Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History: Volume 4, No. 4, South Africa: Baruch Hirson: Resistance and Socialism in South Africa

Baruch Hirson

Resistance and Socialism in South Africa

THE HISTORY of working class struggle in South Africa, which extends back to the nineteenth century, matched the bitterness and the ferocity of class struggles elsewhere. However, the conflicts in South Africa were more often noted for the manner in which the class struggle was subverted and converted into racial clashes.

One of the first campaigns fought by white workers was on the diamond fields in the 1870s when the men rebelled against body searches for hidden gem stones. These men, supported by black workers, won their battle with the mineowners. But the cooperation was one sided, and it was only the whites who won release from this obnoxious procedure. This victory only served to separate blacks from whites, and set a pattern that persisted, with few exceptions, throughout the history of working class struggles. The struggles continued and became fiercer and bloodier, reaching a peak in the general strike of 1922, when General Smuts brought out the bombers to subdue the workers.

The history of black labour struggles, which did not often converge with the struggles of the whites, extends back to the first master-servant rela-tions. The fullest accounts are of local resistance to tyrannical land owners or whites who misused their labourers, but there is no satisfactory overall history. Some are chronicled, and it is quite clear that there was no support from the white workers. In this colonial society the fight against racial oppression was to become inseparable from the struggles for ‘liberation’, the class lines being blurred by colour differentiation. In the light of state power and national oppression, it was inevitable that disaffection expressed itself in religious separation, of appeals to spirits to assist their people, and of chiliastic hopes that the local oppressors would he smitten by some foreign agency [1] The historical accounts include cattle killing by the Xhosa people in 1856, and the many incidents in which it was believed that magic water could protect people from bullets. These important instances of resistance fed into the myths of nationalist movements, but, at the time, they were local and community bound.

The discrimination embedded in legislation and social practice, to-gether with the gross inequalities in living standards, led each community to develop its own forms of struggle.

The earliest Socialist groups seem to have been established at the beginning of the twentieth century. They were all white, and were often confined to particular communities. The ideas expressed in these groups ranged over the spectrum of Socialist thinking elsewhere. Syndicalists, Social Democrats and ethnic separatists intermingled, some members belonging to more than one group—and there were changes of affiliation over time.

The Jews brought with them methods of organisation that were rooted in Eastern Europe. In particular, they formed branches of the Bund, the specifically Jewish working class movement that had built some of the first trade unions in Tsarist Russia. They were also immersed in a particular Yiddish culture, and combined this with their Socialism. Similar groups, whose history has not been recorded, were built by German and other immigrant communities. None of them seem to have established links with the Social Democratic Federation that was strongest in the Cape, and which took its inspiration from the British movement of the same name.

There was one other significant early group, strongest on the Witwatersrand, that grouped itself around the Voice of Labour , with a strong Syndicalist tendency. It is known more particularly for the activities of ‘Pickhandle’ Mary. The name was acquired when Mary Fitzgerald led a band of strikers against mounted police who wielded the infamous pick-handles. Picking up batons which the police had dropped, Mary and her followers wielded them against their original owners. Thereafter her co-horts broke up meetings of their opponents with the now notorious pick-handles, and she was always to be found when demonstrators were needed during strike action. Yet even Mary Fitzgerald, who created a living myth around her activities, who worked with the miners’ union and then or-ganised the first general women’s trade union, appeared after the war as a highly vocal racist. When she died many years later, an alcoholic recluse, her passing went largely unnoticed.

The South African Labour Party (SALP), with its strongest section in the Transvaal, was established in the image of its British counterpart, but was openly racist, and its members could justly claim that they had been the first to call for complete segregation. By that means, they said, they hoped to protect the interests of the white workers from unfair competition, and maintain their standard of living. The SALP was from its inception a parliamentary party, claiming, as in Britain, to represent the (white) working class and the trade unions. But there is little evidence of the trade unions providing the kind of support that was apparent in Britain.

In sharp contrast to this, a small band of white, mainly Jewish, profes-sional men and women gave their fullest support to Gandhi in his campaigns against discrimination in South Africa. They were Tolstoyans rather than Socialists, but they mixed with and influenced others who had Socialist sympathies. Among these was one of South Africa’s most original thinkers, the novelist and essayist Olive Schreiner, whose ideas were partly rooted in the newly emergent Socialist movements in Europe. It is still not possible to estimate her influence on Socialists in South Africa. Her messages were inspirational, but always ‘from afar’, because she was never a joiner of groups. From Schreiner came a militant feminism and adherence to the suffragette movement (but only if the vote was extended to all women), a strong antipathy to discrimination on grounds of colour or ethnicity, a desire to right the wrongs of women workers (following her writings in Women and Labour ), and a rationalism that bordered on agnosticism. Acquiring some of her values from radicals in Britain, Schreiner also condemned the Tsarist regime in Russia for its oppression, and in particular its anti-Semitism. This made her an early champion of the Bolshevik regime in its fight against the White generals. In the latter period of her life, she inspired a number of radicals, mainly attached to the University of Cape Town, but they, too, remained outside formal organisation, and the extent of their influence on the Socialist movement is a matter of conjecture.[2] Among the whites there were other radical thinkers in the country: Harriet Colenso (daughter of the apostate Bishop Colenso), who gave her support to the formation of the ANC; Ivon Jones, who came to South Africa as a devout Unitarian and ended his life as a Bolshevik; Clare Goodlatte, a nun in the Anglican community and principal of their teacher’s training college in Grahamstown, who retired in 1920, shed her religion and ended her career as editor of the Trotskyist journal, The Spark. But the effect of their ideas, and the extent of their influence, has not been fully explored.

It is still arguable whether the majority of white workers, and particular-ly those who came from Britain, were ever involved in the Socialist move-ment. They did join trade unions, and some were associated with the Labour Party, but, except for a few obvious exceptions, their activities were not ostensibly Socialist. Afrikaner workers, who had their own political agenda, also organised and used the strike weapon to improve their work conditions. Although some seemed to be moving towards the SALP before the First World War, they were seduced by the call of Nationalists to close ranks against foreign overlords when war was declared. Whether their joining the Labour Party would have altered that movement is an open question, but their commitment to Socialism was not very strong, despite the appeal of the anti-imperialist slogans of the time. Like the English speaking workers, they gave no support to the struggles of other communities, and although there must have been some for whom colour was not an issue, most were probably as racist as the rest of the Afrikaner community.[3]

This racism, or at least indifference to the problems faced by other communities, was not one sided. The leaders of black movements, and many of their constituents, were also locked into conflicts with those who were ethnically different. But, like all generalisations, there were exceptions. There were differences inside each ethnic group, some class based, that need examination to understand the complexity of the situation. For ex-ample, the Indians, a pariah community in the eyes of the government, were far from homogeneous, and were split in their methods of struggle. And the differences were based on the sharp class divisions in the community. The middle and lower middle class followed Gandhi in his use of ‘passive resistance’ and boycotts to remove discrimination (and racism), but the farm labourers on the sugar cane fields, living at subsistence level, ceased work or rioted during the Indian passive resistance campaigns in 1913, against the wishes of Gandhi. In like fashion the Coloured leaders demand-ed incorporation into the white dominated society, whilst the Coloured and African women of the Orange Free State, with a different set of objectives, marched in unison in 1913 to stop the application of passes to women.

There were some expressions of solidarity across the ethnic divide and some blatant examples of racial indifference if not antagonism in those early years of struggle. In 1914, for example, Gandhi suspended his marches in order not to embarrass the government when it was confronted by a strike of railway workers, and the ANC in conference turned down a motion of support for the white miners in their strike action. This was but the mirror image, even if understandable, of white working class attitudes. Despite the call of a few white working class leaders for class solidarity, the whites involved in strikes in 1913-14 stood apart from their black fellow workers, and in one instance, on the Jagersfontein diamond mines, helped the police suppress black workers who rioted after one of their number had been killed by a white worker. Also, the few trade union leaders who publicly expressed support for the Indians in struggle were condemned by their own rank and file. It was, therefore, not exceptional for the Coloured and African leaders to condemn the white miners in the general strike of 1922, and for white and black workers to be involved in racist clashes during the strike.[4]

The South African Native National Congress (later renamed the Af-rican National Congress) was not the first ethnically organised movement, nor the largest. Yet its potential constituency led to its later predominance in the country as the representative of the African people. It was launched in 1912 by a small group of Africans, many of them professional men. The Congress had little formal organisation outside a national conference that was convened annually. It confined itself to appearances before commis-sions, to delegations and to petitions. The Congress ignored the early strike movement of 1913, and it was only after the First World War that its leadership was involved in some of the urban protests, both at the work-place and in an anti-pass campaign on the Witwatersrand. But their invol-vement was short lived, and the leading figures withdrew from activities when their followers took to the streets.

The closest that the white workers came to class struggle was at a trade union level. These too had a strong ethnic base, aiming in part to keep the ratio of white to black miners constant. The miners’ strikes, repeating in 1913 a struggle that had been taken up in 1907, were a matter of life and death. The main demand was for a reduction of the number of drills (used by Africans underground), and a shortening of the time spent at the ore face. Although there can be little doubt that there was a racist element in the demand which would have cut the ratio of white to black employees, recent research shows that the primary concern of the miners was to prevent the spread of miners’ phthisis which reduced the working lives of miners to four years, and actual life to seven years. Although a reduction of time at the ore face and a reduction of the number of drills at work would have resulted in only a slight improvement, the demands were rational and reasonable. The result, however, was a brutal suppression of the white miners’ strike in 1913, including a massacre of white citizens who had gathered to hear a call for a general strike.[5]

There were some expressions of solidarity with black struggles from a minority of white miners’ leaders. They urged African mineworkers to join them in strike action, and some spoke publicly in support of the Indian struggle. Yet, as mentioned above, this was not reciprocated by leaders of the Coloured, Indian or even African movements. Reasons were not always given, and some of the motives are suspect, but white workers, who showed few signs of class solidarity, did nothing to bridge the racial gap.

The struggles of the white workers followed the trade union tradition that workers had brought from Europe—but only at the lowest level. Their racism (whether overt or covert) was even more rampant than that of their employers. But the class struggle did not need examples from abroad, and many confrontations were due to bad working conditions and an intran-sigence on the part of the ruling class. The government, in alliance with the employers, were prepared to shoot unarmed citizens, and mowed them down in 1913. It was a brutal suppression, and this was followed in 1914, when the railwaymen came out on strike, by a declaration of martial law, the investment of the Trades Hall where the strike leaders were in session, and their illegal deportation. It was this action by the government that led to the radicalisation of men inside a very tame and segregationist Labour Party, and took them eventually into the Communist Party.

The First World War was the dividing line between small-scale local groups and attempts at building a Socialist movement on a national level. Taking their stance on the resolution of the International Socialist Bureau against the war, and already angered by Smuts and the government after the strikes of 1913-14, a group in the Transvaal broke away from the Labour Party to form the International Socialist League (ISL), first as pacifists and then as international Socialists. They were isolated from the English speak-ing workers, who supported the war, and from the Afrikaner workers who opposed Britain and the Allies. This was one of the factors that led the leaders of the ISL to turn to the black workers. To them goes the credit of having been the first to create a black workers’ union, the International Workers of Africa. Yet there was doubt about the role the black worker would play in the transformation of the country. The issue received publicity in 1919 when municipal workers in Johannesburg paralysed the town by cutting the power supplies, and established a ‘Board of Management’ which they called a ‘soviet’. Meanwhile, their supporters attacked African workers who were involved in an anti-pass campaign, and the ’soviet’ leaders made a gratuitous offer to the government that they were prepared to form defence groups to protect white women and children. SP Bunting, one of the three leaders of the ISL, rounded on the white workers for the preten-tiousness of their use of the word ’soviet’ and for their racism. Jones, probably the most outstanding of all the early Socialist leaders, used the pages of the journal to criticise Bunting, and came to the defence of those ‘on strike’.[6] But Bunting was also unable to chart the possible evolution of the African working class. In a statement that is reminiscent of the Narod-niks of Tsarist Russia, he said that after the Socialist revolution (by whites!), Africans would be given back their land and saved from their miserable existence in the towns. Jones also thought that the white workers would overthrow the capitalist regime, but added as a corollary that the white workers could not sustain their revolution unless it was spread to the blacks within 24 hours.

It was the ISL which formed the central core of the Communist Party when it was launched in 1921, incorporating groups in Cape Town and Durban. Their conception of South Africa must be understood in terms of the class forces they could see at the time. The white workers seemed to constitute a force that could spearhead a Socialist movement. Africans might need sympathy, but were too far removed from the industrial prole-tariat that might take power. In their internationalism was nurtured the sympathy they felt for the revolution from its inception in February 1917, and they gave their allegiance to the new state in Russia. Ivon Jones had stated soon after the news reached Johannesburg in the local press, that the revolution in this advanced period of capitalism could not stop at this stage, and that the workers of Russia would take it further.

This loyalty to the Russian revolution was cemented when Jones went to Russia. He translated and publicised some works of Lenin from the Russian. He worked for the Comintern and the Profintern (the Communist and Red Trade Union Internationals), called on the Comintern to organise an international conference of Negro toilers, and was placed on the Execu-tive Council of the Comintern as a delegate for South Africa. Jones was seriously ill by this time and died in mid-1924. Those who remained in the CPSA lacked his critical ability, and became blind followers of Comintern policy. Even when part of the leadership disagreed fundamentally with Comintern policy, as SP Bunting did in 1928, they accepted the line laid down by the leaders of the USSR.[7]

There are indications that black mineworkers on the Witwatersrand tried to form African trade unions as early as 1912, but these early attempts failed.[8] There are slightly more details about an strike of 9000 miners in 1913, parallel to the white miners’ strike—but a warning that they could he prosecuted for breaking the law led to the men returning to work. Then came the war, and Africans faced increasing privation. There was rampant inflation, and conditions in the Reserves worsened, with more demands on the men from their families for money. Strikes during the war were spor-adic, but from 1918 to 1920 tools were downed in the towns and the mines, there was a boycott of the stores on the mines, which held a monopoly on trading and raised their prices ahead of inflation, and an anti-pass campaign on the Witwatersrand. And finally in 1920 an anti-pass campaign in the towns coincided with the biggest walkout on the mines prior to 1987. Initially, the ANC leaders supported this action, but they withdrew when the crowd grew more militant. This was taken by men like Bunting as confirming their view that the Congress was led by men who could not and would not lead their people in militant action.[9]

There was news of rural disaffection in the eastern Cape soon after war was declared, but this, too, was smothered by strong administrative pres-sure. It was only after 1918 that a wave of action in the towns and in the countryside provided evidence that the African workers were not prepared to accept their lot passively. Besides the strikes on the mines and among municipal employees, and an anti-pass campaign on the Witwatersrand, there were extensive foci of unrest across the country. Although some of these have been described and the incidents well known, there is still no overall picture of the many events of the period of 1918-20. Where there was armed intervention, as in the case of Bulhoek, the events were notable for illustrating the depth of oppression in the country, and also for the first protests by Socialists against such action.[10]

The small group of whites who had left the Labour Party to form a more radical organisation were isolated in the white community. Their can-didates were soundly beaten in local and provincial elections, and there was little support from white workers. The English speaking white workers rallied to the support of the Empire; the Afrikaner workers tended to support their Nationalist leaders in opposition to the British. It was this, in part, that turned this small group to the organisation of a black general workers’ union, the Industrial Workers of Africa. The IWA was involved in some of the strikes of 1918, but heavy infiltration by police and a court case after the bucket workers’ strike led to its demise.

The leaders of the ISL were ahead of their followers in many respects, and there were many resignations. There was further discontent over policy following the dispute over the Johannesburg ’soviet’, and finally there were splits over the decision to support the general strike of 1922. It was in this struggle that the workers raised the slogan: ‘Workers of the World Unite and Fight for a White South Africa.’ This Orwellian style banner, which many black workers at the time found unexceptional, was both anti-cap-italist and racist, with different factions in the struggle stressing one or other interpretation. Ultimately, the strikers were bombed into submission, some of their leaders were killed, and others were hanged by a revengeful government. Whether the party was right or wrong in the strike is still a matter of dispute, but the consequences were disastrous, and the members of the CPSA emerged even more isolated than previously (see below).

Independently of any other organisation there was an attempt, at the end of the First World War, led by Selby Msimang, a Nationalist leader, to form a general workers’ union, known as the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union. This was a name appropriated in 1920 by Clements Kadalie and popularised under the name ICU (I See You, White Man).[11] Members of the CPSA joined the ICU, and some were elected to senior posts on its Executive. In 1925, following a riot over beer brewing in the Bloemfontein location, the town officials came to the conclusion that the riot was the result of the low wage structure in the town. In a daring move the civic authorities appointed a commission of six whites and six blacks, three of them drawn from the local ICU leaders. The outcome was a minimum daily wage of 3/6d set for the town. This was the year in which the ICU first established a branch in the Transvaal—but few noted then or subsequently that there was no organisation in factories, railways, or even shops.

The ICU groups that came into existence were either based in the rural areas, in small villages, or in the townships. There was an internal logic in this move that most histories ignore. There were no industries large enough to sustain a trade union except for the mines and the railways: unions were not allowed access to the former, and the government would not recognise a black railway union (the white union being effectively a company union). Consequently, following the success in Bloemfontein, the ICU organised in the townships but not in the workshops. Then, in a separate set of campaigns, they went into the rural areas, calling for liberation and the right to own land. They ended by collecting money from their members for the purchase of land—and, as in all such ventures, the money vanished into the pockets of the collectors.

The ICU was not a trade union, but (in the towns) a community based organisation. Its constituents in the townships were mainly workers, but the form of organisation was not directed at the scene of production. It cam-paigned for township rights, and in at least one case (as noted above) helped secure a minimum wage for an entire township. It was a notable victory, although the wage was still miserable. But the movement did not succeed as a trade union.

The ICU faced harassment and persecution, but that was only one of its problems. Urged by conservative whites, like the authoress Ethelreda Lewis, the ICU expelled members of the CPSA, thus depriving itself of its most dedicated and efficient members. The arrival of WG Ballinger, a member of the Cooperative Society in Motherwell, to act as an adviser to the ICU, could not help, and his presence only speeded up the disintegra-tion of the ICU. Corruption was also rife in the ICU. Officials dipped deeply into union funds, committee meetings were disrupted by members who were too drunk to stay awake, there were expulsions, counter-expulsions and splits, and the ICU, after a last burst of activity in which it was involved in strikes in the eastern Cape and near Johannesburg, faded out of exist-ence.

In the wake of the defeat of the general strike in 1922, the CPSA was isolated and reduced to a small handful of mainly white members. It was under these conditions that it debated the possibility of affiliation to the Labour Party, in line with Lenin’s suggestion that the small parties in the English speaking countries try an entryist tactic. An application for affilia-tion in 1923 was rejected by the SALP, and the CPSA decided in December 1924, by a small majority, not to try again. The party was split on the issue, and among those who resigned were Frank Glass, and he was supported by Bill Andrews (later Chairperson of the party during the Second World War). It seems that a group in Cape Town, led by Manuel Lopes, also resigned, and like Glass joined the Labour Party. This move could not be sustained, particularly in view of the Labour Party’s segregationist position. Individually or together, these former members of the CPSA left the Labour Party in the late 1920s.

The CPSA, manipulated by Comintern apparatchiks, was forced in 1928 to accept the Black Republic slogan during the notorious Third Period, which was supposed to signal the onset of world revolution. In the squabbles that followed leading members were expelled and pilloried under the most disgraceful conditions. At times it was apparently expulsion for expulsion’s sake (because that was the only way to keep the party on its toes!).

It was at this point that some former members gathered together as supporters of the Left Opposition. Glass (who was the first to have a letter published in The Militant, organ of the American Left Opposition) left South Africa in 1931 for China, where he worked with the Trotskyists under the name of Li Furen.[12] Others helped to form the Independent Labour Party in Cape Town in 1932.[13] Only a few of those expelled from the CPSA entered the Trotskyist groups. Most dropped out of all political activity.

There proved to be one centre in which members of the new Trotskyist groups were able to seize the initiative. Members of the CPSA on the Witwatersrand had organised African trade unions, partly to overcome their exclusion from the ICU, and partly to create an active link with the Profintern. In accordance with Third Period tactics, the unions were led into ill-prepared strikes, and lost many of their members. The collapse of the unions was hastened by the expulsions of leading organisers, and it was in the political space left open that Trotskyists formed a network of African trade unions in the Transvaal. This is discussed below.

When the first Trotskyist groups were formed, they were confronted by a white working class, the most important of whom, on the mines and the railways and in heavy industry, had made their peace with their employers. The black workers were still small in numbers, but the political and trade union organisations had succumbed to inertia, to harassment, or to internal corruption. It was time to start afresh and the field was open to any dynamic group—but the task would not be easy, and many of the earlier Socialists had been destroyed by their experiences inside the CPSA.


1. For example, throughout the 1920s there was a belief that Americans would appear in the sky to emancipate the African people. This was based on the belief, brought over from the First World War, that all Americans were black, and this was combined with stories of the effectiveness of the Garveyite movement in the USA.

2. See B Hirson, ‘Ruth Schechter: Friend to Olive Schreiner’, Searchlight South Africa , no 9.

3. This, despite the fact that in 1913 Dr Malan, the future Prime Minister in 1948, gave a lecture in praise of Socialism and of Marx. The circumstances that led to this peroration are not clear.

4. For Jagersfontein see B Hirson, Judy Jancovich and Julie Wells, ‘Diamonds are Forever but Gold is For Now: Whatever Did Happen At Jagersfontein?’, seminar paper at Southern Africa in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London. The 1922 strike produced the slogan: ‘Workers of the World Unite and Fight for a White South Africa.’ However, there was an ambiguity in the interpretation of that slogan, with many workers believing (correctly) that the strike was a defence against the mineowners’ assault on their standard of living. Even the extent of the racial attacks is in need of reinterpretation. There were only a handful of these fights—and these were highlighted by the government to discredit the strikers. Some were started by whites, others by blacks, and in some cases the whites were incensed by the use of black workers as scabs.

5. See Baruch Hirson and Gwyn Williams, The Delegate for Africa: The Life of David Ivon Jones , forthcoming. General Smuts, who was Minister of Justice, Minister of Defence and Prime Minister in several governments, called in the (British) Dragoons during the events of 1913. He also used bombers to break the resistance of the Bondelzwarts in South West Africa, and to destroy centres of working class revolt in 1922.

6. Yet Jones was to change his approach, and stated in 1919, when he appeared in court as the first Bolshevik to be tried in South Africa, that the future of the revolution lay with the black working class, and the South African Lenin would most probably be black.

7. See the contributions of Bunting at the Sixth Congress of the Comintern when he spoke against the Black Republic slogan, reprinted in Searchlight South Africa , no 4.

8. These were reported in the Voice of Labour.

9. There was discontent in the towns, fuelled by the decline in real wages and a strike of ‘bucket boys’ (that is, night soil removers). The arrest of these men and the callous way in which they were treated by the court (they were sentenced to do their work under armed guard without pay) led to a general radicalisation of the urban Africans.

10. The Bulhoek massacre as described by Frank Glass at the time is printed in Searchlight South Africa , no 6.

11. The ICU was associated initially with a dock workers’ strike in Cape Town. The strike was successful, but only the Coloured workers gained a wage increase. The African workers gained nothing. Nonetheless, the smell of victory gave this new movement an impetus (and a myth) that sustained it over many years.

12. According to Wang Fanxi he was asked by Glass to coin a name. He decided on Li, because it was a common Chinese name and Furen because it was the nearest that he could get to Frank. In the old Wade-Giles system of transliteration, his name appears as Li Fu-Jen.

13. Those members of the CPSA who joined the Labour Party in Cape Town in 1925 found working in a colour bar organisation impossible. They resigned and helped form the ILP, a small group that contained Stalinists and Social Democrats. When the ILP collapsed, those attracted to the Left Opposition joined the Lenin Club.

Updated by ETOL: 18 January 2009