Mzingeli’s insights – relevant today

Mzingeli was a man of his time with insights that could help in our time.

His grandfather had been one of Mzilikazi’s indunas, but Charles was born into a different world, in 1905. He grew up at Empandeni mission and left school at 14 to become an apprentice on the railways. There he joined the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union , founded in South Africa by Clemence Kadalie. The union trained him, along with S.Masotsha Ndlovu and Job Dumbutshena, and sent him as organizing secretary to what was then Harare township.

That was not a time for head-on confrontation with the colonial system. The First Chimurenga had shown that. It was a time for studying how the system worked and for getting all the recognition that could be drawn from the new rulers for the rights of workers and African people in general.

The British Empire claimed to offer equal rights to all its subjects, though some might have to wait longer than others to achieve that. Mzingeli pushed for this “imperial working class citizenship” in every way he could. He fought to advance the workers as workers.

He fought the restrictions under which Africans lived in towns- restrictions on where they could live and even on where they could walk in the streets. He didn’t limit his concerns to members of his union; anyone who had an issue affecting their rights could rely on him to help. He even organized a successful campaign for prisoners to be given decent uniforms.

He couldn’t lose with his appeal to “imperial working class citizenship”; either he won some small recognition for the rights Zimbabwean workers shared with workers in Britain, and that was an advance, or he failed and the talk of “equal citizenship” was shown to be a fraud, which educated the workers. That, too, was an advance. It motivated them to find other ways of nibbling at the oppressive colonial system.

By about 1940 they were beginning to see there were political issues which needed to be tackled politically. The ICU’s membership dropped and Mzingeli turned his attention to getting an African voice heard in politics. He founded an African branch of the formerly all-white Southern Rhodesia Labour Party.

Even within that party, he had conflicts with whites who thought white people should speak for blacks in the all-white parliament. Mzingeli insisted that Africans wanted their own voices heard. When he succeeded in organizing a congress of the party in Mbare in 1944, the colonial government banned all political meetings in the African townships. Another lesson in colonial hypocrisy for all who would listen.

Mzingeli moved to fight on another front. In 1945 he formed the Reformed ICU which put up candidates for the then Harare township advisory board when it was given some seats for Africans. Until then, there had only been a white member to “represent African interests”. The RICU won these seats against the state-sponsored “safe” African candidates. African workers were now speaking for themselves, not represented by either whites or the black elite, whom Mzingeli suspected almost as much as he did the whites.

When the Federation was proposed, Mzingeli would have nothing to do with it, so the two seats for Southern Rhodesian Africans in the Federal parliament were taken by Mike Hove and Jasper Savanhu, members of the black elite.

Mzingeli continued on the local level, winning some victories for “illegal lodgers” and single working women in their efforts to stay in town. But the political climate was changing.

Educated young men who could not get jobs led the opposition to Federation in alliance with the growing nationalist movements in Zambia and Malawi. This led to the formation of the nationalist parties, who were more interested in building up their party than in the personal issues for which Mzingeli campaigned.

They won independence, and may have done it faster than Mzingeli’s methods could have done. But we would certainly have achieved democracy faster by Mzingeli’s methods, because his very mode of struggle was a practical education in democracy. He would never have labelled the people he worked to help as “the masses”; he was concerned with each one of them as a person.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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