1816-1939: Syndicalism in South Africa

A short history of radical trade unionism, class struggle and race in Southern Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Submitted by Steven. on September 12, 2006

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and the ideas, goals and organisational
practices for which it stood, had an important influence on the early labour
movement and radical press in South Africa. It also had an impact on neighbouring
Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Furthermore, at least five unions were founded on the IWW model in this period.
Four of these unions pioneered the organisation of workers of colour, most
notably the Industrial Workers
of Africa
, the first union for African workers in South African history.

Race and Industry

South Africa's industrialisation was begun by the discovery of diamonds at
Kimberley in 1867, followed by gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886. Hundreds
of thousands of workers from Australia, America, Europe and from throughout
southern Africa were drawn into vast new cities such as Johannesburg and Kimberley
almost overnight.

For white workers, conditions were poor and dangerous, but they at least had
basic civil and political rights.

Not so the Africans who entered the cities as a conquered people, their lands
under imperial authority, their chiefs colluding in labour recruitment to
the mines, and their working lives shackled by pass laws preventing free movement,
indenture laws banning strikes, and residential laws condemning them to all-male
hostels or grim ghettos.

Conditions for Indian workers, descended from indentured farm labourers brought
out in the 1860s, and Coloureds, descended mainly from the old Cape colony
slaves, were a little better, but both groups suffered national oppression
under a succession of white supremacist regimes that were finally consolidated
as the Union of South Africa in 1910.

The Voice of Labour

By 1910 the Voice of Labour had become a leading forum for revolutionary syndicalist
views. For radicals alienated by the brutalities and racism of South African
capitalism, the segregationist reformism of the South African Labour Party,
and the sectionalism of the craft unions, the IWW vision was attractive.

Local anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists wrote into the paper to praise
"direct action over… Parliamentary politics" which acts to
"chill and paralyse natural energy and initiative." They were also
the first to call for racially integrated trade unions: the "only logical
thing for white slaves to do…is to throw in their lot with the black
wage slave in a common assault on the capitalist system."

On the tracks

In March 1910, a pro-IWW Socialist Labour Party (SLP) was founded in Johannesburg,
and the founding of a South African section of the IWW followed in June. The
vocal and militant blacksmith A.B. Dunbar was soon elected general-secretary
of the union.

Despite the sectarianism that dogged the early Johannesburg left, the various
left groups rallied behind the IWW when it led white Johannesburg tramway
workers out in a lightening strike in January 1911.

The strike - against the appointment of an unpopular inspector - was won in
less than day, and led to a rapid growth in the IWW in Johannesburg and the
founding of an IWW section, the Municipal Industrial Union. An IWW local was
also set up on the Pretoria railways that year, and there are reports of a
"Durban IWW" operating in that port city in 1912.

However, the Johannesburg municipality soon launched an enquiry into the January
1911 strike. The strike had not followed the restrictive labour laws, and
the central government was worried about the example it set for the railways,
where strikes were prohibited.

After the IWW boycotted the hearings, the municipality fired two key IWW tramway
workers, Tom Glynn and W.P. Glendon in May.

As a second strike broke out in response, the municipality recruited strikebreakers,
sent armed police to surround the tram works and main power station, and had
Glynn and Glendon arrested. Workers and their families then set up barricades,
clashes with the police followed, and public meetings were banned; Dunbar
and John Campbell of the SLP, among others, were arrested for addressing a
rally after the ban was in place.

Nonetheless, the strike was broken. Seventy workers were fired, and Glynn
sentenced to three months hard labour. He subsequently left for Australia
that year, where he became editor of the IWW's Direct Action and was one of
the "Sydney twelve" tried for treason in 1917.

A second crippling blow against the local IWW came from within: in early 1912,
the union was hijacked by members of a local socialist sect intent on starting
a "workers' party," and Dunbar was expelled. The IWW seems to have
withered by the middle of that year.

The 1913 General Strike

Thus, when the great July 1913 strike by white workers broke out across the
Witwatersrand, neither the IWW nor the SLP had any visible presence. The government
nonetheless blamed the militant strike - in which imperial troops killed more
than 25 protestors, and strikers and their supporters rioted in Johannesburg
- on a "syndicalist conspiracy," "Anarchy masquerading as Labour,"
and the ""ravings of the syndicalists" which were "appealing
both to the poorer Dutch and to the Natives".

Some IWW-type ideas were in evidence amongst sections of the strikers, with
the SA Labour Party finding it necessary to campaign against a wave of "syndicalist
talk." One example was R. Waterston, who not only reportedly called for
a "a general strike and a revolution," but tried to bring African
mine workers out on strike as well.

Nonetheless, such perspectives do not seem to have been dominant. By the time
of the January 1914 white miners strike (suppressed under martial law) the
South African IWW was clearly defunct.

The International

Nonetheless, IWW ideas got a second lease of life in South Africa with the
founding of the International Socialist League (ISL) in September 1915.

The ISL was founded by anti-war dissidents from the SA Labour Party, who left
over that party's support for World War One. Many of these had been radicalised
by the brutal repression of the 1913 and 1914 general strikes, and had broken
also with the Party's "White South Africa" policies. They included
militants such as G. Mason, W.H. Andrews and S.P. Bunting.

Veteran IWW and Socialist Labour Party militants - notably Dunbar and Campbell-
also joined the ISL, where they soon wielded a decisive political influence.
By 1916, the ISL's weekly, The International, described the organisation's
aim as the establishment of a "new movement," One Big Union that
would overcome the "bounds of Craft and race and sex," "recognise
no bounds of craft, no exclusions of colour," and destroy capitalism
through a "lockout of the capitalist class."

The ISL consistently condemned racism, and insisted that "an internationalism
which does not concede the fullest rights which the native working-class is
capable of claiming, will be a sham."

The ISL set out to promote these sorts of ideas through The International,
through innumerable leaflets and public meetings, and even through the standing
candidates in elections on a platform of equal rights for white and black,
and the abolition of capitalism and the state through the One Big Union.

Red and Black

Initially rooted, like the South African IWW, amongst militant white workers,
and focussed on the white trade unions, the ISL increasingly turned its attention
towards workers of colour, the African, Coloured and Indian wage slaves who
formed the bedrock of South African capitalism.

Unlike the South African IWW, which was open to all workers, but based, in
practice, amongst whites, the ISL was able to unionise workers of colour into
syndicalist unions on the IWW model.

Not only were links made with nationalist organisations such as the African
Peoples Organisation and the African National Congress (ANC), but African
workers were also drawn into ISL study groups set up in Johannesburg in July
1917. Dunbar was the main speaker at these study groups, which focussed on
the need for revolutionary trade unionism, for mass civil disobedience against
racist laws, and for the abolition of the capitalist system.

In the port city of Durban, ISL militants like Gordon Lee founded an Indian
Workers Industrial Union in March 1917 "on the lines of the IWW."
Whilst "the Indian Workers Choir entertained the crowds by singing the
Red Flag, the International and many IWW songs," plans were put in place
to translate ISL materials into in Tamil, Hindi and Telegu.

The key organisers of the Union were R.K. Moodley and Bernard Sigamoney, who
seem to have been very effective: according to the local Indian Opinion, the
"fame of the Indian Workers Union, and Comrade Sigamoney's activities
therein reached Lahore in India" where a local paper was quoted as asking:
"Is there no lesson for this to the working classes in India"?

In 1918, noting a "great awakening of industrial solidarity" amongst
coloured workers in the diamond mining town of Kimberely, the ISL dispatched
Sam Barlin to unionise workers.

An ISL office was set up, and Barlin organised a Clothing Workers Industrial
Union, which set up a branch in Johannesburg in June 1919. Twenty-seven Coloured
workers subsequently joined the ISL, including Fred Pienaar (the union's secretary),
and Johnny Gomas, later a prominent communist. Barlin also set up a Horse
Drivers' Union in the town, again amongst Coloured workers. Both unions struck
in 1919.

Meanwhile, in Cape Town, the Industrial Socialist League (IndSL), a second
revolutionary syndicalist group founded in March 1918 on the basis of the
IWW Preamble, organised mainly Coloured factory workers into a Sweet and Jam
Workers Industrial Union, and promoted IWW ideas in its monthly The Bolshevik.

For Africa

In September 1917, the Johannesburg ISL study group for African workers was
transformed into the Industrial Workers of Africa, the first African trade
union in South African history. Rueben Cetiwe, a key African militant in the
new union, and part of its all-African executive, set out the union's aims
in unambiguous terms:

"We are here for Organisation, so that as soon as all of your fellow
workers are organised, then we can see what we can do to abolish the Capitalist-System.
We are here for the salvation of the workers. We are here to organise and
to fight for our rights and benefits."

Within the ANC on the Witwatersrand, key Industrial Workers of Africa militants
- such as Cetiwe and Hamilton Kraai - were central to the formation of a formed
part of a left, pro-labour, bloc that helped shift the sleepy and middle class
ANC to the left for in 1918 and early 1919, as an unprecedented wave of strikes
by black and white workers broke out.

When the hard-line Judge McFie jailed 152 striking African municipal workers
in June 1918, the ANC called a mass protest rally of African workers in Johannesburg
on the 10 June. At the rally, members of the Industrial Workers of Africa
moved for a general strike by African workers across the Witwatersrand to
protest the repression.

An organising committee composed of ANC, ISL and Industrial Workers of Africa
militants was set up to investigate the issue and report back. "The capitalists
and workers are at war everywhere in every country," the committee told
a mass rally a week later, and so it was only right that workers should "strike
and get what they should." A general strike by all African workers against
the arrests, for a 1-shilling-a-day basic wage, and "for Africa, which
they deserved."

On the Docks

Weak organisation- and maybe nerves and inexperience- led the committee to
call off the strike. Nonetheless, the government soon arrested seven activists
- three ISL militants, three activists from the Industrial Workers of Africa,
and two from the ANC - for "incitement" to public violence in what
became South Africa's first-ever multiracial political trial.

After the case fell through, protest continued, with Cetiwe and Kraai playing
a leading role in the ANC's March 1919 protest against the pass laws, and
African ISL militant T.W. Thibedi reviving the Industrial Workers of Africa
with a "gratifyingly large attendance" of several hundred supporters
and members.

Once the ANC right-wing regained the upper hand, it closed down all such mass
protests, returning to its traditional tactic of petitioning the British Crown
and liberal white opinion.

Cetiwe and Kraai then moved to Cape Town to set up a branch of the Industrial
Workers of Africa. Organising amongst African and Coloured dockworkers, the
two syndicalist militants helped organise a joint strike by the Industrial
Workers of Africa with two other unions - the Industrial and Commercial Union
and the (white) National Union of Railways and Harbour Servants- in December
1919. Supported by the IndSL, more than 2000 workers struck for better wages
and against food exports (which workers blamed for massive post-war inflation).

From Cape Town to the Zambezi

Although the strike was not won, it did lay a basis for cooperation on the
docks, and by 1921 the Industrial Workers of Africa, the Industrial and Commercial
Union and several other African trade unions had merged to form the Industrial
and Commercial Workers Union (or ICU). Not a true revolutionary syndicalist
union - the ICU was influenced more by nationalist and traditionalist ideologies
than anti-capitalism, and was run from above by a parasitic, weak, and sometimes
crooked, layer of middle class officials - the ICU remained influenced by
the IWW. It called for One Big Union, and its constitution included a version
of the IWW Preamble.

The ICU peaked in 1927 with 100,000 members. By the 1930s it had also established
loosely linked sections in Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Internal splits,
strategic confusion, a lack of internal democracy and state and vigilante
repression all led to a rapid decline of the organisation to a shadow of its
former self by the early 1930s. Still, the ICU was the largest mass African
movement in South Africa until the ANC's "Congress Alliance" campaigns
of the 1950s.

Race and anarchy

The IWW had had an important impact on the radical left, militant white workers,
and workers of colour in South Africa in the 1910s, an influence that persisted
into the 1920s in a diluted form in the ICU, and even spread into neighbouring

Can we say, then, as our detractors do, that classical anarchism and revolutionary
syndicalism "ignored" race? Not at all!

Within a white dominion, within the British Empire, within colonial Africa,
the IWW and the revolutionary syndicalism it exemplified and promoted had
played a pioneering role in organising workers of colour, in defending the
rights of African labour, in organising civil rights activities, a militancy
that spilled into the African working classes of neighbouring countries.

In its "glorious period," between the 1880s and 1930s, anarchism
and revolutionary syndicalism were not just a European phenomenon. The anti-authoritarian
left was an international movement. It was also internationalist and anti-racist.

These principles remain burned into our hearts as we enter the twenty-first
century. Can we do any less
than our forebears?



14 years 7 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by DrMauri on October 31, 2009

Can anyone assist with further particulars about the career of "G Mason" mentioned in this article? He is George William Mason, my great-uncle.