This paper was submitted to the 1973 Durban Strikes Celebrating 50 Years Conference

The first shoots of worker culture emerged in the early eighties with the first experiments in workshopped worker theatre productions[1] and was given conscious form and voice in the mid eighties after the establishment of the Culture and Working Life Project and with the formation of the Durban Cultural Workers Local[2].

In the first and more general part of the paper, I will explore the key motivations and ideas underpinning the worker culture movement. In addition, I will examine the role of white intellectuals, organic intellectuals and other activists in the process, examining engagements, complementarity and balancing acts that occurred in practice. Finally, the paper explore the relationship between organic intellectuals and members of the traditional intelligentsia, examining the complementarity, balancing acts and  other engagements that occurred as part of praxis. Also in this section, I will examine whether worker culture was sustainably integrated into trade unions work. The paper will aver that, partly based on the trajectory of worker culture in the post-1994 period, worker culture did not become a lasting and permanent part of trade union movement practice.

In the second part, the paper will explore the relationships between union-based worker culture activists and working class youth who were engaged in using cultural work as part of their response to the apartheid system. There was extensive co-operation between worker culture exponents and youth activists organised in the Congress of South African Writers and other anti-apartheid cultural workers operating in Natal at the time. This was remarkable given areas of difference. Worker culture activists organised around, for example, promoting union work, the primacy of economic change and a call for a socialist society while other cultural workers were concerned primarily with oppression and the demand for national liberation as a response to that. This second part of the paper will also reflect on the roots, motivation(s) and context for the collaboration and programmatic interweaving that occurred. In that connection, it will delve into contextual factors, including phenomena such as the political violence that swept through Natal at the time and what Ari Sitas has described as the relative monolinguilism of the working class in Natal.  In the latter part of the paper, I will examine the implications of the collaboration and discussion. This examination will revolve around highlighting the gains for both sides (work culture movement as well as for youth using popular culture as a means of organisations). The paper will also try to link lessons from the experience of collaboration to the current context. The paper will ask and try to answer the question: what does the dissipation of that alliance or collaboration mean for organising “voice” from below and for effectively responding to political and economic marginalization in Kwa-Zulu Natal in the present time.

Frank Meintjies


[1] For example, SAHO reports  that workers from Rely Precision Foundry on the East Rand, together with Junctioon Avenue took three months in 1980 to make a play –using a workshopping approach – about their struggle. The play was called Ilanga Lizophumela Abasebenzi (The sun rises for the workers).