S. P. Bunting, Statement presented at the Sixth Comintern Congress, 23 July 1928

[....] Africa as a whole is a continent with 120 million inhabitants
and I cannot say much about most of it, but I want to speak on the
proletarian character of the subject races of South Africa; and here
we also say that Comrade Bukharin's speech and in fact the Communist
International literature in general, treats those races to a certain
extent in somewhat Cinderella-like fashion. We know the theoretical
importance given to the colonial movement, and I will not speak of
that at the moment; but as regards the proletarian value of the African
workers I agree with Comrade Ford that to neglect the value of the
Negro proletariat is a very great mistake.5 The fighting strength
after all of the colonial masses, for any objective, consists very
largely in their working class, particularly in a country like ours
where a native movement, proletarian or nationalist for that matter,
has no chance for the present of being an armed movement, it must
depend on its industrial weapons, on strikes and on political struggles
and little more for the present. It is in the field of industrial
strikes that the greatest militance is shown and the greatest power
exercised in South Africa as in India too, I think.

course, the bulk of the Negro population of Africa, even of South
Africa, is not proletarian;
just as the peasants are [more numerous
than the proletariat in most countries, e.g. in] the U.S.A. But in
Africa, at any rate, far more of them are exploited than just those
who would be strictly called working class. In West Africa, peasants
nominally independent, are exploited in respect of their rubber.
In South Africa again, our large "peasantry" is continuously
drawn upon to supply workers for the mines and other large industries
or for the farms. Those workers are peasantry part of the time and
workers part of the time so that the working class is really very
widespread, and it is also by far the STRONGEST section of the native
population when it comes to action.

Now if, as is said, as we have always been told, imperialism battens
on colonies, has more power than ever before because it has the colonies
as a mainstay to supply the super-profits, as fields for investment,
as places of refuge for capital which cannot find sufficient profit
in the home country, then it must follow that equally important is
the labour which provides this profit. As a matter of fact, of course,
both in our colony and others, there are capitalist enterprises of
great importance. In our country the gold industry is a very first
class capitalist development. It is vitally necessary to capitalism,
and not least in time of war. It is not a case of "backward
industry" in any way. It is highly developed. And iron and steel
industry is also about to be launched and other big enterprises of
all kinds show that ours is not just a medieval, feudal, peasant
country. The power of labour therefore, is of very great importance.
I do not know if we ought to say that the colonial section of the
labour movement in general is the most important, but I think we
can say that it is a most important weapon for the overthrow of capitalist
rule. Moreover, colonial labour is responsible for a great deal of
the unemployment in the "home" countries of the capitalists.

All sons of causes are assigned, but one cause is that industries
have been moved from the home countries to colonial countries, and
that is one of the reasons why unemployment increases in the home
country. At any rate, this backward labour, or if you like, this "uncivilised" labour
as it is called in our country, may play as important a part in the
attack on capitalism as the highly civilised labour, of e.g., the
United States.

Of course, the native labour movement in South Africa is only an
infant movement; but it is a good, healthy, lusty infant, very responsive
to our propaganda and is growing fast. Our native workers are true-to-type
proletarians, as worthy of being called workers as anybody in the
world. In spite of their peasant connections as already mentioned,
and in spite of the special disabilities placed upon them as a subject
race, nevertheless,

I say these are as real proletarians as your typical European proletarians,
as any in the world, they are as nakedly exploited, down to the bone;
the relationship of master and servant, employer and employed, exploiter
and exploited is as clear and classical as it could be. The first
native strike in Johannesburg was a strike of "sanitary bucket
boys", i.e., engaged in the most degraded "kaffirs' work".
In a native school which we are carrying on in Johannesburg, we use
the Communist Manifesto as a textbook, reading it with workers who
are actually workers in the factories, mines, workshops, stores,
etc. We read the well known characterisations of capitalism and the
proletariat in the Communist Manifesto, and the pupils always agree,
after arguing and studying about what they have read, how completely
and correctly every single characterisation applies to themselves: "we
recognise", they say, "how we have become workers, how
we have been driven off the land, onto the industrial markets, how
we are deprived of family life, of property, of culture, etc." exactly
as in the history of the European countries. And they have this advantage
over the European workers, that they are not sophisticated with petty
bourgeois or imperialist ideas (except religion, and even that is
not native to them); which all helps greatly in the work of making
them revolutionary. And in fact the trade unions which we have formed
are applying to the Red International of Labour Union to be admitted
to that organisation. It is true that the ICU which hitherto has
been a strong union of natives in South Africa, is affiliated to
Amsterdam; but the Communist Party, finding this body of no use owing
to its reformist leadership, has found it necessary to form fresh
trade unions which have already been baptised in the fire of strikes,
and which are ready to apply to the Red International for affiliation.6

I should like in all modesty to point out that the Communist International
gives insufficient attention to this aspect of the colonial masses.
I was reading the draft programme of the Communist International,
where it says that there are two main revolutionary forces: the "proletariat" in
the countries at home, and the "masses" in the colonies.
I beg to protest against this bald distinction. Our workers are not
ONLY mere "masses", they are as truly proletarians as any
in the world. The draft programme assigns to the colonies the one
task of revolting against imperialism. All good and well.

I may say that such nationalist revolt as we have had so far in South
Africa has not been on the part of the black workers, but on the
part of the Dutch Nationalists. The Dutch Nationalists have had their
fling, and have made peace with Britain, and have agreed on a formula
which gives them nominal independence: there is not much more to
be expected from them. By all means let a nationalist movement carry
on. But we can do more as a working class movement in South Africa.
It is not good medical science to have one particular pill which
you apply for all illnesses. Is it good politics to say that the
function of every colony, irrespective of circumstances, is the same
everywhere, and that its ONE AND ONLY task is to revolt against imperialism?
What of the colonial proletariat, why is it that they are thus dismissed?
There is no reference in the draft programme or in Comrade Bukharin's
speech to the colonial proletariat, as such, to the class power of
those colonial workers: as a class they are relegated to inactivity.

I was speaking to a comrade of the English Party, and advancing the
view I am now advancing, and he said "How can you talk like
that? Look at the number of years of experience of capitalism and
organisation behind the British working class, which you have not
got." Agreed. But we are exploited down to the bone under the
capitalist system and we have got the fight and determination to
resist; what more do you want? We did not have to wait for capitalism
to develop; it has been thrust upon us "fully armed", fully
Is not that distinction between European "proletariat" and
colonial "masses" exactly the way our "aristocracy
of labour" treats the black workers? The "prejudice" of
the white workers is not that he wants to kill the black worker,
but that he looks upon him not as a fellow-worker but as native "masses".
The Communist Party has declared and proved that he is a workingman
as well like anyone else, and I want to bring that experience to
the notice of the Communist International. If you will regard them
also as workers, as proletarians, you will take a different view
of the situation. We must abolish this subtle form of colour prejudice,
or "colour bar". Uncouth, backward, illiterate, degraded,
even barbaric you may call them if you like; they cannot read or
write, most of them; but they work, they produce profit, and they
organise and will fight. They are the great majority, they have the
future in their hands, and they are going to rule not only in the
colonial countries, but in the world. We are going to see not 2 or
3% of non-European representatives in this Congress, but 80 or 90%
representing the real strength of the entire colonial working class.

I might say that the Red International of Labour Unions seems to
adopt a more matter of fact view of the colonial working masses than
the Communist International. It takes account of the facts and it
invites the workers to join its ranks, as workers, in trade unions.

The Communist International is a chain, and the strength of a chain
is the strength of its weakest link. Little parties like ours are
links in the chain. We are not strengthened, but belittled in the
way I have just mentioned. If our parties are weak, then they should
be strengthened. Better communication is required. It will perhaps
surprise you to know that until about six months ago we have not
had a letter (except for circulars) from the Communist International
for five or six years. That is a thing which has to be attended to
immediately. At any rate, we ask to be considered a little more as
representing equally masses of workers, and not treated with, shall
I say, a sort of step-motherly or scholastic contempt as representing
mere shameless "masses". When I came here an official of
the Communist International said "We are going to attack you".
That is rather a poor sort of reception to give to representatives
elected by the vote of the Party, in which there is a huge preponderance
of natives. It is rather a poor reception to give to their representatives
before anything has been discussed - to say, "we are going to
attack you". We came here to take counsel together as to how
we could strengthen each other.

Certainly in our own party, whatever the differences between us,
we do not treat each other like that.
We also want better communications, between the different sections
of the CI. I could illustrate this in the case of several strikes.
We had a shipping strike three or four years ago in South Africa,
which affected also Australia, and to a certain extent Britain, and
in which our Party took the leading part.7 We had practically no
communication not only with the Communist International on the subject,
but even with the British Party. The communication which requires
to be perfected is quite as essential between party and party as
it is between one party and the ECCI. I entirely endorse Comrade
Murphy's" remarks that the business of the CI Congress is not
just for each Party to come here, as to a sort of father confessor,
without reference to other parties; we are here above all to try
and link up parties to each other. We parties are the Communist International,
and as Comrade Murphy said, it is we parties between us who have
to build up the leading forces in the world revolution. But there
has been very little facility for that so far. A great deal more
has got to be done.

Another thing with regard to Africa is that a very thorough study
of African conditions is required. Out of that huge continent, the
South Africa Party is the only one represented here. At the last
congress I was at, there were representatives from Egypt and I believe
there have been in the meantime representatives from West Africa.

There is an enormous field of study in Africa. Conditions in South
Africa are quite different from any other part of that continent.
South Africa is owing to its climate, what is called a "white
man's country" where whites can and do live not merely as planters
and officials, but as a whole nation of all classes, established
there for centuries of Dutch and English composition. There are also
differences elsewhere, e.g., differences between two capitalist methods
of administration - the English aloofness of the official who comes
and goes for his term of office and has nothing in common with the
people of the country; and the French method, which is rather to
fraternise or assimilate. Also the differences between the "eastern" and
the "western" methods of administration: the one drawing
the natives off the land, the other maintaining them on it. Such
differences want a great deal more study than has so far been placed
before the CI. I hope, when the next Congress is called, there will
be representatives of every part of Africa, from North and South,
East and West, who - far better than we, - can put the needs of the
whole of the population of Africa. There is a great amount of ignorance.
The other day here I was asked of our natives - "are they Dutch?".
There was recently in the Inprecorr, one of the most astounding articles
on South Africa which could only be called a fairy tale. It was full
of the most crass misstatements about the conditions there. Such
things tend to discredit our official organ, if it can be called
such. The answer might be "Why don't you send correct articles
instead?" We have done so in the past, but we have too few people
for much of this work, we are very busy, our proletariat even possessing
all the qualities I have given to it, is mostly not literate; and
we must be forgiven. Nevertheless study and knowledge is required.

Again, in the attention which is given to the colonial masses we
should not forget the achievements of the white working class in
South Africa, for they have conducted big strikes of a quite revolutionary
nature and I think are capable of carrying them out again. Both sides
can contribute very powerfully to the weakening of British imperialism.

in South Africa are at present a vulnerable link in the Communist
chain. If we are properly strengthened
and developed, and if we are
treated as we think we deserve to be, we hope to become a strong
link in the chain and thus be able to take advantage of the fact
that countries like ours are also vulnerable spots in the imperialist
chain. We could do a great deal in the weakening and breaking of
one of those links of capitalism just as the Russian link is shown
broken on the globe in the famous picture on the cover of the old "Communist


Last updated : 31-Mar-2011

This article was produced for South African History Online on 31-Mar-2011