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Mass Movements and the Petty Bourgeoisie: the Social Origins of ICU Leadership, 1924–19291

  • Helen Bradford (a1)


Radical historians criticizing leaders of the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union have focused on their petty bourgeois origins. This article argues that although most organizers of the later 1920s did not derive from the working class, neither were they able to base themselves securely within the petty bourgeoisie. Instead, like lower-middle-class Africans in general, they were being forced ever further from the white bourgeoisie and ever closer to the black masses. This was apparent in all spheres of life – economic, political, cultural, social and ideological – and was also increasingly evident in protest. As racially oppressed men and women subject to proletarianization and engaged in struggle, ICU leaders do not fit neatly into schemas which stress the bourgeois nature of the petty bourgeoisie.



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2 University of the Witwatersrand (UW), African Studies Institute (ASI), Oral History Project (OHP), interview with C. Kumalo by V. Nkumane and H. Bradford (HB), Mooi River, 1 Feb. 1982.

3 For more detailed accounts of the ICU see Bonner, P., ‘The decline and fall of the ICU-a case of self-destruction?’, in Webster, E. (ed.), Essays in Southern African Labour History (Johannesburg, 1978), and Wickins, P., The Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa (Cape Town, 1978).

4 Bonner, , ‘Decline and Fall’, 118.

5 Lodge, T., ‘Black opposition: a historical perspective’, in The Black Sash (February 1979), 16.

6 See also du Toil, D., Capital and Labour in South Africa (London, 1981), 102116; Luckhardt, K. and Wall, B., Organize…or Starve! (London, 1980), 45.

7 The alleged weaknesses of the union were related far more closely to the very nature of the repressive, overwhelmingly rural society in which they were operating, and to the profoundly undemocratic character of the ICU.

8 Between 1919 and 1924, the union was largely staffed by men who had either long been labourers, or were simultaneously lowly white-collar employees. Even after this, when most paid ICU leaders did indeed have petty-bourgeois backgrounds, unpaid positions on the elected, eleven-person branch executives were often filled by workers.

9 Central Archives Depot (CAD), Department of Justice, JUS 289, 3/1064/18, T. Mbeki to G. Hardy, 25 June 1926; The Workers’ Herald, 15 Dec. 1926.

10 Bundy, C., The Rise and Fall of the South African Peasantry (London, 1979); Legassick, M., ‘The Making of South African “Native Policy”, 1903–1923: The Origins of Segregation’, unpublished paper, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London, seminar, 15 Feb. 1972.

11 Coka, G., ‘The story of Gilbert Coka of the Zulu tribe of Natal, South Africa’ in Perham, M. (ed.), Ten Africans (London, 1936), 273321. Other junior sons included Kadalie, Champion, ‘Mac’ Jabavu, Selby Msimang and Henry Tyamzashe.

12 Coka, , ‘Story’, 288. See also Bonner, P., ‘The Transvaal Native Congress 1917–1920’, in Rathbone, R. and Marks, S. (eds.), Industrialisation and Social Change in South Africa (Harlow, 1982), 288.

13 This force-feeding on mission school diet was not confined to national leaders. Of the ten branch organizers whose educational histories are known, all had passed Standard 6, six had graduated as teachers, and five – in a country where only about 100 Africans could boast the same – had passed Standard 8. In 1924, only 702 African pupils were in secondary school, while eight years later merely 5 per cent of school-age children were in classes above Standard 2.

14 Report of the Native Affairs Commission for the year 1923, U. G. 47-'23, 28. See also Hirson, B., ‘Tuskegee, the joint councils, and the All Africa Convention’, in Societiesin Southern Africa in the 19th and 20th Centuries, XI (London, 1980); Rich, P., ‘Ministering to the White Man's Needs: the Development of Urban Segregation in South Africa, 1913–1923’, History Workshop Conference Paper, University of the Witwatersrand, 1978.

15 Davenport, T., ‘The Beginnings of Urban Segregation in South Africa: The Natives (Urban Areas) Act of 1923 and its Background’, Occasional paper No. 15 (Rhodes University, 1971), 13.

16 The Harrismith Chronicle, 23 Oct. 1926. See also M. Lacey, , Working for Boroko (Johannesburg, 1981); Davies, R., Capital, State and White Labour in South Africa, 1900–1960 (Brighton, 1979), 180.

17 Tyamzashe, H., ‘Why have you educated me?’, in Wilson, F. and Perrot, D. (eds.), Outlook on a Century (Lovedale, 1973), 210211.

18 Kadalie, C., My Life and the ICU: The Autobiography of a Black Trade Unionist in South Africa (London, 1970), 78.

19 Statistics of Production for the year 1926–1927, U.G. 51-'28, xiii.

20 The Natal Mercury, 14 Sept. 1927. Other bootmakers active in ICU branches included Stephen Nkosi of Vryheid, Alphabet Caluza of Weenen and Abel Dilape of Bloemfontein. For evidence of proletarianization of craftsmen in general see Dodd, A., Native Vocational Training (Lovedale, 1938), especially 38, 106. The shoemakers’ plight is indicated by their shift from production to repairing, and by the closure of Lovedale's leather department. Of the eight African bootmakers in Kroonstad in 1931, five were working full-time and two on a piecework basis for whites.

21 UW, Church of the Province of South Africa (CPSA), Evidence to the Native Economic Commission (ENEC) by C. Mbolekwe, 8518.

22 Mancoe, J., The Bloemfontein Bantu and Coloured People's Directory (Bloemfontein, 1934). 76; Census Report of 1927, U.G. 37-'24, 244; Bonner, , ‘Congress’, 286287; Rich, , ‘Ministering’; Bloemfontein Archives Depot (BAD), Parys Municipality, MP 1/1/7, Minutes of Town Council meeting, 26 Jan. 1928.

23 BAD, Supreme Court Free State Division, HG 4/1/2/253, Case 101 of 1927; The Star, 24 May 1927.

24 Mancoe, , Directory, 102. Women organizers included Mrs Elias, Mrs Lande, Miss Mildred Ngcayiya, Mrs Pearse, Mrs Busakwe, Miss Maggie Maguga, Eva Kubedi and Magdalena Mashalane. Mrs Siluma and Mrs L. Mkwanazi were respectively chairlady and secretary of the Women's Section organizing female workers in the eastern Transvaal in 1926.

26 Pietermaritzburg Archive Depot (PAD), Kranskop Criminal Records, Case 158 of 1928.

28 CAD, Native Affairs Department, NTS 7665, Minutes of evidence to the Native Riots Commission, 338.

27 Champion was forced to sell his landed inheritance in 1927. For Dunn's failure to make a living in Dunn's Reserve see PAD, Chief Native Commissioner, CNC 39/4, N2/8/3(27), Part II, Minutes of meeting with 57 members of the Dunn family, 14 Sept. 1931. By 1926, African-owned holdings in South Africa were less in area than ten years previously.

28 Swanson, M., ‘A. W. G. Champion Autobiography’, unpublished paper, 71; Kadalie, , Life, 88.

29 UW, CPSA, ENEC, Rev. Dube, 6262.

30 Jason Jingoes preferred underground mine work to that of a clerk because of the better pay. For the indebtedness and impoverishment of lower-middle-class Africans see Jabavu, D., The Segregation Fallacy and Other Papers (Lovedale, 1928), 73; Report of the Native Economic Commission 1930–1932, U.G. 22-'34, 217–218. For the plight of teachers see Report of the Interdepartmental Committee on Native Education, U.G. 29-'36, 16, 40, 109; Peteni, R., Towards Tomorrow (Merges, 1979).

31 Report of the Superintendent of Education for the year 1927, N.P. 4, 1928, 41. See also Swanson, , ‘ Autobiography’, 1631; Jingoes, J., A Chief is a Chief by the People (London, 1975), 98.

32 Davies, , Capital, appendix I, indicates the massive increase in the new white petty bourgeoisie, which is defined as wage-earners who were supervisors, who were based in the state's repressive or ideological apparatuses, or who occupied mental positions in circulation or service sectors. Other references are drawn from Kadalie, , Life, 37; Jabavu, D., The Black Problem (Lovedale, 1920), 95, and UW, ASI, OHP, interview with Kumalo. In Natal, in reaction to enforcement of the vernacular, there was ‘a renascence of pride in the teachers’ own language’ (Zulu). And it is no coincidence that Wellington Butelezi organized in the Transkei in the later 1920s around the problems of the black teacher ‘handicapped by a syllabus…If you dared to peep through you get a cla…if he dare to teach (the child) further than the syllabus he is expelled’.

33 Loram, C., The Education of the South African Native (London, 1917), 149.

34 UW, CPSA, ENEC, evidence of the Kranskop magistrate 14–15. See also Census of 1921, 244; Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on the Native Pass Lotus 1920, U.G. 41-'22, 5; Peteni, , Tomorrow, 1920.

35 Jingoes, , Chief, 5659, 6669; Johnstone, F., ‘The I. W. A. on the Rand: Socialist Organising among Black Workers on the Rand, 1917–1918’ in Bozzoli, B. (ed.), Labour Townships and Protest (Johannesburg, 1978), 255265; Ons Vaderland, 23 Dec. 1927; Roux, E., S. P. Bunting (Cape Town, 1944), 6971; Kadalie, , Life, 3337, 220.

36 Wickins, P., ‘The Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa’ (Ph.D. thesis, University of Cape Town, 1973), 87, 497, 667; UW, CPSA, W. Ballinger papers, File 3, P. Seme to A. Champion, 9 Nov. 1928; BAD, Bloemfontein Municipality, MBL 4/8/1/81, Minutes of Municipal Wages Committee, 22 Feb. 1926; BAD, HG 4/1/2/240, Case 124 of 1926.

37 Pass exemption was not open, for example, to most separatist ministers, to hawkers, or to the 70 per cent of Free State teachers who were unqualified. The 1927 Native Administration Act gave legislative force to the administrative practice of limiting exemption certificates.

38 The Workers’ Herald, 15 Sept. 1927; CAD, NTS 49/328, Director of Native Labour to Secretary of Native Affairs (SNA), 21 Oct. 1930.

39 The Natal Farmer, 13 May 1927.

40 Tyamzashe, , ‘Educated’, 210.

41 Coka, , ‘Story’, 284287; Peteni, , Tomorrow, 71; Schapera, I., ‘The Teacher and his Community’ in Dumbrell, H. (ed.), Letters to African Teachers (London, 1935), 26.

42 Kadalie, , Life, 78.

43 CAD, NTS 49/328, CNC Natal to SNA, 8 Nov. 1929, with translation of ‘Blood and Tears’.

44 Schapera, , ‘Teacher’, 26.

45 Shoemakers were conspicuous at lower leadership levels in, for instance, the East Anglian rural uprising of 1816 and Paris in the Year II. For a stimulating discussion of the material basis for their proverbial radicalism see Hobsbawm, E. and Scott, J., ‘Political Shoemakers’, in Past and Present, LXXXIX (1980).

46 Jabavu, , Segregation, 82. See also The Report of the Native Churches Commission, U.G. 39-'25, 18.

47 The Workers’ Herald, 18 March 1927. See also UW, ASI, OHP, interview with O. Mpetha by HB, Cape Town, 21 Sept. 1983. Some of Mpetha's Standard 6 associates were also involved in the Mount Frere branch, and Coka missed six weeks of Standard 8 to fulfil duties as assistant branch secretary in Vryheid.

48 Notule van die Vyf-en-Vyftigste Algemene Vergadering van die Nederduitsch Ger. Kerkvan Natal, April 1928, 5758; Jabavu, D., ‘Christianity And The Bantu’ in Stauffer, M. (ed.), Thinking with Africa (London, 1928), 121.

49 BAD, Brandfort Municipality, MBR 9/5/4, Ds. Strydom (Sending Sekretaris van die NGK, OFS) to Stadsklerk Brandfort, 10 July 1926.

50 Mancoe, , Directory, 11, 102.

51 BAD, Lindley Municipality, LLI2/I, N9/10/2, B. Moshanyana to Lindley magistrate, 26 April 1928.

52 ICU leaders who were servicemen included Dunn, Modiakgotla, Jingoes, London and S. Bennet Ncwana. For a discussion on how their experiences and Garveyism contributed to the rise of nationalism see Pirio, G., ‘The Role of Garveyism in the Making of the South African Working Classes and Namibian Nationalism’, paper given to conference ‘South Africa in the Comparative Study of Class, Race and Nationalism’, New York, Sept. 1982.

53 CAD, Department of Police, SAP Conf. 6/698/19, abridged prospectus of ‘The Black Man’ Company.

54 Johnstone, , ‘I.W.A.’, 255265; Bonner, , ‘Congress’, 294.

55 Roux, , Bunting, 6476. ICU leaders who were CP members included J. la Guma, E. Khaile, J. Gomas, R. de Norman, J. Nkosi and A. Nzula.

56 Walshe, P., The Rise of African Nationalism in South Africa (London, 1970), 71, 90, 104; Kadalie, , Life, 60; Neame, S., ‘The I.C.U. and British Imperialism’, in Societies in Southern Africa in the 19th and 20th Centuries, I (London, 1970).

57 The Star, 17 Dec. 1927. In the late 1920s, Champion succeeded Kadalie as Minister of Labour in the African National Congress. The former also retained his membership of the Johannesburg joint council throughout his period in the Union. Whether the union boycotted or captured location advisory boards depended on local conditions. Amongst the small-town members of these bodies were Johannes N'Geti, a Middleburg trader, and Josiah Moshoko of Harrismith. And in 1926, Elias, ’Mote, Mogaecho, Dilape and Jacob Sesing were successfully elected to Bloemfontein's board.

58 The Workers’ Herald, 28 April 1926. Champion had been expelled for organizing fellow pupils against the missionaries’ disciplinary regime, while future ICU leaders were amongst the women who burnt their passes in Bloemfontein in 1913. Amongst the future ICU officials who took a leading part in the 1918–1920 protest were Selby Msimang, Theo Lujiza, Samuel Masabalala, Jacob Sesing and Kadalie himself.

59 BAD, Harrismith magistrate's correspondence, CCLV, SNA to Harrismith magistrate, 27 July 1922; The Harrismith Chronicle, 6 Nov. 1926.

60 Ngubane, J., An African Explains Apartheid (London, 1963), 87.

61 Willan, B., ‘Sol Plaatje, De Beers and an Old Tram Shed: Class Relations and Social Control in a South African Town, 1918–1919’, J. Southern Afr. Studies, IV, ii (1977), 197.

1 I wish to thank William Beinart, Philip Bonner, Peter Delius, Baruch Hirson, Maureen Tayal and Charles van Onselen for their patience and perception in commenting on an earlier draft of this paper.

Mass Movements and the Petty Bourgeoisie: the Social Origins of ICU Leadership, 1924–19291

  • Helen Bradford (a1)


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