Saturday, May 14, 2022

Lessons from South Africa. (1927)

 From the August 1927 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialist Party speakers are continually being asked whether Socialism will have to wait until the black and yellow races have been converted. The questioner usually is very gloomy about the whole business. “What is the use,” he says, “of preaching Socialism here in England if all our work is going to be ruined by the backwardness of Japs and Chinese and negroes and other non-white races?” We have for our part never been much perturbed. Capitalism and the development of industry are the necessary and sufficient producers of Socialist thought and Socialist thinkers. The process is slow, but it is universal wherever the capitalist social system extends. We have no fear that any section of the working class in the industrialised nations will suddenly find itself isolated ahead of the main body of the Socialist forces. Most emphatically we do not expect this in England, despite the fact that the general level of political understanding is probably higher here than in any of the Great Powers. We know well enough what slow and painful work it is to build up a Socialist organisation. The vision which distresses our questioners, of a clear-headed, enthusiastic working class in Great Britain panting for Socialism and impatiently waiting for backward foreign persons to wake up and come into line, is hardly in keeping with the facts. If we get on with our job of propagating Socialism at home we can safely leave the workers in other countries to do likewise.

It is interesting to observe, therefore, what encouraging advances have been made by the black workers in South Africa. The white workers organised in the South African Industrial Federation deliberately and persistently refused membership to blacks, and placed barriers in the way of attempts to organise them. The whites, including the South African “Labour” Party, supported the Government policy of maintaining political, economic and geographical barriers against the black races. In Cape Town the Cape Federation of Labour Unions was a little more alive to working-class interests and admitted “coloured” workers (i.e., those of “mixed” race) to membership, although it still interested itself only in those who were classed as skilled workers. In January, 1919, some two dozen black workers, despairing of assistance from the whites, took on the huge task of forming a Union for all black workers and founded the Industrial and Commercial Union (I.C.U., now the Industrial & Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa). It has made great progress in spite of the difficulties placed in its way by the white organisations and by the Governments, and hopes are entertained of spreading eventually throughout the continent.

The position of the I.C.U. was greatly strengthened last year by the decision of the International Federation of Trade Unions to accept its affiliation in place of the white workers’ S.A. Industrial Federation, which was all but defunct. The condition laid down and accepted was that the I.C.U. must declare its readiness to link up with trade unions of white workers whenever the latter were ready to adopt that policy. The whites in the newly-formed South African Trades Union Congress were so much taken back by this recognition of the black trade unions that they have now declared their willingness to discuss with the I.C.U. the possibility of accepting all workers, without reference to race, into an enlarged Trades Union Congress. There is therefore a likelihood that at no distant date racial divisions among the organised workers in South Africa may be overcome. At least the white “last ditchers” who cannot tolerate association with black skins may be compelled to withdraw from the T.U.C. and conduct their (fortunately) hopeless fight in isolation. And this promising development will be the result not of white but of black common sense and clear thinking.

A declaration setting forth the policy of the I.C.U. will serve to show that a partial understanding of the class position of the workers has been attained by the black if not by the white unions :—
“Whereas the interests of the workers and those of the employers are opposed to each other, the former living by selling their labour, receiving for it only part of the wealth they produce ; and the latter living by exploiting the labour of the workers, depriving the workers of a part of the product of their labour in the form of profit, no peace can be between the two classes—a struggle must always obtain about the division of the products of human labour, until the workers, through their industrial organisations take from the capitalist class the means of production, to be owned and controlled by the workers for the benefit of all, instead of a few.”
This declaration contains one very serious fallacy, but even so it will compare well with the majority of foggy aims contained in trade union rule books even in this country. It is a natural mistake for disfranchised black workers, legally barred from effective participation in most political activities in South Africa, to place their hopes in industrial action. We do not doubt, moreover, that experience of the uses and limits of economic organisation will soon induce the black workers of South Africa to see that control of the State is essential to the achievement of Socialism by the working class.

Edgar Hardcastle

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