a1 University of Wisconsin
Research into the perspectives of both worker and consumer has shown the social history of Zulu washermen to be far more complex than was previously thought. Viewed from the standpoint of Zulu men, washing clothes was not a humiliating female task into which they had been coerced by adverse circumstances. Laundering recalled the specialist craft of hide-dressing in which Zulu males engaged as izinyanga, a prestige occupation that paid handsomely. These astute tradesmen, a number of whom may have come from artisanal families, recognized they could play a crucial role in the European household economy. ‘Craft conscious’, building on indigenous institutions and customs, they combined not merely to secure their position and bar entry into ‘the trade’, but also to impose standards of wages and regulate the labour given by the younger men. In this manner they became one, if not indeed the most, powerful group of African workmen in nineteenth-century Natal.
The social history of the AmaWasha guild compels a re-evaluation of notions regarding openness to change in traditional societies; indeed, it underscores their capacity for innovation. Moreover, it has a fundamental bearing on the structural nature and patterns of resistance of early black working populations in South Africa. This study indicates that there were intimate historical links between precolonial artisanal associations and subsequent worker organizations, activities and consciousness.
* I would like to thank Steven Feierman, Jan Vansina, David Henige, Susan Grabler, Shula Marks and Charles van Onselen for their comments on an earlier version of this paper.