Labour History Review

The Strange Death of Liberal England and the Strange Birth of Illiberal South Africa: British Trade Unionists, Indian Labourers and Afrikaner Rebels, 1910-1914

Labour History Review (2014), 79, (1), 97–120.


The general strikes by British immigrant workers on the Witwatersrand in 1913 and 1914, the protests of Indian indentured labourers in Natal led by Gandhi in late 1913, and the armed Afrikaner Rebellion in 1914-1915, have all been acknowledged by historians as important events in the history of modern South Africa. But they have been studied in isolation from international developments and as unconnected to each other. This article argues instead, that these three movements can only be understood as crucially shaping one another, and in transnational context. It contends that the Rand general strikes were closely linked to the British wave of syndicalist-influenced labour upheavals in the years leading up to the First World War. British workers on the Rand were tightly tied to social and political developments at ‘home’ through return migration, and a flow of newspapers, letters, and travelling activists. The 1913 and 1914 strikes on the Rand were syndicalist in character, largely because of these transnational connections. Gandhi's protest was influenced by the syndicalist context in Johannesburg, and was aimed largely at influencing the politics of New Delhi and London. The Afrikaner revolt had a complicated relationship to the Rand working class, and globalized itself by gaining support from Germany. The outbreak of the World War allowed the South African government to escape from a difficult political situation when local British labour organizations turned from militancy to imperial loyalism. The paper also seeks to make a contribution to the methodology of transnational historiography by advocating four important methodological approaches. The global cultural and political networks of labour need to be traced. Labour needs to be analysed in the context of empires, as well as that of nation states. The struggles of colonized labour should not be read in nationalist terms, or understood as culturally insulated from external political and cultural influences. And the history of labour must be linked to that of military power and global warfare.

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Author details

Hyslop, Jonathan