During the 1920s the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), which changed its name to the African National Congress (ANC) in 1923, did not accomplish a great deal to improve the life of black South Africans. Short of funds and poorly organised, it was overshadowed by a more dynamic trade union organisation. Called the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU), it was established in 1920 by Clements Kadalie (See The flamboyant Clements Kadali), who was originally from Nyasaland (now Malawi).
The ICU started out as a trade union for the black and coloured dockworkers of Cape Town, but soon developed into a more general organisation, including in its membership skilled as well as unskilled workers from industry and the agricultural sector. Unlike the SANNC, the ICU did not officially petition the authorities, but adopted a more militant approach with a view to obtaining better working conditions and higher wages for its members. As a result its membership increased rapidly, mainly because the ICU held out hope for immediate change within the existing socio-economic system. Branches were opened throughout South Africa, and in 1925 the union moved its headquarters to Johannesburg. At some point during the 1920s at least 150 000 workers belonged to the union.
But the ICU was not restricted only to cities. It had a remarkable impact on the consciousness of black workers in some country towns and on farms. Many rural workers who lived as labour tenants on white-occupied farms found themselves in dire straits and were particularly susceptible to the millenarian undertones of the speeches made by ICU officials. It was the only movement that not only responded to their grievances, but also promised them freedom.
Some traditional authorities were exultant over the ICU’s assurances of liberation and restoration of their land. A number of Swazi chiefs in the Nelspruit area, for example, went so far as to lead thousands of their followers into becoming members. ‘Redemption has come and that is the ICU,’ rejoiced one chief. The ICU was also widely perceived as the organisation that stood up for blacks against injustice. ‘I see you’ was often the way in which the name was interpreted. According to one white official, the letters ICU meant, ‘I see you when you do not protect the Bantu.’
The ICU as an organisation largely failed to provide effective activist leadership. It demanded a redistribution of economic and political power, but had no clear idea of how to achieve that. Too often it equated protest with pressure and growing membership with increasing success. There was no consistent strategy. In 1924 Kadalie even flirted with Hertzog’s National Party, despite the latter’s alignment with the South African Labour Party, which openly advocated a policy of ‘Workers of the world unite for a white South Africa’.
Kadalie stood to gain little from such involvement and, not surprisingly, was unable to extract any concessions. Similarly, he had unrealistic expectations of the ICU’s connections with international trade unionism. Considerable energy and money were expended to protect farm labourers and although some small victories were registered, they were at the expense of consolidating and organising the workforce in the urban areas where the potential for success was greater.
Such flaws proved fatal. The ICU failed to promote strike action where it was clearly warranted, and when spontaneous strikes did occur on the Witwatersrand and in Durban in 1927 the organisation was unable to lend support. Consequently, the organisation lost considerable credibility, which, despite its militant rhetoric, it never really recovered.
The leaders had not developed organically from the working class and although they were by no means affluent they represented a trade union aristocracy. There were even more fundamental problems. Many workers were migrants and therefore not totally committed to the urban and industrial milieu. Compared to today, only a fraction of the total black population was absorbed in the small industrial workforce.
In due course two factions developed within the ICU. There were those who supported more militant action and those who advocated moderation. This, together with financial problems, was largely responsible for the gradual decline of the ICU and its final disappearance from the scene around 1930. Nonetheless, it occupies an important place in the history of black labour. Not only was it the first black trade union movement, but it also helped to make blacks more aware of their exploitation. In addition, it cut across traditional loyalties in its attempt to unite black people as workers.
The decline and disappearance of the ICU did not mark the end of the organised black trade union movement and joint workers’ action in industry. Various black trade unions followed in its wake. A contributory factor was the introduction of a Wage Board to which organised labour could make representations on matters concerning wages and working conditions. In the years that followed, strikes and boycotts occurred frequently. One such example was an anti-pass campaign in Durban in 1930, during which the Durban leader of the Communist Party of South Africa, Johannes Nkosi, was killed in a skirmish with the police. In the same year there was also a general strike of railway and harbour workers in East London.
In the meantime the South African Communist Party had undergone a fundamental change of course and was now proposing a Native Republic, (See A Revolution of two stages).