Industrial Workers of Africa

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Industrial Workers of Africa

South Africa 1917


In 1917 militant workers of the International Socialist League formed the Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA), the first union for black workers in South African history. The anarchist union, based on the model of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), aimed to abolish the capitalist system and defend workers' rights. At a time of bloody battles between labor and the white capitalist class, the IWA helped form a leftist block that for a time managed to pull the middle-class African National Congress further left. When the white supremacist government repressed striking workers in June 1918, the IWA called for a general strike; the strike was called off and some leaders were arrested. A dock workers' strike in 1919 also failed, but it set the foundation for greater cooperation among workers in the sector. The union had a profound effect on both militant leftist white workers and workers of color and eventually spread its internationalist, antiracist militancy to the working class of neighboring countries.


  • 1897: The Zionist movement is established under the leadership of Theodor Herzl.
  • 1902: Second Anglo-Boer War ends in victory for Great Britain. It is a costly victory, however, resulting in the loss of more British lives (5,774) than any conflict between 1815 and 1914. The war also sees the introduction of concentration camps, used by the British to incarcerate Boer civilians.
  • 1905: Russian Revolution of 1905 occurs. Following the "bloody Sunday" riots before the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in January, revolution spreads throughout Russia, in some places spurred on by newly formed workers' councils, or soviets. Among the most memorable incidents of the revolt is the mutiny aboard the battleship Potemkin. Suppressed by the czar, the revolution brings an end to liberal reforms and thus sets the stage for the larger revolutions of 1917.
  • 1911: In China, revolutionary forces led by Sun Yat-sen bring an end to more than 2,100 years of imperial rule.
  • 1915: A German submarine sinks the Lusitania, killing 1,195, including 128 U.S. citizens. Theretofore, many Americans had been sympathetic toward Germany, but the incident begins to turn the tide of U.S. sentiment toward the Allies.
  • 1917: The intercepted "Zimmermann Telegram" reveals a plot by the German government to draw Mexico into an alliance against the United States in return for a German promise to return the southwestern U.S. territories taken in the Mexican War. Three months later on 6 April, in response to German threats of unrestricted submarine warfare, the United States declares war on Germany.
  • 1917: On both the Western Front and in the Middle East, the tide of the war begins to turn against the Central Powers. The arrival of U.S. troops, led by General Pershing, in France in June greatly boosts morale and reinforces exhausted Allied forces. Meanwhile, Great Britain scores two major victories against the Ottoman Empire as T. E. Lawrence leads an Arab revolt in Baghdad in March, and troops under Field Marshal Edmund Allenby take Jerusalem in December.
  • 1919: With the formation of the Third International (Comintern), the Bolshevik government of Russia establishes its control over communist movements worldwide.
  • 1923: Conditions in Germany worsen as inflation skyrockets and France, attempting to collect on coal deliveries promised at Versailles, marches into the Ruhr basin. In November an obscure political group known as the National Socialist German Workers' Party attempts to stage a coup, or putsch, in a Munich beer hall. The revolt fails, and in 1924 the party's leader, Adolf Hitler, will receive a prison sentence of five years. He will only serve nine months, however, and the incident will serve to attract attention for him and his party, known as the Nazis.
  • 1927: Stalin arranges to have Trotsky expelled from the Communist Party.

Event and Its Context

Industrialism in South Africa

The seed of industrialism—and resulting industrial unionism—in South Africa was planted with the 1867 discovery of diamonds at Kimberley. The appearance of mines, which increased after the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886, drastically changed the way black Africans earned their livelihood. Moreover, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of European, American, and Australian workers formed new cities like Johannesburg almost overnight. In 1886 Johannesburg housed some 3,000 prospectors; by 1913 it had 250,000. South Africa in the early twentieth century was clearly a multicultural society, including black Africans, whites, "Coloureds" (i.e., racially mixed), and a considerable population of Indian origin. Indigenous Africans were not able to opt out of the changes brought by the economic model shift; the 1913 Land Act forced native peoples off the land they occupied and used for sustenance. New legislation forced them to migrate to white-controlled urban centers to work as miners so that they could pay taxes to the white-controlled government. Moreover, black workers travelling outside demarcated areas were required to carry passes. Given the increasing violation of the rights and freedoms of Africans, a coalition of tribal chiefs and religious leaders founded the African National Congress (ANC) in 1912.

IWW Influence

Socialists organizing in twentieth-century South Africa envisioned an important role for anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists. Two such groups appeared in Johannesburg in 1910: the Socialist Labour Party (SLP; in March) and a branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW; in June). Although the IWW, founded in 1905, was best known for its success among workers in the United States, its influence was also felt among workers in South Africa, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). In the Union of South Africa, founded as a British colony in 1910 and ruled by a white supremacist government, IWW goals and organizational practices had a particularly important influence on the radical press and early labor movement. Although the South African branch of the IWW was all but dead by 1914, the IWW model in the 1910s spawned at least five South African unions dedicated to organizing workers of color. The most renowned of these was the Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA), founded in 1917 as the region's first-ever union for black workers. The union's motto was Sifuna Zonke! ("We want everything!").

The black trade union movement was more than 20 years in the making. In 1896, when mine managers lowered the wages of black mineworkers, the workers responded with the first recorded strike of black workers in the sector. In 1913 parts of the African labor force joined a general strike by white miners that forced South Africa's "Randlords" to the bargaining table; for many white leftist militants, the 1913 strike underscored the need for cooperation with and organization of native workers. As the real earning power of wages continued to decline, the miners' discontent spread to other industrial sectors. In addition to lower wages, the native African workers suffered miserable working conditions and the humiliation of the pass law, which required blacks to carry an "internal passport." By the 1910s, as radical socialist ideals were mobilizing white workers, some organizers saw the need for a strong, militant labor union composed of Africans.

The IWA found its roots in the International Socialist League (ISL), which espoused IWW-style revolutionary syndicalism and the abolition of racist oppression in South Africa. The ISL was founded in 1915 by militant white workers who opposed World War I and the conservative, racist policies of the all-white South African Labour Party and supporting craft unions. In the 1910s the ISL was South Africa's largest, most important revolutionary socialist group. From the beginning, the league attracted black workers with talk of "One Big Union" that would break "the bounds of craft and race and sex," to bring on the "lockout of the capitalist class." An October 1915 editorial in the ISL's weekly publication, The International, stressed the need of internationalism to bring "fullest rights" to the working class and the oppressed black population, declaring that "by dealing resolutely in consonance with socialist principles with the native question, it will succeed in shaking South African capitalism to its foundation."

The ISL, in addition to reaching out to existing black organizations such as the ANC, began organizing black and mixed-race workers in 1917. March brought the formation of the Indian Workers Industrial Union in Durban. In 1918 the diamond mining town of Kimberley saw the league found a horse drivers' union and a Clothing Workers Industrial Union (which later spread to Johannesburg). In Cape Town that year, the Industrial Socialist League (an ISL sister organization founded in 1918) formed a Sweet and Jam Workers Industrial Union.

Founding of the IWA

On 19 July 1917 a group of Africans and white radicals heeded a call in Johannesburg to discuss "matters of common interest between white and native workers," namely capitalism and class struggle. The meetings, held in a small room behind the general store on the corner of Fox and McLaren Streets, were led by international socialists (including local IWW founder Andrew Dunbar). The laborers discussed the need for unionization of African workers as a means of earning higher wages and abolishing the pass system. The meeting was deemed successful enough to spawn weekly study meetings. Given police scrutiny, the meetings were kept discreet. As one worker said, "We are treated by sjambok [whip] and gaol, that is why you see this hall is not full." Nonetheless, on 27 September an all-African committee converted the study groups of fewer than 200 participants into a union called the Industrial Workers of Africa. It was the first black trade union in South African history.

That month the IWA issued its manifesto, "Listen, Workers, Listen!" Addressed to "Workers of the Bantu race," it asked black workers why they lived in slavery, why they must carry passes—under penalty of imprisonment—to move about, why they were jailed for refusing to work, why they were herded "like cattle into compounds." The answer: "Because you are toilers of the earth," whom the government and police wanted to squeeze for profit. The manifesto called for unity among all workers to break "the bonds and chains of the capitalist" and to shed ethnic identities such as Basuto, Zulu, or Shangaan in favor of a common bond: that of laborer.

IWA Actions

Soon thereafter, Talbot Williams of the African Peoples Organization adopted IWA and IWW principles in a speech calling for black laborers to organize. In 1918 the International Socialist League held the first May Day rally geared mainly toward workers of color; one of the speakers was IWA member T. W. Thibedi. That year saw black and white workers carrying out unprecedented strikes across South Africa, with "capitalists and workers … at war everywhere in every country."

Although the main African nationalist group of the time, the ANC, was generally regarded by labor as a "sleepy" petitbourgeois organization molded to the wishes of liberal whites, IWA militants such as Hamilton Kraai and Rueben Cetiwe carved out a leftist, prolabor bloc that pushed the organization further left. In solidarity with 152 striking African municipal workers jailed in June 1918, the ANC declared a mass rally of black workers on 10 June. Acting on an IWA initiative, a committee of Industrial Workers, International Socialists, and congressmen began organizing for a general strike on 2 July. The workers were to demand a raise of one shilling per day and for the "Africa which they deserved."

The strike was a failure. Weak organization led to its cancellation, though thousands of miners who had not been notified of the cancellation came out anyway. The government arrested a handful of International Socialist, IWA, and ANC activists, making it the first time in South African history that black and white activists were indicted jointly for political activities. Although there was not enough evidence to convict the activists, the struggle was abandoned in July after the conservative faction regained control over the ANC.

Kraai and Cetiwe, who had lost their jobs because of the trial, moved to Cape Town to start an IWA branch there. Thibedi stayed in Johannesburg, where he revived the IWA with several hundred members and supporters. In Cape Town the IWA militants helped organize a dock workers strike, whereby more than 2,000 laborers demanded higher wages and an end to food exports, which they blamed as the cause of inflation. The strike joined the IWA with the local Industrial Commercial Union and the (white) National Union of Railways and Harbour Servants in an action supported by the Industrial Socialist League. The strike ultimately failed, but it served as a basis for further cooperation among dock workers.

By 1921 the bulk of South Africa's revolutionary syndicalists had converted to Leninism and formed the Communist Party of South Africa. The IWA merged that year with the Industrial and Commercial Union and several other black unions to form the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union of South Africa, a massive black trade union led by Clements Kadalie; peaking in 1927 at 100,000 workers throughout southern Africa, the movement saw its demise in the 1930s.

Key Players

Cetiwe, Rueben: Cetiwe, a South African, was a key African militant in the Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA). He was central to the March 1919 campaign against South Africa's pass laws.

Dunbar, Andrew (1879-1964): Dunbar, who immigrated from Scotland to South Africa in 1906, was a blacksmith and socialist organizer. In 1909 he led 2,500 strikers against the Natal railways. He held membership in the South African Labour Party, the Socialist League, the Socialist Party, and the IWW. He founded the IWW in South Africa and became its general secretary.

Kraai, Hamilton: Kraai, a South African, was a warehouse employee and a key African militant in the IWA. He was central to the March 1919 campaign against the pass laws.

Thibedi, Thomas "T. W.": A South African member of the International Socialist League, Thibedi helped found the IWA in 1917. He headed the Johannesburg branch of the IWA starting in 1918.

See also: Miners' Strike, 1922: South Africa; Miners' Strike, 1946: South Africa.



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—Brett Alan King

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