South Africa has a long and rich scholarly tradition on the labour struggle and workers’ challenge of gendered racial capitalism. A consequence of the leftist turn in South African sociology in the 1970s, this scholarship positioned South African sociology as a pre-eminent academic centre in the sociology of work and, importantly, public sociology more generally. A small and, to some extent, a subordinated subset of this scholarship looked at the aesthetics of protest, illuminating visual, sonic, and dramaturgical forms of labour politics. This paper recovers this strand of South African labour studies. Specifically, as an expository exercise, it reports on an initial attempt to excavate and thereby shine a light on cultural artefacts in the LRS’s possession. Established in 1986 during South Africa’s state of emergency, the objective of the Labour Research Service (LRS) was to support trade unions’ collective bargaining capacity by providing “economic and financial research and information”. Currently, the LRS holds an impressive collection of t-shirts, artistic works, placards, posters, and photographs that have received little – if any – scholarly attention. These objects have the potential to reanimate discussions on past cultural expressions of protest and defiance. However, occluded from view and interpretation, undated, misplaced and dispersed, these artefacts (and related collections) do not readily conform to notions of the archival. Consequently, their hermeneutic, archival, and epistemic potential is unfulfilled. In providing a preliminary overview of the LRS collection, this paper seeks to develop and promote an appreciation for the LRS materials’ archival possibilities. Hopefully, this initial contribution will stimulate research into the LRS collection: a necessary step in recovering the vibrant cultural histories and contributions of the labour movement. Drawing on scholarship in the fields of visual and material culture, this paper provides a glimpse into how the labour movement contested the political, economic, and social order of apartheid-era South Africa through protest t-shirts, producing artwork, and printing banners, posters, and other ephemera. Thus, it charts a path for future generations’ epistemic and cultural/aesthetic engagement with this important archival material.

Biography: Lebogang Mokwena is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape. She holds a PhD in sociology from The New School for Social Research, New York. Lebogang’s scholarship lies at the intersection of cultural and historical sociology, with a keen interest in material cultural objects. Her work often veers in the direction of visual studies. Her postdoctoral fellowship is funded by the National Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS).