South African Anarchism

Anarchism, revolutionary syndicalism and anti-authoritarian movements in South Africa, Lesotho & Swaziland

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The early years

Anarchism and revolutionary syndicalism in South Africa have a long history, although this history has been largely forgotten today.

Anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists were in the forefront of socialist groups in early twentieth-century South Africa. They played a role in the Social Democratic Federation, founded in Cape Town in 1904,. In 1910, two revolutionary syndicalist groups were founded in Johannesburg, the Socialist Labour Party and a section of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

The International Socialist League (ISL), founded in 1915, was the largest and most important revolutionary socialist group in South Africa in the 1910s. From an early stage, the ISL was committed to IWW-style revolutionary syndicalism, and saw the abolition of racial oppression in South Africa as a central revolutionary task. The ISL founded the first African workers' union, the Industrial Workers of Africa, in 1917, as well as three other syndicalist unions for workers of colour: the Clothing Workers Industrial Union, the Horse Drivers' Union, and the Indian Workers' Industrial Union. In Cape Town, a new group, the Industrial Socialist League, founded in 1918, founded a similar Sweet and Jam Workers' Industrial Union.

Although most of the revolutionary syndicalists went over to Leninism in the early 1920s, founding the Communist Party of South Africa in 1921, some syndicalist ideas lived on in the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union of Africa (ICU). This massive black trade union, which peaked with 100, 000 members in 1927, had sections in Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. However, nationalist and liberal ideology, and corrupt and weak middle class leadership, helped destroy the ICU by the 1930s.

Modern Era

It was only in the 1990s that organised anarchism re-emerged with a succession of groups in Durban and Johannesburg, such as the Johannesburg collective that produced Unrest and Revolt in 1992 and 1993. The Anarchist Revolutionary Movement (ARM), founded in 1993, represented an important step forward, as did the Workers Solidarity Federation (WSF) which replaced it in 1995. WSF incorporated a Durban collective that produced Freedom, and produced its own Workers Solidarity.

The WSF was a Platformist group that focussed on black worker and student struggles, and managed to win over a number of trade unionists by 1998. In 1997, comrades from the WSF made links with anarchists in Zambia, and helped establish a short-lived Zambian WSF. The WSF also distributed materials in Zimbabwe and had contact in Tanzania.

In 1999, for a range of tactical reasons, the WSF was dissolved, and is now succeeded by two anarchist collectives, the Bikisha Media Collective and Zabalaza Books. The two groups have recently co-produced Zabalaza: a southern African journal of revolutionary anarchism, and write and publish a wide range of anarchist materials."

Organisations, Collectives & Publications

Bikisha Media Collective (1999 - today)

A South African anarchist media project. Founded on the revolutionary principles of class-struggle anarchism in October 1999, the Bikisha Media Collective has the following aims: Distributing anarchist literature, videos, and music Developing and publishing new anarchist works dealing with southern Africa We are NOT a political party or an anarchist political organisation, nor do we pretend to be. We are just a project working towards the above goals. That is our only role for now. Later? We'll see.

Zabalaza Books (1999 - today)

Zabalaza is a volunteer- run co-operative based in Durban, in the province of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa. Zabalaza books distributes anarchist books, pamphlets, music and videos in the Southern African region. The topics covered include: anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism, womens liberation, anarchism and ecology, revolutionary history and many others.

Zabalaza Magazine (2001 - today)

South Africa's newest anarchist publication. CO-produced by Bikisha Media Collective and Zabalaza books. Issue 1 hit the streets in April 2001 and included articles on Gear and neo-liberalism, the need for a revolutionary anarchist federation and many others.

Workers Solidarity Federation (1995 - 1999)

The Workers Solidarity Federation was formed in 1995 bringing together some pre-existing groups into a nationally federated platformist organisation. Over the 5 years of its existance,it played a proud part in many student and workers struggles.

Important Documents

Workers Solidarity Magazine (1995 - 1999)

The press organ of the Workers Solidarity Federation, 9 issues were published over 5 years between 1995 and 1999.
The Anarchist Revolutionary Movement (1993-1995)

The Anarchist Revolutionary Movement (ARM) was formed in 1993 in Johannesburg. A very diverse organisation, it was transformed into the Workers Solidarity Federation in 1995.
Freedom bulletin (1994-2001)

An "excitingly irregular" Durban anarchist bulletin, Freedom is still occasionally produced by Zabalaza Books.
Unrest magazine (1993)

Written in early 1994, Unrest was widely distributed by the Anarchist Revolutionary Movement. It was incorprated into Workers Solidarity magazine in 1995.
Revolt Newspaper (1992)

Revolt appeared in Johannesburg in 1992 as a one-off magazine. It was South Africa's first serious anarchist publication since the 1920s, and marked by its solid commitment to a politics of class struggle and black liberation.

Documents Organised by Subject

Anarchist & Revolutionary Syndicalist History

South African anarchists look at the heroic history of the anarchist movement. From Bakunin to the Russian and Spanish revolution, with relevant looks at the anti-imperialism of the early anarchists.
Towards a radical and labour history of South Africa.

Articles from and about the largely forgotten syndicalist history of South Africa.
Anarchism & women's oppression

South African anarchists address the question of women's oppresion under capitalism.
Lesotho & Swaziland

The politics and events of these two encircled statelets, from an anarchist viewpoint.
Anarchist Ideas & Theory

South African anarchists explain the theories and ideas that underlie anarchism, in their own words.
Articles in Zulu

South Africa is a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic society. These articles in Zulu bring anarchist ideas to a section of the population which has very limited access to radical ideas.
Racism and the shadow of apartheid

The racist apartheid regime has left a heavy legacy of division between people of different colours. South African anarchists tackle the roots of racism.
Neo-liberalism and Imperialism

Notes from the frontlines of the intense war against neo-liberalism and imperialism in South Africa
What happened to the promised changes?
Post Apartheid Politics in South Africa

The ANC government was elected with a promise to radically change society yet almost a decade later, many people feel that little has fundamentally changed. South African anarchists ask: why?
Class Struggle in the Trade Unions

The South African trade unions played an immense part in the heroic struggle against apartheid. Anarchists look at their struggles then and since.

This page is part of the struggle collection