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

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

Kadalie and the ICU – graphic from South African radical journal “Africa Perspective” in 1981 (no. 19)

Kadalie and the ICU

Kadalie and the ICU – graphic from South African radical journal “Africa Perspective” in 1981 (no. 19)

The Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa (the ICU) was the largest black union and protest movement in 1920s South Africa, also spreading into neighbouring Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South West Africa (now Namibia).  It was influenced by IWW syndicalism, even adopting a version of the IWW constitution in 1925, and pushed for a general strike the next year. However, syndicalism was not the only influence: ICU ideas were, as writers like Helen Bradford have shown, an unstable mix, drawing from currents as far apart as Garveyism and liberalism. It’s internal structures were also far from the participatory democratic ideal. However, if the ICU was not truly syndicalist, Lucien van der Walt argues, it cannot be understood unless the syndicalist influence is noted.

Digging into IWW History: South Africa – John Philips, Industrial Worker, October 1976, p. 8

Digging into IWW History: South Africa, John Philips, Industrial Worker, October 1976

Digging into IWW History: South Africa, John Philips, Industrial Worker, October 1976

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This pioneering article sheds light on the early impact of the IWW in South Africa, and on early black strikes and the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU). While not altogether accurate (for example, the ICU claimed to have white members, and David Ivon Jones was not part of 1920s night school where workers wrote “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains, and a world to win !”, and the IWW influence continued well after 1920), it is a commendable account. Continue reading

“A History of the IWW in South Africa” – Lucien van der Walt, 2001

IWW logo

This article was published by Lucien van der Walt in Direct Action (Australia, Summer 2001) as “Many Races, One Union! The IWW, revolutionary syndicalism and working class struggle in South Africa, 1910-21.” It was reprinted in Bread and Roses (Britain, Autumn 2001) as “A History of the IWW in South Africa.”

Note: An incomplete version has also appeared on the internet under the title “1816-1939: Syndicalism in South Africa,” described as “a short history of radical trade unionism, class struggle and race in Southern Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries.”  The dates are wrong (there was no syndicalism anywhere in 1816, and while the IWW-influenced ICU would last in Zimbabwe into the 1950s, there was no syndicalism in South Africa in 1939) and several paragraphs are missing, in that version.

For PDF of scanned Direct Action version: click here

For PDF of scanned Bread and Roses version: click here

Lucien van der Walt, Autumn 2001, “A History of the IWW in South Africa,” Bread and Roses

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and the ideas, goals and organisational practices for which it stood, had an important influence on the early labour movement and radical press in South Africa. It also had an impact on neighbouring Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Furthermore, at least five unions were founded on the IWW model in this period. Four of these unions pioneered the organisation of workers of colour, most notably the Industrial Workers of Africa, the first union for African workers in South African history Continue reading

“Anarchism and Syndicalism in an African Port City: the revolutionary traditions of Cape Town’s multiracial working class, 1904–1931” – by Lucien van der Walt, 2011

The Cape Town docks in 1919, site of the joint strike between the syndicalist Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA) and the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU).

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This paper examines the development of anarchism and syndicalism in early twentieth century Cape Town, South Africa, drawing attention to a crucial but neglected chapter of labor and left history. Central to this story were the anarchists in the local Social Democratic Federation (SDF), and the revolutionary syndicalists of the Industrial Socialist League, the Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA), and the Sweets and Jam Workers’ Industrial Union. These revolutionary anti-authoritarians, Africans, Coloureds and whites, fostered a multiracial radical movement – considerably preceding similar achievements by the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) in this port city. They were also part of a larger anarchist and syndicalist movement across the southern African subcontinent.

Involved in activist centers, propaganda, public meetings, cooperatives, demonstrations, union organizing and strikes, and linked into international and national radical networks, Cape Town’s anarchists and syndicalists had an important impact on organizations like the African Political Organization (APO), the Cape Federation of Labour Unions, the Cape Native Congress, the CPSA, the General Workers Union, and the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa (ICU). This paper is therefore also a contribution to the recovery of the history of the first generation of African and Coloured anti-capitalist radicals, and part of a growing international interest in anarchist and syndicalist history.


Source: Lucien van der Walt, 2011, “van der walt – Anarchism and Syndicalism in an African port city – the revolutionary traditions of Cape Town’s multiracial working class, 1904-1931,” Labor History, Volume 52, Issue 2, 137, pp. 137-171

“‘Sifuna Zonke!’: Revolutionary Syndicalism, the IWA and the fight against racial capitalism, 1915-1921” – Lucien van der Walt / BMC, undated

“Sifuna Zonke!” by the Bikisha Media Collective

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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. Continue reading