Academic journal article Human Organization

Labor and Beer in the Transkei, South Africa: Xhosa Work Parties in Historical and Contemporary Perspective

Academic journal article Human Organization

Labor and Beer in the Transkei, South Africa: Xhosa Work Parties in Historical and Contemporary Perspective

Article excerpt

The paper examines cooperative labor and its relationship with beer drinking rituals in South Africa's Transkei. The analysis is placed within a historical context and the evolution of both cooperative labor and beer drinking in response to specific political, ecological, and socioeconomic circumstances. This facilitates a critique of the conventional approach to work parties and the standard typology of cooperative work in Africa and has important implications for one of anthropology's major concerns over the past decade-the study of commodities and consumption.

Key words: cooperative labor, consumption, subsistence agriculture, Xhosa ritual, South Africa

Cooperative Labor in Africa: An Overview

Cooperative, extrafamilial labor has been widespread in Southern Africa and other parts of the continent. In some areas it plays an important contemporary role, particularly in agriculture, and in recent years it has been the subject of some careful analyses by anthropologists. While it has been widely reported that cooperative work in Africa concludes with the ceremonial or festive consumption of alcoholic drinks, often described as "beer parties," very few writers have paid detailed attention to these events. Geschiere's (1995) analysis of one kind of work group in Cameroon indicates the significance of the festive element, but apart from this example there is little detail in the literature on how labor and its associated festivities are analytically connected. Barth (1967) showed that beer is an essential aspect of labor among the Fur, but he provides no details on how beer and work are connected beyond the fact that they are exchanged.

This paper attempts to contribute to our understanding of this issue through an examination of cooperative labor and its relationship with beer drinking in the Transkei, formerly a South African "homeland," or Bantustan, and now part of the country's Eastern Province. It is based on fieldwork in Shixini Administrative Area in the Willowvale (Gatyana) district of southeastern Transkei. I analyze cooperative work and beer drinking in terms of the general relationship between labor and the festive consumption of beer in work and nonwork contexts and thereby avoid the pitfall of analyzing only those work parties at which beer is consumed. This is placed within a historical context and the evolution of both cooperative labor and beer drinking in response to the specific political, ecological, and socioeconomic circumstances affecting Transkei households over the past 150 years. In the process, the conventional approach to work parties and the standard typology of cooperative work in Africa are critiqued and a new approach advocated. This approach has important implications for one of anthropology's major concerns over the past decade-the study of commodities and consumption-because it illuminates the shortcomings of a failure to pay sufficient attention to production in studies of consumption.

The necessity for cooperative labor in rural areas arises in situations where household labor is scarce, where poverty creates a shortage of resources, and where cash or hired labor are in short supply (Moore 1975; Swindell 1985). The value of work parties in agriculture lies in their unspecialized nature and their ability to be used rotationally to break labor bottlenecks (Worby 1995) so each field or garden can be planted, hoed, or harvested at the optimum time. Even if the work performed is relatively inefficient, as some claim (Saul 1983), they have a certain utility and, as social occasions enjoyed by participants, they turn "days of back-breaking tedium into a brief and merry entertainment" (Ashton 1952: 131).

Moore (1975) identified two basic types of African work groups. The first is the "reciprocal work group" or "exchange labor," a fairly small group of households that work for each other regularly and in rotation on a reciprocal basis. These are often relatively corporate groups, with formal leadership roles and fixed membership, though there may be changes in the composition of the group from time to time. …

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