Radical Encounters: Christianity, Garveyism and Revolutionary Syndicalism in the Industrial & Commercial Workers Union of Africa, 1919-1939

25 August 2022 -25 August 2022 @ 16:00 - 17:00


August 25, 2022
04:00 PM - 05:00 PM
Eden Grove Seminar Room 2 and online via Zoom
Event Type:


Valance Wessels
072 183 6632

Founded 1919 in Cape Town, the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) exploded across southern Africa. The first mass black/ Coloured movement -- with 200,000 members across Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe -- it overshadowed bodies like the African National Congress (ANC), Communist Party of SA and the Southern Rhodesia Bantu Voters’ Association. The ICU dominated African politics for years, drew tens of thousands including women into politics, helped forge a popular counter-public, mobilised in communities and rural areas, and promised land and freedom through a general strike.

This paper focuses on the ICU's complex, syncretic politics, especially Christian, Garveyite and revolutionary syndicalist influences. Syndicalism – developing from Bakunin's anarchism -- advocated a bottom-up, inclusive radical unionism, building consciousness and popular power until workers could occupy and self-manage workplaces, abolish the state and establish libertarian socialism. It was, the paper argues, an essential source of key ICU themes: class struggle, internationalism, One Big Union, autonomy from parties, and the emancipatory general strike. But syndicalism was only part of the ICU's contradictory, unstable politics which -- poorly translated into strategy, or workers' control -- contributed to its dramatic downfall, while the ICU lasted into the 1950s, its lessons and legacy remain. 

SPEAKER: Professor Lucien van der Walt, sociologist and labour educator, Rhodes University, South Africa. His books include "Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940" (2010/2014, ed. with Steven Hirsch), "Negro e Vermelho: Anarquismo, Sindicalismo Revolucionário e Pessoas de Cor na África Meridional nas Décadas de 1880 a 1920" (2014), "Politics at a Distance from the State: Radical and African Perspectives" (2018/2022, ed. with Kirk Helliker) and "Labour Struggles in Southern Africa, 1919-1939: New Perspectives on the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union (ICU)" (2023, ed. with David Johnson & Noor Nieftagodien). He is the current NALSU director.

JOINING: Please register in advance by going to: https://zoom.us/meeting/register/tJ0udeyhrDMtGtKWLeg1Nd3Nb8YTzxhh71T-

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining.

Some DATA available for people outside Rhodes. Apply v.wessels@ru.ac.za / 072 183 6632 in advance.

HOSTS: The series is run by the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU) in partnership with the Departments of Sociology & Industrial
Sociology, and Economics & Economic History, Rhodes University and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES).

NALSU, based in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, is engaged in policy, research and workers' education. Built around a vibrant team from disciplines including Sociology and Economics & Economic History, it has active partnerships and relations with a range of advocacy, labour and research organisations. It draws strength from its location in a province where the legacy of apartheid and the cheap labour system, and the contradictions of the post-apartheid state, are keenly felt. We are named in honour of Dr Neil Hudson Aggett, a union organiser and medical doctor who died in 1982 in an apartheid jail after enduring brutality and torture.



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