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Centre of African Studies: People


Henry Mitchell

Henry Mitchell
Henry Mitchell
Edinburgh UK EH8 9LD
Research Interests
South Africa, Malawi, Britain, Labour History, Transnational History

clementskadalieOn 16th December 1929, Clements Kadalie strode through the streets of Johannesburg backed by a 4,000-strong rally and a jazz band blasting out the workers' anthem, the Red Flag. Mission-educated by Scots during his childhood and early adult life in Malawi, Kadalie migrated south, through Mozambique, first to Zimbabwe in 1915 and then on to South Africa in 1918. During 1919 he founded the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU), South Africa's first black mass movement, in Cape Town drawing members from across the town's diverse demographic - from African dockers to British trade unionists and Jamaican stevedores. By the mid-1920s he had risen to become an 'African Xavier', leading marches, mobilising South Africans in their hundreds of thousands and presenting a far greater threat to colonial rule than the elite-led African National Congress. Throughout the radical 1920s, Kadalie's creative mobility meant he came into contact with and drew on diverse discourses and political organisations from across the Atlantic world - Garveyism from the Caribbean, the works of Booker T Washington and Henry George from the US, anarcho-syndicalism, socialism and communism, pan-African and Zulu nationalism in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg, independent Christian movements across Southern Africa, and liberalism, feminism and pacifism in Britain. Shunned by white South African trade union congresses, in 1926 Kadalie applied for ICU membership to the British Trade Union Council and the Independent Labour Party. Though unsuccessful, in 1927 he travelled throughout Europe liasing with the ILP and Trades Union Congress in Britain, and the International Labour Organisation in Geneva.


Investigating how Kadalie engaged with these diverse, radical, anti-colonial and anti-capitalist networks, the thesis - funded by the ESRC - moves with Kadalie between different spaces, from Chifira village in northern Malawi where he grew up alongside Eliot Kamwana's rapidly expanding Watch Tower movement, to Cape Town - the Left Bank of South Africa, Johannesburg - the babylon at the heart of industrialising Southern Africa, and London - the imperial metropolis. 


Taking Kadalie's own writings, from articles in the ICU's Workers' Herald to his posthumously published autobiography My Life and the ICU: The Autobiography of a Black Trade Unionist in South Africa, and what - in turn - political rivals and the South African state wrote about him, the thesis looks at Kadalie as a mediator, interpreter and broker between diverse publics, agitating for workers' rights, who had to adapt his stance on Marcus Garvey, Booker T Washington, socialism and communism to the volatile political context of 1920s Southern Africa and the broader British world. Adopting new subversive techniques and technologies - the paper handbill and pamphlet, bureaucratic trade union organisation, the mass rally and strike, the jazz band and workers' halls - Kadalie and the ICU presented a serious challenge to imperial and capitalist structures as South African politics radicalised over the course of the 1920s.