“South African Labour Bulletin”: 1974 special issue on the ICU

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The rise of a new, independent trade union movement in South Africa from the 1970s — a movement centred on black workers — revived interest in labour history. Activists and academics linked to the new unions and labour service organisations were interested in the recovery of a useful working class history, meaning one that enabled a class-based understanding of South Africa, and one that allowed lessons to be drawn from the failures of the past. Previous unions centred on black labour — starting from the late 1910s, and going into eclipse in the repressive 1960s — had tended to be short-lived and vulnerable to state attacks.

The Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa (ICU), formed in 1919, provided a spectacular example. Growing from a few hundred in Cape Town, it had well over 100,000 (some estimates suggest over 200,000) members by 1927, and had spread into neighbouring Namibia (then South West Africa) and Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia). Within four years later, it was shattered beyond repair. This special issue of the South African Labour Bulletin — a paper set up to assist the new unions — provided a place to recover the history of the ICU and draw lessons from its successes and failures. It included analyses of the ICU, as well as primary materials: a talk by the ICU’s A.W.G. Champion, an interview with Champion, a text by the ICU’s Clements Kadalie, and ICU documents.

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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).