A global movement, the anarchist and syndicalist tradition has influenced people from all walks of life. A notable figure was Bernard L.E. Sigamoney, born in 1888. The grandson of indentured Indian labourers, who arrived in South Africa in the 1870s, he became a school teacher with a working class outlook.
A hundred years ago saw the First World War (1914-1918) sear the globe: almost 40 million died. South Africa, as part of the British Empire, sent troops and workers to battles in Africa and Europe.
EDITOR’S INTRODUCTION: Today the terms “populism” and “workerism” are widely thrown about in South African political circles. Often, these terms and others (“syndicalism,” “ultra-left,” “counter-revolutionary,” “anti-majoritarian” …) have no meaning: they are just labels used to silence critics. SA Communist Party (SACP) leaders do this often. But in the 1980s, “populism” and “workerism” referred to two rival positions battling for the soul of the militant unions.
These debates, thirty years on, remain very relevant: let us revisit them, and learn. Today’s radical National Union of Metalworkers of SA (NUMSA) was part of the “workerist” camp, while its key rival, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was identified with “populism.” The early battles over the direction of the Congress of SA Trade Unions (COSATU) still echo today, although there is no longer a clear “workerist” camp.
The massacre of South African school children in 1976 continues to be remembered and to influence us today. It showed the brutality of the apartheid state and it left scars still felt by people today.
In the period 1970-75 the number of black schoolchildren in the state system increased by 160%. However, the Bantu Education system and economic crisis meant already low apartheid expenditure could not meet the increasing need.
This was also the time of Steve Bantu Biko, a key intellectual influence through the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). The rising black trade union movement provided another source of inspiration after the defeats of the 1960s.
EDITORIAL: Election Circus: Zuma not the problem, the whole system is rotten
2014’s national and provincial election circus saw the ANC retain its big majority. Two opposition parties – DA and EFF – grew; the rest fell sharply. Over 13 million never voted, more than the total who voted for the ANC and far more that voted EFF (1 million) or DA (4 million). Four out of ten youth (18-29 year olds) did not even register.
The International Socialist League (ISL) was a revolutionary syndicalist political organisation founded in Johannesburg in 1915. Many founders were militants who had broken from the South African Labour Party (SALP) over its support for the British Imperial war effort in World War I. They were opposed to capitalist war and imperialism.
The ISL aimed to organise “One Big Union” of the entire South African working class to fight for the overthrow of capitalism and the taking over of society by the working class, for the working class.
What did the ISL say about race?
Key to this project in the South African context was the breaking of the racial divisions within the working class. This required raising the specific demands of black workers for equality with white workers, in order to practically unite all workers and to enable them to work together toward “their common emancipation from wage slavery.”
The Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa (ICU) was formed in Cape Town in 1919. In 1920 it merged with the revolutionary syndicalist union, the Industrial Workers of Africa, and other unions. It grew rapidly in South Africa among Coloured and black African workers and tenant farmers. It also spread, in the 1920s and 1930s, into neighbouring countries. The ICU was not a revolutionary syndicalist union, but it was influenced by syndicalism.
What were the aims of the ICU?
The aims of the ICU were sometimes a little confused. It was influenced by many ideas. But according to the 1925 Constitution of the ICU, and many speeches and statements, the ultimate aim of the ICU was: to abolish the class system through worker and direct action, and to equally redistribute economic and political power, in conjunction with organised workers throughout the world.