South Africa, and South African anarchism, through West African eyes [1997]

South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle and unions (both strengths and limitations), and South African anarchism and syndicalism, were mentioned several times in Sam Mbah and IE. Igariwey’s 1997 classic text, African Anarchism: the history of a movement (See Sharp, Tucson, USA). The authors, Nigerian militants, highlighted the South African movement as one of the oldest and most important in Africa (not much was known of the time, at least amongst English-speakers, of the very important currents that had existed in North Africa, or impacts elsewhere in the continent). The 1990s South African movement, in turn, was deeply impressed by the then-1,000 member anarcho-syndicalist Awareness League in Nigeria, of which Mbah and Igariwey were leading lights; the League joined an anarcho-syndicalist international, the International Workers Association, in 1996, a body claiming direct descent from the 1922 “Berlin” international set up after anarchists and syndicalists broke ties with the Communist International / Comintern. Mbah, sadly, passed away from heart problems in late 2014.

From African Anarchism:

Chapter 1: What Is Anarchism?

“Anarchism as a social philosophy, theory of social organization, and social movement is remote to Africa — indeed, almost unknown. It is underdeveloped in Africa as a systematic body of thought, and largely unknown as a revolutionary movement. Be that as it may, anarchism as a way of life is not at all new to Africa, as we shall see. The continent’s earliest contact with European anarchist thought probably did not take place before the second half of the 20th century, with the single exception of South Africa. It is, therefore, to Western thinkers that we must turn for an elucidation of anarchism.

Anarchism derives not so much from abstract reflections of intellectuals or philosophers as from the objective conditions in which workers and producers find themselves. Though one can find traces of it earlier, anarchism as a revolutionary philosophy arose as part of the worldwide socialist movement in the 19th century….”

Chapter 3: Anarchistic Precedents in Africa

“As for outright anarchist movements, there have existed and still exist anarchist groups in South Africa — notably the Anarchist Revolutionary Movement in Johannesburg, and the Durban-based Angry Brigade [this was apparently one of the incarnations of the Durban anarchist movement that later ended up in the Workers Solidarity Federation and in Zabalaza Books — SAAHSA]. South Africa’s pioneer anarcho-syndicalist organization, however — known as the Industrial Workers of Africa — lasted only from 1915 to 1922. It was modeled along the lines of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), and it operated mainly among black workers. It is in South Africa that anarchist currents remain strongest in Africa [1].

There is also organized anarchist activity in Nigeria. The Axe, in the 1980s, though basically stillborn, was a leftist coalition with anarchist tendencies. It predated The Awareness League, which has existed since 1990 as a social libertarian and anarchist movement. Anarchist currents also exist in parts of Zimbabwe, Egypt, Ghana, and elsewhere.”

Chapter 4: The Development of Socialism in Africa

“South Africa stands out as one of the countries in Africa in which labor has played a decisive role in the struggle for significant socio-political change. The struggle of the South African working class dates back to the formative years of South Africa — 1910 to 1922 — when labor engaged in bloody battles with the capitalist class. Gary Jewell’s documentation of the conflicts between employers and workers is most instructive. According to Jewell, in the space of a decade the orgy of violence had resulted in a call by the workers for “a red or syndicalist workers’ Republic.”[2] Although these early workers’ revolts were carried out predominantly by white workers, over time some of the strikes began to be initiated by blacks. In 1920, for example, a strike of the Port Elizabeth municipal black workers, organized by Samuel Masabala of the Cape Provincial Native Congress, resulted in the police shooting deaths of 19 workers. This led to a strike in the Rand in which over 40,000 black miners demanded improved career prospects in jobs reserved for whites.

By 1921, Percy Fisher, Secretary of the South African Mine Workers Union, had initiated the formation of a Miner’s Council of Action, which developed into a Red International of Labour Unions, with a revolutionary mission. Jewell identifies the four basic factions that constituted the union as follows:

  1. the Communist Party, Bolshevik with DeLeonist elements favoring an industrial union government;

  2. Afrikaner Mynwerkersbond, consisting of poor white Afrikaners calling for an Afrikaner Union to destroy the British capitalists and establish a republic;

  3. Labour Party moderates, led by Archie Crawford; and

  4. the old IWW syndicalist network.

Jewell notes that “the presence of independent IWW syndicalists is demonstrated by the government charge that the strike attempted to set up a ‘Red or Syndicalist Workers’ Republic.’”Jewell’s account of the events leading to the declaration of a Red Workers Republic is informative. According to him, the strike action was carried out by workers in different industries, including the South African Industrial Federation’s coal miners, later joined by gold miners, engineers, and power workers.

In the face-off between the workers and the rulers, the Smuts government tried hard to break the workers’ solidarity, but with little success. When it became clear that the workers remained uncompromising in their demands, Smuts threw the government’s military support behind the mine bosses and declared martial law, urging them to reopen the mines. As discussions continued to break down, the Miners Council of Action “seized the initiative and forced the South African Industrial Federation to proclaim a general strike.”The declaration of a Red Workers Republic followed the proclamation of a general strike. The Smuts government responded by sending detachments of the army and air force to attack the striking workers. The building housing the strikers’ headquarters in Benoni was strafed on the 14th of March, and at least 153 people died … “

“…Although the working class movement in South Africa can boast of a long history of struggle, this struggle has not fundamentally changed society. In the fight against the apartheid regime, the South African unions were taken over by middle class politicians of the African National Congress (ANC), who lack clear revolutionary political goals. The outcome of this takeover compromised the ideal of a completely different kind of society. The leadership of the unions became an integral part of the reformist struggle of the ANC for majority rule in South Africa. It’s no accident that many leaders of COSATU have received plum jobs in the post-apartheid ANC government of Nelson Mandela.”

“The ANC government does not represent much that is fundamentally new to the working class in South Africa. This is clear to both the ruling elite and to South African workers. The same old capitalist mode of production, based on the exploitation of labor by capital, continues to exist in South Africa. The working class task still remains the revolutionary transformation of society, that is, the achievement of a truly new society based on liberty and socioeconomic equality.”

* * *

Socialism or communism as an ideological model is not entirely new to Africa; it first gained ground in South Africa with the formation of the Communist Party in 1921. The South African Communists, who broke away from the Labour Party in 1915 to form the International Socialist League (ISL), had as one of their objectives the pursuit of proletarian internationalism.[3] An editorial in the fourth issue of The International, the weekly paper of the ISL, stated on October 1, 1915 that “an internationalism that does not concede the fullest rights which the native working class is capable of claiming will be a sham… If the League deals resolutely in consonance with socialist principles with the native question, it will succeed in shaking South African capitalism to its foundation…”Thus the International Socialist League made efforts to identify with the workers and with the plight of the down-trodden black population. It made contact with all existing black organizations, such as the African National Congress, and founded the Industrial Workers of Africa trade union.

In 1921, under the auspices of the Third International, the Marxist-DeLeonist ISL accepted Lenin’s 21 demands and formed the Communist Party of South Africa. Its leaders were S.P. Bunting, former Labour Party Chairman W.H. Andrews, and direct-action mine workers Ernie Shaw and Percy Fisher. Though it adopted the organizational form of a Bolshevik party, the South African C.P. remained strongly influenced by IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) revolutionary syndicalist views, and by DeLeonist industrial union concepts.

But through the years the South African Communist Party underwent a marked transformation, both in its relationship to the state and in its conception of the struggle for a better society. It abandoned its initial revolutionary program, and in alliance with other nationalist groups conceived and began to work for a two-step approach to liberation, to wit, a bourgeois democratic revolution, followed by a socialist revolution. The party was more concerned with the issue of state power than class power, and paid scant attention to bringing an end to power and privilege in South African society.

The major liberation movements in South Africa — the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party — both adopted a document known as the Freedom Charter as a framework for a liberated South Africa. The Freedom Charter, however, while it proposed to restrict the operations of monopoly capitalism, did not envisage the abolition of the capitalist system. As Sisa Majola states, the Freedom Charter “envisage[d] the development of small-scale capitalist enterprises as a result of the elimination of the various colour barriers.”[4] Accordingly, the Charter envisioned a South Africa where all people “shall have equal rights to trade where they choose, to manufacture and to enter all trades, crafts and professions.” Majola further observes that even the demand contained in the Charter, that “restriction of land ownership on a racial basis shall be ended, and all the land redivided among those who work it, to banish famine and hunger,” did not necessarily propose the socialization of land ownership and control.” From all of this we can conclude that the initial ideals which the South African Communist Party embraced were short lived; they were compromised by its alliance with nationalist groups for the purpose of acquiring political power.”

[1] “This information is from a letter to the authors by Alfred Jack Cooper, Jr., a South African anarchist”

[2] Information on the 1922 Rand Revolt and related events was taken by the authors from Gary Jewell, The Bloody Ground: Class war in South Africa, 1977, manuscript. This text was not altogether unreliable, although it had  some striking insights. It was at one time widely circulated amongst English-speaking anarchists and syndicalists internationally.

[3] Information on the early South African left in this section was also sourced from Jewell.

[4] Sisi Majola, article in The African Communist, no 117, 1989, pp. 91-92

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About Lucien van der Walt

I teach at Rhodes University, the Eastern Cape. I’m South African, born and bred. I am currently also involved in union education and have a background in social movement and left-wing activism, the Workers’ Library and Museum, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, and the National Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU). I’ve presented papers at more than 120 conferences and workshops, published in key journals like 'Capital and Class' and 'Labor History', have co-edited 3 journal specials (these on global labour history, African labour, and unions in the Global South), and written well over 130 other articles, papers and entries. I was Southern Africa editor for the 2009 'International Encyclopaedia of Revolution and Protest' (Blackwell). My focus has been on South Africa, but I have also done research in Zambia and Zimbabwe. I won the 2008 international 'Labor History' thesis prize, and the 2008/2009 Council for the Development of Social Science Research prize for best African dissertation, for my PhD thesis on South African anarchism, syndicalism and black militants. I have several books, including 'Negro e Vermelho: anarquismo, sindicalismo revolucionário e pessoas de cor na África Meridional nas décadas de 1880-1920,' 'Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940: the praxis of national liberation, internationalism, and social revolution' (co-edited with Steve Hirsch, Brill, 2010/ 2014) and 'Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism' (co-written with Michael Schmidt, AK Press 2009).