Peter Alexander, Philip Bonner, Jonathan Hyslop, and Lucien van der Walt, 2009, “Introduction: labour crossings in Eastern and Southern Africa”, African Studies, volume 68, number 1, special section on “Labour Crossings in Eastern and Southern Africa”, African Studies, volume 68, number 1, pp. 79-85.
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OUTLINE: Substantive introduction to a special section of African Studies, presenting a selection of papers from the international conference ‘Labour Crossings: World, Work, Society’, organised by the History Workshop (University of the Witwatersrand), and the Centre for Sociological Research (University of Johannesburg), 5 -7 September 2008. The intellectual agenda of the conference was to explore ‘labour crossings’ between time periods, between regions and continents, between types of work, and types of worker, both free and unfree, between different imagined worlds, religion and labour, and gender and class – as well as between intellectual disciplines and traditions.
The transnational turn in labour history was a key influence on the framing of the issues. Looking globally, and thinking beyond the traditional analytical framework of the nation-state, the very character of the ‘working class’ itself, and its ‘making’ (Thompson 1991), needs to be rethought. One key issue tackled in the selected papers is labour mobility, recruitment and mobilisation: what frees and freezes movement of labour, and how and why does this happen? This raises the issue of connections, nodes and the ocean, and how ocean crossings — of ideas, experiences, people, alliances and conflicts — tell a story that cannot be captured by a methodological nationalism that assumes the nation-state to be the key unit of analysis. So, too, however, does movement on land across and within countries. The selected papers looked at the caravan trade in nineteenth-century East Africa, where slaves and free labourers worked side by side (Rockel), labour recruitment to the sisal plantations of twentieth-century Tanganyika (Sabea), the movement of ‘labouring passenger’ Indians to the Cape Colony in the early twentieth century (Dhupelia-Mesthrie), and contemporary competitive divisions between Zambian and Zimbabwean workers in the Victoria Falls area (Arrington).