Clements Kadalie and the language of freedom

Thursday, 26 May, 2016 - 12:30

WISER invites you to a seminar by David Johnson

On Thursday, 26 May, at 12:30pm in the WISER Seminar Room (6th Floor Richard Ward Building, Main Campus).

In How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972), Walter Rodney argues that Africans waging anti-colonial struggles produced distinctive meanings of freedom. From the example of Somali resistance to Italian colonial rule, Rodney makes his general argument:

[W]hile the Italian fascists were in charge of Somalia between 1922 and 1941, they took away from history textbooks all reference to Mazzini and Garibaldi, two key leaders of the democratic wing of the Italian nationalist movement of the nineteenth century. Yet, the clerks and NCOs who received that education nevertheless went into the Somali Youth League and fought for independence at the head of popular forces. The fact of the matter is that it was not really necessary to get the idea of freedom from a European book. What the educated African extracted from European schooling was a particular formulation of the concept of political freedom. But, it did not take much to elicit a response from their own instinctive tendency for freedom; and, as has been noted in the Somali instance, that universal tendency to seek freedom manifested itself among Africans even when the most careful steps were taken to extinguish it. (Rodney 275)

At the same time that the Somali Youth League was challenging Italian colonial rule, South Africa’s Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU) was confronting the white minority regime. In this article, I use Rodney’s suggestive analysis of the Somali anti-colonial intellectuals of the 1920-30s as a lens through which to examine how the ICU, and in particular its leader, Clements Kadalie (1896-1951), both challenged the axioms of white settler governance, and generated an independent “formulation of the concept of political freedom”.

Like the Italians in East Africa, the South African government took the most careful steps to extinguish Africans’ universal tendency to seek freedom. Such steps involved legislation restricting the economic and political freedoms of black South Africans – the Urban Areas Native Pass Act of 1909; the Union Act of 1910; the Mines and Works Act of 1911, reinforced by 1926 Mines and Works Amendment Act (the Colour Bar Act); the Land Act of 1913; and the Industrial Conciliation Act of 1924. Complementing these racist laws, South Africa’s rulers pursued ideological means to contain the capacity of black South Africans to question white hegemony. For example, freedom of speech was restricted by the Native Administration Act of 1927, which criminalised “any person who utters any words or does any other act or thing whatever with intent to promote any feeling of hostility between Natives and Europeans” (Section 29 of the Native Administration Act No. 38 of 1927). And much like the contemporaneous Italian-colonial education system in Somaliland, schools in South Africa taught obeisance to white authority, and all but a small minority of newspapers transmitted messages of white supremacy. Notwithstanding these oppressive steps, the ICU expanded from modest beginnings in 1919 to over 100,000 members at the end of 1927, and superseded the African National Congress (ANC) as the principal organisation leading black opposition to white rule. Eddie Roux (1903-66), Communist Party member and early chronicler of black resistance, captures the short-lived but remarkable achievements of the ICU: “more than any other movement . . . [the ICU] raised the prestige of the African and put fear into the hearts of the authorities. For a time, it had even seemed that it was going to change the whole face of South African political and industrial relations” (Roux, Time 196).

Much has been made of Kadalie’s exceptional abilities as an orator, with C. L. R. James, for example, praising how “he used to arouse the Bantu workers to great heights of enthusiasm. At the conclusion of the speech his hearers were usually silent for some seconds before they were able to begin the applause” (James 61). But such praise for Kadalie-the-orator has contributed to relatively little attention being paid to the actual words of Kadalie or his ICU comrades. My argument is that the language of Kadalie and the ICU warrants closer analysis, as it went well beyond borrowing from existing political discourse, and constitutes both a lexicon of resistance rooted in the everyday experience of work, and a conception of freedom unique at that stage of South African struggle history. Furthermore, the legacy of the ICU is of more than historical interest. As the ANC’s stitched-together discourses of African nationalism, liberal freedoms, and state-capital collusion unravel, the languages of South Africa’s neglected traditions of resistance warrant re-consideration.