JOURNAL [+PDF] Lucien van der Walt, 2007, “The First Globalisation and Transnational Labour Activism in Southern Africa: White Labourism, the IWW and the ICU, 1904-1934”

Lucien van der Walt, 2007, “The First Globalisation and Transnational Labour Activism in Southern Africa: White Labourism, the IWW and the ICU, 1904-1934”, African Studies, volume 66, number 2/3, special issue ‘Transnational and Comparative Perspectives on Southern African Labour History’, pp. 223-251.

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In this article, I argue that the history of labour and the working class in southern Africa in the first half of the twentieth century cannot be adequately understood within an analytical framework that takes the nation-state as the primary unit of analysis.

The literature has, with very few exceptions (notably Bond, Miller and Ruiters 2001:4 – 5), generally presented the history of labour in the region in this period as a set of discrete national labour histories for Namibia (South West Africa), South Africa, Zambia (Northern Rhodesia), Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia), Swaziland, and so forth. Each national labour history is presented as taking place within a distinctively national context where organisational and political boundaries correspond with the administrative borders of the state, with labour politics developing inside these boundaries in response to national conditions, culminating in the emergence of national working-class movements.

Such approaches project postcolonial borders onto the period of imperial rule, ignoring the way in which international labour markets, regional political economies, and networks of activists and propaganda operated both across, and beyond, the British Empire and southern Africa to create a transnational southern African working class in which activists, ideas and organisational models circulated. Transnational influences played a critical role in shaping working-class movements, which straddled borders and formed sections across the region and beyond it. Furthermore, ideological, ethnic and racial divides within the working class across southern Africa played a more important role in constituting divisions than state borders.

This article explores these issues by examining three moments of transnational labour activism in southern Africa in the first three decades of the twentieth century.

Firstly, there was the tradition of ‘White Labourism’: rather than being a peculiarly South African phenomenon, it originated in Australia, spread to South Africa in the early 1900s, and subsequently developed into a significant factor in labour politics in the Rhodesias by the 1920s. Secondly, there was the tradition of revolutionary syndicalism, which stressed interracial working-class solidarity. As developed by the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW or ‘Wobblies’) in the United States in 1905, this tradition came to South Africa via Scotland, where it spread from radical white labour circles to workers of colour in the 1910s, and then spilt over into the Australian IWW. Thirdly, there was the tradition of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU), whose politics were an amalgam of two transcontinental currents: Garveyism and IWW syndicalism. The ICU operated regionally, spreading from South Africa in 1919 to South West Africa and the Rhodesias in the 1920s and 1930s.

Set against the backdrop of regional waves of labour activism, the history of these transnational labour currents provides important insights into the social character of southern African labour movements in the period of the ‘first’ modern globalisation, lasting from the 1880s into the 1920s. The analysis presented here is influenced by, and makes a contribution to, the new transnational labour history that ‘relativizes’ and ‘historicizes’ the nation-state as a unit of analysis, stressing the ‘need to go beyond national boundaries’ and avoid ‘methodological nationalism’ in understanding working-class formation (Van der Linden 1999:1080 – 1081). A transnational labour history yields important insights into labour and working-class history, provides a new synthesis that goes beyond old labour history, with its stress on formal organisation, and new labour history, with its stress on lived experience, and stresses the interconnections between labour worldwide.

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About Lucien van der Walt
I teach at Rhodes University, the Eastern Cape; I’m South African, born and bred. I’ve presented papers at more than 80 conferences and workshops, have published in key journals like 'Capital and Class' and 'Labor History', and have more than 70 other articles and papers. Winner of the 2008 international 'Labor History' thesis prize, and the 2008/2009 CODESRIA Africa dissertation prize, my thesis on South African anarchism and syndicalism, I recently co-wrote 'Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism' (with Michael Schmidt, AK Press 2009) and co-edited 'Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940: the praxis of national liberation, internationalism, and social sevolution' (with Steve Hirsch, Brill 2010). I have a background in trade union education, social movement activism, the Workers’ Library and Museum, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, and the National Health and Allied Workers Union.

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