ANALYSIS [+PDF] van der Walt, 2014, “Bernard Sigamoney, Durban Indian revolutionary syndicalist”

Lucien van der Walt, 2014, “Bernard Sigamoney, Durban Indian revolutionary syndicalist,” Tokologo, number 4, p.11.



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Bernard Sigamoney, Durban Indian revolutionary syndicalist


by Lucien van der Walt

A global movement, the anarchist and syndicalist tradition has influenced people from all walks of life. A notable figure was Bernard L.E. Sigamoney, born in 1888. The grandson of indentured Indian labourers, who arrived in South Africa in the 1870s, he became a school teacher with a working class outlook.

A hundred years ago saw the First World War (1914-1918) sear the globe: almost 40 million died. South Africa, as part of the British Empire, sent troops and workers to battles in Africa and Europe.


Sigamoney campaigning against apartheid South Africa’s participation in the Olympics, ca. 1962

The country was hard hit by the war’s economic disruptions. As food supplies ran short, Sigamoney began addressing protests in Durban. He met the local section of the International Socialist League (ISL) – an influential revolutionary syndicalist group that opposed the war as a conflict between European imperialists and capitalists, in which the working class did the dying.

The ISL championed the rights of workers of colour and wanted workers’ control of production through unions. In March 1917, it formed a syndicalist Indian Workers’ Industrial Union (IWIU) in Durban, with members on the docks, in garment work and laundries, painting, hotels and catering and tobacco.

Sigamoney was one of the Durban Indians who joined the ISL; he was the new union’s first secretary. A very well-known figure, he chaired a major left congress in October 1917 and addressed the 1918 ISL conference. Sigamoney, the ISL and the IWIU supported IWIU waiters on strike in 1919, the 1920 strike by the independent Tobacco Workers’ Union and the Indian furniture workers’ strike in 1921. Sigamoney was investigated by police for instigating the 1918 strikes by black African dockworkers, but was cleared.

In the 1920s, Sigamoney returned to his family’s church, becoming a radical Anglican minister. He associated with the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU), a massive movement that was partly influenced by syndicalism. In his later years, he was active in anti-apartheid activities, especially around sports. He worked with figures like Albert Luthuli and led the 1962 campaign against apartheid South Africa’s participation in the Olympics as chair of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SANROC).

Sigamoney died in 1963, a life well spent.

About Lucien van der Walt
I teach at Rhodes University, the Eastern Cape. I’m South African, born and bred. I am currently also involved in union education and have a background in social movement and left-wing activism, the Workers’ Library and Museum, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, and the National Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU). I’ve presented papers at more than 120 conferences and workshops, published in key journals like 'Capital and Class' and 'Labor History', have co-edited 3 journal specials (these on global labour history, African labour, and unions in the Global South), and written well over 130 other articles, papers and entries. I was Southern Africa editor for the 2009 'International Encyclopaedia of Revolution and Protest' (Blackwell). My focus has been on South Africa, but I have also done research in Zambia and Zimbabwe. I won the 2008 international 'Labor History' thesis prize, and the 2008/2009 Council for the Development of Social Science Research prize for best African dissertation, for my PhD thesis on South African anarchism, syndicalism and black militants. I have several books, including 'Negro e Vermelho: anarquismo, sindicalismo revolucionário e pessoas de cor na África Meridional nas décadas de 1880-1920,' 'Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940: the praxis of national liberation, internationalism, and social revolution' (co-edited with Steve Hirsch, Brill, 2010/ 2014) and 'Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism' (co-written with Michael Schmidt, AK Press 2009).

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