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World War II and the Scramble for Labour in Colonial Zimbabwe, 1939-1948

Author(s):Johnson, David
Reviewer(s):Jones, Laird

Published by EH.NET (December 2002)

David Johnson, World War II and the Scramble for Labour in Colonial

Zimbabwe, 1939-1948. Harare: University of Zimbabwe Publications, 2000. iv

+ 179 pp. ISBN: 0-908307-85-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Laird Jones, Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania.

At first glance, David Johnson’s monograph on Zimbabwean labor during the

Second World War appears unlikely to interest the general economic history

reader. It is a rather slim volume with a seemingly over-focused title. Turning

the pages, however, it is soon apparent that the author has attempted a much

broader project. Interpreting the war years as a crucial watershed, Johnson

seeks to connect two major bodies of research in modern African history: the

development of an early colonial economy and labor regime, and the rise of

postwar political and labor activism. Far from being narrowly focused, his

study weaves together a number of labor-related themes, from farm work to

industry, and policy to protest.

What is most refreshing about the book is that it examines Zimbabwean labor

history outside the shadow of the South African literature, making comparisons

and drawing upon theses developed elsewhere in colonial Africa. In particular,

the author cites Walter Rodney on the war as a watershed, Fred Cooper on the

war and workers, and Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale on settler politics and the

colonial state. Of course, Johnson does make reference to scholarship on

Zimbabwe and South Africa, but the broader perspective is both informative and

more appealing to a wider audience.

The argument begins strongly. The introduction asserts, “the war was a pivotal

moment in the relationship between capital and labor in Zimbabwe, then Southern

Rhodesia. Under the guise of support for the British war effort,

undercapitalized settler producers — who were unable to attract an adequate

supply of labor through a dependence on market forces — used their political

power to influence the state to coerce Africans into wage employment in order

to take advantage of unprecedented opportunities presented by the expansion of

internal and external markets.” Moreover, the author connects these efforts to

postwar labor unrest and later mass nationalism. He cautions, “settler

prosperity and the economic development on which it was built were not without

contradictions. The expansion of the war and post-war years … greatly

increased the social basis for Africans to challenge their economic and

political subordination.”

The first chapter clearly establishes that military service was not a

significant Southern Rhodesian contribution to the allied war effort. Africans

generally dreaded it. Nor did white settlers volunteer in great numbers. Even

the Southern Rhodesian government did not encourage mass enlistments. Instead,

it pursued a strategy of training small, highly skilled combat units. In part,

Johnson argues, this official reticence stemmed from longstanding fears of

armed rebellion. No settler-dominated legislature wished to see large numbers

of Africans under arms, whatever the circumstances. But in greater part,

Johnson maintains, reluctance to raise a larger fighting force stemmed from the

desire of settler farmers, would-be manufactures and mine operators to

capitalize on the war economy, and for this they required African laborers, not

African soldiers.

Chapter two outlines the wartime stimulus to the Southern African economy, and

settler efforts to cash in, which Johnson terms, “the lucrativeness of

loyalty.” The Southern Rhodesian government, for example, hosted a number of

British flight training facilities. Construction of these bases proved a

windfall for settler contractors, as did provisioning the influx of military

personnel for local merchants. More important, wartime demand revived the

mining industries and gave company owners greater leverage to lobby for higher

mineral prices. The agricultural sector expanded too and in Zimbabwe none saw

their situation more improved than tobacco planters. Finally, wartime shortages

of imported European consumer goods proved an impetus to secondary

industrialization in many Southern African cities.

The key variable in the wartime economic boom, the author argues in chapter

three, was African labor. Since the official repeal of corv?e labor in the

1920s, settler employers had faced a dwindling supply of local workers. Many

young people simply found cash crop agriculture on the Reserves more

remunerative than wage labor on settler farms or in the mines. For nearly two

decades the situation failed to become acute, because during the Depression

there was sharply reduced demand, and worker shortfalls were made up with low

wage migrants from less prosperous neighboring colonies. It was the war,

Johnson points out, which brought the matter to a head. In settler agriculture,

mining and industry there was sharply increased demand for workers, and at the

same time, several neighboring colonies severely restricted the outflow of

migrants, ostensibly to aid their own war efforts. Rather than relying on

market forces, however, Southern Rhodesian employers attempted other options —

professional recruiting organizations, appeals to more distant labor pools, and

increased demands on their remaining work force. Settler farmers had long

lobbied the Southern Rhodesian government to reimpose forced labor, and

following the failure of the 1941-42 maize harvest finally pushed through the

Compulsory Labor Act.

Forced labor, in the midst of a war against authoritarianism, was a dicey

matter. The author presents considerable evidence in chapter four that

conscription was most unpopular in the Reserves. Further, he suggests that even

the colonial state was contradicted in this effort. Certainly, elected

officials sought to reward settler employers. However, conscription quotas

placed on African chiefs or headmen in the Reserves undermined the legitimacy

of the colonial regime on the ground. And a return to forced labor risked

criticism from anti-colonial and labor activists in Europe. Therefore,

officials justified the scheme as essential to the war effort and organized it

accordingly. Young people were formed into large units, and worked in gangs,

traveling from one job site to the next. Some might be engaged in military

construction, others in roadwork, and many in agricultural fieldwork.

These four chapters contain several noteworthy assertions. First, the author

documents that settlers maneuvered within the context of the war to gain

political and economic advantage. The point has certainly been made previously

for Eastern and Southern African in the case of the First World War, but less

for the Second. This contention also provides better context for postwar

politics, at least for settler efforts to set legislative agendas and to impose

reactionary forms of control on African populations. Second, Johnson points out

that settler enterprises exploited forced labor long after the literature

suggests. Moreover, they did so during a crucial recovery, which some argue was

a take-off period for large-scale, settler agriculture. Whereas others have

attributed this belated settler success to better access to extension services

or transport, new hybrid seed types, mechanization or political control over

para-statal marketing boards, the author reintroduces the question of primitive

accumulation and returns African labor to center stage. This contention too has

great bearing on the postwar situation as well as on the present, but

unfortunately these connections are not developed.

The argument becomes clouded in chapter five, which outlines the postwar repeal

of compulsory labor, as well as employer initiatives to organize state-related

recruiting entities to make up shortfalls. Most failed, the author argues,

since during the immediate postwar period there was relative prosperity in the

Reserves, and few young people were willing to seek low wage agricultural

employment. Moreover, those in need of work headed to urban areas or undertook

clandestine migration to South Africa. Thus, the author places European settler

and African peasant agriculture in competition, a common theme in the Southern

African literature, and implies that in the postwar period, from a labor

standpoint, it was settler agriculture that suffered. Unfortunately, while

these are interesting observations, supported in some instances by documentary

evidence, they seem difficult to sustain without considerable further research.

How could settler agriculture expand throughout the period in the wake of an

apparent worker shortage? Did “external” migrant labor again come to play a key

role? What about other factors besides labor? Likewise, “peasant” agriculture

has largely been considered to be in commercial decline after the war.

Certainly there were belts of prosperity close to urban food markets or

transportation routes. But in more isolated areas, those that had for years

been exploited as labor pools, had conditions really improved to the point that

few people would take occasional farm work?

The sixth and final chapter jumps to the urban areas to outline postwar African

political and labor activism. It is a rather abrupt transition in that the

preceding chapters deal largely with settler farmer politics and rural labor.

At several points the author does state that wartime conditions led to an

expansion in mining and stimulated secondary industrialization, but beyond

these generalizations, he provides little information on actual conditions in

mines, factories or transportation facilities. The policy connections are also

difficult to discern. Did wartime compulsory labor policy play any role in

sparking postwar urban protests? Were there rural-urban linkages? Were there

other wartime urban or industrial policies that factored into postwar unrest?

Unfortunately, the book ends abruptly and the author offers no conclusions.

David Johnson’s initial study constitutes a promising beginning to a massive

topic. It provides some important analyses, on wartime politics and forced

labor in particular. The data on clandestine migration to South Africa also is

original and impressive. However, given the book’s limited length, its

contributions are not thoroughly developed. In the future, the author needs to

flesh out his thesis with further research on rural-urban linkages in labor

activism or political protest, on the impact of urban wartime policies, and

perhaps on the process of secondary industrialization.

Laird Jones teaches African and World History at Lock Haven University. His

research is in late modern East African urban and economic history. He is

currently working on a project about consumer imports.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Africa
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII