A brief history of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union

In 1919, Clements Kadalie formed the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union, which swiftly became a mass movement with support across Southern Africa.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research’s September Issue, dossier no 20: When You Ill-treat the African People, I See You: A Brief History of South Africa’s Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (1919-1931)

We are building up a union

We are building up a union
With which we hope to save the land
ICU are its initials
In its ranks we take our stand.

We shall show by workmen’s council
How to banish sweated ills
How to raise the black man’s status
How to conquer strife that kills.

Union means an all-in movement
None outside to scab upon us;
With folded arms we’ll stand like statues
Sing our song but make no rumpus.

Forward then in one big union
All in which we’re organised
Solid phalanx undivided
No more shall we be despised.

ICU spells workers only,
ICU fraternity
ICU means liberation;
ICU – “Labour holds the key”.

This poem from the ICU is displayed at the Workers’ Library Museum in Newtown, Johannesburg. No attribution is given to an author.

Undated: The cover of an ICU member’s contribution card. Image courtesy of Wits Historical Papers
15 June 1929: Front page of the Workers Herald. Image courtesy of Wits Historical Papers

The Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU) was formed in the port city of Cape Town in 1919. It rapidly spread across the country and into the wider region, including the countries that are now Namibia, Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Zambia. In his autobiography, Clements Kadalie – who became the first black national trade union leader in South Africa – recalls walking down Darling Street in Cape Town on a Saturday afternoon in 1918. Kadalie had arrived in Cape Town from Nyasaland (which is now Malawi). He was born and educated in a mission school and came to Cape Town from Rhodesia (which is now Zimbabwe), where he had worked as a mine clerk. 

He wrote that it was “the systemic torture of the African people in Southern Rhodesia that kindled the spirit of revolt in me”. That afternoon he was pushed off the pavement, and then assaulted by a white police officer. A white passerby, AF Batty, intervened. Batty had been a trade unionist in Britain and was a socialist. The two began working together politically and decided to try to start a trade union to represent black workers on the docks. 

They called a public meeting on Buitengracht Street on 17 January 1919. Here they formed the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU) with 24 members. By December of that year, the ICU, working with an established syndicalist union, the Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA), was able to call a strike that shut down the docks for three weeks.

Undated: Meeting at Currie’s Fountain, Durban. (Image courtesy of Unisa archives)
Undated: Meeting at Currie’s Fountain, Durban. (Image courtesy of Unisa archives)

Radical currents in Cape Town 

As Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker show in The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (2000), revolutionary ideas often circulated through port cities during the colonial period. Cape Town is no exception. 

In 1808, people enslaved on farms outside of Cape Town rose in revolt. The slave revolt was led by a Mauritian slave tailor, Louis, and included people born in the Cape, as well as India, Ireland and what is now Indonesia. The slave revolt was inspired by the Haitian revolution against slavery, which came to a victorious conclusion on New Year’s Day in 1804. News of the revolution in Haiti most likely reached enslaved people on farms outside of Cape Town via Caribbean sailors and dockworkers. 

Under the system of segregation, single African migrant workers were supposed to be confined to the Dock Native Location; African families were confined to the Ndabeni township. The township, on the periphery of the city, had no streets or street lights, was adjacent to a sewage dump and was surrounded by a patrolled barbed wire fence. It was a carceral space, a ghetto. 

More than a century later, the ICU emerged out of the general black ferment – including riots, strikes, boycotts and anti-pass campaigns – that developed in most towns and rural areas in South Africa, after World War I. There had been considerable popular dissent in Cape Town for some years, both on the docks – the largest employer in the city – and in the shanty towns. The shanty towns surrounding the city date back to an outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1901 when Africans – stigmatised by colonial racism as being “unsanitary” – were blamed for the rapidly spreading illness and subjected to armed attacks that chased them from the city. The plague had in fact been brought to the city by rats in the hay bales that accompanied horses imported from Argentina for use in the Boer War.

Nonetheless, it soon become massively overcrowded, with the result that land was occupied and shack settlements were built across the city. As is common across space and time, shanty town militancy tended to peak when residents were threatened with evictions. The Social Democratic Federation, formed in Cape Town on May Day in 1904, was an important precursor to the ICU. 

It mobilised for workers’ solidarity across race and ran soup kitchens, a book shop, a socialist hall with regular public events, and a printing press. It organised a union, strikes and the direct appropriation of bread. It also organised trips to the beach, a choir and even socialist christenings. Some of its more radical members called for armed direct action under a black flag aimed at seizing the land and factories and placing them under workers’ control. 

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The major upsurge in political militancy around the country at the end of World War I in November 1918 was sparked by returning soldiers who were expecting a better deal, as well as by rampant inflation. The IWA, formed in Johannesburg in 1917 on the model of the Industrial Workers of the World, called its first mass meeting in Cape Town in 1919. 

Fred Cetiwe, one of its key figures, was from Qumbu in the rural eastern side of the Cape Province. After being fired from his job in Johannesburg for his leading role in the South African National Native Congress (SANNC) campaign against the pass laws, Cetiwe came to Cape Town and lived in Ndabeni, which was seething with political energy in the face of a threatened “slum clearance”. 

In 1920, the IWA would start working closely with the ICU. The SANNC, founded in 1912, would become the African National Congress (ANC) in 1923. But syndicalism was not the only radical idea in the air on the docks in Cape Town. Marcus Garvey’s ideas also had considerable traction among dockworkers from the Caribbean. This was significant for the ICU from the outset as its initial constituency included dockworkers designated as “coloured” by colonial authority, as well as African workers and workers from the Caribbean. 

In 1920, the ICU would make its first breach across the borders of the colonial state when James la Guma, a communist whose son Alex would go on to become a great communist novelist, was sent to set up a branch in Lüderitz, in what was then South West Africa, and is now Namibia.

Undated: Members of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union staff. (Image courtesy of UNISA archives)
Undated: Members of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union staff. (Photograph courtesy of UNISA archives)

One big union

The dominant opinion in the SANNC opposed attempts to organise workers independently of the nationalist movement, which was firmly under the control of the aristocracy and the professional class. But in July 1920, H Selby Msimang, a founding member of the SANNC and a newspaper editor who had become an effective labour organiser, called a conference of working-class leaders representing a number of unions in the inland city of Bloemfontein. The 30 or so delegates at the conference decided to create “one great union of skilled and unskilled workers of South Africa”. They resolved to unite under the banner of the ICU. 

When Msimang was elected president and Kadalie was unsuccessful in his bid to become the secretary, the two had a falling out. But the ICU quickly developed into a mass movement with support from workers, peasants, squatters and intellectuals across Southern Africa. At a time when women could not join the SANNC as full members, it is striking that one of the central aims of the new organisation was to take a position for equal pay for men and women and to “see that all females in industries and domestic services are protected by the organisation, by encouraging them to enrol in all branches of the Union and to help them obtain a living wage”.

However, this was not achieved. At the height of its popularity, women made up around 15% of the union’s members. Despite this, the ICU did enable the emergence of some powerful women leaders, and the organisation’s stated commitment to gender equity in this period is noteworthy.

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