How did I become an African nationalist? I was just a shy provincial boy in a hicktown job. But it was that little world of Marampa that, in a curiously roundabout way, launched me into politics. Almost without intending it, certainly without planning it, I accepted a role in the great work of liberation of my country and a part in shaping her political future. But it all began modestly, on a small and very human scale, in the circumstances I encountered or, perhaps more accurately, that encoun tered and gradually impelled me, in the course of my life in the mining community.
I did not take either of the conventional roads to political awareness that many of my contemporaries followed. I had not yet had enough education to make an intellectual. I was never the typical angry young ideologue. I had none of the fervour of new ideas brought back from Europe or America by the globe-trotting college men who were beginning to filter back to Sierra Leone from university training abroad. Nor had I been through the horrible purgation of active war service. Plenty of our boys saw the world from the blunt end of a rifle, fighting to keep the British Empire going: they learned nationalism in a tougher and more thorough school than the budding student revolutionaries. They had seen the myth of white supremacy, with its mask off on the Burma battlefield, or its pants down in behind-the-lines brothels. Many of them had lost limbs or blood or good looks but they had all gained insights into the realities of Sierra Leone’s colonial predicament and could no longer be fooled.
I had not seen the world but I had seen suffering and I had felt the suffering of others. In some ways, I think my faint impulse towards some sort of political consciousness began with that kind of compassionate reflex. It is a common experience with sensitive boys touched by the effects of rapidly broadening experience.
It was, for example, only because of the simple promptings of humanity that I had wanted the peasant rebels to succeed — certainly not out of any enthusiasm for Haidara’s politics which, I thought, verged on the insane. I was only beginning to perceive the links between suffering and oppression, but I wanted to see the wretched peasant masses somehow find the power within them to rise up and achieve a better life for themselves. Despite my sympathy for the rebels, however, my preference, by temperament and training, was for more practical responses to hardship. In my immediate surroundings, in the plight of my fellow workers in the mining industry, I found my first real chance to put whatever talents I had to use.
There was a touch of youthful idealism — almost of fanaticism for a good cause — about the campaigning I began for the mineworkers. But it was not ideologically inspired. It was constant contact with the grinding deprivation the workers went through that set and kept me going. My future political life was built on solid, deeply-dug foundations of years of trade unionism down the mines and in the bush. My trade union years were a sort of political pre-incarnation.
To this day I am glad to have travelled the trade union road to political involvement. It meant a re-opening of my experience of the grass roots of Sierra Leone. It taught me how popular organisations work. It encouraged me to see myself always as the servant of collective interests greater than my own. In the old days, my mining friends in the union often came to say ‘thank you’ for little victories wrung with great effort over wages and working conditions. I have a much bigger ‘thank you’ to say to them for all that they did — albeit unwittingly — for me.
If the battle against hardship in the mines was about fifty per cent of my political initiation, the rest came from my sense of being an African. It is hard for anyone outside the continent to understand what being an African means to me and to millions of my brothers. It means being the heir to a stifled civilisation. It means being half-deprived of identity. It means having nothing to show and everything to prove. It means being a victim of rape and robbery and slavery. It means a slow stirring from shock — the numbing, sometimes crippling shock, of a culture controverted by generations of colonialism and racialism. It means having to struggle for every dignity and human right. It means having to face apparently insuperable problems, apparently impossible odds.
I cannot conceal the fact — though it is undiplomatic to admit it — that the injustices and racialism of the colonial regime in Sierra Leone helped to make me an African nationalist. I do not say this in any spirit of hostility to the British I knew in the old days, many of whom I admired, even loved. They were doing a difficult job which they had chosen as a nation but not in every case as individuals. They were locked into a system of values and prejudices they had acquired from backgrounds and circumstances which were an inescapable part of history. I apportion no blame. But I want to try to express what it was like to be an African and a worker in those times. I want the younger generation of Sierra Leoneans to understand it. I want the friends of Sierra Leone in Britain and the whole western world to try to understand at least some small part of what it was like. Then they will begin to understand the history of my country, and in particular my own political awakening and that of hundreds, thousands, millions of my countrymen.
Even as a child at school I was dimly aware of the controversies that raged over the curriculum. I gradually came to realise as I got older that this was a consequence of the basic colonial dilemma — the clash of interests and aspirations between the imperial master-class and the subject race.
The educational system in which I grew up was not run primarily for the benefit of the boys and girls — though, of course, it did us a lot of good and I am deeply grateful for it. It existed to help make colonial government work.
From school onwards, every frame of life in which I found myself supplemented and stimulated my awareness of the inadequacies of colonialism. The feeling, for example, came through the experience of winning ill-begrudged promotion to a managerial job at Marampa, or being bawled out by a basically well-meaning Scot. The sneer of cold command came all too easily to thin European lips. When men are typecast as master and subject, irrespective of merit, the affection of superiority becomes a habit for those in the dominant role. The illusion of superiority fostered in the remote luxury of Hill Station was not hard to mistake for reality. Equally inevitably, I reacted against a set-up that condemned my country to exploitation and my race to contempt. We acknowledged the achievements of the British but wanted the chance to achieve things for ourselves. We did not hate our colonial rulers but could have loved them better in their own country. Starting in the ‘thirties, growing to intensity in the ‘forties, I felt an insistent yearning for liberation.
But first there were immediate problems of misery and deprivation in the minefields to confront Conditions for the miners in those early days at Marampa were terrible. They worked strenuously for six days a week at a wage of 9d. (7½c.) a day plus two cups of rice and a pinch of salt. They were little better than slaves. They soon developed the weary attitude of hopelessness. They cultivated a resignation born of despair, spirits crushed, bellies empty. The only way they could ever improve their Jot w concerted action — industrial action: downing tools and paralysing mining operations, so that the management would be forced to listen to their grievances.
There was not much in the line of labour regulations in those days. The Trade Union Ordinance had not been enacted, so no trade unions could operate. When conditions got too pressing and we dared to make a bit of a noise, the manager sent for the District Officer at Port Loko and he came along with his court messengers and put the fear of God into us. I remember one morning while we were in the workers’ compound in the labour camp, a court messenger collected about four of as at 6 o’clock and took us to the office where we met the manager and the District Commissioner.
The District Commissioner said to us:
“Look here, I have heard that there is going to be a strike in the mine and that you are the ringleaders. Well I want to warn you that if there is any trouble here, you will be in for it.” This went on almost every quarter.
Each man pulled for himself and it was only when things got extremely bad that they managed to get together to register their resentment. They organised strikes — in 1932, for instance, when they held out for twelve days — but in most cases if the mine owners were not able to quell the disturbance on their own, the Government despatched police, court messengers and in one case, even soldiers, to intimidate the strikers and establish law and order. The strikers got simply no redress whatever.
I was physically and emotionally close to these desperate men. I had a better paid job, but as an employee of the mining company I was in a position to sympathise I felt the same insecurity, the same anxiety, the same loneliness and economic impotence. I was joined to them by the friendship that comes from daily contact, mutual knowledge and, at least partly, a shared lot.
My feelings for the miners were such that I just could not stand by and do nothing, even if by helping them I jeopardised my own position, for I knew that I would invite fire from three directions: from the colonial government, from DELCO and from the Paramount Chief of Lunsar. The Government at that time did not recognise trade unionism in the country and quashed it whenever it looked like taking a hold. As far as DELCO was concerned, it adopted a policy of guarded acceptance of trade unions. While it would certainly have preferred to settle disputes through an elected committee of the workers rather than have to face an angry confused rabble whenever there was discontent, it was most anxious to avoid the Paramount Chief’s displeasure.
The Paramount Chief looked on a trade union of mineworkers, representing as they did almost every tribe in the country including the Creoles, as a sort of plot by outsiders to undermine his position. The company had visions of wage rates getting out of hand by demands from a union. The Paramount Chief regarded a trade union as a foreign body in a tribal community threatening to give ‘strangers’ in the district an alarming corporate voice and usurp his authority over his own people. It was the very last thing he wanted and I recognised from the beginning that it was from him that I would have the greatest trouble.
Moreover, as it was later revealed, the newly installed Paramount Chief of Lunsar in Port Loko District, Bai Koblo Pathbana II, was receiving from the company a ‘subsidy’, known as lease-rent, of £15,000 a year, a great deal of money at the time — money which could have gone some way towards improving the lot of the workers. Since the mine happened to be within his Chiefdom, the subsidy could be regarded as a sort of royalty paid to the local Tribal Authority though, as a mining royalty, it was obviously most inadequate.
Ostensibly, one third of the subsidy was intended for the administra tion of the Chiefdom, one third as rental or compensation to the actual owners of the land used by the company, and the remaining third for the Paramount Chief himself. However, the distribution of the funds was left to the discretion of the Chief who, according to all available evidence, kept virtually all the money for his own use. In return he was expected to give his full support to the company and the colonial administration in their efforts to maintain ‘law and order’, that is to suppress any attempt by the workers to fight for their rights and better conditions.
Nevertheless, knowing conditions in the mines and in the area, as I did, when I became Minister of Lands, Mines and Labour in 1952, I negotiated with the Colonial Office in London for the lease-rent to be increased by a relatively small amount and for the increase to be backdated by three years. This after obtaining firm assurances that the two thirds of the payment, earmarked respectively for the adipinistration of the Chiefdom and as compensation for the actual owners of the land, would be used for the purpose for which they were intended.
To appreciate the importance attached by the Company, and indirectly by the Colonial Office, to the services of the Paramount Chief
it may be noted that I had little difficulty in obtaining satisfaction on the lease-rent increase and backdating issue while our requests for minor concessions for the workers met almost invariably with the strongest resistance. Invested with the traditional gown of absolute authority, armed with substantial funds which he could dispense at his discretion, and enjoying the confidence and active support of the colonial government, as represented by the Local District Commissioner, Bai Koblo soon became the most powerful and influential African in the area — a most redoubtable opponent whom only a foolhardy fighter would want to challenge in open combat. Later, Bai Koblo’s influence was extended almost to the national scene when he married Madam Ella Gulama, daughter of the legendary Paramount Chief Julius Gulama (later a Paramount Chief in her own right) in my home District of Moyamba.
All this made it necessary to pick my steps very carefully at the start so as not to draw attention to myself. I, therefore, began by gathering the men together in small groups, listening to their grievances and showing them that the solution lay in their own hands by coming together as one man and speaking with one voice. Only then, I assured them, would they discover the strength of their negotiating power. Other leaders soon came forward to sow and nurture the seed of trade unionism among all categories of workers in the country, all at great personal risk to themselves, among them the late J. Akinola Wright who was co founder with me of the United Mine Workers’ Union.
In 1935 the mine workers of Marampa, now organised and with an elected spokesman, came out en masse in a protest strike against low rates of pay and long working hours, indecent treatment meted out to them, poor medical facilities and compulsory overtime hours. As a result of this strike, and one that followed at Pepel a short time later, the mines’ management was moved at last to a grudging response. They set up a grievance machinery to examine workers’ complaints, though nothing much else was achieved. However, the very fact that the employers were prepared to listen at all to the men’s complaints showed clearly that they recognised their potential bargaining strength now that they had organised themselves into a union, which was no mean feat.
In 1937 the Marampa Mine Workers’ Union applied to the Government for registration but as the much hoped for Trade Union
Ordinance had not yet been enacted, their application was turned down. It took the horrors and hazards of war to make Sierra Leone safe for trade unions. At the outbreak of World War II, Freetown, of course, became an essential port in the planning of naval operations; and the mining industry among others, became an extremely important part of the war economy. This naturally threw many areas of the country into unprecedented industrial and commercial activity which in turn created a situation where the need for trade unions became suddenly and increasingly obvious. Thus what we were called upon to do was not only to enter into this new organisational field with all the natural hazards that this entailed, but to do it in a social and economic situation which itself had been transformed almost overnight. This was a double handicap which nearly overwhelmed us, and in retrospect I marvel that we survived at all for the first few years.
The enactment of the Trade Union Ordinance, which was based on that in force in the United Kingdom, led to a rush of activity, and organisations were registered in all the main industries which at that time amounted to about half a dozen. Registration itself was a simple matter and in a comparatively short space of time there were about twenty unions in existence trying as well as they knew how to get established in a situation where there was no machinery for collective bargaining. None of us knew about either collective bargaining or statutory wage-fixing. None of us had any experience.
As we saw it, we would in due course win recognition from the employers simply through the strength and militancy of our respective memberships, from which time our policies would be determined by the degree of co-operation which would develop between us. So we sat down and wrote letters to all the employers in sight. The most that could be said for the progress we made at this time was that sometimes our letters were acknowledged. But in spite of the legalisation of trade unions it became obvious that the employers had little intention of entering into anything like a permanent relationship with us.
In retrospect it is difficult to blame them entirely for adopting this attitude. While we were under the mistaken impression that no procedures existed which would enable us to represent our members, the employers clung to the primitive system of industrial relations which had operated for generations, a system in which the Government was itself the sheet-anchor. The fact is that the Government was by far the biggest employer in the country and it had always determined the wages and salaries of its own workers by order, other employers were expected and advised to fall into line in due, course.
This was a most elastic arrangement for them and its operation was, of course, simplicity itself, but it left no function at all for the trade unions, as we gradually came to realise.
Oddly enough, I do not think either the Government or the employers were consciously practising any deceit in this matter. I believe they honestly thought that at the outset, that is, for some years to come, the newly registered unions could not expect, because of their lack of experience, to enter into any arrangement with them which called for more than occasional consultation within the framework of the existing system.
The Marampa Mine Workers’ Union was among the first to be registered in 1939 — a glimpsed flicker of light like a lamp in the deepest shaft. Hopelessness was suddenly dispelled. There was no question any longer of managements ignoring unpalatable facts. The flame quickly spread bringing hope and encouragement to depressed workers throughout the country. Steadily we union leaders plodded on, building up membership, solidarity and funds. It was necessary to educate the large mass of illiterate membership concerning the prin ciples of trade unionism, which was no small task, but more difficult still was the effort involved in exacting dues from the workers who could ill afford to contribute a cent from their meagre pay packets.
Even when we eventually managed to get their wages raised to around 2/- a day plus a pound of rice a week, it was as much as I could do to raise as little as one shilling (1 Oc) a month from them. It was also difficult to keep track of members for, particularly at planting and harvest time, there was a substantial turnover of labour. Many workers, too, as elsewhere in the world, wanted the benefits of being a trade union member but without subscribing if they could avoid it. Eventually the Marampa Construction Company agreed to introduce the check-off system, that is, deducting union dues from wage packets.
Perhaps the most disappointing experience I had during this period was not so much with employers as with the slow progress of our members to understand the new situation which had come about. As I was to learn later in Britain, unions can gain experience with difficulty; to attract financial support during the early days of a union is an almost impossible task. This was my main problem and that of my colleagues in the other unions. Furthermore in the mines our problem was made much worse by the nature of the labour force. Many, if not most of the labourers were young men who came from outside the district with a cash target in mind and they returned to their homes when this had been achieved.
There were times when I felt I was beginning to get to know them. I remember one cheery young chap with a laugh that would split a pit prop, whose compulsive happiness not even the hardship of the mines could erode. I liked him for his indomitable spirit and unshakeable morale. There was another young lad with a real gift for language; though I have forgotten his many stories, the fluid sound of his voice remains in my memory. I recall a third, very young, very likeable but very callow man, who could never overcome a kind of superstitious unease which he felt about the union, saying he would never get a benefit from his membership before he died. But just as I began to grow to love them, they would be off like slurry from a tip. Sometimes I felt deeply lonely.
There was also another serious problem to overcome. When I came later to read about the work of Sidney and Beatrice Webb on British trade unions, I was struck by their definition of these organisations, which they describe in the main as “a continuing association of workmen for the improvement of their wages and conditions of employment”. The key term in this is ‘continuing association’. This is the essential feature of any successful organisation. Yet it is an extremely difficult concept to explain to men who come from non- industrialised and simple communities when they engage in employ ment. To them money is given only for tangible benefits like food and clothing. Taxation, they often feel, is just extortion and the idea of paying regularly to an organisation for unspecified benefits which may or may not come their way in the future, is often far too sophisticated a notion for them to grasp in the uncertain circumstances in which they live their lives.
It was understandable, therefore, that quite often it would happen that prior to a wage claim, the union would receive plenty of financial support from the workers, but as soon as our efforts were crowned with success, the contributions would fall off very considerably. This was not evasion. As far as the men were concerned, they felt that they had discharged their responsibilities in financing the union to secure the benefits obtained, much as they would pay a lawyer for any services rendered but not retain him indefinitely.
I do not know to what extent this attitude has been, or still is, shown in Western countries, with respect to either trade unions or any other kind of necessary social organisation, but I feel sure in my own mind that there are few countries where the need for a clearer understanding by ordinary people of the concept of ‘a continuing association’ is not being wrongly described as apathy. We are too quick to assume that men are born with social insights which can in fact only be appreciated by them after long and patient instruction. It is for this reason that I strongly advocate an increasing interest in the possibilities open to us for still further improvements in our approach to adult education.
Our union finances remained unstable for a long time and we were not alone in having to cope with this problem; other unions also had to deal with it. In those days, employers were not disposed to help us in any way believing, wrongly I think, that trade unions are more amenable when they are weak. In fact we knew that we could have done them a great deal of damage had we so wished, but we refrained from such irresponsible action. What they did not realise was that it would have cost us nothing to have brought about a strike because we had no funds for strike benefit. Nor, on the other hand, did we have sufficient money to mount a national conference for the avoidance of strike situations which were building up on their own account without any encouragement from us.
In those early years of our trade union development there were no models we could turn to for guidance in what was then Colonial Africa. Nigeria, Ghana and The Gambia had nothing to offer us and we had no reason to look to the east and central parts of the continent. Our efforts at establishing unions, however much they may have fallen short of perfection, had certainly met with enough success to focus attention on them by the Colonial Office, which no doubt prompted Ernest Bevin, then Minister of Labour in the British Coalition Government, to promote the idea that if trade unionism was to be established in the then Colonies, those who were anxious to develop it should be given some practical assistance. This resulted in advisers being appointed in most of the territories, and the man who was appointed to Sierra Leone, Edgar Parry, arrived here in the middle of 1942.
Personally I was not wildly enthusiastic about European Govern ment officials at the time because during the organising of the mine workers at Marampa I had met with unwarranted opposition from one of them which, increasing as it did the reluctance of the mine owners to accept our union for the purposes for which it had been established, did nothing to improve my feelings towards a government which claimed to be anxious to promote trade unionism. But I saw no reason to allow animosity to stifle common sense, and decided I could lose nothing by talking to Parry.“The trade union organisation in this country is very poor,” he said
with brutal frankness. “If you intend to follow the course that has been taken by the British movement it will be some years before you can hope to make any impact on the industrial scene.” I and other union leaders asked him to enlarge on the British practice. “First of all,” he said, “you must secure a respectable membership and, with the power that this will give you, to gain recognition from the employers. Even this will take a fair amount of time.”
Parry went on to give an account of the negotiating machinery in current use and a description of the statutory wage-fixing methods adopted in those instances where the unions were unable to negotiate from a position of strength. As he saw it, there was clearly an immediate need in Sierra Leone for some proper and permanent system of determining wages and conditions of employment throughout the country. Whether or not workers were illiterate, socially backward or not yet fully aware of the assistance that trade unionism could give them, was irrelevant to this need.
As the unions could not at that early stage of their development demand such a system from the employers, it would be necessary for the Government to establish by legislation an adequate number of bodies through which wages and conditions would be negotiated, fixed and settled. Furthermore, the unions should be given as much represen tation on these bodies as if they were in fact fully representative of the people engaged in the industries concerned. He felt that there was no place for gradualism in the matter of trade union recognition in the situation with which we had to deal.
“To the best of my knowledge,” he declared, “no government has ever taken such a bold step before, but I cannot recommend such a proposal unless you yourselves will agree to certain conditions, the main one being that you will be willing to amalgamate your existing organisations to the point where there is only one union for each industry and thus ensure that the workers will only speak with one voice. A single union,” he added, “would also be able to provide sufficient funds to give a modest salary to one full-time official and thus ensure his independence.”
This was logical. Initially there were four separate mine workers’ unions — Marampa. Pepel, Yengema and Hangha — and as each one grew in strength, the impossible position into which they were put by having all their officials employed in the mines and by each mining union working independently, became more and more apparent. In 1943, therefore, the Marampa and Pepel unions were amalgamatedand I was asked by the men to become the union’s first full-time official. I readily accepted the men’s offer despite the fact that it involved leaving a fairly secure and relatively well paid job for one providing the prospect of constant harassment by the colonial and tribal authorities, as well as a smaller and uncertain income.
However, when I handed in my resignation, DELCO was not aware of my plans and of the offer made to me by the union. The company appeared to be so delighted to get rid of one whom they regarded as a troublemaker that they gave me a gratuity of £200 to enable me to return to my home town of Moyamba where, they thought, I would buy a house with the money and live happily ever after, minding my own business, while they continued to exploit our workers unhindered by a union organiser.
When they heard that I had settled down in Lunsar instead of Moyamba they immediately called in Bai Koblo, then Paramount Chief designate, instructing him to see to it that I leave the area forthwith. At the time, Bai Koblo was still undertaking the mandatory two-month period of initiation during which he was forbidden by tribal custom to leave the bush. Disregarding tradition at the beck and call of his new masters, he hurried to the company’s headquarters to receive his orders and then summoned me. When he realised that neither persuasion nor threats would make me leave Lunsar, he complained bitterly to the District Commissioner that I was making trouble in his Chiefdom and urged him to get me removed from the town.
The District Commissioner, a Mr. O’Dwyer, must have known that his task would not be an easy one and that the Marampa workers would do everything possible to keep me in Lunsar. As I entered his office, summoned by a Court Messenger, I felt that he was determined to secure an initial advantage by humiliating and intimidating me. “Stevens”, he snapped. I immediately interrupted him as politely as I could. “Mr. Stevens, Sir, if you please”, I retorted, stressing the first word. He was taken somewhat aback but went on to accuse me of using illegal methods of organising the union. He then more or less ordered me to leave the District, hinting that if I refused to do so he could have me put in jail.
However, he suggested that he was merely carrying out the wishes of the Paramount Chief who wanted me out of his Chiefdom. I reminded the District Commissioner, again very politely, that I was a native of Sierra Leone and had the right to live where I liked in my own country. “Please tell the Paramount Chief”, I said, “that I will not budge and that he cannot get me out.” I then added co-operatively, “Certainly I will leave, Sir, provided, of course, you serve me with an order to do so.”
A couple of days later, nearly 4,000 Marampa mineworkers came down to Lunsar to make it clear to all concerned that they too had a say in the matter. I had to use all my influence and powers of persuasion to get them to go back quietly and avoid a showdown. But both the Paramount Chief and the District Commissioner undoubtedly got the message.
Some time before there had already been a terrible strike in Marampa which lasted three weeks or more and resulted in much riotous behaviour including arson. In spite of the accusations levelled at me, as leader of the Marampa Mine Workers’ Union, of aiding and abetting and my name being brought up in the Executive Council in connection with the affair, the union did not sponsor the strike at all. Our main occupation was to counsel patience, constitutional represen tation and other peaceful means of negotiation since, apart from anything else, it was obvious that not much could be done along the line of strikes without the workers being well organised. An official enquiry into the strike was instigated, which cleared me and the union of.any blame but found fault with the mines’ manager who was sent home.
Following my encounter with the District Commissioner I also despatched a telegram to Parry in Freetown, putting forward the facts of the case. He found nothing illegal or rebellious about my activities, especially since I had been cleared by the Commission of Enquiry into the Marampa riots, and, in his position now as Acting Commissioner for Labour, he ruled that in future no trade union man or industrial dispute should be interfered with unless there were riots. Subsequently, I had more friendly meetings with District Commissioner O’Dwyer and never harboured a grudge against him.
He had been doing his job in what he believed was the interest of the British Empire and of the Allied war efforts while I was doing mine in the interest of our workers. I understand that after returning to Britain he lost his sight, but not his courage, and became a blind physiotherapist or manipulative practi tioner.
In 1945, we amalgamated with the Yengema union to form the United Mine Workers’ Union, the headquarters of which were estab lished in Freetown, away from the mining areas, and I was asked to become its first full-time secretary-general.
So it was that with a sigh of relief from many quarters, I left Lunsar for Freetown. With the amalgamation of the three mine workers’
unions, the establishment of a headquarters in the capital and the services of a full-time secretary, the apparently ineffective representa tions which had been registered all along by the individual unions over the years, were pressed home in earnest. We showered our complaints on both employers and Government, submitting memoranda, resolu tions and reports in profusion.
Arthur Creech Jones, a life-long British trade-unionist and former National Secretary of the powerful Transport and General Workers’ Union who had just become Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies in the first post-war Labour government, sent a succession of teams to investigate our complaints. Meanwhile, even as the war was drawing to an end, we achieved some concessions for our Marampa workers, including a six-day week, as against the seven-day week worked hitherto, and a reduction of the expected output per man from 50 tons per week to a flexible norm ranging from 32 to 42 tons.
The first major wage negotiating exercise was the preparation of a wages schedule for all daily paid workers. Prior to this, artisans’ and semi-skilled workers’ rates of pay were subject to the whims of the foreman-in-charge; this, I held, was a most unsatisfactory and unfair state of affairs. The agreed wage schedule formed the basis for all future wage negotiating and resulted ultimately in a Wages Board being appointed. In addition to wage rates the Board fixed holidays with pay, sick pay, overtime rates and so on. Wage increases were from now on always a fixed amount to every worker which thus reduced the differential between the labourer and skilled or semi-skilled workmen.
Along with other mine workers, I was nominated a member of the Wages Board on which the employers were equally represented. There were in addition three independent members one of whom was the chairman. From a voting point of view, it was vital to us, the workers’ representatives in particular, that the three independent members of the Wages Board could be relied upon to remain independent and to understand the issues which came before them. Some of those who opposed the setting up of the Board did so on the grounds that people could not be found locally whose qualifications were suitable and whose detachment could be sufficiently assured to fill such positions.
As it turned out, it would have been difficult to have found three more able men. The chairman was Father Mackey, then Acting Bishop of the Roman Catholic Church in Sierra Leone, who brought a balanced social conscience to our proceedings along with great weight and authority. The other two members were, to the surprise of many, both Africans. The elder of the two was J. Akinola-Wright, a Sierra Leonean who had retired from a senior post in the Nigerian Civil Service, and the younger was Robert Gardiner, a Ghanaian who was until recently the Secretary-General of the Economic Commission for Africa, but who was at that time teaching at Fourah Bay College. All three men were held in high regard and contributed a great deal to the work of the Board.
I well remember the day the Wages Board was inaugurated in the Legislative Council Chamber which was housed in the old Secretariat building. The business was purely ceremonial with a goodwill speech by the Colonial Secretary, an acknowledgement by the Chairman and suitable statements by the leaders of the two sides. I listened intently to Father Mackey’s address, as did others, for it was in complete contrast to the conventional words of good wishes expressed by the Colonial Secretary. There was nothing antagonistic about it; it just sounded strange. One part in particular, which creased the brows of us representing the wage-earners and caused the employers to smile and nod in agreement, is still fresh in my memory: “… a man may not work for an inadequate remuneration,” the Fatherread. “The remuneration must be enough to support the wage-earner in reasonable and frugal comfort”.
It was only later that I learnt that he had read to us from the Encyclical Letter of Pope Leo XIII, published as far back as 1891, the ‘Rerum Novarum’ otherwise known as The Workers’ Charter. This famous and sombre statement is one of the most valued declarations made by the Church on social and industrial policies and could not have been uttered on a more suitable occasion.
It was a big step forward and a great day when we, the representatives of the workers, faced representatives of the employers on equal terms and when, we were able to fix a wage of2I- (20c) for the mine worker for an 8-hour day with time and a half for overtime, double time for Sundays and holidays and twelve days annual leave.
A mines manager once said to me: “You ought to be very glad of the help the Labour Department is giving you.” So I replied: “The Labour Department, especially in its present set-up, has helped you far more than it has helped us. If it had not been for their persistent effort in counselling patience and tact, for their honest attempt to understand the men’s point of view and for their explaining government’s attitude in matters of industrial disputes, I must tell you that industrial relations in the mining industry would have deteriorated to such an extent that it would have required the urgent attention not only of the local government, but perhaps also the Government of the United Kingdom.
In the eyes of the average native worker,” I continued, “Government and the mining employers, both being European, will stick together. When labour unrest develops, instead of Government trying to understand the workers’ point of view and meeting their demands even to a minor degree, they rush in policemen, court messengers and soldiers to intimidate and suppress them. Realising that Government, their last resort, has failed them, the workers resort to other means to ward off oppression and injustice.”
I was indeed proud of the improvements achieved in the working conditions for the mine workers, but I was far from satisfied. There was still no security of employment, benefits, treatment of industrial diseases, adequate medical attention or recreational facilities; and compensation for injuries was scandalous. For fatal accidents, for which the highest amount of compensation was awarded, the amount was reckoned at 30 months’ earnings on the basis of a 26-day month. At the time this worked out to be about £52 (Le104). Fifty-two pounds for a whole human life!
It was with my appointment to the Wages Board that I entered for the first time what could be called any sort of public life in the capital. I had, of courser done a considerable amount of work for my union, but this was outside the Colony area. Now, however, I was leader of a group nominated by the Government to serve on an official body whose objects could not have been nearer to my heart. It seemed now as if we might make some progress.
There we were, the employers, the union and the independent members, along with a small secretariat, all set to run an organisation of which not a single one of us had any previous experience. Yet anyone who cares to study the full records of the Board from its beginnings will find that it has conducted its affairs with competence right from the outset. And I think it will be found that the same is true of all the other bodies that were subsequently established. Positive and constructive achievements make news, yet here we all were doing things, important things, just as effectively as they were doing them in Britain at that time.
Here, for the first time, we were part of the decision-making body ourselves and I was anxious to learn about the procedures by which such organisations operated and to watch the methods and style of men experienced in the use of power and persuasion. I saw how much our independent members resorted to the latter and how, when they had to make use of power, they always seemàd to behave as if they did not realise it was at their disposal. I have always had a great admiration for men who possess strength but use it modestly. I cannot recall when our independent members made use of their votes on later occasions because thier powers of persuasion were so effective that it was seldom necessary to take a poll. This was a valuable lesson for me; and so was the need to observe the procedures of the Board.
When we made any sort of claim we had to adduce evidence, and now that we were fully recognised by the employers, we had to learn to be as businesslike as they were in our dealings with them. Like many people, I have a strong dislike of red tape; on the other hand I have long realised there are certain formalities to be observed if your relationships with others are to bring about mutual improvements.
In due course not only the mining industry but all the principal industries were operating inside the framework of some wage-fixing or negotiating body for which provision was made in the legislation. The unusual feature of this legislation was that whenever an agreement was negotiated, its terms were not merely confined to the parties to the agree All employers of the groups of workers specified were obliged to pay the same wages and to provide the same conditions of employment. This meant that in effect almost everyone working for anyone anywhere was entitled to a legally enforceable minimum wage.
The Act under which this was done has now been replaced by a more comprehensive measure, but its main provisions have been retained because they have been so useful to us. I am very glad indeed to see that the present generation of workers have become as accustomed as British workers to see their wages and conditions of employment flow from agreements made between their own representatives and the employers. I see in this a social achievement of a sort which augurs well for our future throughout our society. In the long run our success will depend upon our capacity to adapt ourselves to constructive change and to rid ourselves of the inhibitions which stultify our efforts.
Ordinary people have participated in the establishment of social organisations in which they have transformed their own lot. They have taken themselves out of feudal conditions into the world of the most modern industrial societies in a very short period of time. Although it is a fact that only comparatively small numbers of people have been involved in this transformation, this takes nothing away from its significance. In 1971 we enacted an Industrial Relations Bill which is very comprehensive indeed but it only came on to the Statute Book after the fullest consultation with people affected by it, and they are as responsible for its successful operation as is the Government. I have no doubt that they will live up to their responsibilities. The record of the trade unions has not been unblemished. Events have taken place which we would all like to forget. Nevertheless, I believe- over the years during which the changes I have written about have happened, it has been proved that Africans are as socially adaptable as any people in the world.
I have referred above only to the relationships between employers and workers. There has also been another development which is no less important for society. During the Second World War, because of the general illiteracy among workers, they were obliged to turn to men to lead them who, by and large, belonged to the lettered class. These leaders strove as well as they could to improve the working lives of their members but it was inevitable as time went by that the difficulties they faced almost daily led them to depend increasingly upon their own personal judgements rather than upon the collective views of the membership which itself floated up and down unpredictably.
I know that we often found ourselves in defensive positions where we had to make decisions which, according to the rules, should have been taken by an executive committee or even the full membership. Some of us, I suppose, became so accustomed to this state of affairs that we began to accept it as a natural way of doing the job. Whether or not this was a healthy development I was too close to the situation to decide. What I do know, however, is that at the present time the officers of our unions are not given the latitude which was accorded us.
It is now by no means unusual for union leadership to be subjected to criticism and it is not relevant to the point! wish to make whether this is justified or not I only wish to record that such a change has come about. The members of mass movements can sometimes be cruelly critical of their leaders but on the other hand, what a great step forward it is that they have learnt to criticise at alL
I have read somewhere that the three great legal relationships in life are husband and wife, parents and children and master and servant, or, as we would say today employer and employee. With us, this last one is going to become an increasingly important relationship since I can foresee that greater and greater numbers of our people will be coming into paid employment. In addition to this group we must also take into account those who, while not employers or employees in the strictest sense of these terms, are, or will become, associated with production and development boards and the like in various forms of co-operative enterprises where power must be delegated to individuals or small groups. No developing country can avoid changes of this kind and I think we should consider some of the problems they will present us with.
The truth is that we are sometimes so bemused by the great variety of political theories which are offered to us that we tend to overlook the fact that the basic master and servant relationship has not yet been abolished under any political system in the world. It remains even in those countries where the most modest standards of living are sought. Mass production brought “about by modern or at least suitable technology, is accepted everywhere as an aim of policy, and with it the need for organisation and — we must face it — the direction of the many by the few. This is an inescapable condition of living in the modern world and I do not think that sufficient attention has been paid to the consequences of this fact.
The simple question we have to answer is how a high degree of individuality can be maintained in communities where centrally controlled organisations must be increased in order to provide our growing material needs. Now the elitists are in no doubt about the matter. We should let things run their natural course and allow them to play their directional role for which they are so obviously well equipped. Nor are they greatly concerned whether the prevailing political philosophy of the country is capitalist, socialist or anything between or beyond these two, so long as they are given the powers of direction.
So far as I can discover, much more thought has gone into promulgating the unproved doctrine that we should hand over our affairs to’good’ elites than to practical proposals whereby the majority of those working or co-operating in an industry can themselves effectively manage and control these well intentioned leaders. Almost every time I raise this matter there are shrugs and smiling references to Yugoslavia. As I understand it, the great heresy of which that country is guilty is that the workers there have the power to appoint their own managers and that it is in their interest to choose good men since any improvement in the productivity of their undertaking is reflected in their own incomes.
I am in no position to judge whether this is a good or a bad practice. What does impress me, however, is that Yugoslavia has struggled against very powerful forces to keep it.
It seems to me utterly unacceptable that once we admit, as I most certainly do, that some men are more gifted than the rest of us, we are expected to concede that because of this the only logical conclusion we can reach is that we should hand over all effective power to this minority. I can see no logic in this argument, nor can I see why we cannot examine alternative proposals which will make our industrial leaders much more responsible to the people they are called upon to manage. It may be that there are inherent difficulties in our situation which would make it impossible to adopt any known practices. However, we cannot afford to neglect the experience which has been accumulated by those who have tried to solve the problem.
Nevertheless, I have a strong feeling that, in the end, we in the African states, and especially in this region, will have to find our own ways of safeguarding the individuality of the ordinary man inside industry. I have great admiration for the technology of the West but their conflicting ideologies about the creation and distribution of wealth and power do not commend themselves tome.
We are often told that the most harmful social disease they suffer from is ‘alienation’ which, as I understand it, means that the highly specialised and fragmentary nature of modern industry divorces a man from the social purposes of his work and leaves him an unthinking drudge without real interest in either his employment or his society. It is argued that he becomes merely a link in the production chain.
This picture might well be overdrawn but as far as we are concerned, I think there is enough truth in it to make us consider very seriously what steps we should take to prevent the emergence of this social disability here.
Even the enemies of Africans pay tribute to the spontaneity and love of life which we show in abundance. Indeed some speak patromsingly of the childlike nature of the African. It occurs to me that there has been no time in the social history of the world when the childlike approach was more called for. If we are childlike in sociological terms, very well; children are not only willing to learn, they are also frankly curious and uncommitted. We will need all these qualities if we are to find out how to make use of the productive organisations we require without dehumanising our people in the process.
For my part, I would aim higher and consider to what extent work, education and even pleasure can be brought together into a social framework where each of them is compatible with the others.