Document 23 - 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.
Of 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 developed. 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.
We 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 International".