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International Workers’ Day – revisiting The Mozambican Miner

Mozambique 2

In honour of International Workers’ Day, the Ruth First Papers Project would like to highlight one of the treasures of our online archive. The Mozambican Miner – a report produced by the Centro de Estudos Africanos (CEA) while First was Research Director there – remains a vital and innovative piece of research into migrant labour, colonial manipulation of peasant and urban economies and practices, and the vast economic and political frameworks underlying these. Through exhaustive research conducted in the countryside, along migration routes and in border towns between South Africa and Mozambique, combined with painstaking economic and political analysis, The Mozambican Miner provides new perspectives on working life and on the structures that fuel and rely upon the oppression of workers. Although the report addresses the particular situation of migrant workers travelling from Mozambique to the mines of apartheid-era South Africa, it contains analyses of import and relevance to the exploitation of workers and the legacies of colonialism worldwide. The full report can be read here, and you can also view the continually expanding collection of archival documents related to First’s work in Mozambique. Interviews with Gary Littlejohn and Alpheus Manghezi also provide a rich sense of the experience of conducting research at the CEA, alongside Ruth First.

Though The Miner is the product of an integrally collaborative project, it is emblematic of First’s way of thinking, working, and acting. First had a unique ability to detect connections in and between our personal and political realities that remain opaque for many of us. She saw the links that inherently exist between economic/political structures and everyday conditions and experiences of those subject to them. She also recognized opportunities for building new connections, for bringing activism into journalism, into academic research, and into daily life. As Don Pinnock said in his talk at the Ruth First Memorial Symposium, hosted by the project in summer 2012:

“The way she wrote … made what I was trying to do sensible. She’d worked out the relationship between factual reporting and mobilization… and it’s what I came to call insider journalism. She was building an alternative consensus. She’s looking for the contradictions… in her journalism. And she was asking questions into a different paradigm and that’s what was so mobilizing. She wasn’t working within the paradigm of the state.”

(See Pinnock’s entire talk, as well as a moving opening speech by Albie Sachs.)

There are many ways in which we can and do struggle to change the circumstances that allow and demand the exploitation of workers, and to protect the most vulnerable as we push for that change. Whatever form our efforts take, First’s life and work are an inspiring demonstration of the importance and potential of integrating our activism into our everyday lives.

In solidarity with garment factory workers in Bangladesh, with mine workers in South Africa, and with workers at home and around the world.

RFP at CEA conference this week


The Ruth First Papers team – Leo, Vanessa and Virgilio (and not me, unfortunately!) are in Maputo for the CEA’s Os intelectuais Africanos face aos desafios do século XXI conference – Vanessa and Virgilio are speaking on the Thursday and Leo is giving the final session on the Friday.

Virgilio will then remain in Maputo for two months, surveying the archive at CEA, while Vanessa and Leo travel to South Africa to conduct interviews and meet with colleagues. The programme for the conference is below:


On the Commonwealth’s charter of values


Professor Philip Murphy, the director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (home of the project) wrote the following letter published in the Times (original here, paywall):

Sir, anyone familiar with the recent history of the organisation will sympathize with the demand by three Nobel prizewinners that Britain refuse to endorse any new Commonwealth charter of values if this is not matched by a credible mechanism to identify and address abuses (“Nobel trio attacks Commonwealth rights charter plan”, Sept 27). The Commonwealth has, indeed, been woefully poor at matching warm words on democracy and human rights with actions.

Nevertheless, the charter could still serve a useful purpose. The “Arab Spring” has demonstrated that repressive governments have most to fear from their own people. By contrast, it is difficult to imagine an enhanced international enforcement process capable of responding adequately to the complex problems faced by Commonwealth states, particularly since many are now turning to China as an alternative source of economic and diplomatic support. The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 was signed by a number of governments which had little or no intention of respecting its endorsement of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Yet it inspired a series of popular movements across Eastern Europe dedicated to holding those states ot account.

A Commonwealth Charter with clear commitments on human rights, democratic values and the rule of law might serve as a similar manifesto for popular activism. Rather than simply being another example of the Commonwealth’s “repetitive rhetoric” it could potentially inspire a wave of grassroots “Charter Watch” movements capable of turning that rhetoric into reality.


Director, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London

Thomas Sankara: twenty five years since his murder

Thomas Sankara (1949-1987) was a radical leader of the small West African state of Burkina Faso, formally the French colony of Upper Volta. He was mrudered twenty five years ago today. He rose to lead the Burkinabé revolution in 1983. At the age of thirty four Sankara set about transforming the small and rural economy of Burkina Faso, promising to ‘draw on the totality of man’s experiences since the first breath of humanity. We wish to be the heirs of all the revolutions of the world, of all the liberations struggles of the people of the Third World’. Soon Sankara’s image was seen on the walls of student radicals around the world, his name a watchword for revolution. Burkina Faso, for several short years, became a beacon to another political world. He raged against the injustices of global power and sought to transform the lives of the poor. Derided by his opponents, who saw him as a stooge of Cuba and the Soviet Union, Sankara divided international opinion. In circumstances still shrouded in mystery Sankara was assassinated in 1987. While some rejoiced others saw the defeat of a possible alternative to austerity and underdevelopment on the continent.

For a figure that is still celebrated and demonised, Sankara’s life is largely unknown. The story of his life crosses the late colonial period, when French power on the continent was slowly being undermined by nationalist forces. Sankara’s life, however, tells us another story. The period of his schooling, political apprenticeship and career covers the first two decades of independence. This was a moment of rapid political and economic change, when the continent tantalised the world with the possibility of colonial liberation, independence and freedom. In a short time these hopes collapsed, new opposition parties and movements emerged from the crisis of independence. The children of independence grew disillusioned with a political elite that seemed to replicate the repression and inequalities of colonialism. New groups saw the removal of the ruling class as the only solution.

Sankara’s life spanned this period; he became the leading proponent of a new independence, which would refuse the old relationships with the ex-colonial power. He was determined to be model of incorruptibility. Refusing any of the trappings of power, accepting neither the ministerial limousines nor air conditioning; he was determined to live in the same conditions as the people he ruled. When he was murdered he left a car, four bicycles and a fridge. But the world’s poorest president was caught in the vice of global power and by his own limitations.

At the Ruth First Project we celebrate the life of this inspiring radical.

#EdMiliband and Ruth First


In his Labour Party conference speech yesterday, Ed Miliband cited Ruth First as a major influence on his early political life. Patrick Wintour of the Guardian writes:

‘He offered insights into his childhood, reflecting on his shock at seeing his mother broken by the news that the

anti-apartheid campaigner Ruth First had been murdered. “I was angry. I knew that wasn’t the way the world was meant

to be. I knew I had a duty to something about it. It is this upbringing that has made me who I am. A person of faith, not a

religious faith, but a faith nonetheless, a faith I believe many religious people would recognise.” ‘

You can read a rolling commentary on the speech here, and browse the Ruth First Papers collection here.


Periodisation and confusion

Looking through our material and writing some copy for the upcoming Bloomsbury Festival, I noticed an interesting point about the chronology we’re using for the website. We’ve organised the last section of material in the period 1978 to 1982, but the English edition of The Mozambican Miner was published in 1977. In fact, Ruth spent a large part of 1977 in Maputo working with the CEA and directing the fieldwork for the project. As Alpheus Mangezi pointed out in his paper at our conference , they first met early in 1977 at the Centre  and worked together closely from that point.

That said, our decision to class the Maputo period from 1978 still stands. Her work there prior to 1978 was on a temporary basis, and until then it wasn’t clear that she would move her base of operations entirely back to Africa. But we should take this as a sign that the people’s lives defy the kind of easy periodisation that we would find more convenient as archivists and as historians.

Matt’s trip to South Africa

I’ve just returned to the UK after two weeks in southern Africa promoting the Ruth First Papers project. There I met with our partners in Maputo and Cape Town, and visited colleagues in Johannesburg.

It was particularly a privilege to get to visit the CEA. Ana Monteiro and Teresa Cruz da Silva gave me the chance to colonise their weekly staff seminar and explain the work of the project. I was completely unprepared for the reception it got: I had expected to explain the kind of materials we dealt with and how we managed the collection, and then show the website. Instead, I was informed that our resource was already well-known and well-used, so there was no need to explore the site in the session. What then transpired was an engaged analysis of the methods we employed in order to select materials, and some challenging and critical questions about the nature of the materials and their arrangement on the site.

While in Maputo I also attended some of the III Conferência Internacional do IESE I particularly appreciated the plenary session in which Carlos Castel-Branco spoke at length on Ruth’s legacy for political economy and research in the region. Another highlight was Detlev Krige’s paper on the financialisation of informal economic systems in South Africa (available soon on the IESE pages).

I went to Maputo by bus from Johannesburg having spent the weekend in Pretoria, and my immediate impression of Maputo was that while it may not have the physical infrastructure of South African cities, it certainly has what AbdouMaliq Simone calls human infrastructure. In contrast to the suburban, securitised life of the Northern Suburbs and Pretoria, the city actually felt like it was a lived environment, rather than a space simply to allow the passage of cars from one compound to another. As a Londoner, that was a great relief. I’m not going to try to comment further on the socio-political situation than that naive observation, though.

My next destination was Johannesburg, where I was shown the town (and the lay of the political landscape) by Mosa, Claire, Luke and Peter from the Centre for Sociological Research at UJ (and from Keep Left!). It was especially graceful of them to take time out from dealing with the aftermath of Marikana – in the case of Luke and Peter, travelling around the area and interviewing the families, and all working to create a united front. I saw a side of Joburg that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Finally to Cape Town, where Andre Mohammed at the UWC-Robben Island Mayibuye Archives hosted me for the morning while we shared expertise on preservation and digitisation. The key outcome of the trip for our project was a better understanding of the support that we can immediately give to our partners in Maputo and Cape Town, in the form of sharing best practices and also helping to foster better connections between the CEA and Mayibuye.

Finally I visited the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at UWC, where Jimi Adesina and I gave a seminar titled ‘an intellectual appreciation of the scholarship of Professor Ruth First’. This event was especially poignant, coming on the 35th anniversary of Steve Biko’s murder by the South African state. Jimi’s paper focused on the status of activist-intellectuals in post-Apartheid South Africa, in the context of the Intellectual Heritage project. His analysis of the state of sociology teaching in South Africa is well needed at the moment, especially given the crisis in humanities funding in HE worldwide.

I’ll finish this overlong post with a brief word on South African politics. The main impression I took away from the trip is that there is a tendency, especially among liberals, to reduce current affairs to an extended and somewhat apathetic criticism of figures like Julius Malema. The fact that he is considered corrupt and self-serving allows a large proportion of South Africans (or of white South Africans, at least) to dismiss the issues that he raises as a symptom of demagoguery. While it’s true that Malema has made a lot of political capital out of Marikana, the fact is that a discussion around the failure of the post-Apartheid project and the continued need for nationalisation, are incredibly important. It’s just a shame that he is the person who is making those points the loudest. There is no electable alternative: the ANC and its elite are compromised by their entanglement with the corporate interests that extract wealth from the country. The DA is doubly tarred by its incorporation of some Nats into its ranks and by its unapologetic neoliberalism, and the SACP is hamstrung by its failure to separate itself from the ruling party in terms of policy.

I had expected that speaking to politically engaged South Africans would give me a better sense of what will happen now that Marikana has opened the floodgates for a national conversation about the failures of the rainbow nation. Instead, I found that no one knows what will happen after the ANC’s Mangaung congress in December. Groups like Keep Left! are doing good work, looking towards a future that they can’t anticipate. We live in interesting times.