Reviving the Dead: Entangled Histories in the Privatisation of the Tanzanian Sisal Industry

By Sabea, Hanan | Africa, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Reviving the Dead: Entangled Histories in the Privatisation of the Tanzanian Sisal Industry


Sabea, Hanan, Africa


How do histories shape the way people map their present and envision the future, especially at a moment of rapid political, economic and social transformation like that associated with the shift from socialism to liberal market economy/polity in Tanzania? Is the past a `foreign land' (as Lowenthal argues) or are reproductions and traces of multiple temporalities constitutive of the present and the possibilities for the future? In this article I explore how different moments and aspects of the past in the sisal industry in Tanzania are helping shape definitions of the present and visions of the future by workers, managers/owners of sisal plantations, and government officials. Locating present socioeconomic realities within historical processes of economic and political transformation allows us to dispel some of the assumptions that underlie the unequivocal celebration of the `market' and the `private sector'. Further, it opens up the space to analyse the dynamics between knowledge and management as they operate at different levels within the social organisation of production/circulation of international commodities. This brings to the fore the intricate relationship between labour, capital and the state on the one hand and the interplay between local conditions and global markets on the other.

Much of the debate about sisal's past and future is taking place within the context of liberalisation of the economy and polity of Tanzania. Within the sisal sector in particular, privatisation opened up the space for negotiating how to revive an industry once declared `dead' by its participants. Diverse and contradictory productions of the past under the Mandate and independent socialist Tanzania mark how different groups of people (workers, managers, state officials) are negotiating their locations and claims to rights within a transformed social, political and economic order. The debates within/about the sisal industry are thus intimately linked with the production of the political geography of Tanganyika/Tanzania at large, while carrying the imprints of the reconfiguration of the politico-economic order internationally Sisal(1) was introduced into German East Africa, now Tanzania, in 1893. Since its inception sisal was politically and economically constructed as a labour-intensive, plantation-based agro-industrial complex. Though the industry has been geographically limited to certain pockets in Tanzania (i.e. Tanga Province, along the Central Railway line, and parts of the Southern and Northern Provinces), economically, politically and culturally the sisal industry marked the whole territory. Massive infrastructure--primarily railways, roads, motor transport, government labour camps and communication networks--connected the diverse regions of the territories with the major sisal-producing areas. Sisal plantations since 1895 drew labour from almost every other part of the territories (as well as neighbouring countries), engaging about 35 per cent of the total wage-employed in the country until the late 1960s (Fig. 1). A constant movement of labour, ideas, knowledge and commodities between areas of employment and the so-called `home areas' contracted the social space between the different regions of the country. The flux of people of various races, nationalities and ethnicities to fill the ranks of the sisal industry, turned Tanga--a coastal region in the north-east of Tanzania--into a socio-cultural space condemned by administrators for `swamping the original population' (TNA, ES/1733/16) yet simultaneously celebrated for its `cosmopolitan'(2) qualities.

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From a mere seven and a half tons exported to Hamburg in 1900, within a couple of decades (and despite the disruptions of World War 1, the transfer of power from the German Protectorate to the British Mandate, and the Depression) Tanganyikan sisal commanded 47 per cent of world production of hard fibres and Tanganyika became the leading producer. …

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