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A Struggle of 62 Days – Lessons of resistance from Kenya’s anti-colonial struggle

D 10 juin 2024     H 22:11     A Zachary Patterson     C 0 messages

On 2 June 1937, members of the Labour Trade Union of Kenya returned to work after their masterfully strategic 62-day strike secured them an eight-hour work day, a nearly 25% wage increase, and recognition from colonial employers. Shiraz Durrani’s A Struggle of 62 Days dramatises the legacy of this mass strike. In this article, ROAPE contributor Zachary Patterson reviews Durrani’s play and writes on the history of the Kenyan labour movement in the struggle for independence and liberation.

By Zachary Patterson

The genesis of labour activity, organizing, and law and regulation in Kenya can be traced back to the end of the 19th century and the building of the railways that brought into the colony the capitalist wage system. Loose affiliations of Kenyan workers struggled for their economic and political rights as soon as foreign capital came into the region for its resources and labour. The transition from the most exploitative forms of forced labour and other discriminatory practices to a wage system introduced to Kenyans and many recently arrived South Asian labourers the contradictions inherent to capital, which manifests labour unrest because of the alienation, coercion, and profit motives of employers. However, the unrest delivered and experienced at this conjuncture of the colonial state was unorganized and inadequate in forcing social change, due in large part to the colonial authorities’ successful manoeuvres to keep segregated European, Indian, and African workers – limiting mass organizing and the effectiveness of collective labour power in matters of labour injustice. As the economy continued to industrialize and develop, urban and rural workers became more aware of their systematic exploitation and began to make demands through informal associations and unions.

In 1914, Indian laborers who were recruited for railway construction formed the Indian Trade Union to represent workers in Mombasa and Nairobi. Around this time, European workers formed the Workers Federation of British East Africa and by 1919 another group of Indian laborers formed the Indian Employees Association. The British colonial government swiftly imposed regulations and passed legislation to ensure the adequate supply of cheap labour continued to serve capitalist interests in the emerging industries of agriculture, mining, and the service sector . The trade union movement and organizational representation continued to evolve through difficult contestations with the colonial powers, who persistently defended employers in order to prevent the rise of an organized labour movement.

As Indian and European workers deepened their ideological awareness through affiliations with workers organizations and orchestrated collective actions, a young Kikuyu intellectual by the name of Harry Thuku began organizing central Kenyan African workers for political and economic justice through the East African Association. Prior to being exiled from 1922 to 1931, Thuku and the association reached beyond ethnic boundaries and colonialist-imposed divisions, organizing African workers in the urban and rural centres of Kenya. Contemporaneous accounts largely painted Thuku as an insignificant lone agitator with a brief activist career that was manipulated by East African Asian organisations, whilst other scholarship depicted him and his movement in strictly nationalist terms (Maxon 1993 ; Thuku 1970).

Many of these observations fall short of recognizing Thuku’s most significant contributions to the development of the Kenyan labour movement, namely his ambition and capacity to organize across domestic cultural and class boundaries, as well as transnational anti-colonial and pan-African networks. Thuku and activists of the East African Association collaborated and stood in solidarity with Indian and Kenyan South Asian organizers – who brought to this partnership a profound ideological awareness and organizing experience from fighting British colonialism in India – to challenge colonial power and raise collective class consciousness absent of racial, religious, or communal divides.

Harry Thuku (19 April 2019).
This powerfully effective organizing strategy was later taken up by Makhan Singh – the Punjab radical and Kenyan trade unionist that fought for economic justice and national independence. Singh’s unifying leadership and recognition of total solidarity among the working class and poor is reflected upon and explained in Durrani’s play A Struggle of 62 Days as his characters become conscious of their shared struggle and collective power through their conclusion that union goals can only be achieved once the politics of indifference and segregation are challenged and overcome.

Durrani, a historian and playwright, depicts the forging of Kenyan class consciousness as workers overcome the individualistic nature of colonial governance and capitalist exploitation and act out their dedication to organize all people with Singh and the union. What would result from Singh’s leadership – and his later partnership with prominent Mau Mau freedom fighter Fred Kubai – is the establishment of the East African Trade Union Congress, the first central organization of Kenyan trade unions that evolved from the Labour Trade Union of Kenya and was established in 1949.

Under the leadership of Singh and in solidarity with the independence movement, the organized African and migrant labour working class deepened ties to the rural enclaves and assumed a militant posture, in large part because of land dispossession and displacement. Singh and Kubai’s unified militancy challenged working class injustices and launched a collective national fight for freedom with a high level of agitation and combativeness.

The revolutionary legacy of Makhan Singh

Makhan Singh remains a paramount figure in Kenya’s history for laying the foundations of radical trade unionism and actively participating in the independence struggle. Born in 1913, Singh’s activism began at an early age after his family moved to Kenya in 1927. After abandoning his studies due to financial constraints, Singh worked in the printing press founded by his father – an experience that would prepare him for the creation and distribution of multilingual union handbills and pamphlets used to organize Indian and Kenyan laborers. Singh brought to Kenya a political consciousness and working-class ideology that was radicalized by his lived experience under British colonialism in India, including his familiarity with the deadly crowd control tactics of the occupational forces and the Amritsar massacre that in 1919 took the lives of hundreds of peaceful Indian demonstrators.

In Kenya, Singh experienced how the transition to the colonial capitalist economy not only presented a shift in the mechanics of oppression but also in the strategies of resistance. In 1933, Singh joined the Indian Trade Union and – while still in his early 20s – was soon appointed honourable secretary, at which time he began to deracialize the organization and renamed it the Labour Trade Union of Kenya. In his new role, Singh wasted no time and began to organize all workers for higher wages and the improvement of work conditions, as well as the demand to end all forced labour. Class consciousness throughout the colony spread and union membership increased during the early 1930s as organizers deployed tactics of mobilizing workers in canteens and local clubs. The resistance organized by Singh and fellow union activists to the violence of colonial capitalism included spontaneous strike actions, which later – as union support increased – evolved into calculated union strikes and boycotts.

The strategies deployed by Singh and the Labour Trade Union of Kenya in 1937 are passionately dramatized in Durrani’s play. Portraying rank-and-file union members, characters Balwant and Bholu debate and discuss the strategy of the courageous sixty-two-day strike as Mawji – a South Asian construction worker – proclaims that “the tactics we have decided to use are those of guerrilla warfare…facing an enemy who controls superior weapons and resources, we do not rush headlong into battle [but] instead fight on our own terms” (Durrani : 2023, 107). The tactics being discussed are the union’s rolling strikes that apply pressure to the capitalists’ position in a sweeping manner, delivering work stoppages at different workplaces at different times to remain unpredictable and avoid repression. In scene two of the third act, Mwaji explains that the gradual escalation of worker militancy is designed to achieve success over time while avoiding mass hunger, state violence, and other pitfalls of powerlessness.

As we learn from the play, the mass strike was orchestrated by a strike-committee that organized rolling work stoppages and pickets, as well as coordinating resources such as food for striking workers and broad community support through handbills, worker rallies, and public meetings in the main thoroughfares of Nairobi. The play also teaches us of the broad working-class solidarity that existed during this time, as labour activists in the railway union show their support for South Asian workers in their struggle against Asian employers.

The historical relevance of Singh’s community’s class consciousness during the sixty-two-day strike are clearly portrayed as the character Balwant explains the main goal as the union winning the right to represent the interests of the working class, uniting all workers of all races to confront the illegitimate power and control of the capitalists. On the 2 June, 1937, Asian employers in Nairobi conceded to union demands and a settlement was reached that guaranteed workers a wage increase of 15-22%, an 8-hour work day, and the reinstatement of all suspended employees. The play’s illustration of Singh and the union members’ determination to lay the basis for a more just politics in Kenya is inspiring and encourages us today to imagine successful tactics for radical social change.

A sixty-two-day strike

Durrani’s theatrical text, A Struggle of Sixty-two Days, reminds us that history remains an important point of reference, providing readers and theatre-goers with a compass to show where society could go. The play joins a growing list of drama texts that draw on the rich and often hidden history of East Africa, but sets itself apart from the tradition of historical plays by eschewing the use of a singular heroic figure and delivering the textured lived realities of the workers who made the longest and most consequential strike in Kenya’s history a success. Through a cast of dynamic protagonists, the play demonstrates the essential collective consciousness and coordination of the workers, while also acknowledging the significance of the collaboration and support provided by the masses.

History comes alive in the play, by coupling memory and imagination on the stage, stimulating the creation of collective memory that is educational, inspiring, and ideological. Like Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo’s The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, Durrani’s play draws on, restores, and preserves a rich and hidden history of East Africa ; however, rather than simply retelling history, Durrani presents the setting and dialogue of 1937 clashes between labour and exploitative capital that continue to ring true today, inviting readers to consider and chart alternative futures.

The inequitable and unjust conditions that Makhan Singh organized against continue to plague Kenya’s so-called independent condition today. The Kenya Medical Practitioners Pharmacists Dentists Union (KMPDU) is currently embroiled in an ongoing standoff with the national government over doctor intern salaries and clinical and laboratory worker agreements, leaving the nation’s health sector in crisis as union members continue to strike until their demands are met. While strikes and resistance to exploitative labour violations by tropical fruit corporation Del Monte have been ongoing in Kenya for the past four decades, but the international and Kenyan bosses keep workers in a constant state of abuse and precarity by repressing union activity.

Durrani has written a historical drama that will bring political organizing and collective action to life, and once on-stage, audience members will learn important lessons along with his characters. The play centres around themes of labour and capital, community organizing and resistance, and the agency of the working-class characters. In addition to exploring the critical issues of class consciousness and strategy, the play reminds readers of the political importance of decolonizing education and history. For the workers portrayed in this play, education is more than formal teaching that takes place in schools or colleges– it is an ideological instrument of colonial hegemonic power that must be challenged and decolonized to ensure an organic, radical, and working-class education.

German theatre practitioner, playwright and communist Bertolt Brecht is credited with once saying “art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it”. As an artistic document, Durrani’s play presents a drama that evokes from its readers a sense of pride and motivation to rethink trade union and liberation histories and consider previously proven tactics and strategies in general strikes and collective activism for radical social change today.

Shiraz Durrani, A Struggle of 62 Days (Nairobi, Kenya : Vita Books, 2024).

About Shiraz Durrani :

Durrani resides in London as a Kenyan political exile. He is a library science professional noted for his writings on the social and political dimensions of information and librarianship. His writings on Kenya and the politics of information draw on his experiences in Kenyan underground politics and his work in public libraries. His history and liberation writings draw on his experiences in librarianship – from the struggle for independence in Kenya to modern-day Britain. Public intellectual and former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Kenya, Willy Mutunga, states that “Durrani must be given due recognition as the organic intellectual who has given form to this history of our struggle, writing and archiving the history of these struggles.” The process of restoring a working-class perspective of Kenya’s history – liberating the minds of the people through access to relevant information – is the first step towards liberating the nation. More of Durrani’s books and articles can be found here.

Zachary J. Patterson is an independent researcher, activist, and ROAPE.net contributor. He writes on Kenya, NGOs, socialist politics and movements on the continent. He works in the space of art and revolutionary politics and is an organizer with the Indianapolis Liberation Center.

Featured Photograph : Makhan Singh addressing workers after his release from prison, Nairobi 1961.


Durrani, Shiraz. 2023. “Prospects for Trade Unions in Kenya Under Capitalist Onslaught.” Counter Currents. 14 June 2023.

Durrani, Shiraz. 2015. “Reflections on the revolutionary legacy of Makhan Singh.” In Shiraz Durrani (Ed.), Makhan Singh : A Revolutionary Kenyan Trade Unionist. Nairobi : Vita Books.

Maxon, Robert. 1993. Struggle for Kenya : The Loss and Reassertion of Imperial Initiative, 1912-1923. London and Toronto : Associated University Presses.

Mohamed, Salum Rashid. 2021. “The History of the Labour Movement in East Africa : The Case of Kenya and Tanzania.” International Journal of Research and Innovation in Social Sciences (IJRISS). 5 (2) : 521-528.

Thuku, Harry. 1970. Harry Thuku : An Autobiography. Nairobi, Lusaka, Dar Es Salaam, Addis Ababa : Oxford University Press.

Twaweza Communications. 2023. ‘Trade Unionism in Kenya – Zarina Patel Interview Part 1.’ Africa Speaking. [Podcast].

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