History of Labour Movements in South Africa

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Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA)

The First African Trade Union

The Industrial Workers of Africa (the IWA) was the first African trade union in South Africa. It was formed early in 1918 and was to play an important part in the restless post-war period of black resistance. Influenced by the largely white International Socialist League, the IWA claimed to be 'not a political body but an industrial organisation', whose aims were to organise the workers and plan strike action for higher pay.

The IWA printed pamphlets in Sotho and Zulu for the workers:

'There is only one way to freedom, black workers. Unite as workers, unite!' it urged. 'Forget the things that divide you. Let there be no longer any talk of Basuto, Zulu or Shangaan. You are all labourers, Let labour be your common bond.'

IWA members travelled along the Reef, organising workers in the compounds. They influenced the Transvaal Congress, pushing it towards more militant action and towards workers' concerns for a while. In later years an open split developed between the two organisations. While Congress leaders accused the IWA of being dominated by white communists, the IWA criticised the TNC for its middle-class leaders, who refused to see what lay behind the racist system in. South Africa, neglecting the interest of the workers.

The IWA was eventually overtaken in the 1920s by the ICU and the Non-European Trade Union Federation

Last updated : 12-Oct-2011

This article was produced for South African History Online on 01-Apr-2011