Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros245-246Analyses et comptes rendusSchler Lynn, Bethlehem Louise & S...

Analyses et comptes rendus

Schler Lynn, Bethlehem Louise & Sabar Galia (eds.). — Rethinking Labour in Africa, Past and Present

Miles Larmer
p. 421-424
Référence(s) :

Schler Lynn, Bethlehem Louise & Sabar Galia (eds.). — Rethinking Labour in Africa, Past and Present. Abingdon, Routledge, 2011, 147 p., ill., index.

Texte intégral

1This insightful and eclectic volume of labour studies, written from a wide range of disciplinary perspectives, helpfully represents an important historiographical and methodological shift away from a Marxist-influenced school of African labour that privileged formal sector workplaces and an essentialised male working-class. This shift, evidenced here by insightful and innovative analyses of women union and community leaders, transnational and “offshore” workspaces, artisanal and artistic work, and migrant worker identities, has helpfully dismantled rigid Eurocentric binaries of labour and capital and as a result shed considerable light on the lived experience of work in Africa (and indeed globally). If these achievements seem less innovative than they appeared at the time of the book’s publication a decade ago, it is testament to the significant changes in the discipline during that time that have reinvigorated the once somewhat moribund tradition of African labour studies.

2An impressive introductory overview sets the scene for these various turns in labour history, building on the seminal work of Frederick Cooper. The editors equally incorporate postcolonial emphasis on representation and imagery but seek to combine this with the “material” to argue: “our understanding of the modes through which Africans represent and negotiate their participation in political and cultural contexts will be enriched by a sustained awareness of material opportunities as well as by the vectors resulting from articulated identities and allegiances” (p. 3). The underlying tensions arising from the unpredictable interplay between material reality and the articulation of identity provides a central theme to many subsequent chapters. Pnina Werbner’s study of post-contemporary Botswanan labour relations via biographical analyses of three female state and labour leaders convincingly demonstrates that these (and other) “subaltern women in the global south create political imaginaries that make sense of their citizenship and gendered worlds in specific political and social circumstances.” Likewise, Isaie Dougnan’s historical analysis of Dogon migrant workers’ relationship to and understanding of anasara bire in the early-to-mid twentieth century helpfully demonstrates that the centrality of prestigious hard work for such migrants’ sense of self-mastery owed nothing to conventional understandings of an exploited working-class. While earlier analyses of such workers tended to use E. P. Thompson to explain their (implicitly problematic) non-proletarian nature—and thus their lack of interest in industrial action and socialist politics—Dougnan and Werbner, in different ways, demonstrate that a very Thompsonian interplay of labour exploitation and an aspiration to personal dignity is at the centre of many African labour identities.

3Most chapters in this study engage instructively with multiple overlapping labour regimes—local, national and transnational. While an assumed “national” is helpfully displaced from most of these studies, the nation-state provides an important regulatory framework for labour relations in some chapters. Lynn Schler’s own study of the late colonial Nigerian Seamen’s Union provides an instructive case of the gulf between the local dynamics of shipboard worker representation, literally and ideationally positioned in a version of the “Black Atlantic,” and an onshore union leadership that became increasingly fixed in a national space. Béatrice Hibou’s study of contemporary Tunisian “offshore” industries that impose on their workers a distinctly invasive regulatory regime: this “diffuse paternalism” imposes on tourism, call-centre and textile factory workers a continual system of work monitoring and the gathering of performance data, while offering little or no job security—a model of precarious late capitalism that is now all too familiar worldwide. While this might be seen as inimical to nation-State regulation, Hibou demonstrates its compatibility with the Tunisian State’s own paternalistic view of its “citizens.” In this context, the country’s marginalised union movement is largely irrelevant to these sectors: like many analysts of post-colonial African labour, Hibou finds it necessary to account for the absence of conventional class/labour struggles, and provides relevant but somewhat dated explanations, drawing on Weber and Foucault, that emphasise workers’ willingness to accept a considerable degree of subjugation if it enables them to pursue their specific life-goals.

4An unusual feature of this volume is that it brings together historical and contemporary studies, approached from a range of disciplinary perspectives. This naturally draws attention to the ways in which African labour has changed over time, but also the diverse ways in which labour may be studied, though this is not satisfactorily analysed in the introduction. There is real benefit in, for example, reading a closely observed participatory study (by Louise Bethlehem and photographer Terry Kurgan) of park photographers in central Johannesburg alongside more conventionally historical studies of maritime and industrial labour—particularly since it is likely that this form of work has itself now been displaced by selfie photography on smart phones. Emily Lynn Osborn’s outstanding study of the production of aluminium cooking pots in West Africa demonstrates the origins of this industry in Senegal’s post-World War Two steel industry. The resultant training of skilled metalworkers then enabled these men to establish artisanal workshops turning waste aluminium into household goods, via the longstanding patterns of male labour/entrepreneurial mobility also discussed by Dougnan, as well as equally enduring generational dynamics of skill transfer. Osborn brings this analysis up to date with the challenge faced by local practitioners as a result of growing competition for aluminium waste from Lebanese and Chinese entrepreneurs. While this volume successfully pushes at the boundaries of conventional definitions of “workplace” and “labour,” Hagar Salamon et al.’s study of the iqqub,” the rotating credit associations established by Ethiopian women migrants to Israel. While this chapter provides a fascinating glimpse into the constructed nature of this “traditional” practice, and the important role in plays in the Ethiopian community in Israel, this chapter has little to say about this practice as “work.”

5The most obvious contribution of this volume, the product of largely female scholarship, is in new approaches to gendered and women’s labour history. As is now well understood, a focus on unionised and otherwise organised workplaces tended to uncritically focus attention on male workers and either exclude or marginalise much of women’s work—whether “informal,” “low status” or “domestic,” categories of work/non-work that are themselves as much the result of ideological designation as of material reality. Contributions here both write women into labour history and challenge in doing so conventional approaches to its methodologies. In particular, Werbner’s life histories of female labour leaders intentionally break the public/private boundary, encompassing both these women’s achievements in the public sphere but equally their familial, religious and cosmopolitan subjectivities. While Osborn and Dougnan both emphasise the self-mastery achieved by skilled and/or mobile male workers, there is little overt discussion in these chapters—or indeed in Schler’s study of the conventionally homosocial shipping industry—of how notions of masculinity shaped their identity.

6The very diversity of these studies does not lend itself to a single, simple characterisation of African labour, whether historical or contemporary, and is all the better for that. While African labour studies were once apologetically framed by the “failure” of complete proletarianisation, or the need to explain workers’ inability to act like a “working-class,” historians and social scientists are happily more confident in capturing the precarious realities and meaningful subjectivities of Africans’ working lives. The recording of these experiences is not only valuable in itself, but increasingly relevant to the study of labour across the Global South and indeed globally.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Miles Larmer, « Schler Lynn, Bethlehem Louise & Sabar Galia (eds.). — Rethinking Labour in Africa, Past and Present »,  Cahiers d’études africaines, 245-246 | 2022, 421-424.

Référence électronique

Miles Larmer, « Schler Lynn, Bethlehem Louise & Sabar Galia (eds.). — Rethinking Labour in Africa, Past and Present »,  Cahiers d’études africaines [En ligne], 245-246 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2022, consulté le 25 juin 2022. URL :

Haut de page


Miles Larmer

Faculty of History and African Studies Centre, University of Oxford, Royaume-Uni

Haut de page

Droits d'auteur

© Cahiers d’Études africaines

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search