Wobblies — A new history of a radical union that profoundly impacted Southern African politics

In the early 20th century, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organized on every continent and dozens of countries, including in southern Africa. It would grow to become the largest African and coloured resistance movement in pre-World War II South Africa, also spreading into Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. This month, Pluto Press published Wobblies of the World: A Global History of the IWW. This book breaks new ground, with contributors treating this revolutionary union as the global labor union it intended to be, was, and still is.

Though not widely known, the IWW greatly impacted southern Africa in the 1910s and 1920s. In 1910, a local IWW became the first white-majority union to actively fight racism on the Witwatersrand. In 1917, the Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA) the first union for black African workers, formed — explicitly modeled on the IWW. The IWW influenced early socialists along with other unions of black African, mixed race (“coloured”), and Indian workers across southern Africa. Through the IWA, it even influenced the early African National Congress (ANC).

Initiated in Chicago in 1905, the IWW committed itself to overthrowing capitalism, a system dedicated to private profit, under which working and poor people suffered. Within five years, it spread worldwide, influencing millions. Its members, known as Wobblies, wanted to replace capitalism and governments with a bottom-up socialism run by ordinary people. But they were not Communists. The IWW, located in Left traditions like anarchism and syndicalism, insisted mainstream parties and all governments served the rich. Instead of parliament, it wanted One Big Union of all workers – even the unemployed. The greatest power of ordinary people was in the workplace. Through revolutionary unions, education, democratic organizing, and direct action, a new society would emerge through a global General Strike.

The IWW was global in aim and reality, but scholars have neglected studying it as a global movement. Historians generally focus on individual countries. A global history requires money and time for research in many countries and faces language barriers.

However, there is expertise worldwide on the IWW and this new anthology takes a first step towards a global IWW history. It brings together cutting-edge work from ten countries using sources in as many languages.

As elsewhere, sailors and immigrant workers, often from the UK, brought Wobbly thought, examples, and skills to southern Africa. As everywhere, these were adapted to, and enriched by, local circumstances. Wars and capitalist revolution were reshaping the region and entrenching massive inequality, yet most early unions were whites-only — some opposed capitalism envisaged socialism as whites-only as well: “White Laborism.” This ignored the reality that most workers and people in southern Africa were not white.

The IWW swam against the current, starting among radical white workers. It connected up with the local anti-racist anarchist and syndicalist tradition, expressed in papers like the weekly Voice of Labour. Here, the anarchist Henry Glasse of Port Elizabeth insisted on One Big Union: “For a white worker … to pretend he can successfully fight his battle independent of the coloured wage slaves—the majority—is … simple idiocy.”

By 1912, Wobblies had actively campaigned against White Laborism, founded a local IWW union, led strikes by white Johannesburg tramway workers, recruited at Pretoria’s railyards, and organized in Durban.

This early union faltered by 1913, but from 1915 IWW ideas profoundly influenced the International Socialist League (ISL), forerunner of the South African Communist Party (SACP). ISL activists formed the IWA, as well as unions among Indian and coloured workers in Durban and Kimberley, and promoted One Big Union in the white unions as well. While the ISL started among white workers, it soon included militants like the IWA’s Fred Cetiwe and Hamilton Kraai, Kimberley’s Johnny Gomas, and Durban’s Bernard Sigamoney.  A separate Industrial Socialist League organized black African and coloured workers in Cape Town. In 1918, the ISL, IWA, and ANC organized an abortive general strike on the Witwatersrand. In 1919, the IWA organized a mass strike on the Cape Town docks with a new union, the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa (ICU). Cetiwe and Kraai, meanwhile, tried to push the ANC leftwards.

In 1920, the IWA merged into the ICU, led by Clements Kadalie. Both ICU and Kadalie were influenced by IWW ideas– the ICU even adopted the IWW Preamble. Although the ICU never was a syndicalist, IWW union, it became the largest African and coloured resistance movement in pre-World War II South Africa, also spreading into Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The early SACP, which incorporated the ISL, also retained IWW influences.

The IWW is part of the story of southern African union and resistance history. As contributors to Wobblies of the World demonstrate, the IWW also proved integral to working class and civil rights struggles in the Americas, Australasia, the Caribbean, and Europe.

Peter Cole and Lucien van der Walt

Peter Cole is Professor of History at Western Illinois University and Research Associate at SWOP at Wits University. Lucien van der Walt teaches sociology at Rhodes University in South Africa.

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