Father of the Black Trade Union Movement (1896 – 1951)

The enigmatic Clements Kadalie is best known as the man who organised the first Trades Union for Africans by Africans. The Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa, more commonly known by its acronym the ICU, was founded in 1919 with Cape Town dockworkers. After launching the ICU, he followed up with a successful strike of 2,000 dockworkers that brought everything to a standstill in the Cape Town docks. Kadalie had also drummed up support for African workers in the United Kingdom and Europe. This was a first for African workers. By 1927, at its height, the ICU had grown to 100,000 members.

Lameck Koniwaka Kadali Muwamba, the son of Musa Kadali Muwamba who became known as Clements Kadalie, was born in 1896 in Chifra Village in the Nkhata Bay District in what was then Nyasaland, today Malawi. He was educated at the Church of Scotland Bandawe Mission and at 16 years old, in 1913, he graduated from Livingstonia with honours as a teacher. Thereafter this highly talented and articulate speaker went to work in the district school system. But Nkhata Bay district was much too small a world for Kadalie.

Clements Kadalie like many Malawians made his way to Cape Town to seek his fortune. He was only 19 years old. Malawian indentured labour by this time was common on farms and in the docks and elsewhere in Cape Town, as it still would be a century later. Here Kadalie sought out the company of Arthur Batty, a prominent politician and trades unionist who was impressed by the young man. It is through the mentorship of Batty that Clements Kadalie entered the world of organising workers.

In 1921 Clements Kadalie was married to 27-year-old Johanna ‘Molly’ Isaacs, from the Bo-Kaap, a widow whose late husband was a Davidson. Molly had two children from her first marriage and Clements had four children with her, Alexander, Robert, Clementia, and Fenner.

The marriage did not last and for much of his children’s growing up, they did not see their father. While he was successful as the ICU rose numerically and was making a powerful mark in South Africa and abroad, his personal life was strained by his flamboyant lifestyle. It was said he had a love for cars, wine, women and song. Talk of corruption in the union led to internal union strife and secession by some of the strong branches. The year 1927 was the height of the rise of the ICU but also the beginning of a rapid decline. The organisation splintered and ultimately disappeared from the political and trades union front.


By 1926 Kadalie was already in a relationship with the woman who would become his second wife an 18-yearold Eva Moorehead from Greytown. After their marriage it was Eva, a pretty, sharp, and politically orientated woman who brought discipline into Clements’ life and put him back on the path of responsibility. Eva contributed a written women’s column to the ICU Bulletin and she was leader of the ICU women’s organisation. Whereas his first wife Molly was not well educated and a home maker, Eva was an educated young woman who was a politically conscious activist. Clements Kadalie had one child with her, a son Victor, and remained married to her until his death.

In 1923 Clements Kadalie had been replaced by the Communist Party of South Africa’s James La Guma as the main organiser/administrator in the ICU. This freed up Kadalie to take on the role as Secretary General. By the next year his effectiveness as a trades unionist gained the unwelcome attention of the government. He had riled employers and the authorities so much that he was arrested. They attempted to deport Clements in 1924 after he was declared a prohibited immigrant. He defied an order declaring him a prohibited immigrant and defiantly stayed on in South Africa. These pressures and his constant moving about, impacted heavily on his wife and children and added strain on their marriage.

By this time Kadalie who was not only a great orator, but who was also known for his essays, journalism and opinions on a range of issues, had gained a reputation that spread through Africa and globally. He travelled widely and in 1927 he was sponsored by Advocate Creech Jones, to represent the ICU at the international Labour Conference in Geneva. By this time the ICU had branches in every city in South Africa, as well as in Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Clements Kadalie was somewhat of a political maverick in that on every step of his journey in building the ICU and indeed his own profile, he temporarily allied with every shade of political ideology – Pan-Africanism, Labour Syndicalism, Ultra-left, Communist, Liberal and Nationalist.

Inspired by Marcus Garvey

All of these political relationships were short-lived. He started on his way with the help of white politicians and unionists, and then moved on to the revolutionary Industrial Workers of Africa. He was enamoured with the ideas of Marcus Garvey and also initially with the ideas of communists like La Guma, Gomas and Thibedi who were in 1926 expelled from the ICU. When he was forced to resign from leadership in the ICU he turned to the fairly week African National Congress (ANC) and espoused narrow nationalist politics whereas previously he had a global and Pan African outlook. He also at one stage tactically supported the white mainstream nationalists when the ‘native vote’ was still in place. Clements Kadalie was a political enigma.

With the ICU beginning to break up and, with clashes and witch-hunts, the once great union was reeling. Kadalie was forced to resign as General Secretary of the ICU in January 1929 by William Ballinger with the full backing of the executive. This was also at the time that Molly instituted divorce proceedings. Furthermore, Kadalie and six other trade union leaders were arrested under the Native Administration Act and accused of fanning racial antagonism towards whites. It was a hellish year for Kadalie.

Nonetheless despite this low point in his life he took a step down in prominence and established his own branch of the ICU in East London and became a provincial organiser for the African National Congress. By removing Kadalie from the ICU leadership the executive, though trying to save the ICU phenomenon, had also rang its death bell. During the 1930s and 1940s Clements Kadalie tried in vain to resurrect the ICU.


It excited him in the mid-1940s when the ANC Youth League was formed and young men like Anton Lembede and Walter Sisulu and others sought his contribution to political and union life in South Africa. They spoke highly of his wisdom and achievements. Clements felt that this was an indicator of an imminent revival of the ICU. It was a misplaced hope, but it was an indicator of the transformation of the ANC from being a conservative organisation with only around 4,000 members across the country, into an organisation with hundreds of thousand members and huge political clout. This was more the result of some leaders like La Guma and Gomas who had together with Cissie Gool and others formed the National Liberation League in 1935 (alongside the United Front).

The Kadalie magic and stature was depleted and the political and trades union world was unforgiving. Trades unionism in South Africa had embraced the new concept of industrial trades unionism (i.e. One union per industry with branches at factory level, rather than an all-in association outside the sites of labour and employers) with a sharp left political edge. Unionism changed radically.

Nonetheless Clements Kadalie had left an indelible mark on South and Southern African history. Everyone will remember the flamboyant talented young Malawian who has to be acknowledged as the founder of black trades unionism in South Africa. On a visit to Malawi in 1951 he became ill with an infection and on his return to Eva in East London, he passed away.


  • Thapelo Mokoatsi, Discovering Clements Kadalie’s writing
  • Henry Mitchell; Debaucherous scoundrel or dynamic leader Public projections and private silences in the
    biographies of Clements Kadalie
  • Henry Mitchell; The New Africa is ready to follow courageous leadership – Clements Kadalie, the ICU and Black
    Trade Unionism in 1920s Southern Africa; Henry Mitchell, University of Edinburgh (henry.mitchell@ed.ac.uk,
    Seminar Paper given at the University of Cape Town, 7th June 2016
  • Lucien van der Walt; Kadalie, Clements(ca. 1896–1951)
  • SAHO Biographies; Clements Kadalie, SA History Online
  • Roth, M; Clements Kadalie, 1896–1951; They Shaped Our Century: The Most Influential South Africans of the
    Twentieth Century; Human and Rousseau; Cape Town; Skota, T. D. M. (Ed.) (1966)
  • Clements Kadalie; My Life and the ICU: The Autobiography of a Black Trade Unionist in South Africa; Frank
    Cass & Co; London (1970)
  • Rasool C; The Individual, Auto/biography and History in South Africa; PhD thesis, Uni. of Western Cape; Cape
    Town (2004)

Sites, Resources & People

  1. A good selection of pictures can be found in the book: Debaucherous scoundrel or dynamic leader: Public
    projections and private silences in the biographies of Clements Kadalie by Henry Mitchell
  2. Rhoda Phala-Kadalie and Yvonne Kadalie, his grand-daughters live in Cape Town.
  3. In East London, there is a community hall named after him.
  4. The Groenkloof (Pretoria) National Heritage Monument has a life size statue of Clements Kadalie as part
    of the Long March to Freedom project.