Lucien van der Walt, 1998, “Low Wages Will Not Create Jobs , Struggle Will,” Workers Solidarity meeting, Workers Library and Museum, Newtown, Johannesburg, 15 August
The bosses and the government say that low wages will lead to more jobs. This is in the GEAR (government) and the SA Foundation (big business) policies. Both government and business will be making this argument at the Presidential Job Summit later this year.
What they are saying is that wages in South Africa are very high. Also, they will complain that workers have many rights, such as paternity and maternity leave. All of these rights make workers very expensive to hire, they continue. In fact, they make workers too expensive to hire, and so bosses have decided not to hire more people because this will cost too much.
In other words, what they are saying is that wages and conditions for workers in South Africa are so good that workers have priced themselves out of the market. In other words, unemployment is being caused by very expensive labour. Expensive in terms of money and in terms of time. That is the argument: workers are too expensive. That leads to unemployment. That is, unemployment is caused by workers! By decent wages! By rights! And by unions which help push up wages and win rights!
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 »
I was a founder and a coordinator of the Social Theory course for the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) run at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, from 2009-2015. Classes began in 2010, and there were four modules by block release. Mine was the first of the year, on “Labour, the left and working class theory,” and examined the key theoretical and strategic debates in the socialist tradition, looking at the major traditions: classical Marxism, social democracy and anarchism/ syndicalism. At NUMSA’s request, I also designed and set up a similar programme at Rhodes University, to launch in 2016. However, the NUMSA courses were put in abeyance in 2016. An article from NUMSA News about the programme is further down (I am in the back row on the left, looking ).
Part of a larger non-sectarian workers’ and union education initiative, through the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU), Rhodes University, I developed this programme in conjunction with the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa’s (NUMSA’s) Uitenhage Local. It was run on a Nelson Mandela University campus in Port Elizabeth.
Co-designed and co-faciliated a three-day workshop with the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) in the Eastern Cape, with Leroy Maisiri and Ayanda Kota. The venue was the Bantu Stephen Biko Student Union Building, at Rhodes University, Grahamstown/ Makhanda; the dates were 7-9 November 2018, and the topic was “Autonomy, Land, Self-Management: Alternatives & the Russian and Spanish Revolutions” Attended by 45 people from the UPM in Grahamstown/ Makhanda and Peddie, and members of the local waste-pickers collective.
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.
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.
With comrades on the 16 July 2016, last day of the Vuyisile Mini Winter School on “Labour and Social Policy,” organised by the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit, and the Institute for Social and Eocnomic Research, at Rhodes University, Grahamstown.
I participated as a facilitator on worker education at the July 2016 Vuyisile Mini Winter School in Grahamstown/ Makhanda. The School’s theme was “Labour and Social Policy,” and it was organised by the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) and the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU), Rhodes University. There is a photo of some of us here.
I enjoyed the July 2015 Vuyisile Mini Winter School in Grahamstown/ Makhanda. The School was organised by the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) and the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU), Rhodes University. Nicole Ulrich and I gave the input “A Historical Perspective on the South African Labour Movement and the National Question,” and I did some facilitation. Here’s a picture of participants (I’m sixth from the left, Nicole is seventh):
Notes and posters from the Workers’ Library & Museum that was…
Lucien van der Walt, April 2013
From around 1998 into around 2003, I was involved in coordinating the Workers Education Workshops at the Workers Library and Museum (WLM) in Johannesburg; I was also vice chair for quite a while, and coordinated the WLM’s Workers Bookshop. A selection of posters below will give an idea of the sort of issues covered. Attendance varied, but was usually around 30-40, mostly black working class with a sprinkling of other left activist types.
At the time, the WLM was run by an elected volunteer committee, and operated as a left-wing labour service organisation. I was part of a (changing) team of excellent comrades on the committee, among whom I might mention Shaheen Buckus, the late Craig Mabuza, Mondli Hlatswayo, Bernie Johnson, Eli Kodisang (chairperson), Mandy Moussouris, Aubrey Nomvela, and Nicole Ulrich (chairperson). This was a period of revival, after serious problems in the 1990s.
The WLM also provided meeting spaces and a modest (and run-down) museum. It was always short of money (the volunteers were not paid, and the staff worked part-time), but against this, it provided an important space for the revival of social movements in the late 1990s. It also engaged in an ongoing way with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and as an educator, I spent many evenings at the COSATU Johannesburg local.
It was Nicole Ulrich, above all, who revived the WLM. A great deal of time was also spent turning around the debt, a task in which Nicole was also absolutely central and vital. This included negotiating a partnership with Khanya College (another labour service organisation), which came to share the premises, but also dozens of other tasks, ranging from finding the old catalogues to dealing with creditors, all the while bringing a political vision into play.
But I would be misrepresenting Nicole’s central role if I stressed just the nuts-and-bolts hands-on leadership she provided: the revival was all driven by her radical working class politics and by her example.
Now, some posters: click on them for larger versions:
Elected teams come and go, and ours largely stepped down in 2002/2003. Subsequent problems saw the old WLM disintegrate. While the worst of the town council’s plans for repositioning Newtown as a trendy yuppie zone (such as plans for building a hotel right in front of the WLM) fell through, the WLM did not survive the 2000s. Its library section was incorporated into Khanya College, and the Museum was taken over by the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) and reopened as a heritage site.
There is no denying the physical upgrades to the old premises under the JDA, but there is a massive change that is obscured by the new paint: a self-managed, left-wing, working class space was now part of the state’s official heritage industry, and was geared to tourists rather than working class self-education and struggle.
The WLM (or just plain “Workers Library” as it was then) had started in 1988, the dying days of apartheid, as a left-wing labour service organisation in the Johannesburg inner city, providing black working class militants with access to a library and meeting space. Unlike other labour service organisations, like the International Labour Resource and Information Group (ILRIG) in Cape Town, it did not undertake research, but stressed creating a radical space.
In the 1990s, the WLM was housed in the refurbished compound, a wing of which was retained as a museum. Adjacent houses for the electricity management, as well as for white workers, were included. (You can read more about the history of the facility here.) The project started well, but ran into serious problems, and was then revived by the comrades of 1998 onwards. But by 2008, when those comrades had left, it was no more.