University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Wolfson College Humanities Society talks > Adding Red to the Black Atlantic: the Industrial Workers of Africa's and International Socialist League's black revolutionary syndicalists and the South Africa Native National Congress's 1917-1920 radicalisation

Adding Red to the Black Atlantic: the Industrial Workers of Africa's and International Socialist League's black revolutionary syndicalists and the South Africa Native National Congress's 1917-1920 radicalisation

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  • UserProf Lucien van der Walt, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg South Africa
  • ClockTuesday 06 March 2012, 17:45-19:15
  • HouseGatsby Room, Wolfson College.

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The late 1910s saw colonial and proletarian revolt sweep the globe, while in South Africa, union membership increased fourteen-fold and strikes exploded. The first African and Indian unions emerged, based on revolutionary syndicalism, which is a variant of anarchism: the Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA) and the Indian Workers Industrial Union in 1917, and a 1920 “One Big Union” congress saw the IWA and others merge into the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU) on a militant platform. A section of the generally moderate, elitist South African Native National Congress (SANNC) was radicalised, too, throwing itself into strikes and protests; these radicals were often also members of the revolutionary syndicalist bodies, the IWA and the International Socialist League (ISL). Structural factors, such as postwar inflation, and the larger climate of turbulence and instability, doubtless played a role in this radicalisation. However, the content and contours of this early SANNC radicalisation can only be understood by examining the activities of the revolutionary syndicalists, notably Fred Cetiwe, Andrew Dunbar, Hamilton Kraai and T.W. Thibedi, in influencing the editors of Abantu-Batho, in Cape and Transvaal SANNC structures, in the 1918 Witwatersrand IWA -SANNC-ISL strike movement (and trial), in the 1919 ICU -IWA Cape Town dockers’ strike, in the 1919 Witwatersrand anti-pass campaign, in the 1918 and 1920 SANNC congresses, and in the 1920 merger of the IWA , ICU and others. I suggest that Benedict Anderson’s observation that the era was shaped by the “immense gravitational pull” of anarchism and syndicalism, long the “dominant element in the self-consciously internationalist radical Left,” “the main vehicle of global opposition to industrial capitalism, autocracy, latifundism, and imperialism,” also applies to South Africa. The long-ignored role of anarchism and syndicalism needs to be reconsidered in local historiography, while the history of the SANNC needs to be delinked from simplistic nationalist narratives.

This talk is part of the Wolfson College Humanities Society talks series.

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