Jomo Kenyatta, post-war Labour Party, strikes and the pass system - Makhan Singh

Annotated excerpt from Makhan Singh's History of Kenya's Trade Union Movement to 1952, describing Jomo Kenyatta's comments on the kipande pass system and strike action shortly after he was elected leader of the Kenya African Union (KAU).

Submitted by Mike Harman on August 23, 2018

libcom Introduction

The Kipande pass system required all African males over 16 in Kenya to carry a document around their necks, with their fingerprints and employer. This had to be produced on demand by officials, and was used to restrict movements of black workers within the country. It was very similar to the 'Pass laws' in apartheid South Africa which were introduced in 1896. The kipande was introduced to Kenya in 1921.

Although they had been opposed since their introduction, the abolition of the kipande was one of the main political demands that emerged in the wave of militancy in Kenya post-1945. The following is an extract from Makhan Singh's History of Kenya's Trade Union Movement to 1952 where he describes the development of kipande abolition as a formal demand of the Kenya African Union (KAU). The post-1945 Labour Government ignored the call for abolition.

While Makhan Singh does not state it explicitly (possibly due to writing the history in post-colonial Kenya under Jomo Kenyatta's presidency in 1969, and in the midst of political assassinations of Kenyatta's left wing opponents) he makes clear that the demand of the KAU for complete abolition of the pass system was significantly watered down by Kenyatta, who was happy to accept a formally non-racial pass system in its place.

While the KAU and the workers federations had demanded the complete abolition of any registration system, the colonial government came up with a system whereby the explicit racial nature of the kipande would disappear, but it would be applied to only low waged workers - given the severe racial stratification of Kenya's working class this would have continued to apply to the vast majority of black workers.

Following the 1947 Mombasa General Strike, and while the British Labour Party was sending trade union officials to try to tame Kenya's nascent trade union movement and bring it into line with a 'labour relations' framework. A statement from the Labour advisor to the colonial government is very explicit about restricting unions to workers of one trade, emphasising strict bargaining frameworks, and that unions would regulate relations between workers and employers and increase productivity. These words are echoed by Kenyatta's insistence that strikes only be called after giving notice to employers in a speech around the same time.

Even today, Kenyatta is often referred to as a 'leader of the Mau Mau movement' including by supposedly radical histories of Mau Mau. This myth was primarily spread by the colonial government, at first mistakenly after his arrest as part of the Kapenguria Six, but later left uncorrected (except for Kenyatta's own speeches denouncing Mau Mau) as he was prepared to take power as Kenya's first president with British support. These short statements prior to his arrest show that Kenyatta was already far behind the both nationalist party and trade unions, let alone the workers who went out on general strike largely independent of either, in Mombasa in 1947. It also shows British Labour government attempts to manage the growing industrial unrest through a combination of concessions and repressions, not long before the outright repression of almost the entire Kikuyu population during the 1952-56 State of Emergency.

Excerpts from Chapter 14 of Makhan Singh's History of Kenya's Trade Union Movement to 1952

The overall result of the Mombasa General Strike was that in addition to winning an increase in wages for nearly all workers of Kenya, there was created in the country a tremendous awakening for establishing and developing trade unions and strengthening the national organisation for winning national as well as workers' demands.

It was in this situation of great awakening that the annual conference of Kenya's national organisation, the Kenya African Union (KAU) was held on Sunday, the 1st June, 1947, in Kaloleni Hall, Nairobi, which according to E.A. Standard of 6 June 1947, gave a clarion call for "United African Front to win Freedom Fight" and elected Mzee Jomo Kenyatta as its president to lead the fight.

The conference unanimously resolved:

That the political objective of the Africans in Kenya must be Self-Government by Africans, for Africans and in that African State the rights of minorities would be safeguarded.

The conference, after adopting the following resolutions, decided to cable them at once to the Secretary of State for the Colonies [ed: Arthur Creech Jones, Labour] in London:

1. This Conference of the Kenya African Union held in Nairobi on June 1st 1947, condemns the present Government policy of prohibiting Freedom of the Press, Free Speech and Public Assembly among Africans in Kenya. The Conference strongly requests the Government to repeal all racial and discriminatory laws which deny the Africans the right to hold public meetings.

2. This Conference strongly demands complete abolition of the Kipande with all its humiliating rules and regulations. The Africans look on Kipande as the enemy number one, and therefore request the British Government both in Kenya and in England to remove the Kipande immediately. Its removal will act as a War Memorial to the African Warriors.

3. During the War the Africans fought together with the other races for the sake of freedom. But after the war we find ourselves more enslaved than ever before. This Conference demands equal status for all citizens.

The conference, in addition to passing several more resolutions on other issues facing the national movement, adopted the following resolution on African labour:-

That this Conference knows that the conditions of African labourers are deplorable and that is supported by the recent labour strikes in Mombasa, Kisumu, Kissii, Maseno and Asembo Bay, that Government take action at once to substantially improve wages, housing and other conditions of African Labour and that we demand 'equal pay for equal work'

Three weeks after the conference of the Kenya African Union, which had demanded the total abolition of the Kipande, the Government publish a bill aimed at continuing the kipande but in a modified form and on a non-racial basis. The bill was called the Registration of Persons Bill and was published for introduction into the Legislative Council.... The main recommendations of the majority report of the subcommittee, dated the 29th October 1946, were the following:


IV. The amendment of the Employment of Servants Ordinance to provide for a scheme of work cards.. and that at present, the salary level below which the work card shall be compulsory shall at present be Shs. 40/-

V. That the possessor be no longer required to carry it at all times on his person. It should be necessary to produce it unless he can otherwise prove his identity in certain circumstances, as for example:

(i) When laying a complaint with the authorities
(ii) When accused an in custody for some offence.
(iii) When application is being made for a licence or other public facility
(iv) When it is to the holder's own convenience to produce it.
(v) On engagement in employment
(vi) At such times as may be authorised by the Governor-in-Council by Public Notice beforehand when circumstances warrant a general identity check in a specified area for a specific purpose

Every employer had to fill in on the Buff Card all the particulars about an employee whose wages were below an amount decided by the authorities and published in the Official Gazette. The particulars included the number of the identity card, name, father's name, location, district, amount of wages, rations, housing, etc., and on engaging or giving discharge to every such employee, separate cards had to be sent to the Labour Commissioner for their being record in the Central Records Office [...] Thus the old kipande system was replaced by a new system of identity cards and work cards ("Buff Cards") serving the same purpose as was served by the old kipande, with the differene that there were a few modifications in the penal sanctions and that the new system was on a non-racial basis.

[Following the January 1947 Mombasa General strike, where for the first time Africans began to hold mass meetings numbering frequently as many as 5,000 people]

In August , 1947, there were strikes at Ramisi Sugar Factory at the works of Sisal Products Lts., Ruiru and at Nanyuki. Besides those strikes the workers at Uplands Bacon Factory and those working on the farms in the adjoining areas had threatened that if their demands were not granted they would have to go on strike. (In September a strike at the Uplands factory did take place, in course of which three workers died and several wounded by police firing.) The situation made the Government and the settlers' leaders very panicky. The result was that Chege Kibachia (leader of the African Workers Federation) was arrested in Nakuru on the 22nd August, 1947, soon after he had left Nairobi on the up-country tour, including the Nyanza Province, with the purpose of organising workers and establishing branches of the African Workers Federation. A strong united organisation of workers covering all trades and industries and ranging from the Coast to Mount Kenya and to the Nyanza was the nightmare of the Government, the settlers and other employers.

The arrest of Chege Kibachia was made under the Deportation Ordinance. The warrant of arrest stated that he was "conducting himself so as to be dangerous to peace and good order"- the usual charge against patriots at that time. At Mombasa eighteen other leaders of the African Workers Federation were arrested on various charges. [..] A few days after Chege Kibachia's arrest a Government order was served upon Makhan Singh on the 27th August, 1947, ordering him to quit the country within thirty days. He had arrived back in Nairobi from India only five days earlier, on the 22nd August. [...] On the 24th September it was reported in the press that the Acting Governer had "issued order for deportation of Chege Kibachia to a place within the Colony.". A few days later he was deported and restricted to Kabarnet in the Baringo District, where he remained under restrictions for about ten years until his release in the beginning of 1957.

At a public meeting, held in Kaloleni Hall, Nairobi, on the 10th September, 1947, and called by the Kenya African Union, the President, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, addressing the workrs, said:-

Write your demands on paper, give them to your employers, give them notice of intention to strike and then strike if need be - that is the proper way (E. A. Standard, 13 September, 1947)

In the same speech:

He explained that the Government had been instructed to go ahead with the formation of trade unions and an expert had already come to Kenya from Britain for that purpose, (and) claimed that an African doing a certain kind of work should get pay equal to that work. "Equal pay for equal work, irrespective of colour or creed", he claimed. The African should also get the same kind of educational facilities as other races and deserved the same opportunities in life as the European or Asian (Ibid.)

On the question of kipande:

He stated that he had been interviewed by the Select Committee on the Registration Bill. "The kipande is finished. No police man can demand it from you; there is no law to make you carry it; if you go for employment it cannot be demanded of you." The word "kipande" was also deaad; the new, suggested, identity card was not discriminatory, and he had been assured that the Europeans and Asians would be first to get it. (Ibid.)


On the day the report of the above meeting was published, there was also published a report of a press conference held the previous day (12 September, 1947) by Mr F. W. Carpenter, the Acting Labour Commissioner.

He stated that a Trade Union Adviser (Mr. James Patric] came out to Kenya five months ago and had been round the country finding out conditions and seeing for himself the problems which trade unions would face. He [Mr. Patrick] had made it clear to Government there was a widespread desire on the part of the workers in Kenya to know something about trade unions and to form them.

Mr. Carpenter stressed that the Trades Union Advisor had emphasised that the formation of trade unions was not a matter to be taken at all lightly and he thad therefore been preparing a number of pamphlets explaining their formation, their functions, rules, constitution and the duties of trade union officials.

Kenya had few trade unions already but they had a shaky beginning. Mr. Patrick wished to emphasise that the Kenya Government should not encourage an spate of African unions before the contents of the pamphlets had been assimiliated.

The Kenya Government will encourage the formation of trade unions in the country but it must be satisfied that the people who wish to form them know what they are about; that the purposes are, in fact, the proper ones for trade unions and not for some semi-political body.

The main purpose of a trade union was to regulate the relations between worker and employer. It was essential that a union should be confined to people belonging to the same trade ...

He thought that the formation of unions might well lead to improved output of work and did not think their formation was premature. He felt that the African Workers Federation - 'a mixed bag' as at present constituted - could not possibly be recognised as a trade union (E. A. Standard, 13 September, 1947).

That was the trade union policy of the colonial Government in Kenya under a British Labour Government, and it was being implemented under a shadow of deportations, quit-orders and prosecutions. The policy was, of course proving satisfactory to a section of settlers and other employers.