Thibedi William (TW) Thibedi (1888-1960) stands as an early symbol of African working class determination and organisation.
He initially trained as a teacher but by 1916 he had come into contact with representatives of the revolutionary syndicalist International Socialist League in Johannesburg and began to organise industrial workers.
There were many obstacles to organising black workers in South Africa. Not only did unions have to contend with severe state repression, they also had to overcome the racism of white trade unions. For radicals like Thibedi, the revolutionary unionism of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was an inspiration; he sought to establish similar unions. Thibedi set about this task with dedication and flair, drafting the first Industrial Workers of Africa leaflet:
“Workers of the Bantu race. Why do you live in slavery? Why are you not free as other men are free? Why are you kicked and spat upon by your masters? Why must you carry a pass before you can move anywhere? And if you are found without one, why are you thrown into prison? Why do you toil hard for little money? Why do they herd you like cattle into compounds? WHY?
“Because you are the toilers of the earth. Because the masters want you to labour for their profit. Because they pay the Government and Police to keep you as slaves to toil for them…There is only one way of deliverance for you Bantu workers. Unite as workers. Unite: forget the things which divide you.”
While he focused on organising black workers Thibedi was firmly anti-nationalist. He did not believe that establishing an “African Nation” would abolish economic inequality. In these early years Thibedi believed that the One Big Union, united on class lines and across races, was indispensable to abolishing racial oppression as well as capitalist exploitation.
He was involved in anti-pass law protests in 1919 and was part of a radicalising group of young Africans determined to challenge racism through direct action, strikes and mass mobilisation. Such a political line brought Thibedi into conflict with the conservative leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) and he eventually left in frustration.
He participated in founding the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) in 1921 and in 1925 he ran the Johannesburg CPSA night school for African workers.
He was a talented organiser and could capture the mood of a factory of workers or a meeting room full of miners with simple, direct and straightforward language. He became one of the leading lights in the Federation of Non European Trade Unions (FNTU).
Thibedi was committed to workers’ revolution in South Africa and so disagreed with the CPSA’s two-stage theory of revolution, which insisted that the national revolution come first and prioritised alliances with nationalist leaders of the ANC. Thibedi was expelled from the Communist Party for his oppositional “workerist” line. While he later organised alongside the Trotskyist Workers’ International League in the FNTU, Thibedi eventually fell out of political life.
As a final indignity, his dying years were destroyed by the apartheid regime which bulldozed the shanty town he had retired to as part of the forced migration of Africans into Bantustans.
As the world wonders what happened to the promise of the anti-apartheid struggle for equality, Thibedi’s politics provide a clue. Black capitalism, as he predicted, provides no solution to the problems facing the South African working class. Thibedi should be sung about with as much harmony and enthusiasm as Mandela.