Labour history Group (1984), “Organising at the Cape Town Docks”

This 1984 text, Organising at the Cape Town Docks, is notable for its discussion of the revolutionary syndicalist Industrial Workers of Africa in Cape Town from the late 1910s, and its links to the rise of the massive Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa (ICU). The ICU was influenced by syndicalism (among other things).

Get the PDF here.

A Xhosa translation, Abasebenzi Basedokisini Ekapa, can be found here.

Organising at the Cape Town Docks was produced by the “Labour History Group” based in Cape Town. The Group issued a series of pamphlets on the history of the working class in South Africa in the early 1980s, covering the period from the 1910s into the 1970s.  The focus was on trade union history: presented in a clear, simple style, their accessibility was increased by translation from the English originals into Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu (with a few planned for Sotho). This was a project in historical memory: arming the wave of radical unions that surged from 1973 onward, with knowledge of its past and lessons for its future. Such publications were part of the great upsurge of popular and working class struggles from the late 1970s into the early 1990s, when a flourishing alternative media and network of radical education centres complemented and was part of mass movements.

The “Labour History Group” authors were not named although in hindsight its possible to make some shrewd guesses for specific texts. This text was probably written by anti-apartheid activist Debbie Budlender, who wrote a thesis roughly on the same issues, with the same arguments, as the pamphlet’s.

 

Labour History Group, 1984, “Abasebenzi Basedokisini Ekapa” (Xhosa translation of “Organising at the Cape Town Docks”)

The “Labour History Group” based in Cape Town issued a series of pamphlets on the history of the working class in South Africa — more precisely, on some notable events in trade union history. For more on this group and its context, see here.

This particular pamphlet, entitled Abasebenzi Basedokisini Ekapa is a Xhosa translation of Organising at the Cape Town Docks, which you can read here.  It is of especial interest for its discussion of the revolutionary syndicalist Industrial Workers of Africa in Cape Town from the late 1910s, and the rise of the massive Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa (ICU), which was influenced by syndicalism (among other things).

Get the PDF here.

 

 

 

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.

“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.

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.

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?

Download PDF

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.