Thapelo Mokoatsi

Clements Kadalie, known for being the first black national trade unionist in Southern Africa was more than a labour activist. He was described by Henry Mitchell, a young historian currently completing his P.h.D research on Kadalie, as a mediator, interpreter and broker between diverse publics, advocating for workers’ rights. This former teacher, used all media platforms at his disposal to make his Pan-Africanist opinions public, an essayist of note, an opinion maker and thought leader of his time whose works appeared in newspapers beyond the African continent and across the diaspora.[/int

Kadalie was born Lameck Koniwaka Kadalie Muwamba, in April 1896, in Nkhata Bay District at Chifira village near the Bandawe mission station in Nyasaland, the latter now known as current day Malawi. He was the second born son of Mr. and Mrs. Musa Kadalie Muwamba. He was the grandson of Chiweyu, a paramount chief of the Tonga of Nyasaland. Educated by Church of Scotland missionaries, Kadalie completed teacher training in 1913 graduating from Livingstonia. He then became a primary school teacher for a short while before joining Nyasalanders seeking employment in South Africa in early 1915.

Three years later, he settled in Cape Town where he met and befriended an emerging trade unionist by the name of Arthur F. Batty. It was during this that he would change his name and would be popularly known as Clements Kadalie. In early 1919, with Batty’s advice, Kadalie, a dock messenger at the time, along with 23 other dock workers, founded the Industrial and Commercial Union that would popularly be known as ICU. The organisation was later renamed the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa but kept the acronym ICU. The purpose was to protest against unfair labour laws and to protect workers’ rights. Kadalie became the first general secretary of ICU.

Kadalie’s ICU Days

Towards the end of 1919, ICU had gained momentum and elevated Kadalie to prominence after he had successfully managed to organize over 2 000 men in what would be known as a 14 day dock workers’ strike, a labour action that prevented the export of all goods through Cape Town Harbour facilities. That strike would initially lay the foundation for Kadalie’s development into a leader known to thousands of people within South Africa, this labour organizer had the ability to unite workers across racial divides and nationalities as the referred dock workers strike was supported by labourers from Britain, the Caribbean, South Africa and Malawi. Kadalie believed in rolling up his sleeves, and organizing workers globally. His ambition was to form “One Big Labour Movement” by employing mobilization techniques. Between 1920 and 1927 the ICU grew across Southern Africa – East London, Durban, Johannesburg, Luderitz in Namibia, Bulawayo in Zimbabwe and Livingstone in Zambia, and laid claim to over 250 000 members while at the time the African National Congress (ANC) is reported to have only had 4 000 followers.

Journalism and Writing Days

Kadalie was an essayist of note, an opinion maker and thought leader of his time. According to Mitchell, “whilst he had initially threw all his energy into organizing the ICU, from 1923 these duties were increasingly undertaken by James La Guma, and by the mid­ 1920s Kadalie was writing extensive essays in numerous newspapers.”

Kadalie’s first printed essays appeared in 1923 in the Black Man, the ICU’s first newspaper, which was built on a tradition of pan­-African commercialism. He used it as a vehicle to articulate the emancipation of black South Africans, and pan-­Africanism as a philosophy. In the same year, Kadalie wrote numerous pieces for The Messenger, a radical socialist New York­ based African-American newspaper edited by A Philip Randolph and Chandler Owens. In 1924, he wrote an essay titled ‘The Romance of African Labour’ which made the front­ page of Workers’ Herald, another ICU publication. In it he declared a possibility of a single union movement among the proletariat of South Africa. He also had some of his work published in the radical British New Leader, Labour Monthly and Foreign Affairs journals, with titles such as ‘Black Trade Unionism in Africa’, ‘The Black Man’s Labour Movement’ and ‘The African Labour Movement’.

Kadalie’s defiance over his deportation

When Kadalie was arrested in 1924, and issued with a deportation order, naming him a prohibited immigrant and ordering him to leave South Africa within three days, he defied it and never left the country. He would later, in 1927, travel to represent the ICU at the international Labour Conference in Geneva. In 1928, internal strives within the ICU saw Kadalie being sacked by a William G. Ballinger with the full backing of the executive committee of the ICU. In the same year, Kadalie and six other trade union leaders were arrested under the Native Administration Act. The act made it a criminal offense to raise racial animosity towards the white population. Kadalie later formed an independent ICU in East London and became a provincial organiser of the ANC. He never returned to Malawi and stayed in East London with his wife Emma. With his first wife, Molly Davidson, he had three sons and a daughter. With Emma, his second wife, he had one son. He died in 1951 in East London.

Thapelo Mokoatsi is a P.h.D candidate at Rhodes University. Mokoatsi speaks to his confrere, historian P.h.D candidate Henry Mitchell, over a strong cup of Ethiopian coffee in the Mother City. Mitchell is an Oxford and Edinburgh Universities scholar, whose undergraduate degree in History and Economics was “In Search for Greener Pastures: Immigration from Malawi, 1930-1960, while his MSc in African Studies, Centre for African Studies in Edinburgh University focused on “Independent Africans: Malawian Migration to South Africa, 1916-1960”, and now his PhD thesis is aptly on Malawian born pioneer Clements Kadalie and the Industrial Commercial and Workers Union (ICU). Parts of the excepts from Henry Mitchell’s PhD research were published with his permission.