Answers by Michael Schmidt, International Secretary of the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (South Africa) to questions put by “Situation”, newspaper of Autonomous Action (Russia), December 2008.
1. The history of worker and anarchist movement in South Africa began more than 100 years ago. Could you tell Russian comrades about the history of your struggles (about organisations from the beginning of the 20th century like International Socialist League etc)?
South Africa would have remained an agrarian backwater colony similar to Kenya if it were not for the discovery of diamonds in 1867 and of gold in 1886. These two events saw a massive influx of capital, infrastructure and of a mostly white industrial working class. The new white working class was overwhelmingly race-protectionist, what was called “White Labourite” and early trade unions were built on those lines. But a small radical tendency with strong anti-racist, anarchist and syndicalist leanings (starting with the Socialist Club of Port Elizabeth in 1900) eventually saw the establishment of a local section of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1910. It was operative mostly among tramway workers in the gold-mining town of Johannesburg, the old Boer capital of Pretoria and the British-dominated port of Durban but despite its anti-racism did not manage to break out of the white ghetto. But although the IWW (SA) shut down in 1913, rank-and-file syndicalist ideas spread during the general strikes of 1913-1914, within the anti-war movement during World War I, and by 1917, the Indian Workers industrial Union (IWIU), organized among Indian indentured stevedores, hotel workers and cane-cutters in Durban, was established along IWW lines. The IWIU was backed up by the formation later in 1917 of the Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA), also based on the IWW’s revolutionary syndicalist, anti-racist class-struggle concept. The IWA is believed to have been the first black trade union in British-colonised Africa and by 1919 was flanked by similar syndicalist unions, the mostly “coloured” (mixed-race) Horse-Drivers Union in the diamond-mining town of Kimberley, and various unions in the port city of Cape Town. These revolutionary syndicalist unions were established by a group of white, black, coloured and Indian syndicalist militants from the Industrial Socialist League, a 1915 revolutionary splinter from the reformist socialist International Socialist League, and the IWA, IWIU and associated unions were so influential that for a period, they shifted the Transvaal section of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC, later renamed the African National Congress, ANC) in a syndicalist direction. By 1921, these unions formed the core of the new syndicalist-oriented Industrial and Commercial Union (ICU). Although the ICU’s constitution was also IWW-based, it was amore ideologically mixed union, and its radicalism was compromised by elements of black nationalism, Garveyism and communism. The first communist party in Africa, the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) was established by syndicalist militants in 1920, but like the first communist parties in countries such as Brazil and France was very libertarian and syndicalist. A rival Bolshevik CPSA – Communist International (CPSA-CI, the fore-runner of today’s South African Communist Party, SACP) was established the following year, adhering to Lenin’s 21 points and attracting many original CPSA militants. The revolutionary remainder of the CPSA renamed themselves the Communist League. The ICU peaked in 1927 with about 120,000 members. Importantly, it spread beyond South Africa to establish branches in South-West Africa (Namibia), and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). The Southern Rhodesian branch survived well into the 1950s, but the South African parent organization disintegrated in the late 1920s, bringing an end to South African anarchist-influenced syndicalism. Neighbouring Mozambique (like Angola, the Azores, and Portuguese Guinea) was a place of exile to which many Portuguese anarchists were deported in the 1890s and early 1900s. Some of them established an exile anarchist organization, the Revolutionary League, in the port capital of Lorenco Marques (Maputo) in the early 1900s. By the early 1920s, a significant syndicalist element had arisen among Mozambican workers under the influence of the powerful anarcho-syndicalist General Confederation of Labour (CGT) in Portugal (the Portuguese movement was proportionately larger than the Spanish movement). But the Mozambican movement apparently had no contact with the South African movement because of the language barrier, appeared not to have broken out of the white worker ghetto, and was suppressed from 1927 by the Salazar dictatorship. So ended the “glorious period” of anarchist and syndicalist organizing in South Africa. Most dissidents expelled from the Bolshevik CPSA in 1928 for their syndicalist sympathies became Trotskyists instead of returning to the anarchist and syndcalist fold. But rank-and-file syndicalism (usually called “workerism” by the communists) reappeared from time to time as a minority strain. In the 1950s, for example, a South African section of the tiny libertarian Marxist international called the Movement for a Democracy of Content (MDC) was established and played a key role in the Alexandra bus boycott. Some dissidents from the SACP who left over the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary moved in an anarchist direction (one of them, Alan Lipman, is close to the ZACF). The rise to power of the National Party in 1948 took what was an already polarized racial situation and divided people further. A whole raft of repressive legislation was introduced that outlawed the Communist Party, geographically carved up the country into ethnic enclaves (the infamous Group Areas Act), racially segregated public amenities such as parks, beaches, buses and toilets, and made mixed marriages and inter-racial relationships a crime. This was an extension of segregationist laws which had been in operation since colonial times. Between 1910 and 1960, in real terms, black wages stayed static and the black working class was mostly resigned to its fate under racial capital – except for the 1949 miner’s strike, the 1950s passive resistance campaigns aimed at the pass laws (which restricted the movement of black men, and later, black women) and other apartheid legislation which culminated in the signing of the 1955 Freedom Charter, and the 1961 turn of the ANC (desperate after its attempts at legal, peaceful reform failed) towards a limited, ineffective armed struggle (an ANC propaganda tool rather than proper armed resistance) led to the arrest of Nelson Mandela and other middle-class ANC/SACP leaders.