[TALK + AUDIO]: 27/03/18 | 4:15 pm | Lucien van der Walt | What Are We Fighting For? Possibilities for Decent Work, Unions and Rights in Africa

A recording is available:

vd WALT-27 MARCH 2019-POSTER-smallerThe Labour Studies Seminar Series, Rhodes University, Makhanda, presents Lucien van der Walt: “What Are We Fighting For? Possibilities for Decent Work, Unions and Rights in Africa”

Wednesday, 27th MARCH 2019/ 4:15pm
Venue: Eden Grove Seminar Room 2 ALL WELCOME!!!!

THE PAPER: This paper discusses whether the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO’s) Decent Work agenda is a feasible and desirable goal for unions and working people in Sub-Saharan Africa. The overall argument is that the agenda has positive elements, but is a profoundly inadequate response to capitalist globalisation and African immiseration. Its concrete proposals fail to appreciate how the development of capitalism and the state is tearing away the ground for serious, sustained reforms and compacts, let alone capitalist alternatives to neo-liberalism.

Real changes cannot come via the ILO, nor through pursuit of the current Decent Work agenda. They require working class self-activity and an internationalist class struggle-based project of globalisation from below, seeking in the first place, global labour standards and global minimum wages and aiming, in the second, at popular self-management of economy and society. This requires reforming and regenerating unions, autonomy from the state, a prefigurative popular politics, alliances between popular class sectors, and building class-based counter-power and counter-hegemony. The history of African trade unions provides a rich tool box of experiences upon which we can draw: African unions have a far richer, more radical and creative history than often acknowledged, building on the class struggles of commoners, serfs and slaves that preceded the European conquest.

THE SPEAKER: Lucien van der Walt lectures at Rhodes University, has long been involved in union and working class education and movements, and has published widely on labour, the left and political economy. His books include “Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940” (2010/2014, with Steve Hirsch, Benedict Anderson etc.), and “Politics at a Distance from the State: Radical and African Perspectives” (2018, with Kirk Helliker). His work has been widely translated, including Czech, French, German, Greek, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish and Zulu.

Series run by the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU) and the Departments of Sociology, History, and Economics & Economic History


Interview: “The Subterranean Fire Of Class Struggle” (Lucien van der Walt)

The Subterranean Fire Of Class Struggle: Professor Lucien van der Walt, Department of Sociology (Rhodes University)
By Luke Alfred (2015)



PDF online here.  

“Reports of the death of the broad working class are greatly exaggerated,” says Lucien van der Walt with mild but discernible flourish. “Too many experts believed it anachronistic, passé. But if you look around internationally, and locally too, that’s just not the case. It is bigger than ever; its rumblings shake the world. It has now overtaken the peasantry as the biggest class, as the majority of humanity.”

Van der Walt, a Professor in the Department of Sociology, has a wide range of academic interests including anarchism and syndicalism, labour and left-wing history and politics, and working-class responses to neo- liberal economics. While he’s happy to admit that some of the grand political narratives like Marxism-Leninism and Third World nationalism have foundered, he nonetheless believes that there’s ample evidence to suggest that the struggles of labour and the Left are by no means done and dusted.

And this applies internationally as well as closer to home. Whether these are neighbourhood blockades by the unemployed in Argentina demanding tools to work, or whether it’s the anarchist- and Marxist-influenced Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) creating a revolutionary zone in Kurdish Syria, strikes in China, or ongoing battles in South Africa, working class-struggle is alive and kicking. Sometimes you have to know where to look; you need to be prepared to scratch the surface, and look beyond neglect, dissembling, and even propaganda.

“The page has by no means turned on working-class organisations,” says van der Walt. “If you look at the struggles of the unemployed, the rural poor, at neighbourhood organisations, at unions, the working class remains of one type or another. There’s undeniable vitality there. The subterranean fire of class struggle always smoulders, sometimes flaring red and black.”

Much of van der Walt’s work in 2014 has been on the global history of anarchism and syndicalism across the world, an act he characterises as one of reclamation. This is the story of anarchism as a movement globally, whether this be in Latin America and the Caribbean, or Asia, or part of large swathes of Europe, and elsewhere, anarchism has a rich, significant history, a product of class struggles.

Van der Walt stresses any conversation about intellectual and political history has to also be a conversation about the Left traditions of the working class, including Marxism, anarchism and syndicalism. In his work, van der Walt has ventured into the anarchist histories of countries as diverse as Poland and Korea, but notes that telling a global history has practical and analytical difficulties. “I think access to information isn’t the issue, so much as pulling it together in a balanced and coherent narrative,” he says.

Whether he’s investigating the history of anarchism or simply commenting on the refusal of left-wing movements to wither and die, van der Walt understands that history is an enigmatic and challenging space, in that what was should not be mixed up with what had to be. For every turning, there were different roads: human choices shaped where we are today, and we forget how very different things were, and could have been.

“History always points to paths not taken,” he says with subtlety. “And it’s significant to remember that what happened wasn’t always what had to happen. We think today as if the ANC was always the major resistance force, the inevitable victor. But for much of the 1920s and 1930s, for example, the ANC was a comparatively minor player; in the 1940s the Communist Party was far, far bigger. People forget that the ANC didn’t have a single trade union affiliate in the 1940s, while the Communist Party led unions of hundreds of thousands, and dozens of townships.”

While van der Walt notes the ongoing emergence of pockets of dissent and radicalism, of autonomous organisations and the flexing of left-wing muscle worldwide, he’s less sanguine about the role taken by the more orthodox unions. Generally he believes sections within unions have been compromised by alliances with the state and political parties, leading to a softening of their stance. This applies generally, whether we are talking at home or abroad.

“Many union leaders have been co-opted, and this within the context of dire economic conditions. The Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu) may be keeping its numbers stable, but it’s stagnated, mired in the party system, hardly grown in 15 years. Of course, an entire union can’t be co-opted, because capitalism and the state cannot buy off the class they exploit. But leaders can be captured easily.”

Fragmentation has become another major issue for unions. As examples locally, he cites the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union’s (Amcu) breakaway from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and the National Union of Metalworkers’ (Numsa) split from Cosatu.

The latter he dubs “very important” because in Numsa’s move away from Cosatu and rejection of the ANC, there are signs of a possible re-alignment, “It could be a game-changer if a big national union like Numsa provided support for the sporadic but potent township revolts, often very localised, or hooked up with mass strikes on the farms in the Western Cape, or with the rural unemployed – and helped build a real, effective working class united front,” he says. “The But Numsa is divided internally – they really can’t agree on what to do or how to do it, and the moment can end sooner than people think. If ordinary people do not seize it, politicians will hijack it.”

This, then, is the rub in the contemporary South African landscape: while there are many outbursts of dissatisfaction and rage, there’s no umbrella body or mass front, or even widespread cohesion, whether union-driven or not. This is what distinguishes the current scenario from, say, what was happening in the 1980s, where the rise of powerful and radical formations like the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu) and the United Democratic Front (UDF) gave coherence to the struggle against apartheid (and in some cases the struggle against capital).

This moment requires a hard-nosed analysis of the state. In South Africa’s semi-industrial capitalist economy, van der Walt argues, the state has become a major vehicle in class formation. This is largely because that while opportunities nominally exist in the private sector for advancement and promotion, in actuality such pathways are few and far between. “It’s very difficult for an independent black industrialist class to get a foothold on the economy because white capital has been so centralised historically,” he says. “The state then becomes important to class formation through circuits of accumulation and patronage. The civil service suddenly is an arena for self- advancement, which means South Africa has two elites, pitted against the people: private capital and state managers.”

Given all of this – from the structural imbalances of the South African economy, to recession and outpourings of popular dissatisfaction – the current moment is difficult to assess. “It’s unpredictable and I steer clear or predictions anyway,” says van der Walt. “I really don’t know if we will have a Tunisia Moment or not, and if we did, where it would go. But I know the consciousness of the working class will be decisive.”

SOURCE: Rhodes University Research Report 2014 (published December 2015).

[SPEECH] Lucien van der Walt, 2000, “From the South: For Another Future through Social Resistance,” May Day mass meeting, Paris

Popular talk: Lucien van der Walt, 2000, “From the South: For Another Future through Social Resistance,” speech at May Day mass meeting, Le Autre Futur union congress, Paris, France.

These are what I have from a speech I gave at a May Day mass meeting in Paris, France, in 2000. The mass meeting was the closing even for a summit of anarchist/ syndicalist unions and groups, entitled Autre Futur and organised by the National Confederation of Labour (CNT)-Vignolles, then the largest syndicalist union in France. I was there with the Bikisha Media Collective, of Johannesburg. The meeting was followed by a 5,000-strong anarchist/syndicalist bloc in the main May Day march. The notes may not be entirely complete.

SPEECH: We live in a period of class war. Not a class war we started. It is a class war from above, it is a class war waged on our class, the working class, it is a class war from above by corporations and states.

Capitalist globalisation, the neo-liberal offensive, these open up the abyss before us. Now, more than ever before, we face a single enemy. Now, more than ever, working class solidarity, internationalism, direct action, free agreement … These are our VITAL weapons against capitalism

It does not matter if you are Asian, African. European, American. We are one class of people, with one class interest. We musty get together, unite, as workers.

Internationalism, solidarity, these are not just SLOGANS, they are weapons, tools for struggle, tools for survival. Internationalism, solidarity, these are not just NECESSITIES … more and more we are making this [these?] REALITY.

The capitalist offensive must be met with a workers’ offensive. We must not turn a sharp blade into an instrument of dull wood.  We must not leave anarcho-syndicalism to gather dust. We must use it as a vital key to unlock another future, future through social resistance.

Anarcho-syndicalism is the answer to the capitalist new world order!

Anarcho-syndicalism is the answer to the capitalist new world order!


[TALK]: Lucien van der Walt, 2007, “South Africa: Will the workers and the poor benefit from the 2010 World Cup?” Red and Black Forum

Lucien van der Walt, 2007, “South Africa: Will the workers and the poor benefit from the 2010 World Cup?” Red and Black Forum, Khanya College, 5 May.


As you know, South Africa’s success in winning the 2010 bid for the World Cup has been announced with great fanfare. The World Soccer Cup is the second biggest international sports events in the world, second only to the Olympics.

Now, there are a number of positive things about this:

* Soccer is basically a working-class sport, in South Africa as well as in the rest of the world, and, if the tickets are affordable, there will be some great matches for local fans

* The State has promised – and this is probably quite true – that some jobs will be created

* As part of the build-up to 2010, the State will be spending billions of rands on improving transport and health services. There will also be some improvements in housing, although mainly around the areas near the sports stadiums, and finally, of course, there will be new stadiums as well as significant amounts of money for improving some existing stadiums

* For the first time ever, the World Cup will be held in Africa

* We don’t agree with the view that of certain sectors of society that the State will not be able to get the country ready in time for the World Cup. It probably can get things ready in time.

As part of the 2010 project, the State will be upgrading, or building, stadiums in the host cities: Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, Nelspruit, Polokwane, Port Elizabeth, Pretoria, Rustenburg. Linked to this, State will be spending money upgrading public transport – trains, airports, buses – and in making the areas around the main events attractive to foreign tourists. This will cost, the State says, around R16 billion – but the figure keeps rising, and we can expect to rise quite dramatically.

But, we need to ask an important question: why has the South African State been so keen to host the 2010 World Cup? Why has it chosen to spend money on an event like this, when there are so many other serious problems in South Africa?

Unfortunately, the State’s reasons raise a lot of concerns about the whole project, and raise questions about who is really going to benefit from this process.

We live in a society dominated by class and capitalism. In this society, there is a ruling class, which controls the State and the economy, all the productive land, factories, buildings, shops, mines and so on. The State and the economy are used to promote the power and wealth Read More »

[TALK]: Lucien van der Walt, 2002, “The Outsourcing of Support Services in Higher Education,” SWOP ‘Brown Bag’ seminar

Lucien van der Walt, 2002, “The Outsourcing of Support Services in Higher Education,” SWOP “Brown Bag” seminar, University of Witwatersrand, 9 May, SH2187.

The debates over university restructuring – of “transformation” – have been complex, and very heated. But in some ways, though, these debates have generated far more heat than light.

Issues such as the social responsibilities of the universities and curriculum reform have loomed large on the agenda. Academics, experts, consultants, government officials have all had a great deal to say about the need to make the universities responsible to “the country” and to “the community.”

They have disagreed in their views about what the “country” needs, and about which “community” the universities should serve.

Our country is ill in many ways. It is not a fair social system. It is a country with great social divisions, and a high level of poverty. It is a country that, moreover, is being suddenly, I would say, rashly, opened up to the forces of global markets. The different organs of this sick patient, the financial heart, the labour muscles, and, I would say, the soul of the patient are suffering.

The patient is ill. And the windows of the sickroom have been opened to the cold winds of neo-liberalism. Sadly, though, our doctors do not exactly agree on what ails this patient, and what medicines to prescribe for the different problems.

When talking about the universities, the government-funded universities, the doctors have decided on harsh medicine, a shock treatment.

The pill prescribed to the universities is a bitter one: government has cut funding to the universities. This has been a long-term trend, and it is one which first emerged in the 1980s under the late apartheid government.

Government subsidies to the universities have been falling for the last fifteen years or so, andRead More »

[TALK] Lucien van der Walt, 2005, “Reclaiming Anarchism’s Relevance to Black Working Class Battles: Dispelling Myths”

Popular talk: Lucien van der Walt, 2005, “Reclaiming Anarchism’s Relevance to Black Working Class Battles: Dispelling Myths,” Red and Black Forum, Phambili Motsoaledi Centre, Motsoaledi, Soweto, 1 October.

Anarchism and syndicalism have been major forces internationally in the struggle against all forms of oppression and domination by the popular classes. I mean here there the working class, the peasantry and the poor. And by working class, I mean the term broadly: all those who rely on wages, and lack power, including workers, the unemployed, and their families, and I include here “blue” collar, “white” collar and “pink” collar workers, and I include working class people regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or other division. To be working class is to be exploited, regardless of income level or skill, and dominated, regardless of job title.

Of course, most parts of the working class (and the popular classes more generally) face additional forms of oppression, most notably in South Africa, the racial/ national domination that affects the majority of the people. Only a bottom-up, libertarian, unified, class-based movement can really end all exploitation, domination and oppression, and no such movement can be built except on the basis of opposing all forms of oppression, including racial/ national oppression.

The left tradition has long grappled with issues of strategy, tactics and principle, and this has been the basis of many divisions: these divisions are not simply matters of sectarianism or stubbornness, since different positions have very different implications for political practice.

 The anarchist tradition – in which I include syndicalism, which is a variant form of anarchism, or, more precisely, anarchist trade unionism – provides a coherent approach to issues of strategy, tactics and principle. It is a rich set of resources of the working class today, not least the black working class in South Africa, which remains, in important ways, not just subject to capitalist exploitation and state repression, but also racial/ national oppression. South African capitalism centres on cheap black labour, and this remains in place.

But to have a discussion about anarchism’s relevance to black working class strategy in the face of ongoing capitalist restructuring, we need to dispel myths about anarchism (and syndicalism) to reclaim the revolutionary core of the anarchist tradition.

Let’s deal with a few myths, one by one, because unless we do this, we will be hard pressed to see what anarchism has to do with our struggle and people here in southern Africa:

Myths about anarchism # 1: anarchism means chaos, revolt against technology or anyone doing whatever they like with no consequence.

Anarchism is, instead, a form of libertarian socialism that opposes social and economic hierarchy and inequality- and, specifically, capitalism and landlordism, as well as the StateRead More »

[POPULAR EDUCATION] 2000-2002 – the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) and the Workers Library

The Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) was a remarkable coalition of post-apartheid social movemenys, launched mid-2000. It was co-founded by Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) affiliates, and some university student groups, but was pretty soon basically a mixture of township-based protest groups and small far-left groups (mainly Marxist, also some anarchists). As an APF Media Officer in its first period — one of team of two — I dealt with the press, issued statements and analyses, designing and printed leaflets and other media, and edited the short-lived Anti-Privatisation Monitor. As I was part of the APF Research and Information Committee, I was involved in the design of the initial APF education workshop programme, in which I taught a bit , and in fundraising for the workshops. Early workshops were done at the Workers Library and Museum in Johannesburg, where I was also a committee member (and chairing the education sub-committee)” more about that here and here. Busy days.  Too busy, in fact. I did not do nearly as much education as I would have liked; a lot of time was taken up with meetings and press releases and so on.

Workers Library front

[VIDEO]: Lucien van der Walt (with Sian Byrne, Nicole Ulrich) on anti-nationalist, anti-capitalist South African “workerism” of FOSATU unions

Lucien van der Walt talks to paper with Sian Byrne and Nicole Ulrich on the radical anti-nationalist, anti-apartheid, workers’ control-based “workerist” politics of the mass-based Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU, 1979-1985), and its approach to the national question. The paper appears in Eddie Webster and Karin Pampallis (eds), 2017, The Unresolved National Question in South Africa: Left thought under apartheid. The footage is from the panel at the 4 May 2017 launch of the book at Nelson Mandela University, Port Elizabeth, South Africa. A PDF of this chapter is at https://wp.me/p34LBU-yp

South Africa’s unresolved “national question” is shown by the  failure to create one united nation living prosperously under a constitutional democracy. This directs attention to how various strands of left thought have addressed the national question during apartheid, and the relevance for today and in the future. The book has chapters on Marxism-Leninism, Congress , Trotskyism, Africanism, Afrikaner nationalism, Zulu ethnic movements, Black Consciousness, feminism, constitutionalism and workerism.

[VIDEO]: Lucien van der Walt, 2017, “Anarchist/ Syndicalist Perspectives on Soviets, Revolution and Workers’ Democracy in the Russian Revolution”

Lucien van der Walt, 2017, “Anarchist/ Syndicalist Perspectives on Soviets, Revolution and Workers’ Democracy in the Russian Revolution,” input on panel,  at the “1917 Russian Revolution Centenary Festival,” Newtown, Johannesburg, 10-12 November.

Note: There is a small bit missing at around 21.26 minutes (technical error) but the video continues thereafter. The Q&A session was not recorded.

[TALK] van der Walt ( with Byrne & Ulrich). “South African ‘Workerism’ in the 1980s: Learning from FOSATU’s Radical Unionism”

Lucien van der Walt, with Sian Byrne & Nicole Ulrich, 2017, “South African ‘Workerism’ in the 1980s: Learning from FOSATU’s Radical Unionism,” ASR/ Anarcho-syndicalist Review, numbers 71/72, pp. 28-32.

This is a lightly edited transcript of a presentation at a workshop hosted by the International Labour Research & Information Group (ILRIG) and the Orange Farm Human Rights Advice Centre in Drieziek extension 1, Orange Farm township, south of Soweto, South Africa, on 24 June 2017. It was attended by a hall full of community and worker activists, including veterans of the big rebellions of the 1980s.


pdflogosmallGet the PDF here

Thank you comrades for having me here. The Federation of South African Trade Unions is the focus of my talk. I want to look at what FOSATU stood for and what we can learn from FOSATU. When people remember it, they often label it as marked by “workerism,” and they take that as a bad thing. But I want to show the so-called “workerism” of FOSATU was very radical, that this radical South African “workerism” is very important to understand, and build upon, today.

I want to stress, at the start, that what I speak about here rests very heavily, not just on my research, but the work of other comrades, notably Sian Byrne and Nicole Ulrich… Although they are not here in person, they are here as a key influence and inspiration and, in a sense, are my co-presenters in spirit.

Before there was the Congress of South African Trade Unions, today’s COSATU, there was FOSATU. FOSATU was set up in 1979. There had been strikes and struggles in the 1970s, starting with a big strike wave in Namibia from 1971-1972, which was then a South African colony, then a big strike wave starting in Durban 1973, which spread around the country. Although we remember 1976 for the bravery of the youth and students, we must remember that the 1976 uprising also involved general strikes by the black working class, mass stay-aways.

And as the working class started to flex its muscles, and to organise new, independent unions, the need for unity was felt. In 1979, at Hammanskraal, FOSATU was set up. The flag of FOSATU was red, black and gold, with a hammer, a spanner and a spade. FOSATU grew quickly, despite repression by the apartheid state. Leaders and activists in FOSATU were banned, jailed; some, like Andries Raditsela, were murderedRead More »

[3-DAY SCHOOL with UPM]: 10-12/12/2017: “Women, Workers, Land Reform: What can we learn from the Russian Revolution?”

Co-designed and co-faciliated a three-day workshop with the Unemployed People’s Movement in the Eastern Cape, with Leroy Maisiri and Ayanda Kota. The venue was Stone Crescent at Grahamstown, dates were 10-12 December 2017, and the topic was “Women, Workers, Land Reform: What can we learn from the Russian Revolution?” Attended by 45 people.

[TALK]: 17/10/17 | 4:15 pm | Oupa Lehulere & Lucien van der Walt | 1917-2017: The Russian Revolution and its Relevance

The next seminar in the Labour Studies Seminar Series is presented by Oupa Lehulere and Lucien van der Walt, entitled “1917-2017: The Russian Revolution and its Relevance Today”. This will be the last seminar for 2017.

Date: Tuesday, 17 October 2017
Time: 4: 15pm

The series is run by the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU) and the Departments of Sociology, History, and Economics and Economic History.

THE PAPER: The 1917 Russian Revolution shook the globe. Struggles from below shattered the second largest empire on earth, the Russian Empire. Rural movements occupied tens of millions of hectares of land, challenging feudal and capitalist relations. In cities, factory committees and workers’ councils seized control of workplaces. The monarchy fell, Parliament collapsed. National liberation struggles redrew the map. The army and navy rebelled, forming councils and helping end the apocalypse of World War One. Huge changes in social relations, politics, social policy and childcare provided unprecedented gains for women, children, LGBT people and oppressed races and nationalities. These titanic events inspired a massive surge of anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggles across the world, an unprecedented global strike wave, and further revolutions. Marxist, anarchist and nationalist forces competed and cooperated to establish a new order. Yet by the mid-1920s the wave was ebbing, revolution drowning.

What can we learn 100 years on? Can the ideas and practices of the different revolutionary currents teach us anything today? What is the link between national struggles and class wars? Beyond the AK47, how have Southern African liberation movements been shaped by the imprint of the Russian Revolution? Is social revolution possible or has its day passed, to be replaced by micro-struggles and reforms? The working class today is larger than ever. But is capitalism the last system standing?

Oupa Lehulere is a veteran activist in various social movements, currently based at Khanya College, a social justice and movement building institution based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He has written widely on political economy and strategy, including in Debate, Karibu, Khanya and Pambazuka. He co-organises the Jozi Book Fair.

Lucien van der Walt lectures at Rhodes University, and is involved in union and working class education and movements. Books include Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940 (2010/2014, with Steve Hirsch), and Negro e Vermelho: Anarquismo e Sindicalismo Revolucionario e Pessoas de Cor na Africa Meridional nas Decadas de 1880 a 1920 (2014).


[RADIO]: “Who Owns South Africa? Beyond White Monopoly Capital” (Lucien van der Walt)

Interview on Power FM’s “Power Talk” show, 10 pm, 12 July 2017, with Iman Rapetti on “Who Owns South Africa?” We have heard the term ‘White Monopoly Capital’ in recent times, we would like to break down where the wealth is actually concentrated in South Africa. What is the role of the state elite? How has the capitalist structure changed since 1994 with globalisation, unbundling, denationalisation? Who really runs South Africa? What is the relationship between the two big economic players:the  (mainly black) state elite and the (mainly white) private corporate elite?