Biography: Lucien van der Walt, 2011, “Thibedi, Thibedi William (1888–1960), South African revolutionary syndicalist and Communist,” in DAB

Lucien van der Walt, 2011, “Thibedi, Thibedi William (1888–1960), South African revolutionary syndicalist and Communist,” in Emmanuel K. Akyeampong and Henry Louis Gates, Jr (eds.), Oxford Dictionary of African Biography, Oxford University Press.

Get the PDF here.

Peter Cole & Lucien van der Walt, 2011, “Crossing the Color Lines, Crossing the Continents: Comparing the Racial Politics of the IWW in South Africa and the United States, 1905-1925”

Peter Cole & Lucien van der Walt, 2011, “Crossing the Color Lines, Crossing the Continents: Comparing the Racial Politics of the IWW in South Africa and the United States, 1905-1925,” Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1, January 2011, 69-96

PDF is here

ABSTRACT: In two of the planet’s most highly racialized countries, South Africa and the United States, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies”), were remarkable. A key revolutionary syndicalist current operating globally, aspiring to unite the world’s working class into a revolutionary One Big Union against capitalism, the state and economic and social inequality, the Wobblies operated in contexts characterized by white supremacy and deeply divided working classes. Yet they not only condemned racism and segregation in theory, but actively engaged in the challenging work of organizing workers of color including black Africans, African Americans, Asians, Coloureds and Latinos, against both economic exploitation and national/ racial oppression.

Although the literature on race, ethnicity, and labour in both countries is voluminous, remarkably little has been written regarding the IWW on race matters. Yet the Wobbly tradition’s impressive commitment and achievements largely unappreciated; the myth that left anti-racism started with Marxist communism in the 1920s remains pervasive. This article develops a comparative analysis of these two IWW experiences, bridging the North/South and industrialized/developing country divides in the (labor) historiography, and deepening our understanding of IWW politics and of labor, race and the left in countries with heterogeneous working classes. Given the centrality of sailors and dockers in the Wobbly movement, particular attention is paid to Philadelphia (US) and Cape Town (SA).

In short, this article seeks to correct omissions in the literature of both countries’ labor and left movements by exploring how and why the IWW did what so few other unions were willing or able to do-organize across the color line, reject working class and official racism, with both remarkable achievements (if some limitations) in its emancipatory project. In doing so, this paper recovers a history of revolutionary unionism and politics amongst workers of colour, and of their organisations, like the General Workers Union, IWW, Industrial Workers of Africa, Industrial Social League, and the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa. The broad anarchist tradition,including syndicalism, thus played an important role in struggles for national liberation and racial equality.

Key words: anarchism, Bakunin, Black struggles, Cape Town, communism, colonialism, dockers, Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), global labour, labor unions, Kropotkin, longshore workers, Philadelphia, race relations, sailors, strikes, South Africa, syndicalism, transnational labour, United States

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

Get the PDF here.

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.

Analysis of the ICU: Bradford, ‘Strikes in the Natal Midlands: landlords, labour tenants and the ICU’ (‘Africa Perspective’)

Helen Bradford, 1983, “Strikes in the Natal Midlands: landlords, labour tenants and the ICU,” Africa Perspective, number 22, pp. 2-25.

Drawn from Bradford’s classic social history work on the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) in the South African countryside in the 1920s. The ICU had some syndicalist influences.

Get the PDF here.

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 — Continue reading

Analysis (in French): Patrick Marcolini, “L’anarchisme en terre africaine:Les composantes africaines du mouvement libertaire”

L’anarchisme en terre africaine:Les composantes africaines du mouvement libertaire par Patrick Marcolini (OLS)

From here

L’absence en France d’histoires du mouvement libertaire qui englobent sa composante africaine pourrait laisser croire que l’anarchisme est un phénomène occidental.

Pourtant, des organisations ont tenté de faire vivre l’idéal anarchiste et syndicaliste révolutionnaire sur la terre africaine.

Les premières organisations anarchistes et syndicalistes révolutionnaires africaines apparaissent à la fin du XIXe siècle, d’une part en Afrique du Sud, d’autre part au Mozambique et en Angola.

Dans ces deux colonies portugaises, ce sont des ouvriers émigrés de la métropole ou des militants emprisonnés pour leurs activités politiques et déportés sur place qui, une fois libérés, forment les premiers groupes d’obédience anarchiste et anarcho-syndicaliste sous l’influence de la puissante CGT portugaise.

En Afrique du Sud, ce sont aussi des travailleurs venus d’Europe qui forment les premières cellules libertaires, notamment une virulente section sud-africaine de l’IWW qui anime entre 1910 et 1913 une série de grèves dures débouchant sur des combats de rue.

Très vite, ces militants diffusent leurs idées et aident à la formation de syndicats entièrement composés et animés par des travailleurs non européens : ce sera notamment l’IWA (Industrial Workers of Africa), premier syndicat de travailleurs africains dans l’histoire du continent, fondé en 1917 sur le modèle des IWW américains, et qui fusionne par la suite avec deux autres organisations pour créer l’ICU (Industrial and Commercial Workers Union).

Celle-ci restera le plus grand mouvement de masse du peuple noir en Afrique du Sud jusqu’aux mobilisations de l’ANC dans les années 1950 [1] .

Toutefois, les influences syndicalistes révolutionnaires finissent par se diluer au sein de l’ICU, qui périclite dans les années 1930 par manque de démocratie interne, et faute d’une stratégie clairement définie.

D’une façon générale, les années 1930 voient décliner l’anarchisme et le syndicalisme révolutionnaire partout où leurs premières graines avaient éclos. Les différents mouvements subissent la répression de la part des États coloniaux et doivent aussi faire face à la fois à la concurrence des organisations parrainées par l’Union soviétique et au développement de partis nationalistes qui revendiquent l’indépendance.

Dans l’après-guerre, le « socialisme africain », majoritairement étatiste et autoritaire, viendra occuper la place laissée vacante par les mouvements anarchistes. Seules des minorités explorent les voies plus radicales d’un marxisme libertaire, à l’image de quelques partisans de Pierre Mulele dans le Congo des années 1960 [2].

Ceux-ci prennent contact avec l’Internationale situationniste (IS) avant de prendre part aux révoltes de l’université de Lovanium, à Kinshasa, en 1967 et 1969. Il en restera un texte étonnant et toujours d’actualité, Conditions du mouvement révolutionnaire congolais, destiné à être publié par l’IS sous forme de brochure pour sa propagande en Afrique noire, mais finalement resté inédit [3] . Les années 1980-1990 voient refleurir l’anarchisme un peu partout en Afrique noire.

Au Nigeria se forme notamment l’Awareness League (« ligue de l’éveil »), à l’origine un groupe d’étudiant-e-s, de journalistes et de profs de l’université de Nsukka. De formation marxiste pour la plupart, ils finissent par se rallier aux idéaux socialistes libertaires et anarcho-syndicalistes en 1990. Très active dans la lutte contre la dictature, l’organisation voit alors ses effectifs grandir, atteignant même un pic d’un millier de membres en 1997. Une radio anarchiste émettant depuis Enugu est fondée en 2001 [4] .

En Afrique du Sud, plusieurs organisations du même type existaient depuis les années 1980. Unifiées, elles forment en 2003 le Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF) [5] , qui est sans conteste l’organisation libertaire la plus vivante aujourd’hui sur le continent, réunissant des militant-e-s dans plusieurs villes, quelle que soit la couleur de leur peau, autour d’une action multiforme : luttes sociales, cours de formation théorique et pratique dans les syndicats et les associations, diffusion de livres (via Zabalaza Books), soutien aux prisonniers (via l’Anarchist Black Cross), création de potagers communautaires, de bibliothèques et de crèches populaires, etc.

Le ZACF est devenu aujourd’hui l’élément moteur de l’anarchisme africain : désormais présent au Swaziland, il entretient aussi des liens étroits avec le réseau libertaire Uhuru au Zimbabwe et le collectif Wiyathi (« liberté ») au Kenya, qui combine depuis plusieurs années activisme culturel et propagande anarchiste. Le ZACF fournit même informations et matériel politique aux individu-e-s et groupuscules anarchistes éparpillés dans tout le reste de l’Afrique (Soudan, Congo, Ouganda, etc.).

Dans les pays de l’ex-empire français, on note l’existence au Sénégal depuis les années 1980 d’un Parti anarchiste pour les libertés individuelles dans la République (PALIR), la présence en Guinée, au Burkina Faso, au Mali ou au Congo de mouvements syndicaux démocratiques et radicaux [6].

Il faut espérer que puissent émerger au sein de ces mouvements des tendances capables de défendre un projet libertaire sur la terre africaine, aussi soucieux de combattre le néocolonialisme françafricain que le capitalisme indigène qui pourrait un jour lui succéder.

Patrick Marcolini – Offensive Libertaire et Sociale (OLS)


• The IWW, Revolutionary Syndicalism and Working Class Struggle in South Africa, 1910-1921 , Lucien van der Walt.

• “Sifuna Zonke !” Revolutionary Syndicalism, the Industrial Workers of Africa, and the Fight Against Racial Capitalism in South Africa, 1915-1921 , Bikisha Media Collective (téléchargeables sur le site de Zabalaza Books)

• African Anarchism : The History of a Movement , Sam Mbah and I. E. Igariwey (militants de l’Awareness League), See Sharp Press, 1997.

Sites en anglais : &


[1] L’ICU comptera jusqu’à cent mille adhérent-e-s, avec des sections en Namibie, en Zambie et au Zimbabwe.

[2] Ancien ministre du leader indépendantiste Patrice Lumumba, Pierre Mulele menait à l’époque une guérilla insurrectionnelle contre Mobutu.

[3] Le texte a été repris dans les Œuvres de Guy Debord chez Gallimard (p. 692-698). On le trouve aussi en ligne sur

[4] Autre expérience importante en Afrique de l’Ouest : en 1997, en Sierra Leone, la fondation par les travailleurs des mines de diamant d’une section de l’IWW forte de trois mille membres. Malheureusement, la guerre civile balaiera cette organisation, contraignant nombre de ses militants à l’exil.

[5] Zabalaza signifie lutte en zoulou.

[6] Souvent en contact avec la CNT française. Cf. les revues Afrique XXI et Afrique sans chaînes, rédigées par des membres de la CNT en association avec des correspondant-e-s syndicaux et associatifs en Afrique.

Photo: ICU poem at Workers Museum (Newtown, Johannesburg, 2014)

After years of neglect, the Workers Museum at the old municipal workers compound in Johannesburg has been upgraded. The story of working class movements presented there is, SAASHA is reliably informed, is selective, with (for example) FOSATU completely absent.

Nonetheless, the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU) does get mentioned. The photo below, of an ICU poem in the display, was provided by Warren McGregor. Its gives some sense of the syndicalist influences on the ICU — a union marked by a melange of influences and ideas from 1919 to its decline years later. For some material on the Workers Museum (formerly part of the Workers Library and Museum), see here

Johannesburg-ICU at WLM

LACOM/ SACHED (1989): “Social Organisation and Black Workers in South Africa: 1914-1921”

Social Organisation and Black Workers in South Africa: 1914-1921

cover_of_debates_in_sa_labour_history__small.jpgThe following selection is from Debates in South African Labour History, a booklet published in 1989 by SACHED in Durban. It focuses on the syndicalist International Socialist League and the syndicalist Industrial Workers of Africa in the late 1910s.

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Rare: Hammond, 1997, “The International: South Africa’s first revolutionary paper”

Angie Hammond, May 1997, “The International: South Africa’s first revolutionary paper,”  Socialist Worker (South Africa) no. 50.

A rare article.  It provides a positive appraisal of the South African revolutionary syndicalist International Socialist League’s weekly, The International.  The view that The lnternational “united around it principled socialists whose commitment to the classical Marxist tradition” is not too convincing, but the article is worth reading. Socialist Worker was produced by the International Socialists of South Africa (ISSA), these days called “Keep Left.”

Hammond later did an Honours thesis on The International  at the University of Cape Town, but no copies seem to have been kept. Anyone who can provide a copy, let us know!

Click on picture for the PDF Hammond - The International (Socialist Worker SA 1997)


The Rise and Fall of the ICU: a Case of Self-Destruction? – Phil Bonner, 1978

The Rise and Fall of the ICU: a Case of Self-Destruction?

The Rise and Fall of the ICU: a Case of Self-Destruction?

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This essay, which first appeared in the South African Labour Bulletin, sought to draw the lessons of the spectacular rise and fall of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa (ICU) in South Africa. Formed in 1919, merged soon afterwards with the syndicalist Industrial Workers of Africa, the ICU was influenced by syndicalism, Garveyism, liberalism and other currents. It was, in the 1920s, the single largest black protest movement in the country – reaching an estimated 100,000 members by 1927. It also spread into neighbouring colonies. Yet by 1931 the ICU – in South Africa, that is – was a shell of its former self. Bonner argued that the ICU failed because it lacked a clear strategy, a focus on shopfloor organising, and loose structures more generally – mindful of the ICU, the new generation of unionists in the 1970s and 1980s (Bonner among them) sought to build unions that avoided these pitfalls. Elements of their strategy would later be known as “workerism.” Continue reading

The South African Wobblies: The Origins of Industrial Unions in South Africa – John Philips, 1978

The South African Wobblies: The Origins of Industrial Unions in South Africa, John Philips

The South African Wobblies: The Origins of Industrial Unions in South Africa by John Philips

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John Philip’s pioneering, hard-to-get study of syndicalism in South Africa, stressing the influence of the IWW. Despite some important factual errors and some gaps, this was for many years the most reliable text on the subject. It made use of American primary sources (such as the IWW’s Industrial Worker), and of South African secondary texts (like the Simons’ Class and Colour in South Africa). The PDF is the original version. The marked up version includes some insertions noting errors.

SOURCE: Ufahuma, volume 8, number 3 (1978) Continue reading

Syndicalism on the Shopfloor: the Denver Shop-Stewards Strike, Transvaal, November-December 1919 – E.A. Mantzaris, February 1981

Syndicalism on the Shopfloor: the Denver Shop-Stewards Strike, Traansvaal, November-December 1919, E.A. Mantzaris

Syndicalism on the Shopfloor: the Denver Shop-Stewards Strike, Traansvaal, November-December 1919 by E.A. Mantzaris

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This paper by Evan Mantzaris provides a critical chronicle of a strike by radical white metalworkers at the Denver Engineering Works on the Witwatersrand, organised through a workers’ committee. This was linked to the syndicalist International Socialist League, which had became interested in promoting a rank-and-file “shopstewards and workers committee” movement in the existing (white) unions following a visit by militant Bill Andrews to the UK. The committees were envisaged as a step to the inter-racial revolutionary One Big Union, complementing independent syndicalist unions amongst workers of colour

(FOR MORE on these developments, see Lucien van der Walt’s 2007 PhD or his recent paper in “Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World 1970-1940”, Brill 2010).

Syndicalists in South Africa, 1908-17 – Baruch Hirson, November 1993

Syndicalists in South Africa, 1908-17 by Baruch Hirson

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The following 1993 text by the late Baruch Hirson, South African Trotskyist, provides some insight into the South African syndicalists of the early twentieth century. A reader can quibble over the focus on Archie  Crawford and Mary Fitzgerald (whose ideas were always rather mixed), as well as regret the closing in 1917 (many of the most important developments took place in the late 1910s). But credit must be given where credit is due: Hirson played an unmatched role, over many years, in recovering the history of South African left traditions ignored or caricatured in the South African Communist Party and academic accounts. Although his interest was in the Communist Party and the Trostkyists that emerged subsequently, his work also touched on the anarchist and syndicalist tradition, as this interesting paper shows. Continue reading