Revolutionary syndicalism – the strategy of bringing about a stateless socialist society through a revolutionary general strike in which organised labour, through its trade unions, seizes and places under self-management the means of production – played a central, but today, largely forgotten, role in the early twentieth-century South African labour movement.
Before the 1920s, it was revolutionary syndicalism, which is rooted in the classical anarchism of Mikhail Bakunin, rather than the dry Marxism of the Second International, which dominated the thought and actions of the radical left in South Africa. And so it was, ultimately, classical anarchism that pioneered labour organising and anti-racist work amongst workers of colour in South Africa: the nationally oppressed Coloured, Indian and African proletariat.
This pamphlet examines some of the history and legacy of the “red-and-black tradition” in the South African working class. One reason is simply to recover an important part of anarchist and revolutionary syndicalist history. Little is known about the history of anarchism and revolutionary syndicalism in Africa generally, and in the British Empire, particularly.
More importantly, however, there is much to learn from the history of revolutionary syndicalism in South Africa. While the local movement was never as large as many other “third world” anarchist/revolutionary syndicalist movements, it did have some very important accomplishments, not least of which must be counted founding of the Industrial Workers of Africa in 1917: the first trade union for African workers in South African history.
This union was only one of a number of revolutionary syndicalist unions established in the 1910s by South African revolutionary syndicalists on the model of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the United States. These unions included an official South African section of the IWW (1910), the Indian Workers Industrial Union (1917), the Industrial Workers of Africa (1917), the Sweet and Jam Workers Industrial Union (1918), the Clothing Workers Industrial Union (1918), and the Horse Drivers’ Union (1918/9). This young revolutionary syndicalist union movement was distinguished by its focus on organising workers of colour labouring under racist and colonial rule.