CLR James, the great Caribbean intellectual, published two books in 1938. The first, The Black Jacobins, is an account of the Haitian Revolution that is now widely considered a classic.
The second, A History of Negro Revolt, is less well known.
It looks at black struggles for freedom in Africa, the Caribbean and the United States from 1739 to early 1938. It includes a section on the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU) in South Africa.

James wrote: “It will be difficult to overestimate what [was] … achieved between 1919 and 1926 … The real parallel to this movement is the mass uprising in San Domingo. There is the same instinctive capacity for organisation, the same throwing-up of gifted leaders from among the masses.”

The ICU was formed in Cape Town in 1919 and, although we are in the year of its centenary, it is an anniversary that has been met mostly with silence. In a time in which the response to the increasingly icy winds of global capitalism is often that of national chauvinism, the history of the ICU offers a window into a very different kind of political imagination.

Clements Kadalie arrived in Cape Town in 1918 from Nyasaland [now Malawi], where he was born and educated in a mission school, via Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe], where he had worked as a mine clerk. In his autobiography he wrote that it was “the systemic torture of the African people in Southern Rhodesia that kindled the spirit of revolt in me”.

While walking down Darling Street on a Saturday afternoon, he was pushed off the pavement and then assaulted by a white police officer. A white socialist intervened; the two got talking and decided that the moment was ripe for political action. They called a public meeting in Buitengracht Street on January 17 1919 to discuss working conditions on the docks and the ICU was formed with 24 members.

The new organisation drew from syndicalist ideas, the enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution that had rushed around the colonial world and — through the Caribbean workers on the docks — Garveyist ideas.

By December that year, the union was able to call a strike that shut down the docks for three weeks. The following year, Alex la Guma opened an ICU branch in the coastal town of Lüderitz, in South West Africa (now Namibia).

The ICU rapidly developed into a mass movement with support from workers, peasants, squatters and intellectuals across Southern Africa, without regard for colonial borders. Its leaders included people from different countries in the region, and the Caribbean.

At a time when women couldn’t join the South African Native National Council — the forerunner of the ANC — as full members, it is striking that one of the central aims of the ICU was to take a position in favour of equal pay for men and women and to “see that all females in industries and domestic services are protected by the organisation, by encouraging them to enrol in all branches of the union and to help them obtain a living wage”.

In Port Elizabeth in 1920, Samuel Masabala tried to organise a general strike. He was arrested at a mass meeting held in Korsten on October  23. A crowd of 3 000 gathered to demand his release and tried to storm the police station. Twenty-four people were shot dead and another eight were wounded.

After the killings, shop workers in Port Elizabeth slipped pamphlets into boxes of goods moving into the rural areas and within a month, farm workers in the Orange Free State had heard of the riot and were threatening their bosses. There was a growing panic among white people about the “red flag people” and calls to raise commandos. In 1924, presaging things to come, Masabala was dismissed by the ICU for financial irregularities.

In 1925 a branch of the ICU was opened in Durban. AWG Champion soon assumed control. Champion had been expelled from Lovedale, a highly regarded mission school, for hoisting the red flag and organising pupils in a militant protest against the school’s disciplinary regime that concluded with the stoning of the principal.

He did not always separate his own finances from that of the organisation, but he was a charismatic and effective organiser. Within 18 months of his arrival in Durban the local ICU employed 58 secretaries, clerks and organisers.

The ICU expanded into rural areas at a rapid rate and 21 village branches were opened in Natal in three months in 1927. By that year the Durban branch claimed 27 000 paid-up members, an astonishing number given that there were about 35 000 to 40 000 Africans in the city.

Rapid growth was not unique to Durban. Between 1927 and 1928 the movement spread with the velocity of Mao’s prairie fire and branches were lit up in villages around the country. Estimates of its national membership at this point range from 100 000 to 250 000. Its politics often took on a millenarian form, sometimes awaiting the arrival of armed African-Americans as liberators.

In Durban, the ICU largely built its extraordinary mass support by an astute use of the courts. Its legal successes included lifting the curfew on African people; gaining an exemption for black women from carrying night passes; ending the power of the police to make arbitrary arrests of African people; ending character references in passbooks; ending prohibitions on Africans trading in the city; and, most famously, ending the system by which African people were dipped, like cattle, in tanks of disinfectant on arrival in the city.

But, at the end of 1928, Champion was suspended pending an investigation into claims of financial irregularities. Most of the Natal branches followed Champion when he left the national ICU to form a breakaway faction (ICU yase Natal). It was vigorously opposed by the Zulu monarchy and the sugar barons.

The new movement explicitly opposed itself to the elite politics of the ANC, which it derided as “amarespectables” and whose meetings it sometimes forcibly closed. It ran night schools; staged music and dance performances; held large marches; continued to make innovative use of the courts; and spoke in many churches, becoming what liberation theology would later call a “prophetic voice” in these churches.

In 1929, women began to organise against municipal canteens and for the right to brew beer in towns across Natal. Raids on domestic brewers had been relentless, violent and destructive, often involving theft and harassment. In November that year, the protests reached Durban. The ICU quickly responded with two large marches from the ICU Hall at 117 Prince Edward Street — the first was headed by a brass band, a man in a kilt and flag bearers carrying the Union Jack and a red flag with a hammer and sickle.

In June, the dockworkers — who were housed together and well able to mobilise swiftly and effectively — declared a boycott of the beer halls.

Champion was initially hostile to the idea but, in the end, had to lend his support, as did Josiah Gumede, the ANC president. Gumede had visited Moscow in 1927 for the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. At an ICU meeting at Cartwright’s Flats, Gumede declared: “The ICU has taken the place of the Congress absolutely in Natal and that shows that the officers of the Congress were wrong to think that they could think for other people … Now let us combine and take our freedom …”

On June 17, all five of the Durban beer halls were picketed by the dock workers and a white motorist was killed. A mob of white people rushed to the ICU Hall to exact vengeance.

Paul la Hausse gives a concise account of events: “White ‘vigilantes’ laid siege to the ICU Hall and, by evening, close on two thousand white civilians, from every class, and three hundred and fifty policemen faced six thousand stick-wielding African workers. These Africans had poured from every quarter of town to relieve the beleaguered men, women and children in the hall and in the ensuing clashes one hundred and twenty people were injured and eight mortally wounded.”

In the end the “vigilantes” destroyed the ICU Hall, along with the instruments of its famous brass band. In September 1930, Champion was banished from Natal for three years.

The political initiative shifted to the Communist Party of South Africa which, amid opposition from the ICU leadership, organised a mass pass-burning by workers on December  16 1930. It was led by Johannes Nkosi, a leader of the dockworkers. More than 2 000 passes were handed in to be burnt before the police shot and killed Nkosi on the platform. The protesters fought back and two others were killed.

The communist party went underground. By 1931 the ICU was a spent force in South Africa, although various offshoots continued for the next 30 years and it continued to flourish in Rhodesia until the 1950s.

We could say, with Rosa Luxemburg, that: “The most precious, because lasting, thing in the rapid ebb and flow of the wave [of struggle] is its mental sediment.”

Jason Jingoes, a much-arrested ICU leader, captured the essence of that sediment in an interview in March 1927: “Although its initials [ICU] stood for a fancy title, to us Bantu it meant basically: when you ill-treat the African people, I See You. I see you when you do not protect the Bantu; when an African woman with her child on her back is knocked down by the cars in the street, I see you; I see you when you kick my brother, I see you.”

Richard Pithouse is an associate professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research

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