Starting in the late 1970’s and reaching its height in the 1980’s, the South African province of Natal (now known as KwaZulu Natal – KZN) saw a proliferation of workers’ culture. Trade unions partnered with cultural workers to create plays that addressed issues faced by workers, supported protest action and bolstered worker unity. The plays generally did provide some historical and political context, but in it’s early days the focus was primarily on addressing workers’ rights issues. As the movement progressed however, it became increasingly concerned with the broader injustices of Apartheid’s oppression, both material, and in line with Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness, Psychological. This article looks at some of the key events and people of this culturally productive period. It also touches on the context in which it arose as well as its impact as a tool for liberation and creating a national identity.

 Industrialization of Natal

In the middle of the 19th century, Natal (now known as KwaZulu-Natal – KZN) established itself as a successful agrarian economy through sugar plantations and sugar cane processing. The first wave of industrialization began in 1860, when sugar barons created a competitive market by exploiting Indian indentured labour through maintaining a fixed, low wage. The subsequent discovery of minerals in Witwatersrand in the 1880s stimulated the industry of Natal’s port town, Durban, the main trading post for the gold fields.  Durban had to increase its agricultural output to accommodate the growing industry and stevedores and small-scale industrial activity proliferated around the docks.

 The second-wave of industrialization emerged in the form of a booming clothing industry in the 1920s, propelled by Durban’s indentured Indian labour that kept the city’s wages the lowest in South Africa. In 1926 a Wage Board investigation expressed concern at “the bad conditions in the homes of the employees, due to the low wages received”.[i] A second Wage Board investigation in 1934, conducted at the request of Southern Transvaal heads of industry who felt they had unfair competition from coastal towns, found this especially to be the case in Durban, where the minimum wage was lower than in Transvaal. The law in Durban also stipulated that no minimum wage could be laid down for pieceworkers. As a result, pieceworkers were extensively employed and underpaid.  Indian employers in the clothing Industry were equally exploitative, operating their businesses as extensions of the family unit, with remuneration of around 1 pound per week.[ii]

 Employers also helped keep wages low by exacerbating racial divisions through pitting different work forces against each other. Indians were set against White workers and African against Indian workers, making union mobilization impossible. An example of this was the 1943 Dunlop strikes. Dunlop management resisted The Trade and Labour Council organizing the Durban Rubber Workers Union by fostering its own in-company union. The majority of Indian workers who went on strike in response to this were retrenched and replaced with migrant African workers at lower wage-rates. When Frame’s textile mills resisted the Textile Workers Industrial Union, which was backed by the Garment Workers Union of Natal, the resultant union pressures caused textile bosses to start replacing Indian with African workers, causing violent tensions between the two workforces and stalling union goals. Animosity between Indian and Zulu peaked in the 1949 Durban riots that resulted in 142 deaths.

 By the mid 20th century South Africa’s local economy was surging as a result of the isolation induced by the World Wars as well as state imposed tariffs. Wages increased briefly, but employers were again able to manipulate the captive labour force to their advantage, this time substituting existing labour with Indian women. African and Indian men’s wages declined once again in the early 1950s. In the mid-1950s trade unions affiliated with the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) started mobilizing worker resistance in response to the declining wages and economic stagnation of the second half of the decade. The one-pound-a day campaign initiated by SACTU and supported by the African National Congress (ANC) marked a new stage of political trade unionism.

 These demands greatly unsettled industry employers, but the disruption was short lived as the State’s suppression of political parties increased, resulting in the collapse of the trade unions and disorganisation of workers. The 1970s began with the ANC in hiding, a still repressed trade union movement, and new levels of poverty resulting from the demolition of African urban communities. These communities were relocated from the inner city to the new townships of KwaMashu and Umlazi, and residents suffered financially with the resultant increases in rentals and bus-fares.

 1970’s Durban Strikes

In December 1972, the Nationalist Party government Minister of Labour, Marais Viljoen, said the following:


We believe there is no place for the Bantu in the existing trade union movement because his needs are adequately catered for in the existing system… There is no reason for change whatsoever. The organization of African workers is neither in the interests of improving their own wage position, nor in the interests of promoting race relations.[iii]


Natal in the 1970s saw a massive surge in strikes, sparked by the increased poverty and disillusionment exacerbated by the migrant labour system, whereby men from rural areas had to leave their families and find temporary residence in hostels closer to industry. Workers were also experiencing increased sway over their employers as methods of production was becoming increasingly mechanised and specialized, therefore making a consistent workforce more desirable.

 In 1973-4 trade unions were formed: the National Union of Textile Workers (NUTW), the Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU), Furniture and Timber Workers Union (FTWU), Chemical Workers Industrial Union (CWIU) and the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), all under the umbrella of the Trade Union Advisory and Coordination Council (TUACC). These unions were unregistered and so operated outside of the industrial council’s labour relations framework. The strikes, which had begun as a struggle for wage increases, developed into one for trade union recognition. The strikes were short lived but numerous, and provided the needed impetus for trade unions who achieved significant wage increases.

 The initial enthusiasm by workers for trade unions diminished quickly after fierce state push back started imposing numerous detentions and bannings on trade unionists and caused continuous employer harassment of union members. The registered trade union movement was also resistant to their informal counterparts, not appreciating the new militant confrontations with bosses. This along with the severe recession between 1974 and1978 resulted in a decline of manufacturing in 1977 caused a reduction in militant strike action. Worker unity and resolve disintegrated as a result, which inspired unions to seek help from cultural workers to restore a sense of importance to the workers’ struggle.

 However by the end of the decade an industrial relations reform was outlined in the Wiehahn Commission Report, precipitated by the leverage created by the demand for a stable labour force, the organizational strength of the unions and cultural workers. An additional significant catalyst was the 1976 Youth uprising, which highlighted the possibility of industrial relations becoming a space for political struggle.

 In 1979 the five unions of TUACC consolidated under the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU).  Its inauguration rallied some 60 000 workers and the federation went on to occupy a key position in South Africa’s labour movement, pioneering the concept of the living wage.

 Worker Culture in the 1980s

At a Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) cultural day, cultural activist Frank Meintjies addressed a huge audience of workers with an evocative description of culture being “about making images of ourselves that tell us more about our lives”. (Film footage vid 1) Before the use of cultural work in South Africa’s liberation movement, workers had limited perspective on their situations. As Meintjies described, the hierarchy and levels of exploitation became more apparent to workers through this process of sharing and reflecting on their and others’ experiences, and had the effect of clarifying struggle goals and unifying the movement.

 The role of shop stewards became increasingly important for liaising with

employers and voicing workers’ grievances. Among them was Alfred Qabula, who worked as a forklift driver at the Dunlop rubber factory. He became a prominent voice for workers both through his stewardship and his art. For many years he privately composed songs and poems about the hardships experienced in factory life. When he joined the Metal and Allied Workers’ Union in 1980 he immediately became an active shop steward at the factory. By 1984 he was singing songs and reciting poems at mass trade union meetings to much praise and enthusiasm. He had a sense for drama, and to go with his image as worker-poet he commissioned a fellow shop steward and tailor to make him a colourful, ragged costume. From then on he would burst into meetings dressed in ‘flamboyant poverty’, wielding a briefcase, and spouting evocative poetry that moved crowds to frenzied chanting and dancing.

 Workers’ Theatre

Theatre was not initially a much supported performance tradition in South Africa. Up until the 80s music, dance and storytelling were the most widely performed and esteemed. The only popular early theatre pieces were Gibson Kente’s plays in the mid-60s, productions that combined the big variety show and musical with grassroots morality and ‘lobola plays’. In these Kente created theatrical archetypes, such as the tsotsi, the mama, the priest, the shebeen queen, etc, in order to convey township life. These theatre productions were popular but the form was still not valued as an art but rather categorized with umdlalo[1] performances such as soccer matches and church sermons.

 There were also attempts in the 70s to create ‘peoples’ plays to address worker struggles, but they never gained much popularity. According to Ari Sitas, who was a key figure in the creation of workers’ theatre, the minimal enthusiasm for these early plays was because they did not express the material issues of workers, instead reflecting Black Consciousness (BCM) aspirations to present the black experience in more general terms, trying to express the philosophical and psychological realities as opposed to specific material ones. In these plays, Sitas claims, stories of working class issues were principally metaphorical illustrations of class and race debates. In Workers’ Theatre however, when they addressed the issue of work it was the backache, burning eyes and calloused hands that was the focal point. In this way immediate, material issues and the processes of working life was brought to attention, and workers experienced a sense of community in viewing others’ experiences.[iv]

 Deciding on the most appropriate style for worker’s theatre was not straightforward. The aim was to convey the material conditions of workers, but staging the immense experience of dust, noise and heat proved a challenge. Theatre practitioners in Russia and Germany had grappled with the same problem in the early 1920s and 30s. Erwin Piscator and Berthold Brecht had resolved it through creating ‘epic theatre’, with huge mechanized sets and mechanical devices to depict the immensity of industry and the people operating within it, like cogs in a machine.[v] The technique of epic theatre did not however suit the needs of South Africa’s popular theatre, which demanded that plays were mobile and able to be performed in all manner of spaces. After a failed attempt to construct a gigantic moulding machine for the play Ilanga, focus shifted to the physicality of actors in creating environment and atmosphere rather than the set. Through ‘physical theatre’, that is, through sound and gesture, actors evoked the activity of the factory, miming their respective tasks in an assembly line and manipulating and repurposing neutral props to suit different situations and provide conceptual links between scenes. Actors also created a metaphorical language by embodying different characters, such as in the worker play Security, when the man’s job as a watchdog resulted in him actually becoming a dog, thus illustrating a process of domination.[vi]

 Both the model of umdlalo popular theatre and political theatre that described situations too abstractly, posed problems for worker theatre’s aesthetic and potential for depth of content. A lot of vibrancy and nuance was lost through reducing narratives to characterisations, or reducing individual experience to a chorus of oppression. When Woza Albert premiered in the Market Theatre in 1981, it revealed new possibilities for worker’s theatre. It was a two-man play of a series of interviews wit South Africans about the coming of Morena (Jesus), to Apartheid South Africa. The play’s episodic structure enabled multiple scenes, characters and perspectives, thus providing specificity and a more complex rendering of black South African experience at the time.[vii]

 In 1979, the Food and Canning Workers Union appealed to the Junction Avenue Theatre Company in Johannesburg to help assist fired Fattis and Monis strikers. The Company created the first Workers’ Theatre piece, Security, and successfully raised funds for the boycotting campaign. This resulted in closer ties between unions and cultural workers. In 1980, Rely and Precision workers in the East Rand were fired and again the union sought help from Junction Avenue. This time the workers and activists worked together over a period of three months and created Ilanga Lizophumela (The sun rises for the workers). The play was a milestone for South African theatre. It revealed the possibilities for dramatic storytelling and workers experienced dignity and empowerment through conveying their stories.

 Workers’ theatre took off in Durban in 1983 after Ari Sitas set up the Culture and Working Life Project (CWLP) in the Sociology department of then Natal University (now University of KwaZulu-Natal – UKZN). In the same year workers at the Dunlop tyre manufacturing company went on strike after management refused to recognize the Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU), opting instead to set up an ‘in house union’ as an attempt to undermine worker organisation. It had the opposite effect as increasing numbers of workers joined MAWU and started striking. Worker leaders and unionists sought creative ways to mobilize and focus workers. MAWU organizer Geoff Schreiner approached Sitas and the CWLP about making a play, and the Dunlop Play was born.

 The Dunlop Play

Geoff Schreiner’s initial ambivalence about the relevance of a play was dispelled by Sitas’ conviction that “dramatizing and performing burning issues in people’s lives increases solidarity and creates a remarkable new sense of identity.”[viii] So in 1983, members of the Dunlop shop stewards committee, including Alfred Qabula and Fred Kumalo, committed to making a play in just three months for MAWU’s Annual General Meeting (AGM), and sent out requests for volunteer actors for the project. The response was overwhelming and they selected 13 cast members, their ages ranging from 20 to 55, all first language Zulu speakers, literate and fairly well versed in English. Their backgrounds varied in that they were a mix of second-generation township dwellers and migrants but all shared the experience of being black South African workers at Dunlop.

 Work shopping of The Dunlop Play commenced at the Gale Street Union Offices twice weekly, in a three by four metre room hardly big enough for physical movement. Sometimes over 20 people crammed in, and the commotion of enthusiasm in the small space made it a trying process. Dunlop’s shift system was also a massive obstacle as there was just one hour between night and day shift in which all participants were free at the same time. By the first performance they had not yet had a single run through with the full cast present. The cast had no formal theatre training and relied on their accumulated life skills for instruction. The cast was populated by past self-defence instructors, lay preachers, boxers and soccer players, all of which informed their conceptions of showmanship and storytelling and served  them in the workshopping process.

 The narrative of the play arose out of the story of the ‘Bakezela Party’. Some Dunlop workers had noticed that an old factory worker who had been with the company for many years was wearing an expensive looking gold watch. They discovered that it was a gift given to him at the ‘Bakezela Party’ that had been thrown by management to express gratitude for his 37 years of service. More of the same stories soon emerged, and those who’d been the recipients related how they had been served meat (although only tripe), beer, and given a watch or bicycle and some cake to take home for the children. The Dunlop Play actors viewed this spectacle masquerading as respect as a vivid example of management’s abuse of power. The play was structured to map the experience of one worker’s time spent at Dunlop from his first day to his Bakezela Party. They accentuated the hypocrisy of management by beginning the play with the celebration in thanks of the worker’s many years of devotion to the company, and then offsetting it with the thankless, exploited labour he’d been contracted into up until that point.

 Creating the Play

The entire script was created through a step-by-step process of improvisation, workshop and then transcription of the tape-recorded material. These scripts were then edited and given to the cast to use as a blueprint for further improvisation. The departure point for the first rehearsal was their common ground as Dunlop workers. Each of the collaborators introduced himself with his particular function in the factory, miming the routine actions that he performed each day. These were then combined to create a general sense of a factory line, which was later added to with such details as the ‘siren’, expressed by one man’s outstretched arm being pushed up and down to signal the change of shifts.

 To illustrate the passage of time and contextualize the worker’s experience within a broader historical context, the coordinators suggested the use of a ‘cranky’, a device used by the agitation and propaganda groups (agit-prop) during the 60s and 70s. The device consists of a long roll of painted paper or canvas that could be clipped into a frame and cranked to reveal a moving sequence of images. They made 1957 the date of the worker’s employment, and the cranky made reference to the most significant social and political events that happened between then and the Bekezela party in 1982. The play relied a lot on a multi-media element to construct its narrative. While images were provided by the cranky and actions by the players, the additional layer of song gave life to the grave issues and helped to creatively link scenes.

 The play was a tremendous success and continued to be rehearsed and performed throughout the second half of 1983. The actors regrouped in January 1984 for a final performance, and then began brainstorming new projects.


The Durban Workers Cultural Local (DWCL)

After the final run of the Dunlop Play in January 1984, some members were determined not to let activism die down with it. Nise Malange, Alfred Qabula and Naftal Matiwane were chief among them. They recognized the immense educational benefit of creating plays whether or not they were seen by the public, and began formulating new works in collaboration with Ari Sitas from CWLP, Elias Banda from Nattional Union Textile Workers (NUTW, now ACTUSA) and later Jabu Ndlovu from Paper, Wood and Allied Workers Union (PWAWU, (now PPWAWU). Through a process of pooling life experiences the participants made a play about migration. They identified common experiences between migrant workers – that of becoming unfaithful in marriage and, by virtue of often being illiterate, having to rely on others for help. The title emerged from the final song in the play that asked ‘Why, Lord, do we have to suffer like this? Whom do we blame? Is it the system of migration or is it the government?’[ix]

 In April that year textile worker and member of NUTW Phumzile Mabele wrote Koze Kube Nini (How Long Will We Suffer?). Once again it focused on the issue of migrancy and the labour-drafting of workers in the countryside. Her intention was “to record the history of what happened from the day when we left our homes for Durban, the problems we encountered on arrival, what led us to see the necessity of uniting and becoming one body.”[x] (Mabele in Kotze, 1988:49) The play was devised by female workers from NUTW and male workers from MAWU. The first performance was two hours long but was revised and shortened with the help of Durban cultural activists.

 In August 1984 the Dunlop strikes started again, this time made up of more than 1000 workers striking against the dismissal of four shop stewards. For six weeks strikers met in a church hall to discuss the dispute and shop stewards turned to cultural workers to facilitate activities for the meetings. It was a perfect opportunity for workers to be educated on the importance of culture, and because they no longer had to clock in to the factory every day they had time to put on performances. The strikers and cultural workers first restaged Why Lord, and encouraged by its good reception started developing new works. Different theatrical techniques were experimented with, such as improvisation with masks, a method introduced by the CWLP. They were also joined by another group of workers with some theatrical experience, among them were Sipho Ndlovu and Gregory Mhlongo, who had acted in one of Gibson Kente’s productions and were busy writing their own script modelled on Woza Albert! and some of Athol Fugard’s plays. Ndlovu went on to contribute immensely to the DWCL’s work. Another prominent figure to emerge out of the strike was Mi S’dumo Hlatshwayo, who had been inspired to start writing poetry after hearing Qabula perform his ‘Praise poem To Fosatu’. Hlatshwayo established himself as a worker poet and his poem ‘A Black Mamba Rises’ appeared in the ‘FOSATU Worker News’ in November 1984.

 The impact of the performances surrounding the strike brought the cultural movement a lot of attention and many new members. By the end of the year the Durban Workers Cultural Local (DWCL) was born, which, located within the trade unions, marked the emergence of a national worker cultural movement. They started rehearsing for what would be their first cultural showcase on May Day, 1985, using the Gale Street offices as their headquarters. There was an explosion of activity, producing new songs, dances, poems, and six new plays. Hlatshwayo wrote Usuku (The Day) just weeks after joining the DWCL. The play was intended as a lesson to workers that sacrifice was an inescapable part of furthering the struggle. Qabula wrote a new play on migrancy called ‘Once Bitten Twice Shy’. He recruited a group of textile workers from Pinetown, many of who were migrant workers so the play spoke to their personal experiences. He focused on personal concerns around the clash between traditional values and morals and the urban lifestyle, as well as the relationship between generations. Of the play, he said it warned “children that it is good to listen to your parents”, but at the same time “it scolds the parents”, that “they must not solve their problems in front of the children, but confront the children together.”[xi] Unlike previous plays that came out of the movement it did not emerge out of a collaborative workshop process but was devised solely by Qabula. This single author method was less successful than the collaborative method, one of the many lessons learnt about appropriate form and content during this period of experimentation.

 Malange also started working on the Kwa Mashu Street Cleaner’s Play. The play told the story of the women who acted in it, Kwa Mashu street cleaners, who at the time were the most disenfranchised of all workers. In 1981 the Port Natal Administration Board had started employing women as street cleaners in order to save money, paying them just R52 a month compared to the R200 men had been earning for the same job. The women sought help from the union and Malange took up the case, providing them with a space to tell their own stories. A section of the Kwa Mashu street cleaners was made up of the Amapondo[2] women. They wore traditional dress and beads in their hair, and Malange recalls that amongst the Zulus they were considered ‘mad people’ because of how seemingly ill-adapted they were to urban life. She realized their dramatic potential after seeing how wonderfully they could dance and perform, and after hearing their stories:

 They wanted to make sure that I will take them seriously, so they thought it would be better to show me, rather than just relate it […] I was trying to take down statements and asked them: “How did the people treat you?” If one of the groups was telling me: one induna Sitole was doing that and that and that, she would just say to another woman: Get up! You will be a street cleaner, I’ll show you the argument with the induna. And then they would show me what happened. They would take everything in the office to help them demonstrate their story. If they needed a heavy thing, they would just start pushing the desk and say: this is a scrap car. And they would show me how this scrap car fell on one woman and knocked her front teeth out. And then they would show me how they used to carry heavy things, and how they clean up the street and burn all the rubbish. Then somebody would just stand up and be a resident: “Hey, what are you doing here? I have just cleaned my house and now the windows are getting dirty. Will you come and clean them again!” And then the kids would come and be rude to these elderly women. They don’t take them as people who are helping. [xii]

 The play’s structure was based on the women’s’ statements. Malange arranged it into three parts. The first was a scene of them cleaning the streets, the working conditions and attitudes they were exposed to. The second showed them cleaning in the hostel, the male hostel dwellers treating them badly, and then one of them getting injured while cleaning up old cars. The third scene showed the induna’s[3] lack of concern about the injury.

 Actors were cast for the play and the group rehearsed regularly. When the DWCL organized the 1985 May Day cultural showcase, the Kwa Mashu Street Cleaners performed one of the Amapondo dances that featured in the play and gained themselves some attention. Later that year, in August, after the township uprisings had started up, Malange was no longer able to get in nor they out of Kwa Mashu. As a result rehearsals discontinued and the play was never completed. Some small advances were made however as the women received a minor wage increase and Malange managed to gain them recognition as employees rather than contract workers, which meant they were eligible for unemployment pay if they were retrenched or had to leave work. The victory was negligible however and the women remained entirely exploited.

 In the build up to the May Day showcase many of the participants had begun feeling the strain of investing so much time into unpaid work, and to question the relevancy of it. In response members of the DWCL sat down to brainstorm the function and role of culture, and to clarify why it remained important for the labour movement and the struggle for liberation in S.A. as a whole. They created a document that outlined ways in which they were working towards taking control of their productive and creative power, as well as the aims and principles of the worker theatre movement:

We discovered that we had to overcome our hatreds for each other: amakholwa[4] against traditionalist; Christian of the official churches against Zionist; Muslim against Hindu; Pondo against Zulu; Zulu royalist against Zibhebhu’s offspring; migrant against urban, Zulu against Indian; black against…oh, this is difficult, very difficult in South Africa – black against white. We discovered that our fate as workers and our needs as human beings bound us together, but language, cultural chauvinism and divisions tore us apart.[xiii]

 The document also outlined the extreme difficulties involved in being a cultural activist while also being worker.

 It is hard to sing, to write and perform if you are a worker: everyday, in the factory or down the mine, in the field or out at sea, we get the last drop of energy sucked out of our bodies. We finish work and begin to long for that bottle that will make us sometimes sing disgraceful songs, undignified songs. In the commuting we long for rest, for a home. But for most of us there is no home. We arrive at our shack, our hostel or compound to live through new worries. These worries dull our minds. Our ‘darling’ – the brandy bottle does the rest. Suppose we wanted to do something in our spare time? We walk the streets of the black townships searching for culture in fear of our lives. Sometimes each footstep is a struggle for survival. Some of us pray for others, others prey on us in the darkness. [xiv]

 The May Day celebration took place at Curries Fountain Stadium in Durban. A stage was constructed on the back of two trucks parked in the middle of the field. The sizeable turnout was however largely disappointed, as most of the plays didn’t translate well on the event’s grand scale, and their messages were all but lost. The failure provided lessons for the next deadline, the Fosatu Education Workshop at Jabulani, set to be held in Soweto on July 1985. The DWCL made preparations to erect small tents to stage performances in, and developed some new material. Hlatshwayo devised a new play Gallows for Mr Mpimpi[5], which Astrid von Kotze facilitated the rehearsals of with actors William Kentridge and Ramolao Makhene.

 Hlatshwayo was also preparing to deliver the DWCL cultural document at the FOSATU workshop. On the 20 July however, the Nationalist government declared a State of Emergency, radically restricting peoples’ movement around the country. Natal activists were prevented from entering Johannesburg and the workshop had to be cancelled. This was a major setback for the movement and activism went dormant. Violence escalated between the democratic trade union movement and Inkatha Freedom Party, which divided workers between the two camps and caused rampant township violence and countless deaths.

 Culture in the State of Emergency

In the midst of the national clamp down of political activities, cultural action began to increasingly take on the role of providing spaces for expressions of strength, resistance, and to celebrate commitment to the struggle. Cultural workers recognized the need to form a united front, and so the first shop stewards’ council in Durban was initiated, combining shop stewards from all the unions in Durban and regions like Mobeni and Jacobs. The Gale Street offices had reached capacity and so the council sought new accommodation. In October 1985 they moved into a factory in Clairwood (south Durban), together with MAWU, FAWU and SACHED. At this point the DWCL still did not have permanent headquarters and often battled for rehearsal space, so the Council offered them room at Clairwood. Thereafter the CWLP provided funds for the DWCL to permanently rent the space, and the Local was finally able to establish itself as an organized movement. The location was ideal as it enabled greater collaboration between unions and cultural workers. The CWLP also undertook to pay the position of a full time DWCL cultural coordinator, which was given to Mi Hlatshwayo, who promptly resigned his job at Dunlop. His new job was to establish the Clairwood office as a cultural meeting point, promote projects and events and facilitate strengthening the link between worker artists and their communities.

 The first event held by the official DWCL was the opening of the Clairwood center in 1985. Old and new songs, poems and plays were prepared for the occasion. The message of Usuku (The Day) became more impactful through being performed during the State of Emergency. Astrid von Kotze of CWLP described how the backdrop of extreme repression of anti-Apartheid voices shifted the play’s focus from just trying to highlight worker disputes with management. “Workers in the play were rejecting offers of money in exchange for their day of liberation.” [xv]

 A month after the opening of the Clairwood center, Dunlop workers celebrated the one year anniversary of their strike victory of 1984. They hired Curries Fountain Stadium, slaughtered goats and oxen, and invited their families and comrades from the Howick tyre and rubber factory, B.T.R. Sarmcol. The Dunlop workers performed songs, plays and poems and workers from Sarmcol got the chance to present their new play The Long March.

 In December FOSATU along with other elements of organised labour joined to create a new super federation, the ‘Congress of South African Trade Unions’ (COSATU), and had its official launch in King’s Park Stadium, Durban, one of the few sites not banned for meetings. The Sarmcol workers’ cooperative printed COSATU T-shirts and Hlatshwayo and Qabula addressed workers with their poem ‘The Tears of a Creator’.

Today be wise!

In the desert

Only the fruit trees

With long and sturdy roots


Learn that

And you shall settle accounts with the oppressor you shall

Settle accounts with the exploiter

You shall settle accounts with the racists.

Here is COSATU

Who knows no colour

Here then is our tornado-snake-inkanyeamba

Helele / COSATU[xvi]

 COSATU established a cultural desk in the same year, making culture one of its core functions.

 Emergency Plays

The state of emergency ushered in ‘emergency plays’, a new theatrical form characterized by quick rehearsal times and minimal equipment and cast (no more than four) for greater mobility. Plays were also becoming increasingly political and regarded as an essential element of the liberation struggle. In 1986 Hlatshwayo and Qabula were asked by shop stewards to put on a short play at a MAWU congress being held in Johannesburg. They devised a play about informants of the struggle, You’re a Failure Mr Mpimpi, rehearsing for just 10 minutes before giving an improvised performance to the congress.

 Hlatshwayo also created Ithesho (The Job), which was performed at an all night shop stewards ‘sleeping seminar’ at the Clairwood offices. The play’s central character was a gangster, and it told the story of a man’s moral corruption arising out of the oppressive, capitalist system, rather than through innate immorality.

 By mid 1986 the new Natal locals of Ladysmith, Hammarsdale, Howick, Port Shepstone, Pinetown and Newcastle were formed. The DWCL was mandated by COSATU to convene a meeting between the different locals, COSATU and cultural activists, in order to discuss objectives and coordinate projects. The DWCL and Sarmcol players put on their shows and the role of theatre in education was reaffirmed.  In spite of the state of emergency hampering rehearsals and regular events, cultural activity was thriving. The end of 1986 however came with a tremendous blow to the movement, when on 5 December four cultural activists, Simon Ngubane, Phineas Sibiya, Alpheus Nkabinde and Flonmin Mnikathi, were brutally murdered by vigilantes.  

 In 1987 Hlatshwayo was employed as the full-time cultural organizer for COSATU, and spent the year putting structures in place for cultural activism to take place on an even larger scale.


Workers’ theatre was an immensely effective tool for education and mobilization, stimulated a ‘worker culture’ and helped develop a national culture to counter Apartheid aesthetics and ethics.[xvii] Theatre gave a platform for workers to share their stories, and in so doing to nurture their critical and creative voices. As Frank Meintjies put it, the longing to find an alternative truth to the prevailing Apartheid narrative, required people to ‘look at the images of their lives’, and reimagine them.[xviii] Preceding theatre movements were not successful in creating ‘images’ that people could relate to or through which they could self-reflect – the umdlalo popular plays were too prosaic, the 70s peoples’ plays too abstract. Workers’ theatre enabled a greater degree of specificity through its communication of the practical concerns of workers, which audience members found resonant. The subject matter of the plays was the physical labour itself, the exhaustion of it, and messages on ideology (for example ‘sacrifice for the good of the whole’ was a union message sent out to deter scab labour). In the same vain as the European Social Realism art movement of the early 1900s, the realism granted by the specific, personal accounts, arguably had the effect of making theatre more widely accessible. The physical theatre component also revealed an embodied experience of factory work and was an important way of communicating commonalities between worker experiences. The minimal use of props and their manipulation to present different objects added dynamism and created rapid, engaging narratives.

 But the thriving worker culture of the 80s has not been able to sustain itself in the democratic era. Reasons for this were discussed at the re-launch of struggle poet Alfred Qabula’s autobiography, A Working Life Cruel Beyond Belief, at the Johannesburg book fair in 2018. For Nise Malange, it is a matter of “remak[ing] workers’ culture” in today’s struggles.[xix]  Scholar Bheki Peterson has argued that reigniting worker culture would be a key step in decolonization. [xx] The process of decolonization is one of recognizing and overturning the hegemony of aesthetics, and what we’re seeing is that ‘worker culture’ art is not widely recognized and valued in South Africa today. Peterson expressly remarked on the current exclusion of worker art in tertiary curriculums, and stressed the importance of reintegrating it into the canon and giving value to its distinctive aesthetics.[xxi]

 There were clear political and economic causes to the decline of a worker culture. After the ANC came into power, worker theatre lost its value as a political tool.  Arts and Culture was cast as a low priority department and relegated to the direction of a minor political party, Inkatha.[xxii] The end of the cultural boycott, which had isolated South Africa from external cultural influence, meant that the country was suddenly bombarded by globalized and commoditised culture, which imposed a hegemony of Eurocentric and market-oriented cultural definitions.[xxiii] Some have claimed that this had the effect of commodifying worker culture and redefining the creativity of working class people as ‘craft’ or ‘propaganda’, not art.[xxiv] In this way, a discussion about the exclusion of worker voices and culture is simultaneously one about aesthetics and the factors that determine value systems.

 Granted that the development of a new aesthetic vocabulary is a battle for space and recognition, as was the case with worker culture and continues to be so with the decolonization project, militancy however that does not accommodate critique can only be detrimental to the art. Many writers have commented on the polarization and sensationalism of South African art issuing from a time when it was used as a political tool. In his seminal essay ‘rediscovery of the ordinary’, Njambulo Ndebele wrote that “the most outstanding feature of South African oppression [was] its brazen, exhibitionist openness,”[xxv] where the spectacular injustices were “instantly turned into symbol, with instant meaning (no interpretation here is necessary: seeing is meaning)”. [xxvi] This, he argued, had the effect of prompting “the development of a highly dramatic, highly demonstrative form of literary representation”.[xxvii] The self-evident symbolism in South African society made for un-nuanced representation of it, and focuses on the political instead of the personal exacerbated polarizations.

 In 1989 Albie Sachs published a paper called Preparing Ourselves for Liberation, where he argued for the ban of the term “culture as a weapon of struggle”. It was time, he argued, to start writing love songs again. Keorapetse Kgositsile indirectly responded to this in his poem Red Song, written earlier but published in 2003, in which he asked the question –“Need I remind anybody again that armed struggle is an act of love?”[xxviii]  Here Kgositsile scrutinized the aesthetic assumption that art is always the product of a single mind, and suggests an alternative subjectivity of collective heartbreak. It is an important reminder of what is at play when different, unheard voices are introduced into the culture, and that assessing their artistic merit includes considering the lens through which they’re being seen. The absence of worker voices in South Africa’s evolving culture is no doubt a terrible loss, for its potential to shake up value systems and create new stylistic forms. We only have to look at the dominance of collaborative, workshop processes in contemporary South African theatre, remnants of its routes in the workers’ theatre of the past.

Worker Plays

-       Security

-       Ilanga Lizaphumela Abasebenzi (The Sun also Rises for the Workers) -1980

-       The Dunlop Play – 1983

-       Why, Lord? – 1984

-       K’oze Kube Nini (How Long Will I Suffer?) – 1984

-       If you don’t want to listen you will learn when blood comes, or Once Bitten, Twice Shy -1984

-       Kwa Mashu Street-Cleaners Play

-       The Spar Play

-       Usuku (The Day), written by Mi Hlatshwayo.

-       Gallows for Mr. Scariot Mpimpi

Emergency Plays

-       You’re a Failure Mr Mpimipi

-       Ithesho (The Job)

-       Mkhumbane (Cato Manor)

-       Qonda (Vigilantes)



[1] Zulu for game


[3] Boss

[4] Zulu Christians, originating from the American Zulu Mission in Natal between 1895-1905.

[5] Zulu for informant

[i] S. Bobat and D Bonnin. Women and Natal’s Clothing industry 1930s – 1950s, Natal University, Industrial Sociology Project, 1983. In A. Sitas. The Flight of the Gwala-Gwala Bird: The Development of Natal’s Industrialisation. 2016, pg 23.

[ii] Report on the Department of Labour, U.G. 11/1936, p. 78. In ibid

 [iii] South African Labour Bulletin. May/June 1993. Vol 17, no. 3.

[iv] A. Sitas. Culture and Production, Natal University Project, 1983. In A. Sitas. The Flight of the Gwala-Gwala Bird: The Development of Natal’s Industrialisation. Pg 84-85.

[v] Ibid. Pg 86-87

[vi]  Ibid.

[vii] Ibid. pg 87

[viii] A. Sitas in A. Kotze. Organise and Act. 1988, Culture and Working Life Publications, Department of Industrial Sociology, University of Natal, Durban. Pg 21.  

[ix] A. Kotze, Organise and Act. 1988 Culture and Working Life Publications, Department of Industrial Sociology, University of Natal, Durban. Pg 48

[x] Mabele in Ibid. pg 49

[xi] Qabula in Ibid. pg 54

[xii] Malange in Ibid. pg 56-57

[xiii] A. Kotze, Organise and Act. 1988. Culture and Working Life Publications, Department of Industrial Sociology, University of Natal, Durban. Pg 64-65

[xiv] Ibid pg 65

[xv] Ibid pg 70

[xvi] A. Kotze. Organise and Act. 1988. Culture and Working Life Publications, Department of Industrial Sociology, University of Natal, Durban. Pg 71

[xvii] South African History Archive. Images of Defiance: South African Resistance Posters of the 1980’s and Beyond. Accessed 25 February 2020 at:

 [xix] G. Ansell. 14 September 2018. Rebuilding wounded dreams – workers as writers and artists. Accessed on 25 February 2020 at:

[xx] Ibid

[xxi] Ibid

[xxii] Ibid

[xxiii] Ibid

 [xxv] Ibid. pg 2

[xxvi] Ibid 38

[xxvii] N. Ndebele. 1991. The Rediscovery of the Ordinary. COSAW, Johannesburg. Pg 1




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