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