The amaNdebele and modern African imperial history

The educated rather than the raw native very often becomes a nuisance to his white neighbours…Report of the Land Commission

The end of the First World War did indeed usher in a change in British imperial policy. A general revaluation of the moral certainties of old coincided with the emergence of a class of educated natives worldwide who were the first among their respective peoples to actively deal with the challenges and seek the benefits of an open society. The global imperial map was rearranged under League of Nations Mandate which saw foreign territories fall under a Sacred Trust, a term that redefined the imperial role to that of protector in expectation of indigenous rule, now seen to be inevitable sooner rather than later. The British Imperial Government, the most powerful still in existence, was for the first time prepared at its core to contemplate the end of empire. This immediately brought into focus an inconvenient residue…the scattered settler populations whose invitation to the colonies had never been premised on native government. What had once been a short term asset and had now become a long term problem.

Blacks in the settled colonies were perhaps quicker to sense this change than the settlers themselves. A post war immigration boom suggested no particular uncertainty regarding the long term prospects of the African colonies, and while as early as 1923 the Secretary of State for the Colonies was warning that ‘…the interests of the African natives must be paramount’, settlers were taking up land in Southern Rhodesia and building up the cornerstones of urban settlement under the expectation that neither their own nor their children’s generation would be unsettled by any serious native political aspiration.[i] Blacks, on the other hand, or at least those few that could hear, where listening to the sloganeering of men like Marcus Garvey entreating the black man to rise up and reclaim ‘Africa for the Africans’. This was augmented by the pulpit politics of radical black emigrationists in the United States to whom the biblical psalm 68:31 – Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth its hands unto God – was read to mean that Africa had a God-given role to play in the liberation, not only of herself, but of all the global oppressed.

One of the earliest signs of this change was the 1909 formation of the South African Native Convention. This was a loose pressure group founded to protest the lack of black inclusion in the formulation of the Union of South Africa in 1910. It continued to meet after the ratification of the Union until it eventually evolved into a fully fledged congress movement, officially founded in Bloemfontein in January of 1912. The African National Congress was initially a moderate and intellectually aligned organisation preoccupied at first with the question of segregation and the 1913 Native Land Bill then under debate in Parliament. The genesis of black trades unionism in the region followed with the founding in 1919 of the powerful Industrial and Commercial Workers Union which provided the first organised avenue of black resistance in South Africa, and which quickly achieved a membership of some 250 000 subscribers.[ii]

In Southern Rhodesia and beyond the glow of black nationalism on the far horizon was observed mainly through the prism of migrant labour. From Katanga, Nyasaland, Mozambique and the Rhodesias tens, if not hundreds of thousands of individuals annually migrated south to labour in the mines, factories and farms of the Union. From there money, education and liberation ideology circulated back to the hinterland, enlightening a few to the potential of forming their own organisations, associations and pressure groups.

In the meanwhile the character of white political organisation in the region was also as yet incomplete. The Union of South Africa had been formed in 1910 out of the separate colonies and republics of 19th century South Africa, creating a powerful dominion owing nominal allegiance to the British Crown, but still fundamentally divided in an unhappy marriage between Briton and Boer. The liberal, pro-British Prime Minister Jan Christian Smuts was eager to draw into the union as a fifth province the territory of Southern Rhodesia, by then home to a potential bloc of some 35 000 English peaking voters which Smuts hoped he could use as a buffer against the growing threat of Afrikaner nationalism.

The British South Africa Company, by then anticipating the expiry of its 25-year Charter, and almost bankrupt from a quarter-century of unreturned investment, was eager to sell its stake in the country to South Africa in the hope of softening the blow of a fruitless endeavour. The settler population, however, was divided, with the majority fearing that inclusion in the Union would overwhelm the unique identity of the colony, and with most preferring either amalgamation with Northern Rhodesia or the status of a self-governing colony as had been the standing of the Cape Colony before its inclusion in the Union. The matter was put to a referendum and the Responsible Government Party won the day. With that the British South Africa Company retreated from any active role in the administration of the territory and the Imperial Government accepted a nominal role which left the day to day management and ideological journey of the colony almost entirely in the hands of its minority settler population.

With unparalleled global opportunities now available to the sons and daughters of England, Southern Rhodesia, along with South Africa, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and all the other settled dominions of the empire, welcomed a flood of fresh immigrants. These were a different character of person to those that had occupied and pacified the territory, and they arrived less with the hope and expectation of a brief and lucrative speculation and more with a view to building homes and raising families. The urban areas developed rapidly alongside a penetrating national communications infrastructure, and widespread agricultural, mining and industrial development. Land became the typical aspiration of white settlers, with some 23 percent of whites gainfully employed being agriculturalists, and the ownership of agricultural landholdings, usually on a small scale, the objective of just about every white person across the employment spectrum in the colony.[iii]

When borne in mind that the black man of the colony was also one that lived upon, and looked primarily to the land as a source of wealth, security and support, the early potential for friction was obvious. In the 1920 Orders In Council that defined in finality the existence of Native Reserves of Southern Rhodesia no specific rules governing the distribution of land existed to govern the process, and certainly there was no clause to limit the technical right of a native, as with anybody, to purchase and settle on land anywhere in the colony. There were of course economic and social limitations that for the foreseeable future made it impractical that blacks would gain commercial access to the land, but the fact that some potential for this did exist worried many whites.

By 1923 and the advent of self-government the basic structure of land tenure in the country had been established, and all that was lacking was a legal framework to ratify it. Prior to the grant of self government a delegation of white settlers had visited London and raised the matter with the then Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill, who conceded that: ‘…if full and impartial inquiry should show, after Responsible Government has come into force, that some amendment of the law is necessary, His Majesty’s Government would be prepared to consider an amendment’.[iv] Thus it was that, in January 1925, a commission was appointed under Sir Morris Carter to look into the matter of land distribution in the colony and to make recommendations.

What emerged from the investigations of the Carter Commission was the defining article of race legislation that in many respects set the tone for the fifty years life of the colony thereafter. The Land Apportionment Act of 1931 contained provision for the allocation of land rights along strictly racial lines. In order that it pass the imperial veto – that minor provision in terms of self-government that allowed the Imperial Government right of proscription over any article of legislation deemed to be discriminatory – the bill when it was debated was couched in terms superficially beneficial to the blacks. It was hoped that by legislating against the rapacious land hunger of whites enough land would be kept in reserve for the sole use of blacks. The most pernicious and far reaching statute within the Act was the declaration of all cities and urban areas zones of white occupation, which in the age of industrialisation and labour was to prove the most intractable of all the many race conundrums of the age.

The principal that theoretically underscored the Land Apportionment Act was one of separate development. This was deemed part of the idea of a Sacred Trust, a trust that the resources of colonised territory were now to be developed – not exploited – but developed for the benefit of the native peoples once they were able through education and inculcation to effectively utilize them. One of these resources was government, another was land, and yet another was the natural mineral wealth of the nation. Separate development was the noble ideal that the natives of a territory be allowed space and resource to develop separate from whites, and under the direct tutelage of Her Majesty, and protected from the parallel development of the modern, industrial and agricultural infrastructure underway at the hands of white settlers. As little overlap as was practically possible was to be encouraged.

A particularly charismatic proponent of separate development was Godfrey Huggins, forth Prime Minister, and one of the guiding spirits of the Southern Rhodesian race philosophy. Upon his election platform in 1933 he defined his race manifesto as the ‘Twin Pyramids’ concept, being illustrated as two pyramids, one white and one black. Initially the white pyramid would be supported by a black base until, with sufficient immigration, it would be wholly white, while the black pyramid would have a white summit that, in theory, would be removed by black development and self government, but in practice would remain into perpetuity in some form or another.

In actuality, however, the rapid industrialisation of the country in the inter-war period rendered any idea of wholly separate societies completely unrealistic. The economic interdependence of the races had long ago rendered the concept of segregation and separate development impossible. The traditional city as it had been devised by the white man, and as it was being blueprinted under the recommendations of the Carter Commission, was rendered obsolete even before the Land Apportionment Act had been legislated. More than this the mass migration of black workers into the cities served to destroy inherited traditions, impoverish the rural areas and compromise, although for a long time not entirely alter, the white notion of what a multi-cultural Southern Rhodesian city should look like.

So if blacks could not be denied access altogether, then their movement to and within the urban areas, and to a large degree within the country as a whole, would have to be micro-managed and meticulously controlled. Thus came into being the Natives Registration Act of 1936. Pass Laws were then a traditional and persistent instrument for the control of blacks across the African colonial spectrum. In South Africa and Southern Rhodesia the system was originally put in place mainly to aid police in the task of identification, but later to supply labour and prevent desertion, and later still as part of the machinery of segregation aiming to limit the influx of blacks into the urban areas. Every black male of 14-years old or above was required to carry a registration certificate, or situpa, which served as both a tax receipt and a contract of service. Within the main urban areas of the colony every black male, in addition to a situpa, was required to carry either a pass to seek work in the town, a certificate of employment to prove hat he was engaged in work, and if employed outside the town a written permit from his employer or a visiting pass.

If Rhodes had been taught by the Matabele Rebellion that the amaNdebele could not be dismissed as having no account, so the survival of most of the governing structures of the amaNdebele ensured that when the time came for a regeneration of black political institutions it would be in Matabeleland, and among the amaNdebele, that the first movement would be noticed. That is not to say that the Mashona aptitude for intrigue, politics and gamesmanship would not ultimately eclipse the more orthodox institutions of the amaNdebele, but, in the beginning at least, it was Matabeleland that enjoyed the advantage.

In the 30 years or so since the suppression of the Matabele Rebellion the main evolution of leadership had been the movement away from such iconic anchors as the abeKhumalo line, which had relinquished relevance in favour of commoners whose leadership credentials lay more in education and exposure than lineage. The process was gradual, however, and was not without an occasional backward glance. The first tribal association formed out of the wreckage of the rebellion was the amaNdebele Patriotic Society, an assembly of educated amaNdebele that sought to influence tribal opinion as it groped for direction in a new world. The most notable proclamation delivered by this organisation was a brief verse lamenting the gradual submersion of traditional amaNdebele culture.

Wake up, wake up, wake up, Mandebele!
Your people are in great danger of being wiped out . . .
Many of our old and young women are living on mines and Town
Locations as prostitutes. They are selling their bodies
To evil men for money, clothes and Utchwala (beer). They have brought
Disgrace to our nation. The white people are despising us . . .
Syphilis, the curse of prostitution, is showing itself in the children
That are born . . . How are we to break down and kill this evil? The A.P. Society
Will lead you to break it down by the help of the Almighty God . . .

Elements of the amaNdebele Patriotic Society later fused with articulate blacks coming up from South Africa into the Rhodesia Bantu Voters Association, with its stated goal of providing for the general upliftment of all Bantu irrespective of tribal status. Strategies for this involved lobbying the government for moderation in the application of pass laws, land availability, support for schools and the broadening of the franchise.

Such were the first visible efforts of blacks in Southern Rhodesia to shake free from the trauma of the 1890s and begin the process of finding direction in the white man’s world. It was an early object lesson in building organisations along the European model, which was a signal to all, white and black, that the moment had arrived to shake off the shattered remnants of tribal life in the reserves and confront directly the challenges of modern life. Much of the strength drawn for this and other organisations was pan-tribalism, which thrived off the mix of ethnicity created by the colonial administration and its general indifference to the sub-divisions of black society.

With guarded cynicism, but also a trace of current realpolitik, the president of the more focused Rhodesia Native Association, J.S. Mokwile, was heard to remark:

‘Native are all alike,’ it is often said. This word ‘native’ is used without distinction. The man is black, and there’s an end to it. High, low, rich, poor, Christian, non-Christian, uncivilised, educated and uneducated – they are all marked with one and the same brand: and justly so, we are just plain natives of Africa, sons of the soil.[vi]

In 1934 these two organisations were superseded by the Bantu Congress of Southern Rhodesia, formed by Aaron Jacha, a purchase area farmer from Marirangwe north of Salisbury, and other leading black teachers, catechists and clerks from both Mashonaland and Matabeleland. Once again this was less a political formation that a pressure group which tended from the beginning to focus on the concerns of the educated elite that made up its principal membership. It protested several laws, among which was the Native Registration Act, the Industrial Conciliation Act, which effectively locked black workers into lower rates of pay, and the Maize Control Act which limited the scope under which blacks could compete with whites in the production of this most staple of African foodstuffs.

It was never the intention of Congress to confront the permanence or immutability of white government, which at that point was deemed too monolithic and pervasive to be effectively challenged, but instead to ensure that the status of educated Africans was respected, and that ‘enlightened’ blacks be afforded some substantive avenue of inclusion in the public life of the colony. Such petitions as the removal of the word ‘native’ from official communications in favour of ‘Africans’, a qualification that would exempt certain classes of black from carrying passes, and that when royalty or other notable personalities visited the territory that the ‘Christian and enlightened natives of the colony should be given a full opportunity to meet them’, were made.[vii]

This of course ran against the basic tenets of segregation, and in an effort to ride above the swell the Congress leadership was often prepared to overlook much that was patently flawed in colonial policy. Congress acknowledged, for example, and accepted, the spirit of the Land Apportionment Act, and much that it implied, and even advocated union with South Africa when that question was considered. Thanks to this the organisation found itself remote from the day to day concerns of the masses. The feeling of the common man continued to be unformulated, and unheard, which remained the case until the first genuine mass movements in the colony began to take shape.

The world view of many blacks seconded into military service during World War I had been altered by the experience. Several thousand had enlisted in the all volunteer Rhodesia Native Regiment for service in the East Africa campaign, and the levelling factor of shooting at, and occasionally killing a white enemy helped to create a few cracks in the wall of invincibility that seemed to surround white power in the region. Back home the removal of so many white men to the various theatres of war resurrected fears of an opportunistic black uprising that also underlined a little of the persistent white sense of insecurity. Much discussion circulated in the white community of a growing Bolshevik influence among intellectual blacks, while in 1927 the first organised industrial action took place on a mine in the Shamva District.

Towards the end of that same year a deputation of Nyasaland expatriate blacks living in Bulawayo travelled south to consult with their compatriot Clements Kadalie, who was then probably the most widely respected figure in the nascent black political movement. Upon receiving some advice and instruction in the matter of organising a labour union Robert Sambo and Mansell Mphamba returned to Bulawayo with leave from the South African ICU to found a chapter of the organisation in Southern Rhodesia.

The formation of the Southern Rhodesian Industrial and Commercial Workers Union was announced by a series of meetings, militant speeches, a poster campaign and a general denunciation of government labour policy, which proved to be an unexpected and intoxicating message to the workers of Bulawayo which also succeeded very quickly in ensuring the deportation of the Nyasa two leaders. The seeds had been sown, however, and one of the first to hear the message was Masotsha Ndlovu, a recent returnee from South Africa, a Matabeleland native, a member of the now diluted abaZanzi strain and one of the first active nationalists to emerge from the old tribal structure.

Popular mythology puts Masotsha Ndlovu’s year of birth at 1890, somewhere south of Plumtree, and within sight of the pioneer column as it crept northwards towards Mashonaland. He would have been three years old as the forces of the empire arrived in the territory, and six years old when the Ndebele took up arms in rebellion. Both of his parents would have experience rule by the Khumalos, the shock of the invasion and the ruination of the occupation. The scorched earth policy that followed the Rebellion saw the family’s villages burned, crops destroyed and livestock looted. The local people were driven into the Matopos, returning only to find expropriated lands and forced resettlement to the arid fringes. None of this would have been spared the young Masotsha Ndlovu as he grew up. By the time he left the family home and moved to the Nyathini Area just outside Bulawayo his sense of the injustice of life under the colonial regime would have been remote, inasmuch as he personally saw few whites in his day to day life, but would have been deeply ingrained in him by the experiences of his people and his family.

 The vague chronology of his early years leave it in doubt exactly when Masotsha left home and entered Bulawayo for the first time, but his impression can be reasonably easily summed up by the well documented circumstances of most working blacks in the city at that time. The arrival in Bulawayo of the railway in 1897 had early on set the tone for the industrial importance of the city. Access to Bulawayo from the south for manpower and goods proved more viable in the short term than via the Beira Railway to Salisbury, a connection that was only competed in 1899, so most of the early industries that took root in the colony did so in Bulawayo. This inevitably catalysed the migration of black labour to the city, and in the absence of any framework upon which to develop facilities for native life in the European areas, squatter settlements rapidly grew up on the fringes of Bulawayo, creating conditions of life for the majority that could offer little but the slow disintegration of any existing moral fabric.

Masotsha Ndlovu was one of many early economic immigrants that gravitated to Bulawayo in the pre-war period. His first employment was with the Meikles organisation where he earned the princely sum of £3 a month. At the outbreak of war in 1914 he volunteered to joined the Rhodesia Native Regiment but was rejected for reasons indeterminate. He then opted to join the steady stream of young men migrating south in search of better wages and education. He arrived in the Cape in 1919 at the moment that the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union was being born, and found himself in an environment of accelerated black political energy. He was taken in by a liberal white benefactor, a woman who is nameless in his biography, but for whom he performed odd jobs before finding more substantial work.[viii]

After some minimal self-education and a great deal of exposure to the vibrant political energy of the times Masotsha returned to Bulawayo in 1928 with a much broader sense of the crisis that had befallen his race in the 20th century. Like many he was initially overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge, and could think in no greater terms than finding someway to enlarge the political opportunities available to blacks in an overwhelmingly white administrative environment. He had been inspired by the rise of black political awareness in South Africa and was quick to involve himself in the nascent Industrial and Commercial Workers Union formed in Bulawayo the year before by Robert Sambo and Mansell Mphamba.

With prompt departure of the two founders the organisation fell into the hands of local men, and among these was Charles Mzingeli, whom Masotsha Ndlovu introduced to the early meetings of the ICU. Mzingeli was also an amaNdebele, and like Masotsha had left Southern Rhodesia before the onset of World War I where for a while he worked as a domestic servant in a white household, absorbing the lessons of South African nationalism before returning home to Bulawayo after a brief perambulation through Bechuanaland and Northern Rhodesia. Mzingeli was immediately impressed, first by the promise of liberation that was latent in message of the ICU manifesto, but also by the authenticity provided the organisation by the presence of a white detective taking notes at the meetings which hinted strongly at official concern. In November 1929 he was sent to Salisbury to act as organising Secretary for a Mashonaland chapter of the ICU which was an appointment that carried huge symbolic importance in those formative days of the struggle. As an amaNdebele organising in Salisbury the supra-tribal aspirations of the organisation were revealed, reinforced by the fact that many of the principal executive members of the ICU in Bulawayo were Mashona.

The policy of pan-tribalism in the early days of the struggle would prove to be resilient, and survived into the militant phases of the 1950s and 1960s, although sadly the same could not be said for the ICU itself. Initially both chapters recorded impressive membership gains, but in due course official interference – the restrictions on membership imposed on all civil service departments was just one example – began to hamper the ability of the union to effectively organise. The executive was infiltrated, organisers were barred from the reserves, industries closed their gates to union representatives and rural organisers lost their city passes until communications between the two constituencies stumbled and then ceased altogether. Early inexperience also contributed, as did the fact that the masses at that time were morally depleted and politically inert.

When in July 1930 both Masotsha Ndlovu and Charles Mzingeli were arrested and charged with criminal slander – in the case of Masotsha for referring to Chief Native Commissioner Clive Carbutt as a ‘bad man and an oppressor of natives’ – it seemed to be the beginning of the end.[ix] 1931 witnessed the signing into law of the Land Apportionment Act by Prime Minister Howard Moffat, son of John Moffat and grandson of the great race egalitarian Doctor Robert Moffat, which set in moment the de jure recognition by the settler community of the ‘native problem’. In the wake of this came a more determined imposition of segregation laws, coinciding with the great depression, and the lapse into unemployment and poverty of a great many whites who then began to demand even more pervasive legislation against black advancement in order to protect the diminish resources of the nation available to them. In 1933 Masotsha Ndlovu defied the ban and entered the reserves and was arrested and imprisoned for a month without the option of a fine. On his release he washed his hands of the union and entered formal employment. Soon afterwards Charles Mzingeli also fell on hard times, opting in the end for private business and a sideline as a dance band musician.

The economic uncertainties that had plagued the colony since its founding were washed away in a single chapter when the British tobacco industry entered World War II without its traditional supply of US Virginia tobacco. The wartime economy, the scarcity of US dollars and the sudden surge in demand from the mass mobilisation of the empire’s manpower caused British tobacco to look elsewhere, and where it looked was Southern Rhodesia. Suddenly an economic backwater of the Empire, one that had impoverished the British South Africa Company so effectively, exploded into productivity and the vibrant economic life of the colony began.

This, and a generally multiplied demand for primary products to feed the war machine, resulted in massively increased production and a redoubling of industrial output, with annual growth rates averaging nearly 25 percent between 1944 and 1948.[x] The consequent demand for labour resulted in a huge increase in urban migration, which in turn resulted in congestion in the native settlements and locations, a decline in urban conditions and standards of life and a fermenting discontent in the bourgeoning black workforce.

The period also witnessed a general increase in the sophistication of the blacks, with a far greater incidence of literacy allowing for a more ready and effective dissemination of information. Blacks were now more acutely aware of how poorly they were expected to live in relation to their white workmates and neighbours, and moreover the political doctrines of the period were reaching them more directly, and finding purchase in a mass consciousness that was merely waiting for the stimulation of a popular movement. Blacks were no longer inert, they were productive, socially active and powerful in the traditional ways of the worker.

Meanwhile through the 1930s the union movement in Bulawayo did not disappear but simply sub-divided. It shared political space with a variety of home-grown social clubs, civic associations and tradesman’s guilds with such names as the Bulawayo National Bantu Community Association, The Bulawayo Bantu Dancing Club, Bulawayo National Public Burial Society, The Bantu Benefit Society of Railways, African Tradesman’s Association, The Bulawayo National Bantu and The Matabele Home Society.[xi] In 1943 stringent efforts were made to unite a growing number of black voices under a single organisation, and for a while it seemed that under the aegis of the Southern Rhodesian Bantu Congress this might be achieved. In December 1943 a 17 man executive was elected including members from all the existing societies clubs and associations. This revived interest in the Southern Rhodesian Bantu Congress was hailed as a major step forward, and indeed the organisation now hosted names that would feature very strongly in the iconography of the liberation struggle.

Of most immediate importance was a man who would continue the supra-tribal efforts of the pioneers of the movement, and who played the part of intermediate bridge between the faltering days of proto-organisation and the period of fledged nationalism that would bear down on the closing days of minority rule in the country. Benjamin Burombo was the quintessential popular hero, rough and ready, hard working and a fearless crusader for the rights of the common man. He was a Mashona, and in fact even more than that a man with a traceable lineage to the fallen aristocracy of the Rozwi, and yet his most vital years of organisation and achievement were in Matabeleland, and it was among the amaNdebele that his greatest work was done.

Benjamin Burombo was born in about 1909 in the central Fort Victoria province, and as with most of his peers at that time his was the one of last generations of black youth to enjoy the innocence of a traditional childhood. Some primary education was available to him through the nearby Seventh Day Adventist Hange Mission school, but this was limited somewhat by poverty, and so his working life began early in the humble field of domestic service in the home of a Bulawayo white man. In 1932, however, he abandoned the colony and followed the stream of able young men travelling south for the higher wages and improved opportunities.

There he did not completely conform to the ascetic pursuit of education and self advancement as did other notable nationalists emerging from this period, although he did attend and observe a number of political and union meetings, and while he did not enter into the movement, he clearly absorbed a great deal. Burombo returned to Southern Rhodesia in 1936, settling permanently in Bulawayo in 1941.

With the increased economic activity of the war years the 1940s was an active period in Southern Rhodesia. Benjamin Burombo, Charles Mzingeli and Masotsha Ndlovu where only a handful of returnees from South Africa congregating in the industrial city of Bulawayo, bringing with them their education, political exposure and militancy. It was not long before a diversity of labour unions emerged, most with a limited fee paying membership but all with a huge general following and a vague but determined objective to challenge white social dominance – ostensibly in the labour field – but practically in any sphere where protest could be lodged.

The main focus of discontent across the black labour spectrum in Bulawayo was low and unequal wages. The Industrial Conciliation Act of 1934, ostensibly tabled to equalize wages, was in fact designed to protect white artisans from black competition. It achieved this by legislating equal pay for both races, ensuring that if a white employer were faced with employing a black for the same pay as a white, he would invariably prefer to employ a white.[xii] The Act also provided for the formation by trades unions and employers councils, but since under the terms of the Act blacks were excluded from the definition of ‘employees’, they could not be members of recognised trade unions.[xiii] It was not until 1959 that African workers could legally form trade unions, or take recourse to an Industrial Conciliation Board for the resolution of disputes. The effect of this was to introduce modern and progressive methods of industrial conciliation for whites, while subjecting blacks to the terms of an anachronistic Masters and Servants Act that had more in common with the labour laws of 19th century Britain than those of a modern industrial society.

Meanwhile the first serious hints of social stress where revealed by the Railway Strike of 1945. This incident was rooted in the appalling living conditions suffered by blacks in this intermediate period between 1935, when plans for industrial expansion of Bulawayo were tabled, and industrial zones demarcated and sites sold, and 1946 when the Native (Urban Areas) Accommodation Act provided the first legal framework for the formal accommodation of blacks in the urban areas. The Railway Strike was successful in winning the promise of a detailed examination of wage conditions as well as prompting the government to appoint a general commission of inquiry which issued a damning assessment of black, urban living conditions, and made recommendations for improved wages and the establishment of machinery to deal with native industrial disputes.

The success of the Railway Strike of 1945 provoked a resurgence of interest in union activity and mass meetings became a regular feature of the black political landscape. In January 1946 an organisation called the Bulawayo African Workers Trades Union emerged with a new crop of vocal and militant leaders at the fore. Sympathetic whites were seconded for their organisational contribution, and although the message from this quarter was conservatism and caution in the expression of political goals, by the end of 1946 an effective federation encompassing most of the separate local unions – including bakeries, stores, motor drivers, messengers, garages and engineers and foundry workers[xiv] –  had begun to emerge. This organisation represented a total of some 700 fee paying members, and in due course it became The Bulawayo African Workers Trade Union, and later the Federation of Trade Unions, or The Federation.[xv]

 This federation of union movements represented an important symbol in the unity of industrial and political movements in the country, but it was challenged immediately when in early 1947 Benjamin Burombo announced the formation of the African Workers Voice Association. According to Burombo the Voice was formed not necessarily to oppose the Federation, but because as a grouping of black trades union the Federation could not be recognised under the law, and therefore could not legally function. The narrow interpretation of the Federation as an organisation concerned with workers interests belied the fact that black anger and grievance was a much wider phenomenon, and affected the black population as a whole.

In this respect the Voice was closer in objective to a political party than any organisation that had existed in the colony to date, and Benjamin Burombo, a burly working man with a great deal more common wisdom and charisma that intellect, stood somewhat apart from those in leadership who saw education and intellectual accomplishment as the correct credentials for leadership. Both formations, however, would have ample opportunity to prove their worth in the months and years to come as the gathering centrifuge of labour unrest in Bulawayo sought for some definitive avenue of expression.

Meanwhile the apparently successful action by the Railway Workers set in motion a chain reaction in Bulawayo that would ultimately end in April 1948 with a general strike in the city. This would prove to be a watershed in the search for direction of black nationalism in the colony, but would also reveal the depth of division of the various movements, organisations and ethnic groups that more than anything else needed to act as a united body to have any hope of toppling white political dominance.

Trouble began when recommendations in respect of the Railway Workers demands were published on New Years Day 1948. These were deemed satisfactory by the various workers committees and organisations, and it was widely expected that they would be applied across the board in a general revision of wage and working conditions in Bulawayo. In the event this proved not to be the case, and many powerful organisations, in particular the 3000 strong Municipal African Employees Union, began to agitate and coagulate under the various umbrella bodies. The main labour organisations, the Federation and the Voice, began actively to agitate while at the same time making public recommendations of constitutionality and restraint. Union organisation was illegal, and disturbing the peace even more so, so a great deal of care needed to be applied in those tense days to keep the groundswell of public discontent under the control of union and community leaders.

It was here that the first major rift developed between the Federation, and the Southern Rhodesian Bantu Congress which at a late stage tried to lend its voice to the general flurry of opinion  in an effort to have all the organisations unite under its banner. The rift was broadly between the educated elite, or the ‘enlightened’ blacks that Congress had been so eager to represent – clever looking blacks in suits and ties affecting the careful intellectual deportment of authority – and the grass roots workers who had at that stage very little patience with the airs and graces of their leaders. Many have said in later analysis that those airs and graces were a careful cover to avoid being seen to be rousing the rabble, but others have suggested that many in the leadership were too eager and ready to embrace the values of the enemy and did not directly concern themselves with the well being of the masses.

Meanwhile the Associated Chamber of Commerce of Rhodesia decided at an AGM held in Bulawayo that a conference should be convened in Salisbury on April 6 to consider measures to relieve the rising cost of living for Africans. In response a mass meeting held by the Voice on 14 March was able to urge patience among the 6 000 attendees until the results of this crucial meeting were made known. Among these were municipal employees whose case had been under consideration since 1947.

Enormous expectation then came to be focused on the date of April 6, with the vast majority of workers anxiously anticipating the report of the Salisbury meeting, and an atmosphere of restrained violence promising an explosion in the city if nothing satisfactory emerged. The indefatigable Benjamin Burombo did nothing to lower temperatures by touring relentlessly the various industries urging the acceptance of nothing less 10 shillings a day, and urging that if peaceful methods proved fruitless then the only alternative was strike action. As was reported by the Bulawayo Criminal Investigation Department: ‘…African opinion in Bulawayo had become so worked up that it only needed the faintest spark to set the whole thing ablaze.’[xvi]

The spark that did indeed ignite that blaze came from the April 7 headline featured on the front page of the influential Bulawayo Chronicle. The banner revealed that the conclusion of the conference of the Federated Chambers of Commerce held in Bulawayo had been a suggested urban pay scale of 30 shillings a month, far less than had been expected, with moreover the accompanying report so filled with ambiguities that blacks flocking to buy the newspaper could make neither head nor tail of what had been agreed.

On 8 April a mass meeting was held in Stanley Square, Bulawayo where for the first time direct strike action was advocated as the city seethed with agitation and excitement. The leadership seemed cowed by the prospect of immediate strike action, urging restraint and consideration, and a period of delay in order that adequate preparations be made for such a radical course of action. The masses on the other hand seemed committed to immediate strike action, and calls for restraint where met with heckling derision as a dangerous atmosphere in the city gathered momentum.

With a strike imminent it became essential for the Bulawayo leadership to work together in order to effectively guide and channel a solidly united mass movement at the grassroots. A reading of different histories of the affair leads a student to the unfortunate conclusion that the masses had no faith in their leadership, and that the leadership had no specific strategy for what they had been founded to achieve. It is true that the political and labour leaders could not be seen to be urging unconstitutional action or agitating for industrial action, but at the same time it is evident that no single body was able to claim control of the strike, and between the Federation, the Voice and the Bantu Congress an unseemly effort to restrain their own members and constituents lends very little credibility to the first large scale and cohesive action of the struggle. This was a blow delivered by the people that left the leadership in a flurry to catch up and make sense of what had happened.

Despite this the strike went ahead, and on an otherwise bright and pleasant spring morning Bulawayo commuters were treated to a sight that had not been seen in the colony since the outbreak of the Rebellion almost 52 years earlier to the day. A core of militant pickets blockaded the location while others went off in search of workers who were dragged out of their employment, given a salutary lesson and sent either to the lines or home. The search for ‘scabs’ spilled over into the white suburbs, and although few whites were directly targeted, domestic servants were stopped from working or actively harassed at their places of work. The Acting Native Commissioner, touring the town to assess the extent of the strike, noted that ‘…thousands of Africans with sticks, knobkerries, stones and iron piping [were] swarming all over the city….the intimidation was terrific…’ he added.

The Bulawayo strike had been extraordinarily successful and comprehensive, but it was short lived, and although ripples spread to the other principal urban centres of the country the authorities were forewarned and the broad mobilisation of Bulawayo was not repeated. The government responded with a show of force, but behind the scenes it was rattled by the event, and quickly promised a review of wages, and true to this a National Native Labour Board was appointed and charged with investigating wages and working conditions in all the major towns. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, attempted to pacify a nervous white population with an observation that was late in coming, but true none the less. ‘Our experience is not unique,’ he told said, ‘we are witnessing the emergence of the proletariat and in this country, it just happens to be black.’[xvii]


[i] Gray, Richard. The Two Nations, (Oxford University Press, London, 1960),

[ii] Gray, Richard. The Two Nations, (Oxford University Press, London, 1960), p11

[iii] Gray, Richard. The Two Nations, (Oxford University Press, London, 1960), p12/13

[iv] Gray, Richard. The Two Nations, (Oxford University Press, London, 1960), p13

[v] Gray, Richard. The Two Nations, (Oxford University Press, London, 1960), p160

[vi] Gray, Richard. The Two Nations, (Oxford University Press, London, 1960), p162

[vii] Gray, Richard. The Two Nations, (Oxford University Press, London, 1960), p163

[viii] Nyathi, Pathisa. In Search Of Freedom: Masotsha Ndlovu, (Longman, Harare, 1998) p8

[ix] Nyathi, Pathisa. In Search Of Freedom: Masotsha Ndlovu, (Longman, Harare, 1998) p25

[x] Southern Rhodesia Development Coordinating Commission, Third Interim Report: The Pattern of Progress,  p16.

[xi] Bhebe, Ngwabe. Benjamin Burombo, (College Press, Harare, 1989) p37

[xii] Blake, Robert, A History of Rhodesia, (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1978), 219/220

[xiii] Gray, Richard. The Two Nations, (Oxford University Press, London, 1960), p102

[xiv] Bhebe, Ngwabe. Benjamin Burombo, (College Press, Harare, 1989) p39

[xv] Nyathi, Pathisa. In Search Of Freedom: Masotsha Ndlovu, (Longman, Harare, 1998) p35

[xvi] Bhebe, Ngwabe. Benjamin Burombo, (College Press, Harare, 1989) p54

[xvii] S.R. Debates, 5 May 1948, col. 19.