Work in Times of Slavery, Colonialism, and Civil War: Labor Relations in Angola from 1800 to 2000

By Vos, Jelmer | History In Africa, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Work in Times of Slavery, Colonialism, and Civil War: Labor Relations in Angola from 1800 to 2000


Vos, Jelmer, History In Africa


Abstract: In Angola, a trend towards labor commodification, set in motion under the impact of the nineteenth-century produce trade and colonial rule, has been reversed in the decades since independence. Angolans have always worked mainly in the reciprocal sphere, but with the growing commercialization of the economy after the abolition of the slave trade, self-employment has also become a constant in Angolan labor history. By 2000, the rural population was thrown back to subsistence farming, while the larger part of the urban population has tried to survive by self-employment in the informal economy. Wage labor, widespread under colonialism, has become less common.

Résumé: Au cours des décennies de l'après-indépendance, l'Angola a renversé la tendance à la commodification du travail déclenchée sous l'impact du régime et des politiques commerciales coloniaux du XIXe siècle. Les Angolais ont toujours travaillé surtout dans un système de réciprocité communal (domestique, familier, etc.); néanmoins, en raison de la commercialisation croissante du travail après l'abolition de la traite d'esclaves, l'activité indépendante est devenue une constante de l'histoire du travail en Angola. A partir de 2000 la population rurale est revenue à l'agriculture de subsistance pendant que la plupart de la population urbaine a essayé de survivre à travers l'activité indépendante dans l'économie informelle. L'activité salariale, qui s'était développée sous l'époque coloniale, est devenu moins répandue.

Introduction1

This article essentially argues that because of Angola's historically uneven incorporation into the capitalist world economy, the country only partially fits the universal model of a progressive labor commodification.2 In 1800, Angola was Africa's main supplier of slaves to Atlantic markets, and within Angola slaves also formed the largest body of commodified workers. After the end of the Atlantic slave trade, slavery in Angola expanded as the Angolan economy commercialized under the impact of a new export trade in produce. But only part of this servile labor force was commodified, while another part worked under reciprocal relations. At the same time, a growing number of men, and some women, withdrew from subsistence production to participate in the new export economy. This was mainly done through self-employment, but also through wage labor, and often on short-term or seasonal basis only.

In the mid-twentieth century, a large part of Angola's rural population worked and produced for the market; colonial policies aimed at selfsufficiency stimulated agricultural production. Wage labor - often cheap and sometimes obtained by force - was part of the story, but Angola's colonial history was more remarkable for the fact that agricultural production was left to a large degree to independent African farmers. After independence in 1975, the market economy was increasingly limited to the urban areas, as decades of civil war destroyed the possibilities of commercial agriculture. Because of the war, people flocked en masse to the cities, and in the year 2000, more people lived in urban than in rural areas. Angola became primarily connected to the world economy through the oil industry, which supplies few jobs. Around this industry, a massive informal sector of petty traders has grown, further surrounded by a large pool of unemployed city dwellers. Wage labor has declined since independence, and has become increasingly tied to public sector employment. In the countryside, most peasant communities have been reduced to subsistence production.

Before exploring these issues in greater detail, this article begins with some brief remarks about the overall limited availability of empirical data for analyzing labor relations in Angola from 1800 to the present day. Next, it highlights some of the main demographic changes that have impacted labor relations over time - in particular the increasing ratio of young children under the age of ten in the population and twentieth-century urbanization. …

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