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date: 30 March 2023

Clements Musa Kadalie and the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africalocked

Clements Musa Kadalie and the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africalocked

  • Henry DeeHenry DeeIndependent


Between 1919 and 1929, Clements Musa Kadalie rose to worldwide fame as secretary of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa (ICU). Under his leadership, the ICU transformed Southern Africa’s labor movement. Organizing black railway, dock and factory workers, miners, domestic servants, and farm laborers across South Africa, South West Africa (modern-day Namibia), Basutoland (Lesotho), and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) into “One Big Union,” the ICU led a number of strikes, challenged pass laws and unionized anywhere between 100,000 and 250,000 members. Over six foot tall and always dressed in an immaculate suit, Kadalie regularly addressed mass meetings of thousands of people across rural and urban South Africa.

Kadalie was born in Chifira, Tongaland, British Central Africa Protectorate (modern-day Malawi) around 1895. After being expelled from the local mission school, he migrated via Southern Rhodesia to South Africa. He was elected as the ICU’s secretary at its first meeting. The ICU took a leading role in the 1919 Cape Town dock strike and won wage increases for dock workers in 1920. By 1925, the trade union had over 50 branches across Southern Africa and a widely circulating newspaper, The Workers’ Herald. In 1927, Kadalie toured Europe, calling on the international labor movement to campaign against a raft of repressive legislation. Amid fractious internal disputes, however, Kadalie’s “czarlike” character, frivolous expenditure and “foreign” birth were publicly denounced by rivals, and the financial contributions of ICU members collapsed. Kadalie led a breakaway Independent ICU from February 1929 and called a general strike in East London in January 1930. He passed away on November 28, 1951, leaving a complicated legacy. The ICU’s radical rhetoric and mass mobilization, nevertheless, demonstrated both the possibility and necessity of organizing black workers and inspired black leaders across the world for decades to come.


  • Southern Africa

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