marketing boards, recruiting agencies and labour reserves in shaping  rural economies both during colonialism and in contemporary situations.  Questions of change over time (or lack thereof), the intersection of the ‘state’ (be it colonial or other) and the local (informal systems of resource mobilization shaping labour) and the long term impact of inadequate, inappropriate or simply failed efforts to create what we think of as ‘workers’ are discussed over time and space. Part II focuses on contemporary systems of labour marketing and mobilization in Southern Africa – case studies include Mozambique, Tanzania and South Africa/Zimbabwe. This panel will grapple with, among other questions, the degree to which what we see today is a fundamental rupture with colonial structures and, whatever the ‘answer’ to that question – the extent to which the continued poverty and precarity we see can be addressed using these structures.

Part II focuses on contemporary systems of labour marketing and mobilization in Southern Africa – case studies include Mozambique, Tanzania and South Africa/Zimbabwe. This panel will grapple with, among other questions, the degree to which what we see today is a fundamental rupture with colonial structures and, whatever the ‘answer’ to that question – the extent to which the continued poverty and precarity we see can be addressed using these structures.

PART I  Colonial Labour in Congo, Angola and Nigeria

Chair: Stefano Bellucci

  • Free and coerced labour in the Angolan coffee economy, c. 1930-1960, Vos, Jelmer, (University of Glasgow, Glasgow, United Kingdom)
  • Paternalism and the Making of Class in Central Africa: Unilever in the Belgian Congo, 1911-1960, Loffman, Reuben, Alexander, (School of History, Queen Mary, University of London, London, United Kingdom)
  • From Cartel to Cabal: Politics of Cocoa Export and the Establishment of the Nigerian Cocoa Marketing Board, 1947-1948, AJIOLA, Felix, Oludare, (Department of History and Strategic Studies,University of Lagos, Akoka, Nigeria, Lagos, Nigeria)
  • Dominion, politics and culture. The government of the sobas and the labor relations in the backlands of Angola (centuries XVII and XVIII)., Alfagali, Crislayne, (Universidade Estadual de Campinas – Unicamp -Brazil, Campinas, Brazil).

PART II Contemporary Labour in Mozambique, Tanzania and South Africa/Zimbabwe

Chair: Benedetta Rossi

  • Survival Strategies and Social Networks on  Resource Mobilisation among  Rural Communities in Tanzania : Qualitative Analysis of “Umgini” practices among Zanaki., Kiondo, Emmanuel, Yacobo, (The National Museum of Tanzania, Butiama, Tanzania | PhD Candidate in Political Science at University of Dodoma, Dodoma, Tanzania)
  • Rehashing the Specter of Rhodes: The Political Economy of Cheap Labour Supply in Neo-Liberalising Southern Africa, Mugari, Zvenyika, Eckson, (Midlands State University, Gweru, Zimbabwe)
  • Rural Labour Markets (RLMs): Why are they neglected and what are the implications for the productive structure in Mozambique?, Ali, Rosimina, (IESE, Institute for Social and Economic Studies, Maputo, Mozambique)

South African Social Case Studies: impact of State Housing on the Working Class and Precarity in the Age of the Digital Economy

 This panel has only two papers but they promise to open up many questions that intersect in ways extending beyond their simple geographic/political economy situation.  Each, in different ways, is looking at how ‘the working class’ is defined and defines itself in the context of changing state and economic policies; one expands that context to the global one that has generated what is called the ‘4th industrial revolution’.  Each is rooted in the history of labour in South Africa and its traditional relations to capital and the state (among other things); these papers set their analyses of contemporary change – one ‘planned’ through state-controlled housing policies , the other ‘unplanned’ (and unknown) as a consequence of new technologies.

Chair : Ann McDougall

  • Low-cost State Built Housing for the South African Working Class; A History, Freund, William, (University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa)
  • Locating a ‘working class’ amid the fourth industrial revolution in South Africa, Beresford, Alexander, (University of Leeds, Leeds, United Kingdom)

Workers, Unions and the State: Case Studies from Botswana and Ethiopia

This panel spans an unlikely geographical zone – Botswana and Ethiopia. However, its papers speak closely to each other. Two are case studies of the role of Unions – their relation to the state, their function in society (and who should be represented by unions); a third looks specifically at the formation of workers in Ethiopia in the 1960s-70s, providing the foundation for the later discussion of how and by whom they should be represented. Between the focus on immediate post-colonial worker formation and the exploration of different Union formations and functions, the panel promises to generate broad discussion across many African regions.

Chair: Stefano Bellucci

  • Reflections on Class and Culture in Africa, Werbner, Pnina,  (Keele University, Keele, United Kingdom)
  • Trade Unions and the “Democratic Developmental State” in Ethiopia, Pellerin, Camille, (London School of Economics, London, United Kingdom)
  • Working class formation in Ethiopia: assessing shifting trends within turbulent terrain, Admasie, Samuel Andreas,  (University of Basel, Basel, Switzerland | University of Pavia, Pavia, Italy)

Concepts, Classes and Workers: shaping the questions

Chair: Alice Bellagamba

  • Post-slavery and the non-making of a working class in the Nigerien Sahel., Rossi, Benedetta, (University of Birmingham, Birmingham, United Kingdom)
  • From Slave Labour to “Free” Wage Labour in Colonial Somalia: Issues of a Capitalist Transformation?, Bellucci, Stefano, (Leiden University & International Institute of Social History, Leiden and Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
  • “Class is defined by men as they live their own lives”: In search of Mauritania’s Working Class, McDougall, Ann, (University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada)


If you have any queries or suggestions please contact Ann McDougall ( ) For panel and paper submissions please follow the instructions on the website 

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