ANC, yes but also, ICU

On the front page of a new magazine titled Northern Life there is a photograph of Chakufwa Chihana with a caption: “The forgotten warrior.” No doubt it is wrong to forget a hero who died less than a decade ago. But forgetting great people is one of the weaknesses in the Malawian culture. This article is about a Malawian who should be better remembered but is virtually forgotten.

In 1912, Dr Prixley Ka Isaka Seme, a Tsonga who identified with Zulus, founded a political movement in South Africa called African National Congress (ANC). This is the organisation which, in 1994, provided South Africa with the first black president Nelson Mandela. It had indeed been a long walk for the ANC to struggle for freedom and justice for all the people of South Africa. But the ANC had not been alone on the battlefield. It had allies whom historians must not forget.

In 1919, seven years after the ANC was founded, the first black African trade union in South Africa, if not in Southern Africa, was born. It was called Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU). Its founder and leader was Clements Kadalie, born in 1893 at Chifira Village in Nkhata Bay and qualified as a school teacher at Livingstonia just before World War I.

As George Padmore, the West India pan-Africanist, put it, within no time the ICU had established branches all over South Africa, including Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Let us listen to two South Africans who have written about him. Heidi Holland in her book The Struggle: A History of the African National Congress, says, inter alia, “Congress influence plunged during the twenties after a large proportion of its supporters deserted it to join a rival movement that showed more concern for the interests of black workers—led by a school teacher and impressive orator from Nyasaland, Clement Kadalie—chanting the slogan ‘Awaken O Africa, for the morning is at hand’.”

The other one is a Zulu called Jordan K. Ngubane. In his book An African Explains Apartheid, he wrote: “The ICU was different from the ANC in one important respect—its leaders were not drawn from the respectable classes. They had come straight from the ranks of the workers themselves and they had a ruggedness and militance that men accustomed to making obeisance before authority found outrageous. They stated that moderate speeches and pious resolutions would never make any impression on a government determined to ensure that the white man remains master, regardless of merit.”

I have given a more detailed account of Kadalie’s life and struggle in South Africa in my booklet titled I See You—The Man South Africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Namibia Should Not Forget. It is available in Blantyre bookshops such as Central Bookshop, Claim and Fegs. Here in short it can be added that between 1920 and 1951, Kadalie was one of the most influential leaders in South Africa, nay in Africa as a whole, according to George Padmore.

During the 1920s, the ICU membership had reached a quarter of a million and was probably the largest workers movement in Africa, south of the Sahara. Its main weakness was that it depended solely on Kadalie’s charisma. When he died in 1951 after a brief visit to Malawi, the ICU disappeared from the scene.

All books about South Africa concerning the apartheid era pay tribute to Kadalie’s magnificent leadership. Several times he got jailed and fined, threatened with deportation but he stuck to his gun, fighting for African rights.

Whenever you hear some people say that Malawi was not a member of the Front Line states which assisted the ANC, remind them of the work of Clement Kadalie in South Africa between 1919 and 1951.

At Kadalie’s funeral, Professor D.D.T. Jabavu of Fort Hare wrote: “Here is a man, a genius born among the African people. Kadalie was able to lead very big numbers of his people. He has left a heritage. Today, we know that black people can be organised and united.”

Since the advent of majority rule in South Africa, I have come across books and pamphlets with photographs of men and women who contributed to the struggle against apartheid but have not seen Kadalie’s face among them. Benjamin Franklin said people are in the habit of returning small favours but forgetting big ones. Kadalie was the first idol of South Africa’s black masses. This is what Jabavu is saying.

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