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(en) Reflections on race and anarchism in South Africa*, 1904-2004

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Wed, 12 May 2004 11:00:31 +0200 (CEST)

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The South African anarchist tradition provides an interesting case
study of anarchist approaches to the question of racial inequality and
oppression under capitalism. In modern South Africa, capitalist
relations of exploitation were been built upon colonial relations of
domination. This complex articulation of race and class was a question
that South African anarchists continually faced. This paper will
examine how both the classical anarchist movement of the first two
decades of the twentieth-century, and the contemporary movement of the
1990s, dealt with the racial question, and draw conclusions.

>From the start of industrialisation in the 1880s – spurred by gold
discoveries in the Witwatersrand region - until the reform period of
the 1970s, South African capitalism was structured on racial lines.
There were, in effect, two sharply differentiated sectors of the
working class in South Africa.

African workers, roughly two thirds of the workforce, were
concentrated in low wage employment, were typically unskilled, and
were employed on contracts that amounted to indenture, criminalizing
strikes. The typical African mine and industrial worker was a male
migrant who worked on contract in urban areas before returning to the
rural village in which his family resided and farmed. Urban amenities
for Africans were minimal - before the 1950s, for example, urban
schooling was conducted by churches – and it was State policy that
African workers neither vote nor permanently reside outside the tribal
"homelands." Partly in order to enforce this an internal passport
system – the "pass laws" – was applied to African men.

White workers dominated higher paying jobs, were often skilled
artisans, and were typically resident in (segregated) urban family
housing. Enjoying basic political and civil rights, they were able to
change employment fairly easily, to unionise, whilst the right to
strike was grudgingly conceded in the 1920s. However, a large and
unskilled "poor White" population (largely drawn from ruined Afrikaner
peasant farmers) also existed well into the 1960s.

Between these two main fractions were workers of the Coloured ("mixed
race") and Indian minorities. Like the Whites they were fully
proletarianised. Largely urbanised by the 1930s, they enjoying better
public amenities than Africans and had basic trade union rights. Like
the Africans, however, they were largely excluded from skilled trades,
and, if not excluded, were not paid the going rate; their trading and
residential areas and their amenities were also segregated.

Official State ideology centred on the notion of racial difference: at
times constructed around notions of biological inequality, at times
around notions of inherent cultural difference, and, specifically, of
civilised Western versus barbaric African culture. This justification
of the social order resonated with the White working class. Precisely
because African labour was cheap and unfree, there were continual
attempts by employers to expand its spheres of African employment:
where skilled trades were deskilled by mechanisation, attempts were
made to replace White artisans with cheap semi-skilled Africans; where
jobs were unskilled, the "poor Whites," with union rights and the
vote, fared poorly in competition with the unfree Africans.

Fear of African replacement, an industrial "Black Peril," infused the
early trade unions, which were established by Whites workers; this
fear was important theme in labour disputes into the 1980s. These
unions generally adopted a "White Labourite" position: colour bars in
membership, support for segregation, and demands for job reservation.
The "poor Whites," concentrated in cheap but multi-racial urban slums
before the 1940s, were in a contradictory situation: contradictory:
similar material conditions led to some social integration, and grave
official concern about miscegenation; unemployment and competition for
jobs generated bitter racial antagonism and sometimes flared into race

For their part, African workers regarded organised White labour with
suspicion, and resented their own subject status. When trade unionism
emerged amongst Africans in the late 1910s, it was generally racially
exclusive; its demands were deeply coloured by racial grievances.

The effect was a the development of a bifurcated labour movement.
White and African trade unions developed on separate lines: sometimes
hostile, a sometimes allied, but almost never integrated before the
1990s. The Coloured and Indian workers hovered between these two main
worlds of labour: occasionally accepted into the White labour
movement, albeit on unequal terms, the minorities were also forced
downwards towards the African workers by State racism. Their
consciousness often reflected their status, with antagonism towards
White labour often coupled with hostility towards Africans.

The first anarchist active in South Africa was Henry Glasse, an
Englishman who lived in the small coastal town of Port Elizabeth from
1881, from where he corresponded with London anarchist circles,
translated works by Peter Kropotkin, wrote for Kropotkin's Freedom,
and distributing anarchist pamphlets.

It was in Glasse's work that the first traces of an local anarchist
approach to South Africa's racial question appear. The first step
Glasse took was to reject civilised/ barbaric distinction; the second
was explicit opposition to the oppression of Africans. In a November
1905 letter to Freedom he argued that "I would rather live amongst"
the Africans "than amongst many who call themselves `civilised,'" for
you can "still find amongst them the principle of Communism –
primitive Communism" and deep "brotherly love." Yet the Africans were
brutally "robbed and ill-treated":

They must not walk on the pavement, but in the middle of the road.
They must not ride in cabs or tram, and in the trains there are
separate compartments for them, just like cattle trucks. They must
have passes a la Russia, and are allowed to live only in the
`location,' those Ghettos set aside for them. They are not allowed to
be on the streets after 9 p.m., in the land that was once their own –
their Fatherland!

Glasse soon took a third step: the application of anarchist
internationalism to South African labour through the rejection of
"White Labourism." In the Voice of Labour, the first socialist weekly
in twentieth century South Africa (founded in 1908) he argued: "For a
white worker in this South Africa to pretend he can successfully fight
his battle independent of the coloured wage slaves -the vast majority-
is, to my mind, simply idiocy" (26/1/1912).

Colour bars, for Glasse, undermined workers common struggle against
the class enemy. Such views were influential in the early radical
left, including the revolutionary syndicalist current that emerged
around the Voice of Labour: a De Leonite group, the Socialist Labour
Party (SLP), was formed in March 1910, an Industrial Workers of the
World (IWW) section in June, and both were openly in favour
interracial unionism. These groups were formed soon after the South
African tour of British syndicalist Tom Mann in early 1910. Sponsored
by mainstream White trade unions, he annoyed his hosts with calls for
workers' solidarity across race: "Whatever number there are, get at
them all, and if there are another 170,000 available, white or black,
get at them too" (Cope, 1940, Comrade Bill, p. 110).

However, the local SLP and IWW did not make headway in breaking racial
barriers: the SLP confined itself to abstract propaganda; the IWW was
focussed on White transport workers in Johannesburg, Pretoria and
possibly Durban. Both failed to take a crucial fourth step: combining
opposition to racial oppression with trade unionism to campaign
against racial oppression.

By the end of 1912, the SLP, IWW and Voice of Labour were
disintegrating, and so did not play an organised role in the strike
wave of June 1913 - February 1914. A minor dispute on a single mine
exploded into a general strike across the Witwatersrand. Led by an
unofficial strike committee, the strike ended with riots, the strikers
in control of Johannesburg, and government humiliation. It did not,
however, resolve grievances, and an attempt at a second strike was
made in early 1914: the State was now better prepared and crushed the
movement with martial law.

Two things were striking about the period. First, some strike leaders
tried to draw African labourers into the strike movement in 1913, most
notably George Mason of the strike committee, helping precipitate
independent African strike action. Second, the drama and repression of
1913-1914 generated new radicals within the White labour movement. In
the South African Labour Party (SALP), the party of the White unions
that combined socialism with segregation, a radical faction emerged
and was galvanised by a losing battle against SALP support for World
War One. Their "War-on-War League" also attracted many SLP and IWW

By September 1915 the "War-on-War League" broke all ties with the
SALP, launching the International Socialist League (ISL). The ISL
advocated an inter-racial unionism and revolutionary syndicalism. Its
weekly, the International, called for a "new movement" across the
"bounds of Craft and race and sex": "founded on the rock of the
meanest proletarian who toils for a master" it would be "as wide as
humanity" (3/12/1915). From this period, revolutionary syndicalism
dominated the radical left, with the ISL the biggest group.

Like the revolutionary syndicalists of the Voice of Labour period, the
ISL argued for the futility of "White Labourism"; unlike its
predecessors, it added that active struggle against racial oppression
was a crucial anti-capitalist struggle: "If the League deal resolutely
in consonance with Socialist principles with the native question, it
will succeed in shaking South African capitalism to its foundations"
(International, 1/10/1915). The ISL stressed that racial oppression
not only divided the working class but was functional to capital:
"cheap, helpless and unorganised" African labour ensured "employers
generally and particularly industrial employers, that most coveted
plum of modern Imperialism, plentiful cheap labour" (International,

Finally, it stressed the role of direct action in destroying racial
oppression, with particular emphasis on trade unionism. Mason stressed
the need to help Africans unionise in order to repeal repressive
legislation "by the strength of Trade Unionism" (International,
7/5/1916). For the ISL (International, 19/10/1917)

Once organised, these workers can bust-up any tyrannical law.
Unorganised, these laws are iron bands. Organise industrially, they
become worth no more than the paper rags they are written on.

In July 1917, the ISL set up study groups for African workers in
Johannesburg, where Andrew Dunbar, former IWW general secretary IWW,
played the key role. Police reports note that he spent the first
meeting arguing that "the natives who are the working class of South
Africa" had to be "organised" and "have rights" like any "white man."
In September the study groups became a trade union, the Industrial
Workers of Africa (IWA) and the African trade union in South Africa.

Other syndicalist unions were established, reflecting the
fragmentation of the working class: in Durban, an Indian Workers
Industrial Union in 1917; in Kimberly, a Clothing Workers Industrial
Union and a Horse Driver's Union in 1918 amongst the mainly Coloured
population; in Cape Town that same year, the Industrial Socialist
League (IndSL), an independent syndicalist group, organised (mainly)
Coloured factory workers into a Sweet and Jam Workers Industrial Union
in 1918. In each union, workers of colour played the key role, and
from them that the ISL, attracted key members such as T.W. Thibedi,
Bernard Sigamoney and Johnny Gomas. The ISL and the IndSL also sought
to radicalise the White trade unions, but with limited success.

In June 1918, the ISL, ANC and IWA cooperated in organising an
attempted African strike movement, the first of its kind. IWA members
active in the ANC played a key role in pushing this moderate group to
the left. Although the campaign fell through, eight people – two ISL,
three IWA, and two ANC - were prosecuted for public disorder in South
Africa's first multi-racial political trial, but acquitted.

In March 1919, the ANC launched a campaign against the pass laws on
the Witwatersrand - with IWA members , Reuben Cetiwe and Hamilton
Kraai playing a key role - but it was called off by ANC moderates.
Kraai and Cetiwe then moved to Cape Town, setting up the IWA on the
docks and working with the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union
(ICU). A restructured ICU, incorporating the IWA, would explode across
southern Africa in the 1920s, combining endorsement of the IWW
Preamble with serious levels of internal autocracy, corruption, and
political chaos.

The Russian Revolution had tremendous effects on the local radical
movement. Initially the ISL regarded the Revolution as a confirmation
of its syndicalist views: the soviets were "the Russian form of the
Industrial Union" (International 18/5/1917). Gradually a Leninist
position was adopted. The ISL that played the key role in founding the
official Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) in 1921; the
International became the CPSA organ.

Some revolutionary syndicalist tendencies remained in the early CPSA
but the overall trend was towards acceptance of Communist
International directives. Between 1921 and 1924 the CPSA mechanically
applied V.I. Lenin's argument that British communists affiliate to the
Labour Party to South Africa, by striving to join the SALP: the costs
was abandonment of real work amongst workers of colour. In 1924, the
CPSA turned back to Africans, but in 1928 adopted the Communist
International thesis that colonial and semi-colonial countries must
pass through a national-democratic stage before socialism was
possible. The "Black Republic" approach led the CPSA to focus on
reforming the State, on de-racialising capitalism, and, from the
1940s, on building the ANC as the leading nationalist force. The
ISL's link between anti-racist and anti-capitalist struggle was
effectively broken.

>From the 1970s, the State sought to remove the most odious features of
apartheid: low-wage migrant labour was less economically important,
popular struggles centred on African labour unionism and community and
student struggles were in upsurge, and the economy was entering
crisis. The reform project was overtaken by revolts, leading to the
negotiation process that abolished apartheid and left the ANC with the
project of restructuring capitalism to restore profitability.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s anarchism re-emerged in the mainly
White and Indian punk scene, through fanzines such as Social Blunder
and Unrest. The new anarchism was anti-racist, but vague and general:
the ANC were distrusted as "new bosses" but no alternative analysis
and strategy was presented. Matters changed after the 1994 elections,
with the formation of study groups, the rise of a class struggle
anarchist current in Durban and Johannesburg, and the formation of a
national anarchist organisation, the Workers Solidarity Federation's
(WSF) with an explicit focus on the African working class.

The first issue of the WSF's Workers Solidarity argued that the 1994
elections were a "massive advance," the defeat of "legalised
apartheid" but that a non-racial capitalism would incorporate the
African elite without improving working class African conditions. A
subsequent issue linked racism to "500 years" of capitalism, arguing
that apartheid was primarily an expression of capital's need for cheap
labour (Workers Solidarity, third quarter 1996). Rejecting the
two-stage conception of change, it argued that "the fight against
racism is a fight against capitalism and the State" and thus a class

The WSF was able to transform the racial composition of local
anarchism, largely through involvement in student struggles and strike
support: at its dissolution in 1999, it was a predominantly African
organisation. Its general approach to the race question continues to
dominate local anarchism, but the WSF stress trade unionism has been
largely superseded by interest in the new township movements against
the ANC's austerity policies. The WSF's early recognition of the shift
towards neoliberalism in post-apartheid South Africa helped provide an
analytical bridge between the union and community foci.

Several conclusions follow from the above discussion. First, the
not-too-uncommon view that race is the historic blindspot of anarchism
is indefensible. If, for example, within white dominion, within the
British Empire, within colonial Africa, anarchists and revolutionary
syndicalists could play a path-breaking role in organising workers of
colour, in defending African labour, in civil rights activities, and
do so on the basis of a class struggle and anti-capitalist analysis
and strategy, there is much that to be learned from the anarchist
past. Their analyses may be context-bound but represent a larger
position on the race issue: other Cuba, Mexico and Peru are other

Secondly, whilst the anarchist tradition in South Africa has generally
been anti-racist, it has best succeeded in incorporating people of
colour when anti-racist principle has become anti-racist strategies
and activism. The bridge between the two was an analysis rooted in the
architecture of classical anarchist theory: class struggle,
internationalism, anti-statism, anti-capitalism and opposition to
hierarchy. Such tools bear use, if some sharpening; rather than leap
to incorporate "whiteness studies," postmodernism, nationalism and so
on into anarchist analyses, the richness of classical anarchist theory
rewards examination.
* Reflections on race and anarchism in South Africa, 1904-2004
Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, volume 8, number 1, Spring 2004

Lucien van der Walt, South Africa

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