Pendlebury, ZACF: 2008, “Ninety Years of Working Class Internationalism in South Africa”

Ninety Years of Working Class Internationalism in South Africa

Friday September 19, 2008 14:39author by James Pendlebury – ZACF

An Introduction

For decades, nationalism – African or Afrikaner – has been the dominant ideology in South Africa. It has drawn the working class into unity with the bosses, and divided workers from their fellow workers. It has promised freedom and delivered oppression; it has promised bread and delivered starvation. Nationalism can play a progressive role when in opposition to an oppressive regime, but in power, it invariably becomes a weapon against the working class. The pogroms of May 2008 are the latest disaster to arise from nationalism.


Ninety Years of Working Class Internationalism in South Africa

For decades, nationalism – African or Afrikaner – has been the dominant ideology in South Africa. It has drawn the working class into unity with the bosses, and divided workers from their fellow workers. It has promised freedom and delivered oppression; it has promised bread and delivered starvation. Nationalism can play a progressive role when in opposition to an oppressive regime, but in power, it invariably becomes a weapon against the working class. The pogroms of May 2008 are the latest disaster to arise from nationalism.

Many will say that the African nationalism of the ANC – or the PAC, or black consciousness – is the only force for liberation in South Africa. The Communist Party claims to be socialist, but it allies itself to the ANC, and says we must have “national democracy” before we can move on to socialism. When will we move on? We must wait until the leaders tell us.

But it need not be so. There is another tradition of liberation in South Africa, a tradition that draws South African workers closer to workers in the rest of the world, instead of separating us.

Revolutionary working class internationalism appeared in South Africa in the 19th century, but it first became a major force in the 1910s. At this time, the South African state was newly established, and its boundaries did not define people’s identity. The working class, in particular, was international. White workers were immigrating from many parts of Europe, North America and Australia; black workers came from all over southern Africa to work in the gold mines of Johannesburg. There were ethnic differences, but among many workers, these seldom coincided with the state boundaries that had recently been introduced by British, German and Portuguese imperialism.

Revolutionary internationalism was introduced mainly by European immigrants, who brought with them the principles of revolutionary anarchism and syndicalism (revolutionary unionism), which was then the main revolutionary movement of the workers of the world. Their most important organisation was the International Socialist League (ISL), launched in Johannesburg in 1915, and born from a wave of militant strikes and from workers’ opposition to the outbreak of World War 1 the previous year. In rejecting the war, the syndicalists of Johannesburg – such as Bill Andrews, SP Bunting, Andrew Dunbar and David Ivon Jones – emphasised their internationalism; and explicitly recognised that internationalism in South Africa meant reaching out to the racially oppressed African workers, who, as the majority, as well as the Indians and Coloureds, would play the central role in revolution. They recognised white racism as a major obstacle to militancy for whites and as a heavy burden on blacks.

In 1917 a series of political discussions was held in the evenings in the centre of Johannesburg, between ISL militants and black workers. From these discussions was born the Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA), the country’s first black union, inspired by the Industrial Workers of the World, a revolutionary syndicalist organisation that had spread across the seas from its birthplace in the United States. Through the ISL and IWA, militants such as Thomas William “TW” Thibedi, Reuben Cetiwe and Hamilton Kraai laid the foundations of revolutionary class struggle among black South Africans.

The first statement of the IWA was “Ba Sebetsi Ba Afrika” (To the Workers of Africa), also known as “Listen, Workers, Listen”, which we reproduce here. It points out that black workers are oppressed as workers, for the profit of capitalists; that workers produce the wealth of society, and should enjoy the benefits; that this requires defeating the capitalists and the state; and that to defeat the capitalists and the state, workers must unite as workers, crossing the boundaries of ethnicity and nationality. It makes no mention of the boundaries of the South African state, which were then new and less important than they afterwards became; but the words “Let there be no longer any talk of Basuto, Zulu or Shangaan” show that the struggle included workers from outside the Union of South Africa. “Basuto” included workers from Basutoland (now Lesotho), a British colony; “Shangaan” firmly included workers from Mozambique, controlled by Portugal. The IWA in the Cape later merged into the syndicalist-influenced and region-wide Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU), which defined its goal as One BIg Union “south of the Zambesi [sic.]”, that is, including all southern Africa.

Many other syndicalist organisations were formed in South Africa around this time, mobilising black, coloured, Indian and white workers. All were agreed that workers must organise in mass movements against capitalism and the state; that black workers, as the majority, must play a key role; and that racial discrimination and prejudice must explicitly be fought and defeated by the multiracial, multinational working class movement. As anarchists and syndicalists, all rejected the goal of taking state power, holding that only the workers could free the workers. All rejected nationalism as a statist ideology, serving the interests of privileged classes; all insisted that the state, capital and racism must be defeated at once, in direct action by the workers in their unions, rejecting any idea of national liberation first and socialism later. The struggle against all forms of (divisive) social oppression was inextricably bound up with the (unifying) class struggle. In this sense, the syndicalists sought a revolutionary road to national liberation, advocating proletarian anti-imperialism against the bourgeois anti-imperialism of nationalism.

The syndicalist movement faded in the 1920s as militants moved closer to statism and nationalism. This happened in many ways; but we must note that the Communist Party, inspired by the Bolsheviks in Russia, was launched in South Africa by former syndicalist militants such as Andrews, Thibedi, Bunting and Jones. Some syndicalist ideas remained in the early Communist Party; but in 1928, at the insistence of Moscow, it turned to a two-stage strategy: first “national liberation” in a (bourgeois) “black republic” and socialist working class revolution only much later. Eventually, this strategy would bring the party into alliance with the bourgeois-nationalist ANC. The ideals of working class revolution and of internationalism lost influence, although they never completely died. Nationalists took the lead; and when the apartheid-capitalist regime fell in 1994, it was the ANC and the Communist Party that held in their hands much of state power.

We should note that the ANC and the Party did not defeat the racist regime through armed struggle, their major strategy from 1961. The regime was undermined by the mass working class insurrection of the 1980s, which, unlike the centralised and exiled ANC, was organised at the grassroots, from the bottom up, in organisations like the UDF. Its practices were closer to those of anarchism than to those of nationalism or Leninism; but it lacked clear anarchist ideas; and most of its militants were drawn into supporting the ANC as it negotiated a compromise with the racist regime and white capital.

The end of apartheid was a great victory. But it did not mark the end of poverty, capitalist exploitation, or police brutality. It left the workers subject to the bosses and to the bosses’ state. It promised houses, water and electricity, but it insisted that everyone must pay, regardless of whether they had the money.

By 2000 a new working class movement was emerging. Grassroots struggles began again in the townships, to win houses, water and electricity by demands or by direct action. New organisations appeared, many of them outside the ANC alliance, informed by ideas of revolutionary class struggle, including internationalism. Many militants sought to ensure that these movements were run from the bottom up, not the top down. Anarchism had reappeared as an organised force in South Africa in the 1990s; and while the anarchists of the ZACF are a small minority in the new social movements, we are committed to building their revolutionary potential. Elsewhere in this edition, we note how nationalism has divided the workers and led to the horrifying xenophobic pogroms of May 2008. We note that the new working class social movements were almost alone in South Africa in making an internationalist response to this violence.

One of these movements is Abahlali baseMjondolo, the shack-dwellers’ movement in Durban. Here we reproduce Abahlali’s statement on the pogroms, Unyawo Alunampumulo. It is a statement that calls for working class unity and rejects divisions of nationality and ethnicity. It criticises the government for oppressing the people at home and supporting tyranny abroad. It notes how big capital exploits the poor, and how the New Partnership for Africa’s Development is helping South African companies to spread their exploitation elsewhere on the continent. It calls for solidarity, for strong unions, for standing up to the cops. It proclaims Abahlali’s readiness to defend immigrants against attack. Across the decades, it echoes the call of Ba Sebetsi Ba Afrika.

The ZACF has some criticisms of Abahlali’s statement. When we distributed it in Johannesburg, we included the following comments in our introduction:

We cannot join in their call for “a police force that serves the people”. No police force can be anything other than a force of repression, a force for the state to keep itself on top and the masses at the bottom, a force for the defence of the rich against the poor. Again and again the police have shown this against the movements of the poor, arresting, torturing and murdering us. Not to mention their attacks on immigrants. When the politicians condemn poor South Africans for attacking foreigners, it is because they wish to preserve this power of violence for themselves and their forces alone.

We can and do fight to stop the worst police repression. And any of us, in fear of our lives, will seek the help of the police when there is no alternative. We cannot blame anyone for seeking refuge with the police, or for calling them in to prevent imminent attacks.
But we hope for something better. If there is no alternative, let us try to create one. Let us build our movements to the point where immigrants – or women facing rape, or gay and lesbian people facing chauvinistic violence – do not need to seek the dubious help of the police. Let us build strong, organised working class communities that can defend themselves and their comrades against repression and chauvinism.

No organisation is perfect. We believe Abahlali is mistaken in its view of the police. But in its commitment to grassroots organisation, class struggle and solidarity across borders, Abahlali shows the way for South African workers and poor people to cure themselves of the poison of nationalism. It is returning to a tradition that began in South Africa with the syndicalists many years ago. In this tradition lies our hope for freedom and solidarity, for an end to oppression and violence. We anarchists are striving to complete the break with nationalism and bring victory to the internationalist tradition. Join us.