The History of Black Mineworkers in South Africa/Mining in South Africa and the Genesis of Apartheid, 1871-1948/apartheid, Repression and Dissent in the Mines, 1948-1982/organize or Die

Article excerpt

V. L. Allen. The History of Black Mineworkers in South Africa. London: Merlin Press, 2005. Bibliograpy. Index. Volume 1; Mining in South Africa and the Genesis of Apartheid, 1871-1948. xx + 491 pp. £40.00. Cloth. Volume 2: Apartheid, Repression and Dissent in the Mines, 1948-1982. xx + 489 pp. £40.00 Cloth. Volume 3: Organize or Die. xxxiii + 746 pp. £50.00. Cloth.

This three-volume work has a rather unconventional history. Originally commissioned by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) as their official history, it has expanded into the current massive opus. A work of intensely committed scholarship, written for the union, it must now subject itself to academic critique. It has never been subject to peer review. That is unfortunate, because it would have benefited from scholarly criticism and editorial pruning. Vic Allen devoted more than fifteen years of his life to the writing of it. Much of that time seems to have been spent at the headquarters of the Union in Johannesburg. Thus in the third volume, where Allen chronicles the history of the NUM itself, he relies heavily on personal experience. That volume clearly sets the mark against which future accounts of the emergence of the NUM between 1982 and 1994 will have to be measured. It is an institutional history written from the perspective of the union head office. Allen is frank about tensions that arose in the course of that history, including episodes of violent conflict initiated by union members (and occasionally officials) as well as mine managers at many different levels. This is by no means a whitewash job.

The first two volumes are quite derivative. Volume 1 relies heavily on secondary literature in the history of mining. Volume 2 is a patchwork compilation of geological information, union histories, management histories, and commission reports, as well as scholarly work on migration and the South African state during the apartheid period. Throughout the second and third volumes, Allen pays particularly close attention to mine accidents, devoting entire chapters to the Coalbrook, Hlobane, and Kinross disasters as exemplars of state and management collusion in covering up unsafe practices. His analysis is a harrowing window into racially flawed stope-face relations and inept supervisory decisions in South African mines.

The very particularity of Allen's account of mine accidents points up historical weaknesses in the balance of these first volumes, however. His stress on broad structural determinations and his narrow institutional understanding of worker resistance as hypostatized in trade unions makes it problematic for him to get at "the reality of mineworkers' lives," which is his avowed intent. While recognizing that workers initially migrated to the mines for their own reasons, Allen's narrative, which hinges on structural "traps" (the poverty trap, the legal trap, and the land trap), leaves little space for worker agency until the African Mine Workers Union (AMWU) appears on the scene in the 1940s. Day-to-day struggles on the compounds and in the mines are reduced to "the monotonous uniformity" of miners' lives "over the last 90 years."

Allen and his assistant, Kate Carey, interviewed a sample of one hundred and twenty black miners, but his book makes very little use of those interviews, presumably because "the stories which they told about their lives had a monotonously similar tone about them." Allen's dependence on secondary sources and his use of a questionnaire means that the significance of the life histories of his informants was lost on him; to ask the right questions, one needs to know specificities of events. Allen notes that historical specifics were denied him because he was not able to get access to the Chamber of Mines archives; perhaps so, but he provides no evidence that he ever sought access to the state archives. He cites government report after government report, for instance, but seems unaware that the national archives contain transcripts of evidence presented to most state commissions. …