Clements Kadalie, trade unionism, migration and race in Southern Africa, 1918-1930
Between 1919 and 1931, Clements Kadalie (c.1895-1951) rose to world-wide fame as general secretary of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa (ICU). This thesis reexamines the biography of Kadalie, an immigrant worker from Central Africa who became Southern Africa’s first major black trade union leader, widely hailed as a “Moses” of his people. It situates his ideas about race, workers’ rights and freedom in a global interwar context, comparing his arguments and aspirations with other trade unionists and political leaders in Central and Southern Africa, America, Britain and India. In particular, it rehabilitates the ICU as a general, all-in trade union which demanded minimum wages, decent working conditions, and the right of all workers to freely migrate between town and country, and between states, regardless of race, nationality, skill or sex. Existing scholarship on the ICU has focused on its organisational structure in South Africa, its failed tactics, a limited cross-section of its leadership, and its spectacular “rise and fall” between 1919 and 1930. The historiography of trade unionism in Southern Africa, more broadly, has also neglected leaders’ intersecting ideas about migration and race. Drawing on new archival sources, a wide range of newspapers, oral testimonies and family papers, this thesis situates Clements Kadalie and the ICU within Southern Africa’s transnational labour market as a general trade union predominantly made up of migrant workers, and led by black immigrants from Central and Southern Africa, and the Caribbean. Breaking with the existing exclusionary strategies of craft and industrial unions, Kadalie challenged not only South Africa’s “white aristocracy of labour”, but also other black trade union leaders who envisaged raising wages through moderate petitions and anti-immigrant policies. The ICU’s ideas about race consciousness, in turn, challenged narrow exclusionary ideas about “civilised labour” and united coloured, African and Indian workers under an explicitly internationalist agenda. Touring South Africa and preaching “the ICU gospel”, Kadalie unionised black workers in their hundreds of thousands, leading a number of strikes, and winning numerous court battles and wage increases. The ICU’s new ideas about mass mobilisation, race and irreverent “young and virile” politics - heavily influenced by Kadalie’s early life in Central Africa and early years in Cape Town - went on to influence numerous trade unions, movements and parties in Southern Africa, America and Europe. At a transnational level, Kadalie pioneered new ideas about race, worker solidarity and “socialist internationalism”. This thesis contextualises Kadalie’s globally-significant ideas with local political pressures – the changing contours of imperial politics in Central and Southern Africa, the calls from black South Africans themselves for segregation, and the emergence of black moderate and communist trade union leaders who challenged Kadalie’s pioneering general organising methods. A global history of these debates, it reinterprets the history of interwar Southern Africa through the life of one Central African immigrant. Rehabilitating early radical ideas about rights, freedom and justice, it retells how Kadalie established black trade unionism as a political and economic force on the African continent, and in doing so transformed global ideas about race, class and worker organisation.