Friday, 25 November 2011

The First Globalisation and Transnational Labour Activism in Southern Africa: White Labourism, the IWW, and the ICU, 1904–1934

by Lucien van der Walt, 2007

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....This article.... examines 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-classsolidarity. 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. 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.

Click here to download this paper in pdf.