The Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa (ICU) was indistinguishable from its flamboyant and eloquent leader, Clements Kadalie. He was assisted by T Mbeki in the Transvaal and A.W.G. Champion in Natal, who were revered by many blacks for their outstanding abilities to perceive grievances and operate with in the so-called white structures and institutions of society. Champion, for instance, concentrated on fighting issues in law courts and was able to win many of the workers’ cases against white employers.
Blacks considered Kadalie their liberator. His audiences were enthralled by his words. One man recalled: ‘Man, we thought we were getting our country back through Kadalie.’ He was also a persuasive showman with a great appreciation for the dramatic. At times during his speeches he strode up and down, and built up to a climax by successively shedding his coat, waistcoat, collar, and finally his tie. In doing so he sought symbolically to strip away the trappings of Western civilisation and reassert his place with ordinary people. The historian of the ICU, Helen Bradford, has argued that the illiterate poor who communicated predominantly through voices, gestures and rituals could not have missed the social meaning of this performance.
Kadalie was once invited to attend an international trade union conference in Geneva, Switzerland, which gave the ICU added stature. Many of his, Champion’s and others’ ideas were also disseminated by the ICU newspaper, The Workers’ Herald, to black workers in all types of employment.