In an interview with the Paddington Mutekwe, roape.net asks about his research on resistance and the Zimbabwean working class. Mutekwe, who has recently won ROAPE’s Ruth First Prize, talks about the astonishing richness in subterranean forms of resistance among mine workers in Zimbabwe.
Can you please tell roape.net a little about yourself, your background and politics? How did you come to research?
I was born and bred in Zimbabwe’s Mashonaland West province and soon after completing my A Levels I worked at Zimplats [Zimbabwe Platinum Mines is the leading mining company in the country] that was in 2008. While I was working at Zimplats I also applied for admission to study at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa where I was admitted for a BA (Law) majoring in sociology. Initially, I wanted to finish my BA (Law) and then move on to do a LLB (Bachelor of Laws). However, along the way, in my 3rd year, I fell in love with sociology and in the end I chose to focus on an Honours in Industrial Sociology – my legal career was over, before it had even begun.
In 2015 after my Honours, I registered for a MA in Industrial Sociology and my dissertation focused on mineworkers, which resulted in my article in ROAPE (which can be accessed for free here). Currently I am studying for my PhD in sociology focusing on resistance and repression in Civil Society Organisations in Zimbabwe.
The ‘Zimbabwean crisis’ has been of one of the most extraordinarily devastating collapses of a society, people and state, that we have witnessed across Africa – in the period of neo-liberal restructuring. Can you tell us how it impacted on you directly and how it has influenced your research?
The effects of the Zimbabwean crisis on me has been devastating because I was born in a poor family, grew up in a scantily developed rural area, with badly resourced clinics and schools, life was not easy – to put it mildly. For example, I remember the schools I went to could not afford textbooks, so our teachers had to write notes on chalkboards for us to copy down and read. It was in 2007 when I was finishing my A Levels that the economic crisis intensified and teachers went on strike, many left the country to look for greener pastures, so the students had to do much of the learning on their own. We effectively taught ourselves.
Apart from these difficulties, the poor wages that I earned at Zimplats, the general suffering around me, pushed me to consider continuing my education. The decision to continue in education had its own challenges because the crisis impacted the entire education system in Zimbabwe, so that by 2008 even in universities not much real teaching and learning was taking place.
It was clear that I could not really advance in a local university but I was lucky enough to have an uncle who was doing his PhD in South Africa. He offered to take care of me, to cover my fees and that is how I ended up in Johannesburg. In summary, it was the battles I faced growing up that stirred my interest to understand workers’ struggles and issues of resistance and repression in general.
Your article, for which you won the Ruth First prize, focuses on forms of subterranean resistance and struggle in Zimbabwe. Can you talk a little about how you started this research? What motivated you to look at this aspect of resistance in Zimbabwe?
I had already developed an interest in worker class resistance and having worked at Zimplats myself, it seemed obvious to focus on the experiences of mineworkers. When I worked at Zimplats I had learned that mineworkers there were seriously disgruntled with their conditions and salaries but due to the crisis in Zimbabwe they did not feel they had many options at their disposal. They couldn’t easily find other employment in an economy with more than 80 percent unemployment in the formal sector.
Another thing that preoccupied me was the lack of strikes at Zimplats, there were poor working conditions yet a low level of strike action. Sometimes the most obvious questions are the best ones; so, I was intensely curious about what could be the reasons for the low level of ‘official’ action. I was also curious of the degree to which workers are unionised and the activities of unions at the mines.
So, when I started on my masters my first topic had something to do with the effects of draconian laws, like POSA, on the mineworkers right to strike [the Public Order and Security Act is a piece of legislation introduced in 2002 which prohibits demonstrations and gathering without prior permission from the Zimbabwe Republic Police].
However, in my first meeting with my supervisors, Luke Sinwell and Tapiwa Chagonda, they pointed me in the direction of the works of James Scott. I read Scott’s work incredibly closely and afterwards I developed an interest in subterranean forms of resistance. Prior to this I had focused almost exclusively on overt forms of action instead of broadening ‘resistance’ to cover covert forms of protest as Scott has shown. From then on, I decided to investigate hidden forms of workplace resistance that mineworkers were engaging in.
In terms of conducting fieldwork, working closely with workers in Zimplats, can you tell us some of the challenges you have faced and how you managed to deal/overcome them in the course of your fieldwork and research?
Perhaps surprisingly, I did not face many challenges during my fieldwork possibly because I was not new to mineworkers. I knew the mines; I knew some of the workers – this was a big advantage. Firstly, I had worked with many of them before or had developed friendships with them when I had been there. Secondly, Zimplats is in Mhondoro Ngezi constituency, which is where I come from, and as a consequence many of the people working there are from the same village as me so I was never viewed as a stranger. Thirdly, many of my childhood friends work at Zimplats so during my stay at the mine compound I was hosted by a friend who acted as my key informant, he was able to orient me with rich and detailed information on the changes that had taken place since I had left years before. I started to conduct my research in January 2016.
Besides these advantages, I did face some serious challenges when I interviewed mineworkers that I had worked with before. Many of these workers did not explain in detail their experiences, they simply assumed I knew because I had worked there before. In such instances, I had to probe and ask them to explain in much more painstaking detail. Frequently, I had to rephrase many of my questions so that they focused on their individual experiences, views, perceptions, and motivations.
Another challenge had to do with time, many of the mineworkers were difficult to get hold of as they would disappear after work and often did not stay in the mine compound but in nearby cities or their home villages. However, this was not a major obstacle since my informant-friend knew many mineworkers across different shifts and he managed to set me up with workers he knew would be available.
Lastly, because I also wanted to observe mineworkers informally, I would often sit with them in bars or small restaurants where they were would casually share their experiences of work with each other while drinking. These places posed challenges especially from sex workers who realized my face was new in town and they saw me as a potential client. I found their presence disruptive and occasionally exasperating. I tried my best to overcome this by keeping my head to the ground to avoid being singled out for unwanted attention and in the end, most of them lost interest. The extreme difficulties and risks of their working lives was clear to me.
You mention, in the article, the decline in ‘organised’ forms of protest, in strikes and demonstrations, and in the official trade union movement – once a mighty force in Zimbabwe. How do you explain this decline, and do you see it as a permanent feature of Zimbabwean society? What could be done to reserve it?
I think there are many reasons for the decline in the trade union movement in Zimbabwe. The formation of the Movement of Democratic Change (MDC) in 1999, emerging from the organised labour movement, saw a shift of the most senior and experienced leaders of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) into full-time political positions in the MDC and in later as MPs in parliament. This left serious gaps in the trade union movement and affected its vibrancy, and its ability to act.
I also think the severe bleeding out of the economy has affected the strength of the trade unions as hundreds of thousands of workers lost their jobs and are today forced to survive in the informal economy – a sector almost entirely non-unionised. Both of these things have resulted in the trade unions losing a huge number of their members. Some of the workforce have also travelled to other countries to look for opportunities, or simply to survive, which in turn has affected union membership. Lastly, I think repression in the form of draconian laws in Zimbabwe that limit the ability of workers to engage in protected strikes has also had a detrimental impact on the trade union movement, as it has become difficult to organise freely.
However, I do not think it is a permanent feature of society because the fact that we do get workers in places like Zimplats engaging in hidden forms of resistance shows that workers still have their agency. More so, the fact that we also see wildcat protests in certain sectors of the economy shows that there are seeds that need to be watered by coalitions of working class groups and mobilised for mass stayaways and boycotts.
Finally, given the degree of repression, the trade union movement in Zimbabwe also desperately needs solidarity from regional and international working class groups to support the struggles of workers in the country. Most importantly the trade union movement needs a clearer ideology that is communicated to workers in each and every sector to make sure that they do not just see trade unions as bodies that are there to milk them of subscriptions. If I was forced to summarise, we need action, solidarity and ideology.
What lessons do you take away from the voices / interviews with workers at Zimplats in your research? What do they tell us about resistance, and how may they help others attempting to fight back?
I have learned that workers are not docile, they have their own ways of securing control of the labour process and to impact on the company’s profits that we may not see overtly. From the mineworkers’ voices one can see that they are extremely clear as to why they do what they do and the possible effects of their acts. This shows that irrespective of repression and the circumstances workers find themselves in, they can still create space for dissent. This then tells us that we should not confine our understanding of resistance to overt types of struggle but consider the hidden forms of fighting back as well.
However, the lesson for other groups of workers that may want to resist is to look for ways to combine the overt and covert forms of struggle to secure substantive material changes. This is vital because otherwise hidden forms of struggle may end up appearing like coping mechanisms and not efforts to transform lives and material conditions – which is a vital task of the movement in Zimbabwe, as it is elsewhere.
Paddington Mutekwe is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). His doctoral research investigates the dialectical relationship between resistance and repression in Civil Society Organisations in Zimbabwe between 2000 and 2020. He is a member of the UJ Centre for Social Change (UJCSC). His research interests include issues related to social movements, resistance, race, class, labour and politics. Mutekwe’s prize winning article can be read for free here.
Featured Photograph: ‘At least 23 illegal Zimbabwean gold miners feared dead after shafts flooded’ (15 February 2019).