A. Lerumo, 1971, “Kadalie of the ICU” – ‘African Communist’ no. 44

Reference: A. Lerumo, 1971, “Kadalie of the ICU,” African Communist number 44. 

Get the PDF here.

This piece is a lengthy, insightful review of My Life and the ICU, the posthumously published autobiography of Clements Kadalie (1896-1951). Kadalie, a Malawian immigrant and ex-school teacher, was a leading figure in the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa (ICU). Founded in 1919, the ICU spread like wildfire in southern Africa from the 1920s . Itwas at least partly influenced by revolutionary syndicalism, as well by the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), Garveyism, Christianity and social democracy. For more on the ICU, go here, and for more on the ICU and syndicalism, start here.

“A. Lerumo” was a pseudonym for Michael Harmel (1915-1974), a leading theorist and writer for the CPSA (re-established as the underground South African Communist Party, or SACP, in 1953). The African Communist, founded in 1959 and still published, is a SACP journal for Marxist-Leninist thought.

New Nation (1990): “South African Working Class Organisation and the Downfall of the Smuts Government”

New Nation, 1990, “South African working class organisation and the downfall of the Smuts government,” 10-16 August, Matric History section of Learning Nation supplement.

A discussion of the struggles of the working class movement from 1920-1924 which examines the role of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) from 1919, the 1920 Bulhoek Massacre, and the 1922 Rand Revolt in the fall of the Jan Smuts government in 1924.

A good account from the old anti-apartheid weekly, but — as always — rather silent on the the role of anarchism and syndicalism — a factor in both ICU and the 1922 revolt.

Get the PDF here


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

Material on the ICU, from “New Nation, New History” volume 1 (1989)

The 1970s and 1980s anti-apartheid movement was marked by he explosion of an alternative press. A notable example was the mass-distribution weekly New Nation newspaper. Launched in 1986 with the backing of the South African Catholic Bishops Conference, it championed the black working class, and ran a series called “Learning Nation”: produced to assist high school learners, ths was notable for providing a radical alternative history to the apartheid narrative; it highlighted popular struggles and resistance history. Much of its content was produced by the radical History Workshop at the University of the Witwatersrand; other was from the prolific Labour and Community Resources Project (LACOM) of the the South African Council for Higher Education (SACHED).  In 1989, the first three years of History Workshop materials were compiled into book, New Nation, New History: it was labelled volume one, but a second volume did not appear. This book included some material on the syndicalist-influenced Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU)  in the 1920s, looking at the breakaway ICU led by A.W.G. Champion (who leaned to Zulu nationalism) and the activities of Stimela Jason Jingoes (an African traditionalist from a high-ranking lineage in Lesotho , who worked for a time as an ICU lawyer). These cases indicate the range of ideas at work in the ICU, which is better seen as a syncretic movement with an unstable mix of ideas, drawn from multiple sources and reworked in changing ways, than a syndicalist union.

Get the PDF here.

Material on L.A. Motler (from Macnab, Gulston’s 1948 “South African Poetry: A New Anthology”

This is material dealing with the anarchist Leonard Augustine Motler, a British immigrant to South Africa, who was also linked to the local Communist Party. More on Motler here and here. This material is from a 1948 poetry anthology.

Get the PDF here.

(Ironically, the anthology had a foreword by then-famed South African poet Roy Campbell. Campbell, a conservative, authoritarian and anti-modernist English-speaking white South African who said he “cannot imagine what meaning such words as ‘rights’, ‘progress’, ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ have.” Campbell supported General Francisco Franco’s forces against the anarchist-led Spanish Revolution of 1936-1939, and lived in Spain from 1934. He (Campbell) was a war correspondent with Franco’s forces, lived in Fascist Italy form 1938-1939 where he praised Franco’s forces in a long poem, The Flowering Rifle, returned to Spain to attend Franco’s 1939 Victory Parade,  and moved to Portugal in 1952, another semi-fascist dictatorship. More on this character can be found in e.g. Mayte Gómez, 2007, “Soldier of Franco, Soldier of Christ: Roy Campbell and Spain in the 1930s,” English in Africa, 34 (1): 21-41).

“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.

Motler, Leonard Augustine, 1888-1967 (Nick Heath)

Motler, Leonard Augustine, 1888-1967

By Nick Heath, 2011, from Libcom, here. A short text by Motler, produced before he came to South Africa, can be found here.

A short biography of Leonard Motler, English anarchist, deaf-mute and activist against the First World War.

“I went round to help Freedom at its Ossulston Street offices… Working there were two deaf-mutes, L.A.Motler and G. Scates, who were respectively editor and manager of Satire: a paper of social criticism, the only illustrated anarchist periodical in English to have appeared. Motler, an Esperantist with a little green star in his lapel, was the artist (and a good one) and his portrayal of the House of Commons as a row of gasworks always amused me very much. Satire was published monthly from December 1916 until it was closed down by the police in April 1918”.
– From A Revolutionary Youth; the unpublished memoirs of Harold Edwards.

“Motler, a writer of real talent. He had edited, during its brief existence, a clever little periodical, many of them excellent, notably those by ‘Rodo’, A Frenchman, and the son of the great Camille Pissarro, (1) whose numerous clever offspring all elected to work under other pseudonyms lest their father’s works of genius should be overcast by his good work under the same name. Motler who was employed printing tram tickets, wrote with a caustic and racy humour which made me laugh over his proofs in spite of myself”.- Sylvia Pankhurst, “In the Red Twilight,” in A Sylvia Pankurst Reader.

“All honour to Leonard Motler”. – Nicolas Walter, The Anarchist Past, p.205

Leonard Augustine Motler was born in Eccles, Lancashire in 1888, the son of Joseph & Bertha Motler, a pattern card maker and a tobacconist. At the age of five he lost his hearing, probably because of something like scarlet fever or measles. He was sent to the Roman Catholic St. John’s Institution for Deaf and Dumb at Boston Spa in Lincolnshire and learnt the trade of printer and typographer. In 1911 he was still in Lancashire working as a printer, but he must moved to London shortly after. He became attracted to the socialist movement, contributing to Clarion, the socialist paper edited by Robert Blatchford.

Disgusted by the stance of most socialists towards the First World War, he gravitated towards the anarchist movement in London. He had already been contributing articles to the anarchist paper Freedom for several years before the War. He became one of the printers of Freedom. He also established contact with the movement led by Sylvia Pankhurst in East London, which stabilised its name as the Workers Socialist Federation in July 1918, having gone through several name changes. Sylvia was introduced to Motler by Theodore Rothstein ( A Lithuanian German Jew, Rothstein was a member of the Social Democratic Federation and its successor the British Socialist Party as well as being a supporter of the Bolshevik faction within the Russian Social Democratic Party. He lived in Clapton Square in Hackney).

It was probably through Motler that Sylvia met her life-long companion Silvio Corio, an Italian anarchist who was also a trained printer and typographer had adopted pro-war positions at the start of the War but by 1916 was giving anti-war speeches and started working alongside Motler at Freedom. Motler later contributed articles and poems to The Workers Dreadnought, the WSF paper. Motler also contributed to The Voice of Labour which had been set up by Fred Dunn and Mabel Hope. When it was shut down by the authorities for its anti-war stance in August 1916 Motler and George Scates carried on with Satire, a monthly, which had first appeared in December 1916. It contained many cartoons executed by Motler. It invited “all comrades in the rebel (later changed to Labour) Movement …to send contributions to the Editor” and described itself as ” a workers paper, run by workers for workers”. It had the same address as Freedom.

Nicolas Walter notes that Motler “seems to have been responsible for the first anarchist condemnation of the Bolshevik regime in Russia almost as soon as it was established: “The Russian Revolution is running agley. These little things happen when the people permit new rulers to pose as their saviours, instead of saving themselves by running the country on their own [December 1917]”. This is in contrast to British anarchists like Fred Charles and Guy Aldred who initially supported the Bolsheviks seemingly uncritically (Aldred was to say: “Those anarchists who oppose the dictatorship as a transitional measure are getting dangerously close to supporting the cause of the reactionaries…”)

The authorities then used the same tactics they had used to close down The Voice of Labour and Freedom. Motler’s place at 47 Crowndale Road in Camden was raided. All his manuscripts, cartoons, personal correspondence , typewriter, literature, paper stocks and complete set of back issues of Satire as well as funds to the value of £4.10 shillings were seized by the police. Later on the Liberal MP Hastings Lees-Smith asked a question in the House of Commons as to why this property had not been returned to Motler. After Satire was forced to close because of police repression Motler wrote a weekly column for The Workers’ Dreadnought and brought out a book of poems.

He also produced a 4 page pamphlet Anarchist Communism [mirror on this site here], which Plebs, the paper of the Plebs League ,described as a “short but lively statement of the case for Communism” in 1919, from his address in Crowndale Road under the imprint of “The Propaganda Group” (It was translated into Chinese, and one surmises that Motler may have used his Esperanto skills to facilitate this as Chinese anarchists usually used that medium to translate foreign revolutionary texts). Other pamphlets that he wrote and published in the same year were the 8 page The Revolution To-morrow under the imprint of The Workers’ Dreadnought and the 3 page The New Anarchism under the imprint of “The Propaganda Group” (2).

Motler and Scates brought out a new anarchist paper Labour’s Voice in May 1920, carrying on the work of the paper run by Fred Dunn and Mabel Hope. It was published from their own printshop at Crowndale Road under the imprint of the Liberty Group. Motler also produced an 11 page pamphlet for the WSF in 1920 entitled Soviets for the British: A Plain Talk For Plain People which was described in Plebs as “excellently simple propaganda”. This indicates that he may have become a member of the WSF. He continued contributing to it after the WSF transformed into the Communist Party of Great Britain (British Section of the Third International).

Motler emigrated to South Africa in 1921. His sister Bertha had emigrated there in 1913. He arrived there on May 5th. According to letters to Tom Keell , the editor of Freedom, he sought out local anarchists like the Italian Bosazza, who lived in Vrededorp west of Johannesburg and was a building materials merchant and Hahne who ran the Ascot Bar pub. He had also come into contact with W. H. (Bill) Andrews , the editor of the International , paper of the International Socialist Labour Party ( prototype of the South African Communist Party), but confessed to knowing nothing of the movement, not having been in the country very long ( letter to Keell, dated June 8th 1921). He made some acute comments on the racial oppression in the country, also remarking on oppression towards people with disabilities: “As you may know the Union of S. Africa count deaf mutes as prohibited immigrants like the mentally deficient, unless they are accompanied by a person responsible or have their residence in the Union guaranteed”. He also noted that Freedom and Workers’ Dreadnought were obtainable in South Africa.

We know that he joined the South African Typographical Union (he wrote an introduction to a history of the union published in 1952), that he contributed to the Style Manual for Printers and to The Printers’ Handbook, and that he lived in Orange Grove, Johannesburg. We know that he contributed articles (like From Kraal to Goldmine) and poetry to the Communist Review, the British Communist Party publication, in 1923 and 1926 and to The African Communist, magazine of the South African Communist Party [SACP]. His 1923 article argues in favour of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which seems like a reversal of his previous positions.

However another letter to Keell (22nd April 1925) seems to indicate that he returned to England for a while. He wrote: “I do not doubt you will be somewhat astonished to hear from me again after a long lapse. However I have been thinking there are the possibilities of a revival among comrades outside the CPGB which would rally a Federation to counteract the too political tendencies ( by this he means parliamentarian N. H.) of the Communists. Now that the C.P. has been forced to re-organise itself on a ‘shop nucleus’ basis, this seems an opportunity to find how we could take advantage of this to keep the anarchist view to the forefront. At any rate some sort of Conference would enable us to see our position. I shall be glad of the views of the Freedom Group on the matter”. He enclosed a document from the Federal Group ( “all communications to L. A. Motler, 26 Doddington Grove, London SE17”) . Addressed to “comrades and fellow workers” this notes that there are an “agglomeration of small groups and individual comrades who are outside the Communist Party of Great Britain and the National Minority Movement who seem only to lack an agreement on essentials to bring them together as a fighting unit. Most of them do not perhaps agree with the tactics of the Communists, more especially with regard to parliamentarianism and affiliation to the Labour Party”. The document argues for common ground between these groups, and says that the Federal Group is a temporary organisation to facilitate the federation of “left-wing Communists, anarchist-communists, syndicalists, anti-parliamentarians, etc so that they made be federated in a fighting body with a basic programme which shall have for its main-spring the formulation of a revolutionary federation of the workers”. It proposes the formation of Workshop Groups, Factory Groups etc” in the workplaces, the creation of Industrial federals consisting of spokesmen from these groups which would federate according to industries and allied trades, and the setting up of Conventions to discuss programmes of action and lines of revolutionary activity. This venture appears to have been still-born and Motler returned to South Africa at some point.

There are indications that he may have joined the SACP as one of his poems in the African Communist is in praise of one of the founders of the Party, David Ivon Jones, but this is not certain. Some of his poems were collected in an anthology of South African Poetry published in 1948. He won 1st and 2nd prizes in the South African National Eistedfodd. He died in Johannesburg in 1967.

Nick Heath

(1) Rodo is Ludovic Rodo Pissarro, an anarchist communist like his father and his brother Lucien. He came to London with the outbreak of the War, and worked with his brother. He is today better known for his writing on art than for his painting. Rodo and Motler both later contributed to Sylvia Pankhurst’s short-lived cultural-artistic and political magazine Germinal, Motler providing a short story on the friendship between a white boy and a black boy in South Africa.
(2) This will be the Anarchist Propaganda Group “formed at the London Anarchist Conference, Easter, 1919” as we learn from the letterhead of a departing note sent to Keell on April 6th, 1921. Motler was its secretary and its address was 47 Crowndale Road. The letterhead also notes that the Group published “literature on Anarchist-Communism. Books not in stock can be obtained to Order.”

Edwards, Harold. A Revolutionary Youth (unpublished)
Pankhurst, S. Dodd.K (1993) A Sylvia Pankhurst Reader.
Walter, N. (2007) The Anarchist Past and other essays.
Weller, K. (1985) Don’t be a soldier!The radical anti-war movement in North London 1914-1918
Macnab, R.M., Gulston, C. (1948) South African poetry: a new anthology (contains biographical information on Motler)
Letters from Motler to Tom Keell including Statement of the Federal Group (unpublished) Many thanks to Ken Weller for these).
Information on parents, early life etc of Motler from H Dominic W Stiles at:

L.A. Motler, 1919, “Anarchist Communism in Plain English”

L.A. Motler, a British anarchist, was active in South Africa from the 1920s, and at some point joined or associated with the local Communist Party. More on his life here. This is the text of a short pamphlet he produced in 1919, sourced from here.

Anarchist Communism in Plain English

L.A. Motler

This is to explain exactly what Anarchist-Communists want, in as few words as possible, without waste of ink and paper.

Suppose you don’t know what Anarchism is. But you’d like to know of course. Without committing yourself one way or another?

Well, here goes.

First of all, we’ll bowl over that Sidney Street affair. Most of the chaps I’ve talked to have got that bee in their bonnet. But I don’t blame them for it, because we can’t always catch up with lies that get loose from the press.

The Sidney Street anarchists are easily disposed of. They weren’t anarchists at all. You will admit that an anarchist ought to know what an anarchist is, so you can take our word for it. If however you want facts you can get same from our offices.

But, you’ll say, what about all the assassinations and the bomb outrages by anarchists?

This is an old argument which doesn’t apply now. Most of the assassinations and outrages lately haven’t been done by anarchists. There is nothing in anarchism that preaches bomb-throwing.

Of course it’s true there have been anarchists who threw bombs maybe, just the same as there have been Roman Catholics who cut up their wives into bits. If you agree that the murder by Crippen is not an argument against the Pope, then an outrage by an anarchist proves nothing against Anarchism.

If you kick a dog, that dog will bite you, but it does not prove the dog is an anarchist or a Wesleyan or a Mormon. Much he same thing happens in life; the people who chopped off King Charles’ head were not anarchists. They were considered pious.

And now for Anarchism.

The word means “no-rule” or no- government. What, you say, no government? How could the country be run? There would simply be chaos.

Well you can’t have a spring clean, without upsetting a pail now and again. But what does it prove?

If you say “there will be a chaos” then you are saying perhaps the nastiest thing you have ever said against a government.

What would you think of a man who said that if he left home for a week his family would be fighting amongst themselves? You would say of course that he was a duffer in family affairs.

That is exactly what you suggest about the Government. A Government that cannot be thrown out without the people falling on each other with sticks is a pretty sort of Government.

In the first place, WHY should the people start fighting each other? Because some people have too much and some have nothing at all. Mind you, they are all the same kind of people too. Why should one Britisher have more than another?

Why should some people have one pair of boots stuck together with old pieces of tin and tacks, whilst others have dozens at home they don’t use?

Why are the shops stuck full of new suits and you can’t afford one although there’s a patch in your pants?

Why? Because we have such a brainy Government- and such a brainy people. That’s why.

I don’t want to pile it on- but look for yourself. Look at the war for instance. As soon as the Germans retired over the Rhine, we had millions out of work. Look at the Slough, look at any old thing you like- including the Government ale. Then ask yourself if YOU could have made a worse hash of it.

Of course not.

If you want a thing done, the best way is to do it YOURSELF.

What is the position? The position is that there are forty-six millions of people who want food, clothes, houses and work. Mid you, I don’t mean it is the working class only. We want to get rid of that pretty name. A shirker is a shirker weather he is a tramp or a Duke. When everybody gets to work then we’ll have more than enough for all. The principle is not share an share alike, but help yourself to what is good for you. Can a Duke eat more than a navy?

The questions really arise:

Who is to do the dirty work?

Who is to have the motor cars and who is to walk?

Who is to have the salmon and who the Yarmouth Bloaters?

And so on. And so on.

The chap who asks those questions seems to think that without a brainless Government to kick them the British nation is a nation of idiots. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THAT?

Can’t the people take over the land and grow things on it? Can’t they take over the factories and run them?

Of course I don’t mean “Can any busy- body jump into the ex-bosses’ shoes and tell you how to run it if you’ll let him lead you.”

Nunno. Having sat on Government and capitalists, are we going to be ruled by nosey-parkers and number eight hats?

Anarchism means no-rule. That is to say “Mind you own business.” And when the people start doing that, they have no use for tyrants, big and little, plain and coloured.

Communism means working together for the good of all. Consequently the people will be prepared to accept the ex-capitalists as fellow-workers provided they do USEFUL work. And by working together in staunch co-operations, the people will be in less danger of any tyrant resurrecting himself and his friends and going back to the “good old days.”

That’s all right you say, but REVOLUTION MEANS BLOODSHED.

How terrible!

When the Government said, “Line up boys, and give the Germans what for, so we can pinch the German Colonies and anything that’s lying handy. Down with the Beast of Berlin!” did anybody say-



You can’t learn to swim without getting wet. But because a Revolution MIGHT mean bloodshed, that is no reason why it should mean bloodshed.

How many of the people are armed? Why there aren’t enough guns round among the workers to run a Wild West show.

The soldiers and the police will do all the dirty work- if they agree to do it- for our kind masters.
Who are the soldiers and the police?

They are taken from the working class. They might be making bread or clothes or boots. They might be building houses. Is that good enough for the capitalists? Nunno.

Having pinched most of what the people earn, and “owning” all the land, they want somebody to protect them from the people, so they have the Army and Navy.

When the Revolution comes, the capitalists will be so fond of the OLD COUNTRY, they will collect all the boodle they can and make a dash for South America with the swag.

And they will leave the army and the police to fight the rest of the working class.

Does that strike you as funny?

You can’t be on the side of the capitalists naturally, whether you are a worker of any sort, a policeman, a soldier, a sailor or an airman.

You can’t be on the side of the Government, which runs the country for the benefit of the capitalists.

Get into the ranks of the Anarchist-Communists.


L. A. Motler.

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.

Analysis of the ICU: Goatley, ‘The ICU,’ from ‘The Socialist’

Lisa Goatley,1993, “The ICU,” The Socialist: Journal of the International Socialists of South Africa (ISSA), June/July, number 11, p. 15.

This short analysis was the first in a series on working class history in South Africa in the paper of the International Socialists of South Africa (ISSA, now the group Keep Left). The Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) was a mass general union formed in South Africa in 1919, which had some syndicalist influences.  ISSA / Keep Left was/ is a Trostkyist Marxist  group in the International Socialist Tradition, associated with Tony Cliffe and Alex Callinicos.

Get the PDF here.

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 : http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/africa.html & http://zabalaza.net


[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 http://juralibertaire.over-blog.com/article-conditions-du-mouvement-revolutionnaire-congolais-41881017.html

[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