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.
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."