Editor’s note from the Global Labour Journal: Bill Freund died on 17 August 2020, shortly after submitting this review. He was an Emeritus Professor of Economic History at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the author of a number of classic books and articles on African economic and social history. His most recent books are Twentieth-century South Africa: A Developmental History (Cambridge, 2018) and a forthcoming memoir Bill Freund: An Historian’s Passage to Africa (Wits University Press, 2021)
Read the full piece, published in the Global Labour Journal, here
This deceptively simple short book is a historical community study of Oukasie, a long-established location1 for black urban dwellers outside the small city of Brits in the North West Province of South Africa. Brits was one of many South African towns earmarked for relocation of industries so as to accommodate state planning under apartheid which entailed, among other things, the removal of residents from black urban townships to the ethnically defined homelands, or Bantustans.2 This was the political heart of the apartheid vision. Brits was a relatively successful example of this. It had favourable natural resources, not far from the emerging platinum mining belt and also not so far from the national capital of Pretoria. Consequently, it grew its white population and attracted aspirant black workers from the 1950s on. For blacks the destination was Oukasie, a neighbourhood of shanties with no amenities that had emerged unplanned before the National Party victory of 1948.
The book itself emphasises as the heart of its story the desire to praise the activism and resistance to state politics that typified Oukasie into the 1980s. Two elements were distinctive. One was the early spread of national trade unions. This mainly took the form of the Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU), a formation that eschewed overt membership in political organisations such as the African National Congress (ANC) and the United Democratic Front (UDF). The latter was a loose federation of localised organisations largely loyal to the exiled ANC. Indeed, for one prominent interviewee the UDF association itself is conspicuously pejorative, a synonym for bad organisation. These unions acquired a strong position in the growing factory population in and around Brits. The other and more unusual presence belonged to a left-wing French priest, Jean-Marie Dumortier and his Young Christian Workers (YCW) movement, part of an interesting, distinctively European Left tradition little known in South Africa. To Forrest what these held in common was organisational structure that stressed democracy from below and an ability to nurture leadership from among honest, committed, community-grounded individuals. Dumortier has written his own memoirs in French elsewhere: Pour ne pas oublier: prêtre en Afrique du Sud. If the YCW is an unusual actor on the scene, overall this book is part of a broader set of memoirs and histories such as Jan Theron’s Solidarity Road or Glenn Moss’ The New Radicals which look back from a tangled and besmirched present at an apparently purer stream of people’s democracy and honest dealing which has gotten totally lost. Voices in this stream are often withering about today’s ANC or the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the state-aligned workers’ confederation.
Forrest provides us with a narrative based on patient interviews that provide the chronology for how and why things changed in Oukasie, a place sometimes in the headlines before 1990 but now largely forgotten on the national scene, far away from the dynamic metros. She may exaggerate Oukasie’s uniqueness; I found in my research on the Vaal Triangle a rather equivalent situation with rather equivalent consequences at the same time. READ MORE