Contribution to a history of the workers' movement in Africa (part 4): Second World War to 1968

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It is well known that French imperialism liberally drew its cannon fodder from among the youth of its African colonies, as was demanded by its high level involvement in the Second World War. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of foot soldiers, the overwhelming majority of them young workers and unemployed, were enrolled and sacrificed in the bloody imperialist slaughter. With the conflict over, a period of reconstruction opened up for the French economy whose repercussions were felt in the colony in an unbearable exploitation that the workers began to courageously struggle against.

Bloody suppression of the soldiers’ revolt and strike action

It began with the revolt of the soldiers who had survived the great world butchery, who rebelled against the non-payment of money owed to them. Having returned home to a demob camp in Thiaroye (a Dakar suburb) in December 1944, hundreds of soldiers demanded a pension from the “provisional government” headed by General de Gaulle. The blunt response they received from their commanders was a hail of bullets. Officially 35 were killed in the attack, 33 injured and 50 arrested. This is how the workers and veteran fighters who had supported the “liberators” of France were thanked by the latter, who included in their ranks the “communist” and “socialist” members of de Gaulle’s government. The famous “French Resistance” gave a great lesson in “humanism” and “brotherhood” to its “native foot soldiers” in rebellion against the non-payment of their meagre pensions.

However, this bloody response of the French bourgeoisie to the demands of the rebels could not prevent the outbreak of sustained struggles. In fact a general unrest was about to unfold:

The teachers’ strike action broke out first, from December 1st to 7th 1945, and then it was the industrial workers from December 3rd to 10th. The strike broke out again in January, with the steelworkers again involved, but also employees in the commercial sector and the ancillary staff of the Governor General. The requisition measures taken by the Governor on January 14th 1946 provoked a general strike supported by 27 unions. The civil servants only resumed work on January 24th, those in the commercial sector on February 4th, and the steelworkers on February 8th.”1

Despite suffering terribly during the war, the working class was beginning to raise its head again in rebellion against poverty and exploitation.

But the resumption of combativity was taking place in a new environment that wasn’t conducive to working class autonomous action. In fact, the proletariat of French West Africa (FWA) in the post-war period could not avoid being caught between the advocates of Pan-African ideology (independence) and the colonial forces of the left of capital (SFIO, PCF and the trade unions). But despite this, the working class continued its struggle against the attacks of capitalism with great pugnacity.

The heroic and victorious strike of the railway workers between October 1947 and March 1948

During this period the railway workers across the whole of FWA went on strike to satisfy a number of demands, including that both Africans and Europeans should be employed on the same basis and in opposition to 3,000 employees being made redundant.

Railway workers were originally organised within the CGT. Some 17,500 of these workers left in 1948 following a very hard strike. During this strike, a number of the French employees had expressed violent opposition to any improvement in the situation of the African staff.”2

The railway strike ended victoriously through the active solidarity of workers in other sectors (dockworkers and others employed in the industrial sector) who went on strike for 10 days, forcing the colonial authorities to satisfy most of the strikers’ demands. Everything was decided during a big meeting in Dakar called by the Governor General. In the hope of putting a brake on the movement, the floor was given over to political notables and religious leaders whose mission was to beguile and to intimidate the strikers. And customarily, the most zealous were the religious leaders.

A campaign was undertaken by the ‘spiritual leaders’, the imams and the priests from different sects, to demoralise the strikers and especially their wives The imams, furious at the resistance of the workers to their injunctions, railed against the delegates, accusing them of every possible sin: atheism, alcoholism, prostitution, infant mortality, even going so far as to predict that these sinners would bring about the end of the world.3

But nothing was achieved. Despite being accused of all these “sins”, the railway workers were determined and their combativity stayed intact. It was strengthened even further when their appeal for solidarity in a general assembly found increasing support from workers in other sectors who chanted: “We, the builders, are for the strike! We, the port workers, are for the strike! We, the steelworkers…We, the…”.4

And indeed, the very next day, there was a general strike in almost every sector. However, before this could happen, the railway workers not only had to suffer pressure from the political and religious leaders, but were also subjected to terrible repression from the military. Some sources5 indicate that people died, and the colonial authority used its “sharpshooters” to suppress a “march of women” (the wives and relatives of the rail workers) to Dakar that was in support of the strikers.

The working class can only rely on itself. It’s symbolic that the CGT collected financial contributions from Paris, and back in FWA it criticised “those who wanted their independence” and who launched a “political strike”. In fact, the CGT took cover behind “the opinions” of the European citizens of the colony who rejected the demands of the “natives”. In addition, this behaviour of the CGT pushed the native railway workers to abandon the Stalinist union en masse following this magnificent class combat.

SFIO, PCF, unions and African nationalists divert the struggle of the working class

The railway workers’ strike that ended in March 1948 took place in an atmosphere of great political turmoil following the referendum giving birth to the “Union Francaise”.6 Hence the actions of the railway workers acquired a highly political dimension, obliging all the political colonial forces and those in favour of independence to tactically position themselves either in favour or against the strikers’ demands. So the PCF was seen hiding behind the CGT to sabotage the strike movement, while the SFIO in power attempted to suppress the movement using every possible means. For their part, Leopold Sedar Senghor and Sekou Toure, two rival Pan-Africanists who would become presidents of Senegal and Guinea respectively, openly declared themselves in support of the demands of the railway workers.

But the day after the strikers’ victory, the left forces and African nationalists clashed, each claiming to be for the working class. By exploiting the struggles of the working class to serve their own interests, they managed to divert the autonomous struggle of the proletariat from its real class objectives.

Thus, the unions took up the question of the Labour Code to poison relations between workers. Indeed, through this “code”, the French social legislation had established a real geographic and ethnic discrimination in the colonies: firstly, between workers of European origin and workers of African origin and secondly, between those hailing from different colonies, even between citizens of the same country.7 It turned out that the SFIO (forerunner to today’s French Socialist Party), which had promised the abolition of the iniquitous Labour Code in 1947, prevaricated until 1952, providing the unions, particularly those in favour of African independence, to focus the workers’ demands exclusively on this question by systematically raising the slogan of “equal rights for white and black”. This idea of equal rights and negotiating with Africans was openly opposed by the most backward European union, the CGT, and we should say that in this situation the CGT played a particularly despicable role insofar as it justified its position by the support it gained from its opposition.

Moreover, in response, the CGT militants of African origin8 decided to create their own union to defend the “specific rights” of African workers. All this gave rise to the formulation of increasingly nationalist and interclassist demands as this passage from the organisation’s rulebook illustrates:

The concepts adopted [those of French metropolitan unionism] insufficiently illuminate the evolution and the tasks of economic and social progress in Africa, especially since, despite the contradictions existing between the various local social strata, colonial rule makes inappropriate any references to class struggle and avoids the dispersal of forces into doctrinal competition.”9

Thus the unions were able to pass the act effectively because, despite the persistence of a ceaseless militancy of the working class between 1947 and 1958, all the movements struggling for wage claims and in order to improve working conditions, were diverted into fighting colonial rule and winning “independence”. Clearly, during the movement of the railway workers in 1947-48, the working class of the colony of FWA still had the strength to successfully take the struggle onto the class terrain, on the other hand, subsequently the strikes were controlled and directed towards the objectives of the bourgeois forces, the unions and political parties. It was precisely this situation that was the springboard for Leopold Sedar Senghor and Sekou Toure to draw the people and the working class behind their own struggle for the succession to colonial rule. And after the countries of the FWA proclaimed their “independence”, the African leaders decided immediately to integrate the unions into the bosom of the state by assigning them the job of policing the workers; in short, they were watchdog for the interests of the new black bourgeoisie that was now in charge. This is clear from the words of President Senghor:

Despite its service, because of its service, trade unionism must today change itself to have a more specific understanding of its precise role and its tasks. Because there are now well-organised political parties that represent the whole nation at the general political level, unionism must return to its natural role, which is primarily that of defending the purchasing power of its members… The conclusion to this analysis is that unions will broadly support the political programme of the majority party and its government.” 10

In short, the unions and political parties must share the same programme in order to defend the interests of the new ruling class. Union leader, David Soumah, echoed the words of Senghor:

Our slogan during this (anti-colonial) struggle was that the unions didn’t take any responsibility for production, that they did not have to worry about the repercussions their demands would have on an economy’s development when it was managed in the sole interest of the colonial power and organised by it for the expansion of its own national economy. This position has become irrelevant following the accession of the African countries to national independence and a change of role has become necessary for the unions.11

Consequently, during the first decade of “independence”, the proletariat of the former FWA was left without an effective class response, completely shackled by the new ruling class assisted by the unions in its anti-worker policy. It would be 1968 before we would see it re-emerge on the proletarian class terrain against its own bourgeoisie.

Lassou (to be continued).

1. El hadj Ibrahima Ndao, Senegal, a history of democracy’s conquests, Les Nouvelles Edit. Africaines, 2003.

2. Mar Fall, The state and the union question in Senegal, L’Harmattan, 1989.

3. Ousmane Sembene, God’s wooden sticks, Pocket, 1960.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. A “federation” between France and its colonies whose goal was to supervise the coming “independence”.

7. For example, the Senegalese residents of the districts of Goree, Rufisque, Dakar and Saint-Louis were considered to be “French citizens”, which was not the case for other Senegalese in the country.

8. It led to the creation of UGTAN (General Union for Black African Workers), a union that was moreover dominated by the railway corporation.

9. Quoted in Fall Op. Cit.


10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.