Accepted Paper:

'The Mother of all Strikes: Popular Protest Culture and Vernacular Cosmopolitanism in the Botswana Public Service Unions' Strike, 2011  

Author:

Pnina Werbner (Keele University)

Paper short abstract:

My paper explores the emergence of working class oppositional popular culture among members of five public service unions in Botswana, whose joint, two months’ long strike challenged the country’s establishment and the perceived authoritarianism of government in creative and imaginative ways. Inspired in this respect by the events of the Arab Spring, strikers also drew on cosmopolitan themes of labour rights, dignity and social justice while deploying resistive popular-cultural traditional styles of song and dance to mock and ‘insult’ politicians and celebrate worker solidarity.

Paper long abstract:

My paper explores the emergence of working class oppositional popular culture among members of five public service unions in Botswana, whose joint, two months' long strike challenged the country's establishment and the perceived authoritarianism of government in creative and imaginative ways. Inspired in this respect by the events of the Arab Spring, strikers also drew on cosmopolitan themes of labour rights, dignity and social justice, while deploying resistive popular-cultural traditional styles of song and dance to mock and 'insult' politicians and celebrate worker solidarity. In the capital, Gaborone, as in other towns throughout Botswana, strikers gathered daily in the sports grounds of a local school, under a giant morula tree. Over time, the tree and grounds came to be celebrated and sacralised with prayer and song, a point of mobilisation with periodic demonstrations and forays to other places throughout the country. Support for the strike came from the media and other opposition politicians and civil society actors. It elicited critical political commentary and humour, both in the songs and in acutely witty cartoons. Workers' popular cultural performances suppressed social divisions of class and education among the different public service unions between manual workers, doctors, teachers and civil servants. Workers' salaries were also, however, committed to sustain family members at home, in the village. The paper thus argues against a simplistic 'proletarianisation' thesis, that the fusing of cosmopolitan and local popular culture has created a distinctive vernacular way of being a worker in Botswana.

Panel P04
Beyond the Arab Spring: the aesthetics and poetics of popular revolt and protest