The flight of the Gwala-Gwala bird: Essays by Ari Sitas, review essay by Linda Cooper

“They have taught us through their orations the undesirability of a social system based on capitalism, that is inqubo yogimhelakwesabo, that is stuffing one’s own ‘stomach’ careless of other people’s hardships, and umadlandawonye, a system of socialism, or a system in which food is shared with a common community of concern.” (p.156)

This book is a treasure-trove of writings from the 1980s by Ari Sitas – one of South Africa’s leading sociologists, as well as being a poet in his own right, a respected labour commentator and cultural innovator.  The analysis and insights contained in this collection of essays emerged out of Ari’s deep engagement with the lives of hundreds of ordinary workers in Natal who were engaged at that time in building shop floor-based trade unions, developing a vibrant workers’ cultural movement, and attempting to assert working class leadership of the struggle for democracy. His cultural work gave him priveleged insight into the “fears, feelings and intimately personal sides” (p.12) of workers, in addition to broader insights into the achievements and setbacks of Natal’s trade union movement.

There is something particularly intriguing and poignant reading these essays 30 years later: they were written ‘in the moment’ during a turbulent period of South Africa’s history that held a great potential for radical transformation; neither Ari nor anyone else knew at that time what the future would bring, what the outcome of this wave of popular struggle would be. But in hindsight, it is possible to see how the sharp political observations and organic sense of working class life in Natal’s African communities contained in these essays, pointed towards today’s complex challenges and continuing struggle for democracy and social justice.

At the heart of the book is a series of essays on workers’ culture which, as Ari puts it, erupted like the flight of the brilliantly coloured Gwala-Gwala bird from “the labour movement’s forests” (p.11). These essays examine workers’ culture in terms of its forms, its key actors, its relationship with production in the workplace, and its broader social, political and existential significance. Interleafed with these essays on working class culture are a number of historical, sociological and political essays that – in addition to making a critical contribution to the historiography of this period - locate the burgeoning movement of workers’ culture in social context.  I will sketch some of these essays first.

In his introducation to the collection, Ari writes that he has tried to argue the importance of a broad definition of class that goes beyond shop floor issues and avoids economic reductionism (p.11).  Essay One[i], focusing on the development of Natal’s industrialisation, demonstrates the intimate relationship between the cheap labour system and the particular type of industrialisation in the region which rested first, on the dominance of the sugar industry, and later on the clothing and textile industry, both based in essence on a ‘captive labour force’. This was to change in the early 70s however, as a new layer of militant, articulate, semi-skilled workers who were not so dispensable to the owners as their predecessors, entered the factories. The major part of this essay locates the history of efforts to build trade unions and non-racial solidarity in Natal against this background. It tracks how Natal became the cradle of a new trade union movement following the Durban strikes of 1973, and analyses the conditions which allowed this new wave of industrial unions to succeed in their organisational strategy of building strong shop-steward structures in the factories. This allowed workers to achieve a degree of industrial power and to exert some “political power over the destinies of machines and people” (p.36). As with many other essays in this collection, this one includes fascinating first-person accounts by workers of their life histories, their lives inside and outside of the factories, and their experiences of organising and going on strike – a rich resource for any educator wishing to bring this era alive in their teaching.

Essay two tells the story of the “friction, the sparks, the explosion and the discipline” (p.44) of the Dunlop strike of 1984, which lasted for over four weeks and ended in management agreeing to the unconditional reinstatement of all 1200 striking workers. Dunlop was one of the few factories where some workers shared a historical memory dating back over 40 years, including experiences of earlier strikes in 1943 and 1974 that were harshly repressed.  The essay describes how workers socialised each other into the rules of workplace, and taught each other how to survive and engage in small acts of resistance.  It includes detailed images of the organisation of work; fascinating ethnographic detail of the migrant workers’ life histories spanning countryside and city, told in own words; and the voices of workers expressing their bitter ‘khala’ (pain) of thankless years of sweated labour.  Once again, these stories will provide a rich resource for educators.   The essay provides a detailed account of the key organisational features which underpinned the success of the 1984 strike, and concludes that “From this experience was born one of Natal’s most formidable leaderships”(p.70).  Trade unionists today could learn much from this story.

It is against this backdrop of working class life and struggle in Natal that essays 3 – 4, and essays 6 -8 bring alive the  “Voice and Gesture in South Africa’s Revolution”, that is, traditions of worker culture invented and re-invented within the Natal labour movement. Together, these chapters provide a glimpse into the creativity and innovation of workers’ cultural action, including songs, worker theatre, oral performance poetry, and the role of performance in worker gatherings. The essays show how these cultural forms often intersected with one another.

The first half of Essay 6 engages with debates over ‘theorising culture’ in the pages of the South African Labour Bulletin and Staffrider magazine at the time. Anticipating some of the current debates around ‘decolonising’ theory and curriculum, it argues that we need new ways of conceptualising the distinct kinds of ‘cultural spaces’ created by black South Africans, with their own unique aesthetics of performance (umdlalo).  Working class culture needs to be understood as a response to the exploitation and alienation of modern production, and an attempt by some workers to reassert their dignity and some control over their lives. The growth of the union movement “created new possibilities for cultural struggle, linking in unique ways the relationship between culture and production” (p.79).  One of its unique features was the way in which the development of cultural activity happened alongside the emergence of a militant worker leadership in Durban’s industrial areas, and the close affinity between shop-steward leadership and cultural activists. Another is the way it drew on historical customs, habits and rituals of Zulu working people in Natal - they were the “raw materials from which the local activists drew an unending source of energy to pour into new mounds of performance” (p.145) – at the same time as transforming these symbols and rituals. Cultural activism represented a new form of resistance and mobilisation of the collective. Trade union organisers encouraged cultural activities for education purposes, using them as “a small union propaganda machine” (p.144), but at the same time this cultural activity represented spaces of workers’ self expression and grassroots creativity.

In Essay 3 – Voice of the Factory – there is a vivid account of how songs were traditionally embedded in the work life of pre-colonial African societies. Proletarianisation led to the ‘imprisonment’ of the work song form, but it continued as a form of passive resistance, as illustrated by the life history of one of Natal’s most famous worker poets, Alfred Qabula.  Qabula composed ‘songs in his head’ which helped him to survive the hellish existence of the individuated worker who is an appendage to a (noisy) machine.  For a long time, he composed songs for his own self-preservation, but after he joined the Metal and Allied Workers’ Union (MAWU) in 1980, he got involved in a workers’ play where he “began pouring the contents fermenting in his head for others to enjoy. He performed his compositions and incantations like a crazed imbongi[ii]” (p.75).  Ari argues that Qabula “represents a rather grassroots reponse that uses well-rooted forms, organically linked to working-class cultures and infuses them with new contents of the factory experience, and that of a worker militant’s beliefs” (p.77).

Essay 4 focuses on popular and class theatre linked to the Junction Avenue Theatre company from 1979 onwards. Theatre had a thin base in working class life – it was not an indigenous tradition like songs or story telling – but it rapidly became part of a broader range of spectacle and performance art.  Working class theatre attempted to represent the universal ‘shock experience’ of proletarianisation, and to enable workers to exercise some sense of community based on their collective experience. This essay captures the tensions and contradictions involved in workers using a cultural form not historically their own, in a way that could successfully address a number of dilemmas; for example, capturing the hellish nature of work on stage while at the same time being entertaining; balancing the story of workers as heroic individuals with that of workers as collective actors; reconciling ‘cognitive’ moments of social critique with moments  of cathartic expression.

The second half of Essay 6, together with Essay 7, focuses on traditions of poetry in Natal, in particular those of oral praise poets - imbongi.  Essay 7 describes longstanding traditions of Zulu poets, for example, HIE Dhlomo whose poetry accepted the criteria of excellence of ‘civilized imperial culture’; Kunene who tried (through written and oral forms) to critique and reinvent Zulu epic culture and poetry; and Mifika Pascal Gwala, who was part of the black consciousness literary movement of the late 1960s/early 1970s, a ‘thoroughly urban imbongi’ (p.168), whose (mainly performed) poetry reflected lives of poverty as well as struggle. Ari discusses the problems of written poetry:

The tragedy is that they remain, unread by the people. Or better, there is a double tragedy – they will not be read until their works become ‘orally’ accessible, and the people will not read until conditions that make reading possible prevail in their lifetime (p.171).

In contrast, the contributions of the ‘labour poets’ that emerged in the early 1980s were thoroughly oral and performative in character: they uprooted the isiBongi (praise poem) form from its conservative, hierarchical, traditional role and reinvented it in the context of a vibrant and militant trade union movement.  These two essays provide rich insight into the life histories and creative work of worker poets such as Mi Hlatshwayo, Alfred Qabula, Nise Malange and others[iii] . For example, Mi Hlatshwayo combined the fiery preaching of the African independent churches (where “he got his baptism in words of fire” – p.148) with a creative, new symbolism –  ‘politics as metaphor’ - that sought to capture “the common experiences of his class and his people” (p.150).  His poems showed a ‘mastery of local history’ and attempted to “deny the popular mythologies that were bandied around as a  foundation for a Zulu independent National State, a Bantustan” (p.151).  Hlatshwayo announced the rolling forward of the ‘workers’ freedom train’ which would ‘settle accounts with the oppressor’ and dismantle exploitation (p.152).

Essay 10 of this collection (written with Debby Bonnin), reports on a study of features of working class life, with a particular focus on the relationship between workers’ leisure time and material culture.  Its key finding was the extreme limits of time available to workers to enjoy leisure – and therefore cultural activiity – given their very long working hours. This, together with the very limited public spaces available in urban working class areas, meant that cultural activities took place wherever and whenever possible. For example, union meetings were part ‘organisational business’ and part ‘cultural celebration’. Iimbongi often performed at worker gatherings, and the role of ‘voice and gesture’ in these gatherings is the subject of Essay 8 in Ari’s collection. Drawing on Bakhtin, this essay presents a novel sociological analysis of the role of different modes of communication in worker gatherings. The ‘defiant or heroic mode’ of communication  (chants, toyi-toyis, struggle songs) ‘weaves solidarities’ amongst participants; the ‘cognitive mode’, involving discussion, argument and resolution of issues, is where ‘rational’ as opposed to ‘symbolic’ capital is exchanged; while the ‘festive or carnivalesque mode’ invites workers to enjoy imbongi performances, dance, choirs or plays. These were not pristine, uncomplicated spaces but were themselves embedded in power relations between the people who “control the agenda and the megaphones, and the broader gathering” (p.184); but it was within the constraints and possibilities of these popular gatherings that a vibrant performance culture re-emerged in Natal in the 1980s.

So many of the essays in this collection commemorate and celebrate the self-activity, creativity and agency of ordinary workers that joined and made the labour movement what it was in the 1980s.  Essay 9, however, has a more sombre tone: it analyses class, nation and ethnicity in Natal’s black working class, and deals with the difficult issue of how to account for the rise of Inkatha and for the bloody civil war that tore many Natal communities apart during this period. It interrogates Inkatha’s ‘ideological panorama’ which appealed to – but also mythologised – Zulu history, ‘pride’ and culture, with their base in patriarchal values. After the banning of the ANC 1960, Inkatha had appropriated some of its symbols, songs and slogans, and during the 1970s, Inkatha’s nationalism had considerable authority amongst workers in Natal. The emerging unions had avoided engaging with these politics, concentrating instead on buildling shopfloor organisation.  This strategy became increasingly unviable in the 1980s however, when – with the emergence of the UDF and resurgence of popular struggles - Inkatha’s strategy shifted from the politics of hegemony to the politics of force.

This essay critically examines the power of ideological discourse to ‘interpolate’ subjects and identities, in an attempt to understand Inkatha’s populist hold over some workers in Natal at the time. Ari’s key argument is that:

“… it is necessary to resist interpretations of ‘Zulu-ness’ which treat it as a populist experience ‘interpolated’ from above by either dominant ideologies and/or petty bourgeois imaginings. Rather, ‘Zulu-ness’ must be viewed as a negotiated identity between ordinary people’s attempts to create effective and reciprocal social bonds … and the political ideologies that seek to mobilise them in non-class ways…” (p.213).

Furthermore, the essay argues that there is no, one form of ‘Zulu-ness”, and it proceeds to analyse four different modalities of Zulu identity amongst workers on the basis of their different historical experiences of colonialism and apartheid, their different relationships to land and chiefdomship, their forms of proletarianisation and different urban locations.  This kind of analysis which painstakingly explores the relationship between ideology, local historical experience, and relations of production and reproduction, is potentially of significant value to activists today seeking to understand and challenge attitudes of racism, homophobia or xenophobia, and construct an alternative hegemony in post-apartheid South Africa.

This remains a hopeful and inspiring book: it is a valuable historical record of an era that today still provides us with lessons and a vision of the future.  In Ari’s Introduction to this volume, written for its publication in 2016, he notes that in the midst of “the marching ‘impis’ … the flames engulfing shack after shack, and the machetes lining up the streets” there remained hope, solidarity, courage and a continued belief in an alternative future. He concludes that “the Black working class had developed more than a trade union consciousness; rather many of its components have developed unique and exciting visions. It is the neglect of these visions by many trade unions during the last two decades that has precipitated the deep social crises of our recent days” (p.13). It is a book that will inspire intellectuals and activists that are struggling today for radical transformation tomorrow.

End Notes

[i] Written together with John Stannic in 1983

[ii] Praise poet

[iii] All of whose oral poetry is captured in the publication: Black Mamba Rising, produced by Ari Sitas and the Department of Sociology at Natal University in 1986.  The collected poems of Alfred Qabula and Mafika Pascal Gwala have recently been published in 2 volumes edited by Ari Sitas, by South African History Online (2016)