Clements Kadalie (ca. 1896-1951) was South Africa's first black national trade union leader. He headed the Industrial and Commercial Worker's Union (ICU) from its inception in 1919 until his resignation as national secretary in 1929. The meteoric rise of Kadalie and the ICU signalled the emergence of South Africa's black proletariat as a potential challenger to entrenched white domination of the established economic and political order.
Kadalie achieved prominence in the nascent South African black trade union movement with only limited experience as a worker and even less as a resident of South Africa. A grandson of Chiweyu, a paramount chief of the Tonga of Nyasaland, Kadalie was born in or shortly before 1896 near the Bandawe mission station. Educated by Church of Scotland missionaries, Kadalie completed teacher training in 1912. After a short stint of primary school teaching, Kadalie in early 1915 joined the stream of Nyasalanders seeking employment in neighboring southern African states. Working for several months in Portuguese Mozambique, Kadalie continued to Southern Rhodesia, where he held a variety of clerical posts from 1915 to 1918 before moving to Cape Town. Through a chance encounter with a white socialist Kadalie was drawn into organizing work at a time when trade unions were mushrooming among black workers in many of South Africa's burgeoning cities. At a meeting of dockworkers in Cape Town in January 1919 the ICU was formed; Kadalie, a resident of less than a year who spoke no South African language other than English, was elected secretary.
Catapulted into local and national visibility at the end of 1919 by leadership of a partially successful strike of Cape Town dockworkers and his subsequently successful effort to block his deportation, Kadalie by the end of 1921 had gained sufficiently broad support to be elected secretary of the national ICU which linked black trade unions in the Cape Providence and the Orange Free State. Under Kadalie's leadership the ICU continued to expand, becoming a focal point for national politics in 1924 when Kadalie, acting in the well established tradition of Africans bargaining for influence through exercise of their franchise as voters in the Cape Providence, urged Africans to vote for the Afrikaner Nationalist Party of General J.M.B. Hertzog.
Betrayed when the successful Nationalist-Labor coalition government made "civilized labor" its policy, Kadalie switched to criticism and concentration upon trade union organizing. ICU branches were established in the industrial heartland of the Witwatersrand, as well as in the port of Durban. Over the opposition of Cape Town members, ICU headquarters were shifted to Johannesburg in 1926, and the ICU began to find a wellspring of support among agricultural workers in Natal and the Orange Free State. By 1927 the ICU was claiming membership of 100,000, well above that of the established white trade unions. Alarmed white farmers and politicians reacted by calling for action to curb the ICU.
The explosive growth of the ICU also attracted attention from the government's opponents. Following a 1924 policy shift away from white workers, the small multiracial Communist Party offered support and began to recruit ICU members into its ranks. Initially Kadalie welcomed cooperation with the Communists, but when Communists began to criticize his policies from within the ICU he sought and obtained majority support for the expulsion of party members from the ICU executive committee at the end of 1926; subsequently, in 1927, Communists were banned from membership in the ICU.
The ouster of the Communists was warmly received by white liberals in Johannesburg and Durban who had also offered assistance in the mid-1920s. Through their good offices Kadalie in 1927 was able to realize his longstanding goal of travelling to Europe to gain recognition and support for the ICU as representative of the country's black workers. Although denied official recognition by the International Labor Organization, Kadalie was cordially received by European social democrats and trade unionists. Through extensive discussions with Arthur Creech-Jones, Fenner Brockway, and other contacts within the British labor movement, Kadalie obtained the promise of a British adviser who would aid the ICU to establish itself efficiently upon the model of a European trade union.
Kadalie returned home in late 1927 amidst a rising crescendo of calls by whites for government repression. Within the ICU organization he found bitter antagonisms, precipitated by charges of financial malpractice. In 1928 large branches in Natal and the Orange Free State seceded, and the arrival of William Ballinger, the long awaited British adviser, only accentuated controversy in debates over the need for internal reorganization and the proper role for whites in the ICU. Resigning, and then unsuccessfully returning as national secretary in early 1929, Kadalie failed to staunch the accelerating collapse of the national ICU. As leader of a rump Independent ICU he reestablished a base of support in East London, where he organized a local general strike in 1930 for which he served a two-month jail term. Through the 1930s and 1940s he intermittently sought to reassert himself nationally, but without success. He remained a respected community leader in East London, where he died in 1951.
Although Kadalie spoke publicly only in English, he was able to mobilize thousands of black workers, urban and rural, into the country's first nationwide labor movement. Few immediate advances were realized and no national black trade union organization was consolidated as a legacy for the subsequent generation of trade unionists in the 1930s and 1940s. Yet unquestionably Kadalie coalesced the imagination of South Africa's new black wage earners into a movement whose scope was previously unequalled.
Kadalie's autobiography, My Life and the ICU (London, 1970), is the best source of information on his life and work. Other sources include Edward Roux, Time Longer than Rope (London, 1948); P. L. Wickens, The Industrial and Commercial Worker's Union of Africa (Cape Town, 1978); and Sheridan W. Johns, III, "Trade Union, Political Pressure Group, or Mass Movement? The Industrial and Commercial Worker's Union of Africa," in Robert I. Rotberg and Ali A. Mazuri (editors), Protest and Power in Black Africa (1970).