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Date Sat, 06 Sep 2008 22:40:56 +0300

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.
Thomas William TW Thibedi was a leading member of the revolutionary syndicalist
Industrial Workers of Africa, one of the first black members of the Communist
Party of SA, and leader of its 10 000 strong Federation of Non-European Trade
Unions. He was later expelled on questionable charges, and established the first
African Mineworkers' Union, and the Communist League of Africa.
----------------------------------- But it need not be so. There is another
tradition of liberation in South Africa, a tra-
dition that draws South African workers
closer to workers in the rest of the world,
instead of separating us.
Revolutionary working class internation-
alism 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 inter-
national. 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 intro-
duced by British, German and Portuguese
Revolutionary internationalism was intro-
duced 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
i n t e r n a t i o n a l i s m ;
and explicitly recognised that interna-
tionalism in South Africa meant reach-
ing 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 organisa-
tion 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 founda-
tions of revolutionary class struggle among
black South Africans.
Johnny Gomas of the Clothing
Workers' Industrial Union and the
International Socialist League
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 pro-
duce the wealth of society, and should
enjoy the benefits; that this requires defeat-
ing the capitalists and the state; and that to
defeat the capitalists and the state, workers
must unite as workers, crossing the bound-
aries 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 work-
ers 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 prej-
udice must explicitly be fought and defeat-
ed by the multiracial, multinational working
class movement. As anarchists and syndi-
calists, 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 revolu-
tionary road to national liberation, advocat-
ing proletarian antiimperialism against
the bourgeois antiimperialism of nation-
The syndicalist movement faded in
the 1920s as militants moved closer to sta-
tism 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 "nation-
al liberation" in a (bourgeois) "black
republic" and socialist working class revolu-
tion 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-cap-
italist regime fell in 1994, it was the ANC
and the Communist Party that held in their
hands much of state power.
Masotsha Ndhlovu, general secre-
tary of the syndicalist influenced
ICU yase Rhodesia (1926-1950s), at
Bulawayo in 1930

We should note that the ANC and the
Party did not defeat the racist regime
through armed struggle, their major strate-
gy from 1961. The regime was under-
mined by the mass working class insurrec-
tion of the 1980s, which, unlike the cen-
tralised 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, cap-
italist 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 hous-
es, 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 reap-
peared as an organised force in South
Africa in the 1990s; and while the anar-
chists of the ZACF are a small minority in
the new social movements, we are com-
mitted to building their revolutionary poten-
tial. 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 interna-
tionalist 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 eth-
nicity. It criticises the government for
oppressing the people at home and sup-
porting tyranny abroad. It notes how big
capital exploits the poor, and how the New
Partnership for A f r i c a ' s
Development is helping South
African companies to spread their
exploitation elsewhere on the conti-
nent. 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 key figure in the South African
IWW (1910-1913), Andrew Dunbar,
blacksmithing at 80 years
of age in 1960
The ZACF has some criticisms of
Abahlali's statement. When we distributed
it in Johannesburg, we included the follow-
ing 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 bot-
tom, 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 politi-
cians 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 any-
one for seeking refuge with the
police, or for calling them in to pre-
vent imminent attacks.
But we hope for something better.
If there is no alternative, let us try to
create one. Let us build our move-
ments to the point where immi-
grants ­ or women facing rape, or
gay and lesbian people facing chau-
vinistic violence ­ do not need to
seek the dubious help of the police.
Let us build strong, organised work-
ing class communities that can
defend themselves and their com-
rades against repression and chau-
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 work-
ers 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 interna-
tionalist tradition. Join us.
For more on the early history of anarchism and syndicalism in
southern Africa, see our pamphlet Sifuna Zonke, available
online at
A very detailed study is a recent PhD thesis by anarchist
researcher Lucien van der Walt, Anarchism and syndicalism
in South Africa, available at
On the class character and programme of the ANC, see our
pamphlet Class struggles in South Africa, at
or a more in-depth discussion in Fighting privatisation in
South Africa, at
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