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Twenty-Five Years of Struggle: Transport Workers And the ‘Rights of the Wretched’ in Neoliberal Tanzania

Solidarity is a slippery word, particularly in a world of rapid NGO-isation. But if there is to be genuine solidarity with transport workers—either at home or internationally—it must start by knowing the story of “hivi vita,” of “these wars.”

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Tanzania’s 2015 transport strikes still hold a special place in the memories of the workers involved. 

“The whole country stood still,” recalls one. Coaches, city buses, trucks, “none of them moved,” insists another. Not once but twice, for one day in early April and another two in May, “God held out his hand.”   

The immediate trigger for the strikes was Public Notice No. 31, a new government requirement that commercial drivers retrain every three years—paying a hefty fee for the privilege—before renewing their license. 

Grievances, though, ran much deeper than the licensing issue. Drivers—overwhelmingly informal workers with no contracts, fixed salaries, and no social protection—were demanding their rights, or as they put it, “haki za wanyonge”, or the rights of the wretched. 

“People were tired…drivers were tired.” 

However tired, though, how do the “wretched” organise a strike? And not just any strike, but one of the few instances of nationwide industrial action in Tanzania’s post-colonial history? The story does not stop there, either. 

The strikes had an extended pre-history, one of incremental organising and experimentation. They also had a long afterlife, spawning a new union, a plethora of promises from the state and capital, new institutions for mediating labour relations, repeated threats of industrial action, and, in 2022, a follow-up strike among truck drivers. 

When it comes to telling this story, workers themselves—alongside Tanzanian scholar-activists—have shared some of their recent experiences. There is also important academic work on the pre-strike phase of struggle. 

But still, these worker-led efforts are overlooked. Prominent discussions about democracy and human rights rarely centre on labour issues. Within the labour movement itself, established staff-led unions—focused on formal, salaried workers and with external donor funding—monopolise attention.

Yet, in the background, casual transport workers have been waging their decades-long fight against exploitation. Reconstructed here, their story is one of a class in the making. Since structural adjustment transformed transport work in Tanzania, workers have weathered multiple cycles of contestation. 

Through each phase, they have developed new solidarities, new demands, and new strategies for achieving them. They have attempted everything from polite negotiation to militant strikes. They have also faced the backlash as both state and capital hone their own strategies of authoritarian control.

READ MORE: Getting Ahead or Getting Exploited?: Here Is How We Can Make Bodaboda, Bajaj Driving in Dar Better

Solidarity is a slippery word, particularly in a world of rapid NGO-isation. But if there is to be genuine solidarity with transport workers—either at home or internationally—it must start by knowing the story of “hivi vita,” of “these wars.” 

‘Driving work’ under neo-liberalism

Beginning with liberalisation in the 1980s, Tanzania’s commercial transport industry boomed. A fresh inflow of capital brought with it new forms of both labour exploitation and worker organising

Private sector interests also reorganised, embedding themselves within Tanzania’s erstwhile socialist ruling party, Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM). In short, a new set of power relations emerged, remapping the terrain of struggle for transport workers.  

Exploring this terrain further involves confronting the challenges drivers face at work. Many of these are linked to workers’ informal labour conditions. Taken together, they define a shared experience of precarious “kazi ya udereva,” or “driving work.” 

A typical truck driver—transporting cargo in an often-gruelling journey from Dar es Salaam port to one of Tanzania’s six landlocked neighbours—has no contract. He may work, either directly or through subcontracting, for one of the country’s largest conglomerates. (I use he/him pronouns throughout this piece. While not ideal, this choice of gendered pronoun reflects the pronounced occupational gender segregation in transport).

Yet he has no salary, only an allowance to see him through the trip. If he gets stopped in gridlock at a border crossing, he simply runs down his allowance, skimping by sleeping and eating in the truck cabin, sometimes for weeks on end. 

If his boss or “tajiri”— literally meaning “rich person”—decides the driver is responsible for damages to the vehicle, the cost is deducted from the same, dwindling allowance. 

An upcountry bus driver—transporting people and goods across Tanzania and the wider region—has a similar experience. He likely also has no contract, is reliant on an allowance, and is pushed by bosses to speed. 

This pressure results in damages and fines—not to mention life-threatening accidents—for which the driver is also held responsible. Along with their lack of formal contracts, drivers miss out on other statutory rights

They receive no overtime pay, sick leave, paid holiday, or paid notice period. They are readily hired and fired, switching between companies, including many owned by prominent ruling party politicians and financiers. 

READ MORE: We Have Internalised Our Transport Woes That We Longer See Them As Problems

Daladala workers—drivers and conductors operating city buses—have a different experience, but only superficially so. They pay a daily fee to a bus owner and retain whatever earnings are left after paying fuel and other costs. 

While sometimes identified as “self-employed,” drivers work to the tune of their tajiri. Overtime is not a concept in a business where workers report clocking off at 11 pm and rising at 3 am.      

Even motorcycle taxi drivers, with more of the swagger of an individual entrepreneur, tend to have an owner-boss. Many tajiri are small-scale, for instance, a salaried employee who owns a few vehicles on the side. But motorcycle taxis, known as bodaboda and bajaj, are also a big business. 

Tanzania spent over US$135m importing motorcycles between 2022 and 2023. The country’s leading fortunes—and major figures within the ruling party—are now investing in vehicle importing and assembly. 

Drivers allege that some ministers have fleets of “more than 200” vehicles. Meanwhile, lend-lease companies are also multiplying. They extract high-interest payments from drivers hoping to own their own motorcycle, or in the words of one worker, “to use, not be used.” 

Taken together, transport workers—whether operating a truck, bus, or motorcycle—have a shared experience of precarious labour in neo-liberal Tanzania. But they also have something else in common. 

They are organised. 

The struggle, phase one: Negotiate

Associations—whether formally registered or not—are ubiquitous. They are linked to place; workers plying the same city bus route, operating from the same terminal, or sharing a parking area club together. 

For motorcycles and daladalas, these groups play a selfregulatory role, helping to coordinate work and ensure the security of both driver and passenger. More generally, associations are there to help drivers “survive.”  

Members contribute into collective savings “to treat each other when someone gets sick” or “to help when someone gets a case,” for instance, a police charge. 

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Amidst the initial economic shocks of the 1980s and 1990s, these groups did not venture far beyond this core welfare focus. By the 2000s, though, their ambitions had grown. As documented in the leading account of the period, workers began forming new alliances and gradually elaborating political demands.

In Dar es Salaam, an association of daladala workers expanded across the city. It communicated through the leaders of smaller groups to bring their members on board. It also partnered with an established trade union, the Communications and Transport Workers Union (COTWU), to help negotiate with employers. 

By 2004, workers achieved their first win. They reached a legally binding collective agreement with employers, a first step towards secure, regulated employment. The agreement established a wage level, limited working hours, and affirmed the right to holiday pay, among other benefits. 

It was also widely ignored by vehicle owners.

The next fight, then, was to lobby the government for effective enforcement. Here, daladala workers were joined by another group: upcountry bus drivers. The Tanzania Bus Drivers’ Association—known by its Swahili acronym, UWAMATA—had established its headquarters at the Ubungo bus terminal in Dar es Salaam. From that strategic location, it extended its national reach. 

Daladala workers and upcountry bus drivers—aided by COTWU’s legal advice and official contacts—all began pressuring the government. Again, they achieved a win. In 2009, the transport authority made registering drivers’ employment contracts a requirement before issuing a transport license to private operators. 

In the space of just a few years, then, transport workers had scaled their organising ambitions from their workplace to city and even national level. They made common cause across different kinds of workers, daladala and upcountry bus drivers. 

They elaborated their goals, targeting first employers and then the state. And, through an alliance with an established union, they won core demands—temporarily. 

After this first spell of sustained labour organising came the first unravelling. Employers pushed back, and before long, the transport authority removed contracts as a pre-requisite for licensing. 

Workers link this outcome to a profound power imbalance. “The owners of the vehicles we drive are big in government,” insists one association leader. “You want laws to help drivers, but they don’t pass them. They oppress.”

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Divisions also emerged within the nascent labour movement. Workers and their associations abandoned COTWU. 

Employer retaliation arguably helped produce the split. According to the former secretary of the COTWU branch at Ubungo terminal, drivers decided that the union was “no help,” in part, because “it failed to ensure their contracts.” 

There were deeper tensions underlying this division, though. 

Drivers perceived COTWU—along with other legacy unions from the one-party era—as being for wafanyakazi. This is the Swahili word for workers. But because of the way unions were historically identified with the state, it connotes formal employees, especially civil servants. A large majority of drivers, meanwhile, are vibarua, or casual workers. 

It is possible to resolve this tension, as the earlier alliance with COTWU demonstrates. That initial success relied on the concerted efforts of both transport workers and dedicated individuals among union staff. Together, they navigated through their differences to build a shared understanding of goals and strategy. 

The commitment needed to sustain that relationship, though, appears to have lapsed with time. Since then, the gap in understanding between worker-led organisations and the staff-led union has only widened, as we shall see.  

The struggle, phase two: Strike! 

Workers’ initial reliance on negotiation to achieve their political aims led to more militant strategies. 

Localised wildcat strikes are routine in Tanzania’s transport sector. Workers strike to challenge how their parking area is managed, to demand better road infrastructure, or to protest police brutality and insecurity on the road. 

This simmering industrial action—and the implicit threat of escalation—was an important backdrop during the first phase of negotiations in the 2000s. 

COTWU would not, however, have condoned pursuing this more assertive strategy further. The union—along with all Tanzania’s staff-led unions—remains committed to “social dialogue” and critical of strikes. 

READ MORE: US, EU-Backed Lobito Corridor: A Challenger to Tanzania’s SGR Rail, Port Ambitions?

Ultimately, drivers escalated only after employers and the state reneged on their commitments, and after ties with COTWU began to fray.  

UWAMATA leaders recall the first strike they coordinated at Ubungo upcountry bus terminal in Dar es Salaam. It was May 1, 2011, and then-President Jakaya Kikwete was addressing trade unions at a labour day celebration, as is the tradition in Tanzania. 

Mindful of the day’s symbolic importance and frustrated by the state-union focus on formal workers, drivers shut down the Ubungo terminal. By the afternoon, they were assured a meeting with Kikwete, the upshot being renewed promises about contracts and the gift of a Toyota Noah to UWAMATA. 

The vehicle materialised. The contracts did not. Meanwhile, workers finalised their break with COTWU, returning their union cards en masse. A new splinter union, TARWOTU, formed but, just as quickly, receded into irrelevance. The struggle seemed to be losing momentum. 

Then, in 2015, drivers surprised everyone with nationwide strikes.  

As mentioned at the start, the government itself provided the spark by insisting on costly new commercial licencing requirements. But the strikes were far from a spontaneous reaction to this state intervention. 

Rather, they built on the years of organising that preceded them. They also relied on sophisticated new strategies and disciplined timing, all entirely informal and worker-led.

Daladala and upcountry bus drivers based in Dar es Salaam were already well-networked across their various associations. The bigger challenge was to ensure similar coordination in other cities. This was achieved through UWAMATA. 

Leaders spent months preparing the strikes. Any open call to action would have elicited a pre-emptive police crackdown, so they had to be “silent.” They used word-of-mouth at Ubungo terminal, identifying “influential” upcountry bus drivers who could mobilise at bus terminals in other cities. 

They also collected mobile contacts, calling drivers to gather information and test their commitment. Anyone who seemed evasive, they dropped. With those who remained, they discussed how many buses were at a given terminal and how to coordinate across upcountry and city bus drivers until they had a critical mass.  

READ MORE: Dar To Become A Megacity. But Is It Prepared?   

The strikes themselves unfolded in two parts, timed in lockstep with ongoing negotiations. 

On April 10, the day after a meeting in which the government failed to meet drivers’ demands, a first strike “paralysed transport in most parts of the country.” Stranded passengers took to the popular social media platform, JamiiForums, to share their confusion. 

“There are no buses, not even one,” lamented a Dar-based commuter.  Others replied with reports of similar experiences from Mtwara and Njombe in southern Tanzania through to Mwanza in the north. 

Striking workers also shared their experiences. While city and upcountry bus drivers were most involved, others from across the transport sector joined in. “Even us, delivery truck drivers, we’ve gone on strike!” declared one worker. “The goal today is that no vehicle moves on the road.” 

In Dar es Salaam, only bajaj and bodaboda were left to ferry desperate passengers. But they too found a way to assert themselves, defying a ban that barred them from the city centre. 

While the government had unwittingly united drivers against the “draconian” licensing rules, the goals of striking workers went further. Chief among them was the long-held demand for effective enforcement of contracts with employers. Another demand—the release of 45 arrested association leaders and drivers around the country—was also added to the list. 

Drivers insisted top government officials come to speak with them directly at the Ubungo terminal. By noon, the Regional Commissioner, District Commissioner, two top police chiefs, the Minister of Labour, and the Permanent Secretary for Transport descended on the scene.  

The then Secretary for UWAMATA, Rashid Salehe, was among the lead negotiators, backed by a crowd of striking workers. The Minister of Labour promised to address the first two demands while the Dar es Salaam Police Commander ordered the release of arrested drivers, offering his personal phone number to contact him “should there be any problem.”

By shortly after 1 pm, the strike was over. But the struggle was not. 

As April dragged on, drivers lost faith in government promises. Talks with employers were equally discouraging. Leaders denounced the lack of progress on licensing and contract issues and the exclusion of some associations from meetings. 

READ MORE: Report: Tanzania Has the Largest Number of Electric Vehicles in East Africa

Far from settling, drivers went back on strike. The action again came with precision timing, just a day after the Prime Minister formed a new “permanent committee” to handle transport-related issues (The Guardian, May 5, 2015). While the committee structure included government and employer representatives, it excluded workers. 

This time, the strikes dragged on for two days from 4 to 5 May as bus owners and the state took a harder line. There was no flurry of ministers and top security personnel at Ubungo on day one. Meanwhile, ruling party MP Ahmed Shabiby, along with other well-connected owners, corralled his drivers into leaving bus terminals under heavy police escort. 

Drivers were just as entrenched, though. They barricaded roads, stoned vehicles, and in the case of the Shabiby buses, blocked them en route. Passengers also staged protests, cutting off a major arterial road in Dar es Salaam and demanding the government resolve the situation (The Guardian, May 5, 2015). Riot police responded with tear gas.  

With a general election looming, the strikes began to have wider political reverberations. On day two, Freeman Mbowe—Chairperson of the leading opposition party CHADEMA—met with striking drivers at Ubungo amidst cries of “President, President, President! We’re tired of CCM!” (Mtanzania, May 6, 2015). 

He both expressed support and, somewhat contradictorily, called on workers to cease their actions. This tepid endorsement, though, did not stop rumours that the strikes were an opposition plot (Mtanzania, May 6, 2015).

The influence of election pressures on the government remains uncertain. But scrawled across one worker’s placard was a more fundamental, labour question: “Tanzania without drivers, is it possible?” By noon of day two, the answer was a clear “no.” 

After hours of discussion at Ubungo, association leaders agreed to pause the strikes. They had reached a preliminary resolution, which committed the government to address a wide range of issues. 

These included employment contracts, monthly salaries, and medical insurance, as well as more specific concerns, like city bus workers’ frustration with ‘unnecessary fines’, and truckers’ despair at weeks-long delays crossing borders (The Guardian,  May 6, 2015).  The document also promised to scrap the infamous retraining requirement for license renewal. 

That same evening, leaders met with the Prime Minister, who confirmed the deal. He also conceded that an additional five worker representatives would join his new transport committee (The Guardian, May 7, 2015). 

Drivers arrested in connection with the strikes were all released, and government officials promised to prevent employers from firing workers for their strike action (Mtanzania, May 7, 2015). 

READ MORE: Extractive Industries Conference Concludes in Tanzania With Calls for Just Energy Transition

In the months that followed, UWAMATA along with daladala and truckers’ associations united to back a new union, the Tanzania Drivers Workers Union (TADWU). 

This move came, one, after the government insisted it would only negotiate with a registered union and, two, after workers steadfastly refused to rejoin COTWU, which was silent throughout the strikes. They also refused to join TARWOTU, which they dismissed as a “two-people union” in which “only the chairman and secretary move around with files in their briefcases.”

Another truck drivers’ union, CHAWAMATA, also registered in the wake of the strike. It has remained peripheral, though, including in truckers’ more recent disputes. Workers involved in founding TADWU insisted they needed a union for all drivers. 

Once formed, TADWU began meeting regularly with the Prime Minister’s committee, and once, with outgoing President Jakaya Kikwete.

In terms of wins, some were already secured, for instance, on the issues of licensing, representation, and the release from custody of striking workers.

TADWU reached additional, formal agreements through the new committee, including a commitment that the transport authority would again, as it had in 2009, demand vehicle owners present worker contracts as a precondition for granting transport licenses. 

By year-end, the union also signed several legally binding collective agreements with employers’ associations, which committed to improved salaries and allowances. 

The question was where things would go next, whether—unlike in the past—these formal agreements would be honoured and, more generally, whether longer-term gains could be sustained. 

Up to this point, transport workers had withstood two cycles of “these wars.” They first built up their associational strength, which they used to negotiate for formal employment relations in partnership with an established staff-led union. When the negotiating strategy ran out of road, drivers forged new alliances, pursuing a more militant, entirely worker-led approach.  

After their frontal assault in 2015, they now needed to sustain something more like a “war of position.” This meant consolidating their own organisational power. It also meant navigating the “trenches” of formal state institutions and informal power plays, all dominated by a ruling party and private sector elite.  

This effort has, unsurprisingly, proved incredibly difficult.

The struggle, phase three: between repression, co-optation, and resistance 

Workers’ enthusiasm for organising surged in the wake of strike action. 

TADWU leaders recall how they could easily pack out a venue with hundreds, even thousands of drivers. They didn’t even need to do anything; workers were coming to them. Associations like UWAMATA—which retained their welfare focus alongside TADWU—were also strengthened.

As workers continued to organise, though, the State and capital deployed new strategies against them. 

The insistence that drivers negotiate through a formal union and the registration of TADWU was itself a form of co-optation, at least in part. It conferred rights, like representation in negotiations with the government and employers. But it also constrained workers’ power to act, including when trying to defend formal agreements.  

The nature of this “double-edged sword” became clear very quickly. By August 2015, TADWU leaders already feared that the government would renege on its promises. They considered another strike, then proposed a more evasive strategy, namely a “week-long training retreat,” then dropped the idea. 

Indeed, calling a strike—this time a legal strike—was rendered impossible by the cumbersome procedures that the new union would have to follow. These requirements may seem reasonable, especially if applied to workers with formal contracts in a sector dominated by large employers. 

But when applied to the casualised and fragmented workforce in Tanzania’s transport sector, they effectively render the right to strike a legal fiction.   

Collective agreements TADWU later signed with employers reinforced the point, implying the union and, by extension, its leaders were responsible for ensuring members complied with the law and restored “calm” in the workplace. 

Alongside this institutional co-optation, labour leaders also point to new forms of repression, albeit often covert and unproven. 

In November 2015, Rashid Salehe—former UWAMATA Secretary and then TADWU Deputy Secretary—died suddenly, reportedly of kidney failure. He had remained a lead negotiator throughout the strikes and in the aftermath. 

He had criticised the Prime Minister’s committee as a deception, commenting, saying: “There is no lasting friendship between the rich and the poor.” He had also, just a month before his death, addressed President Kikwete in a special meeting for drivers, reading out a list of unfulfilled promises.  

While an autopsy was conducted and samples sent for toxicology testing, no report ever materialised. What happened to Salehe remains unknown. But in a country with a history of mysterious attacks on labour activists, fellow TADWU leaders remain fearful for their own safety.

Alongside this fear, routine surveillance is another post-2015 control strategy. Before the strikes, organisers from various associations say that they were of little interest to the State, and as a result, were largely invisible. Now, though, both their in-person meetings and their phone communication are monitored. 

The combined effects of both co-optation and repression have been most acute when leaders and workers have tried to return to their earlier militancy, as in, called for new strikes. 

In 2022, TADWU clashed with the government and owners over what they viewed as failures to address the concerns of long-haul truck drivers. The government tried to reassure, including by claiming that employers had “promised” to provide workers with contracts, a promise many times broken. 

When a large wildcat strike broke out in July, leaders were held responsible for the actions of striking drivers, including blocking and stoning the vehicles of other workers. Leaders and drivers were swiftly arrested—sometimes after simply posting in a WhatsApp chat—and, unlike in 2015, held in prison for a month. 

They were then released on bail, facing charges of economic sabotage, which were only dropped a year later. Meanwhile, other transport unions, COTWU and TARWOTU, thanked the government for its efforts and advised against a strike.   

Long-time drivers, when interviewed, explained that they use coercive tactics, like blocking vehicles, to secure overwhelming numbers. This helps, in their view, to increase the chances of success and to protect themselves from being singled out for their actions, a very real threat. 

Whatever the actual effects of “violent solidarity”, as it is sometimes called, overwhelming strike participation is key for large, coordinated strikes. The contrasting outcomes of 2015 and 2022 point to this conclusion, as does a longer history of wildcat strikes stretching back to the colonial period. 

What’s more, these overwhelming numbers are unlikely to be achieved by a registered union following legal procedures while organising casualised transport workers.  

Strikes aside, TADWU has tried to use available institutional channels, although by their own assessment, with limited results. 

They continued to attend the Prime Minister’s committee until regular meetings ceased around 2018. Minutes from one of the final gatherings show that it was mostly attended by employers’ associations, who used it to lobby for their own interests. 

TADWU’s representative, meanwhile, was the sole voice speaking for workers. Union leaders cited the expense, including travel and accommodation costs, as preventing them from sending more people. They also came to view the committee as a talking shop, generating lots of promises but no follow-up.

TADWU and associations like UWAMATA have also pursued legal challenges, even one (unsuccessful) case against the Transport Authority. More often, they are defending individual workers. 

While they report pressuring the police to drop charges, they have yet to succeed in a case against employers, in part because of Tanzania’s slow-moving labour arbitration procedures. 

A poorly paid driver unfairly dismissed from work will abandon a case rather than wait for months as hearings are adjourned because the employer has failed to show up. TADWU leaders also lament that the union does not have a lawyer, at least not one that they can afford to pay consistently. 

Ultimately, rather than a source of power and leverage, TADWU leaders see formal labour institutions as more of a constraint. They have not been able to defend many of the longer-term wins of 2015, from contracts through to representation. 

Now even the recruitment and retention of union members is hampered by institutional obstacles. An association like UWAMATA started out meeting under a tree at the bustling Ubungo terminal, recruiting new members on the spot. 

TADWU, by contrast, must first ask an employer for permission before recruiting workers, and employers can refuse. Workers have a right to join a union under Tanzanian labour law, and where employers refuse permission to a union, the union can mount a legal challenge. 

But TADWU leaders argue that, in practice, the requirement to seek permission from employers—which is not a feature of labour law in other jurisdictions—undermines workers’ rights.

Even as TADWU struggles through this tangle of institutional obstacles, owners of large transport companies use their political positions to argue for private interests, including on the floor of Parliament.

The struggle, beyond capital: A new phase of co-operative ownership?

Eighty-nine per cent of drivers still do not have a contract, according to a 2021 report from the Ministry of Labour. The reason for this and other violations of workers’ rights in post-liberalisation Tanzania are, to a large extent, political. 

A profound power imbalance persists between, on the one hand, casual workers and on the other, vehicle owners and state actors, whom workers maintain are closely allied. “Matajiri”, the rich bosses, “are ministers, are presidents, are the children of presidents, are the children of ministers.” 

The story told here, though, shows that transport workers themselves have not simply accepted this power imbalance. For going on a quarter century now, they have experimented with different strategies of worker-led organising. 

Their struggle has passed through roughly three phases, each characterised by a dominant worker strategy and a state-capital response. Each time, workers countered the backlash with a new approach, renewing the cycle. 

In the 2000s, negotiations helped win formal agreements but no lasting implementation nor enduring trust between workers and their staff-led union. Beginning in 2011 and culminating in 2015, coordinated strike action delivered some immediate—and non-negligible—wins but could not guarantee long-term gains. 

Moreover, the state response pushed workers back towards a negotiating strategy, albeit now pursued through their own, worker-led union. This then inaugurated the third phase, in which TADWU and allied associations have grappled with their own contradictory position. 

They have chafed against the constraints of institutionalised labour relations, which confine them to a legal bureaucracy that bears little fruit. Yet more insurgent unionism—renewed strike action—means more repression from the state and capital.  

The struggle continues, though. 

For now, transport workers’ long-term goal of contracts—and through them, more secure employment relations—remains out of reach. But TADWU and allied associations are still networking amongst themselves. 

This includes reaching out to bodaboda drivers, part of their encompassing understanding of “kazi ya udereva” (driving work). They also respond to individual drivers in need, phones buzzing throughout a typical interview. 

They continue to campaign on specific issues, too—most recently, gridlock at a border crossing—even if they leave the wildcat strikes to drivers. These strikes are ongoing, and, at least in the minds of workers, highly significant. “Striking gets results”, insisted one taxi-cab driver. “Without strikes, nothing happens.” 

More generally, TADWU leaders have a reputation among state officials for routinely contributing to “stakeholder” meetings. A senior officer in a leading Human Rights NGO also commented that they are the most responsive union in the transport sector. 

TADWU and UWAMATA leaders themselves stress their desire to build a broader coalition, and through that, to push for changes in labour law, easing member recruitment, among a host of other reforms. 

Even as they press ahead, though, long-time organisers are disillusioned by the prospect of fundamentally changing exploitative labour conditions. This frustration has fuelled new ambitions.

One is to build worker co-operatives. 

In Dar es Salaam, daladala associations have already pursued this strategy, in the process, of inspiring other drivers, like bodabodas. Groups of some 60 members purchase two to three vehicles. 

Members then drive the buses while benefiting from improved working conditions, including a shorter working day. “We protected each other,” recalled one driver of his own experience.  

Revenues from the co-op are reinvested in the buses themselves and, later, in other projects. A popular choice is large plots of land, which are then subdivided among members. The significance of owning property and building a house is all the greater for casual workers with no prospects of a pension. 

While impressive, the daladala co-ops are still small and informal. UWAMATA leaders—at the forefront of organising since the mid-2000s—hope that upcountry bus drivers can try something similar but bigger. 

Leaders have laid out their plans, including estimates of vehicle owners’ current profits and how these could be redistributed to drivers and their co-operative. 

In a 2019 letter addressed to Kikwete’s successor, President Magufuli, UWAMATA also asked for a government loan to help launch their cooperative. “Private owners care about profits more than human life,” the letter reads. It then insists that collective ownership is a “unique way to liberate Tanzanian drivers.”

After a meeting with the then CCM Secretary General, UWAMATA members were offered training in cooperative organising. Leaders can now present stacks of documents on how to build a co-op, but they had not received the desired loan by the time of Magufuli’s death in 2021. 

His presidency—while fraught with its own authoritarian contradictions—marked a break with the prevailing neo-liberal trend in Tanzania, a break that at times benefited informal workers. The bus co-op idea has not been revived under the current President Samia, who has restored the pre-Magufuli political status quo.  

“I’m stranded,” concluded one leader. Still, he and other organisers have not given up on the vision. They discuss the practicalities of various vehicle lend-lease schemes even as they conjure images of co-operatively owned buses circling the country, inspiring drivers by example to join an expanding cooperative movement. 

While the co-op dream is for now just that, a dream, it says something about an ongoing impulse to experiment, to develop new goals, and to struggle on, even against an authoritarian tide. 

Some current leaders started fighting for basic employment contracts twenty years ago. Now they want to circumvent the capital-labour relation entirely.

Michaela Collord is an Assistant Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, at the University of Nottingham, UK. She can be reached at or on X as @MCollord. These are the author’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of The Chanzo. Do you want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at for further clarification.

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