Archive for March, 2017

Kadalie Clements in 1926

Clements Kadalie addressing a gathering of over 10,000 in Bloemfontein.  From The Workers’ Herald, 15 December 1926

Henry Mitchell is an ESRC funded second-year PhD student in the Centre of African Studies.  As a MSc student at CAS, his dissertation, “Independent Africans: Migration from Colonial Malawi to the Union of South Africa, c.1935-1961” was awarded the George Shepperson prize.

Henry is currently based in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he has been conducting research at the Wits Historical Papers and a number of other collections.  His PhD thesis examines how the labour activist Clements Kadalie interacted with anti-colonial and anti-capitalist networks in the early 20th century.  Here Henry takes us back nearly a century, looking at the immigration question and early tensions between Malawian immigrants and native South Africans, an issue with increasing contemporary resonance as South Africa struggles to shake a hardening stigma of xenophobia.

“We have nothing in common with Blantyre Natives”: Immigration, internationalism and the nation in South Africa, in the 1920s and today

Henry Mitchell (henry.mitchell@ed.ac.uk)


In late February this year, after the Democratic Alliance mayor of Johannesburg Herman Mashaba labelled undocumented migrants as ‘criminals’, Nigerian businesses in Tshwane once again came under attack, with protesters demanding the deportation of all ‘foreigners’.1 Again the ever-unresolved question of who belongs to, and who is outside, the nation reared its head and dominated the news. Whilst researching the life and times of the Malawian immigrant and trade unionist Clements Kadalie in 1920s South Africa, similar issues and debates came up with remarkable parallels to today – yet, despite the vast amount of research on the contemporary situation, historians have done little to address the fact that this uncomfortable question challenged black South African nationalism throughout the 20th century, and split the founding fathers of the African National Congress (ANC). Already in the 1910s and ‘20s, the migration question and anti-immigrant violence were contentious issues, and could not simply be distilled down to a political choice between narrow minded-nationalism and more cosmopolitan internationalism. Ideas about migration and nationhood were entangled within broader debates about how to address falling real wages and declining living standards, with ANC leaders and black trade unionists divided over how to resolve the contradictions of colonial capitalism.


On Christmas Day 1927 a huge riot erupted in Western Native Township, Johannesburg. The Transvaal African Congress (TAC) alleged that “without provocation the Blantyre Natives [from today’s Malawi] secretly plotted an attack”, and that “heavy casualties were sustained amounting to between 50 and 100.”2 The following day Basotho men retaliated by attacking Malawians living in Newclare, killing 6 and injuring 25. The Chamber of Mines-owned newspaper, Umteteli wa Bantu reported that the “general feeling is that the time has come when Central Africans should be cleared out of the country…they are taking bread out of the mouths of the people who pay heavy taxes…[and having] introduced the knife for fighting purposes…they are chiefly responsible for the recent epidemic of stabbing affrays”.3 Demanding the mass deportation of Malawians, the TAC asserted that Central Africans’ “continuous stay in the Union will only perpetuate the recurrence of faction fights and bloodshed”.4


The author of the ANC’s first constitution, Richard W. Msimang deplored the stance of the Transvaal African Congress, and wrote to Umteteli wa Bantu “not to defend the Blantyres or Central African Natives, who no doubt can speak for themselves”, but “to protest against the petition of the Transvaal Congress.” Living “in a country whose Government is armed with drastic powers of deportation for imaginary offences”, Msimang asserted that it was “unlike an African Congress to support the application of a bad and retrograde policy.”5 In reference to the ‘Colour Bar’ legislation which the government had just passed, RW Msimang thought it was “strange to find Native leaders of an African Congress strengthening the hands of the Government in its bad policy of replacing Natives by Europeans…Happily employers do not ask whether the man is a Union Native or comes from Central Africa – they employ a man according to the services he gives.”6


Another of the ANC’s founding fathers, and Richard’s younger brother, Henry Selby Msimang, however responded with a bigoted if ‘economically-rational’ argument, supporting the call for the deportation of all ‘Central Africans’. For Selby, immigration had increased “to such an extent that our labour market has become a dumping ground for unskilled workers of the African continent”, and thought it “perfectly reasonable if the Union Natives want to claim their own that they should endeavour to clear redundant labour by imposing restrictions against non-Union Natives”.7 Whist the restrictions of the 1923 Urban Areas Act were resented by many black South Africans,  for Selby, “no one can quarrel with the object of the Johannesburg Municipality in seeking powers to check the ingress of Natives which tends to create redundant labour. It is in the interest of the worker or any organisation of Native workers that there should be such restrictions in this direction so as to create a constant demand for the supply of labour in order to ensure increased wages.”8 With the state restricting the immigration and mobility of Indians, as “a means of self-preservation for the European trade, more should be done to lend ear to the petition of Union Natives for their measure of self-preservation.”9


In part, Msimang’s essay codified who ‘South Africans’ were, and who they were not. He opened his essay with the assertion that the “South African Native is fast gaining race consciousness”, and concluded by qualifying “most emphatically that we have nothing in common with Blantyre Natives”.10 But his arguments also tied into his broader theory of an ‘authentic African’ trade unionism that aimed to control the ‘labour supply’ to urban areas at a national level. By establishing trade union-funded rural co-operatives which would keep “redundant labourers busy at their homes”, Msimang hoped to “remove the temptation to flood the labour markets in industrial centres – thus making it possible for our urban Natives to compete freely with any section of the community”.11 Having worked for a white ‘labour controller’ during the 1910s, Msimang posed important questions about how black wages could be realistically raised in the foreseeable future – though he employed xenophobic rhetoric to do so.


In contrast, the most famous ‘Central African’ in 1920s South Africa, Clements Kadalie, had a completely different, if equally ambitious, model for solving black workers’ low wage problem. With South Africa’s mining companies and farmers drawing on ‘cheap labour’ from Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana and Malawi to create a ‘low-wage labour empire’, Kadalie’s Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa (ICU), looked to organise all black workers south of the Zambezi into ‘One Big Union’. Understanding South Africa’s low wages as part of a far broader colonial system of expropriation and exploitation stretching throughout Central and Southern Africa, the ICU became Africa’s first mass movement with hundreds of thousands of members and branches throughout the region, rejecting both ‘tribal’ and nascent ‘national’ divisions. Attacking those “still thinking in terms of outworn nationalism”, Kadalie asserted: “We are utterly opposed to nationalism. Our goal is international Socialism.”12 Recognising “that the recruiting system is the means of keeping a regular supply of native mine-workers”, the ICU felt that “if recruiting, therefore, was only concerned with that object, we would have very little quarrel with it; but from what we would have seen and heard of the working of the recruiting system, it is nothing but highway robbery” The ICU wanted “free labour within the Union of South Africa and elsewhere in the Continent. We want a living wage, a new scale of compensation for the African mine workers…and above all, this criminal recruiting system must go at once.”13 Following the global forward march of labour in the aftermath of the October Revolution in Russia, Kadalie saw wage controls and anti-capitalist international solidarity as the answer to the woes of Southern Africa’s workers.


Kadalie’s pro-immigration stance was backed up by progressive and liberal black elites such as Sol Plaatje. Having “lately received four letters, each asking me to support a movement under the auspices of the African National Congress” for “the expulsion from the Union of all Blantyre Natives”, the ANC’s first general secretary “refuse[d] to support the suggestion by either word or deed” for both private and public reasons. With a number of his relatives already living north of South Africa’s borders, Plaatje feared the “time will come when more of my own relatives will find life intolerable in a ‘whiteman’s country’ and migrate to Central Africa, where some of them are already; in that case, a Blantyre retaliation may prove very uncomfortable.” In terms of public policy, Plaatje noted that it was already “the intention of certain people in this Union to rid South Africa of the Native population. How do we benefit the Natives if – wittingly or unwittingly – we play into the hands of such selfish people?” He went on to question: “Natives cannot even get money out of the Taxation and Native Development Fund to build a day school for their children, so, in the event of deportation, who must foot the bill?”14 More critically, Henry Daniel Tyamzashe, dismissed Selby Msimang as a hypocrite: “Many white people of this land have advanced, as a reason for their bad laws, the excuse of ‘self-preservation’, and Mr Selby Msimang is numbered among those who rightly condemned such reasoning”.15 Similarly, RV Selope Thema believed that the TAC had only lurched towards anti-immigrant populism, and “fortified themselves behind the barbed wires of racialism and provincialism”, because it had “lost the sway which it once held over the people”.16


As these debates played out on the pages of South Africa’s black press, other Central Africans also spoke for themselves – just as RW Msimang had presumed. Echoing Kadalie’s arguments for the liberal freedom of movement, the Johannesburg-based Nyasaland, Rhodesia and East African Congress (NREANC) under the leadership of Rev John George Phillips argued that:

The natives of Nyasaland, and neighbouring British Territories we claim, are a valuable asset to the Union [of South Africa], the country of their adoption. Were the Government to submit this question to a Committee of Business Men, of large Employers of labour, to Leaders of big Industries, we have no doubt that this ‘Edict’ for our Repatriation would be met by a very decided negative…No word was ever spoken to us, that we were ‘Prohibited Immigrants’. No, this is a later development, which threatens to break our homes, to divide families, and to bring moral, Social, and Religious blight upon thousands of inoffensive, God-fearing Native people.17


Whilst Andrew Chinzewe asserted Malawians’ “inalienable right to earn our daily bread within the Union, or in any other country, within the Commonwealth of Nations”, Peter Nyambo – a Malawian who was president of both the Cape Town ANC and the Cape Town branch of Marcus Garvey’s UNIA – similarly argued for the ANC to act, not as a narrow South African organisation, but as a “League of Nations”.18


Crucial figures in South Africa’s liberation history, regardless of their place of birth and political orientation, argued for the freedom of movement and a broader pan-African solidarity. Debates about the place of Malawians in South African society, however, centred around and brought to the fore questions about how wages and living standards could be raised – for Selby Msimang “the question of foreign labour casting us from employment is greater than all other considerations”, and had become “a question of self-preservation.”19 Already in the 1920s, important and contentious questions were being raised about the economic consequences of migration: Did immigration really ‘undercut’ wages? Why were wage differentials so significant across Southern and Central Africa? And could the issue of low wages be resolved through a minimum or living wage rather than anti-immigrant measures? Demanding a minimum wage across South Africa as a solution to declining real wages, the ICU answered these important questions with remarkably similarity to experts appearing before South Africa’s ongoing Minimum Wage Commission. Whilst the likes of Selby Msimang, and the ANC more generally, saw the control of movement as the solution to South Africa’s problems, for Kadalie and the ICU the solution to capitalist exploitation was not narrow-minded nationalism and deportation, but the control of wages, international socialism and pan-African solidarity.



  1. https://mg.co.za/article/2017-02-28-south-africa-faces-continents-wrath-as-xenophobia-rears-its-head-again
  2. ‘Africans Versus Africans’, Abantu Batho, 09/02/1928.
  3. ‘Trouble at Western Native Township’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 31/12/1927.
  4. ‘Africans Versus Africans’, Abantu Batho, 09/02/1928.
  5. W. Msimang, ‘Congress Supports Deportation’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 11/02/1928.
  6. W. Msimang, ‘Congress Supports Deportation’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 11/02/1928.
  7. S. Msimang, ‘Congress and Blantyres’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 18/02/1928.
  8. S. Msimang, ‘Congress and Blantyres’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 18/02/1928.
  9. S. Msimang, ‘Congress and Blantyres’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 18/02/1928.
  10. S. Msimang, ‘Congress and Blantyres’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 18/02/1928.
  11. S. Msimang, ‘Organising the Bantu Workers’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 28/02/1925; see also H.S. Msimang, ‘Non-European Trade Unionism’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 20/03/1926; H.S. Msimang, ‘Trade Unionism and the Natives’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 28/07/1928.
  12. Kadalie, ‘The Old and the New Africa’, Labour Monthly, (October 1927).
  13. ‘The Recruiting System’, The Black Man, 1:2 (1920); ‘The Slavery of Recruited Labour’, Workers’ Herald (c. July 1923), quoted in The International, 11/08/1923.
  14. Plaatje, ‘Should the Nyandjas be Deported’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 03/03/1928.
  15. D. Tyamzashe, ‘Congress and Blantyres’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 25/02/1928.
  16. V. Selope Thema, ‘The Responsibility of Bantu Leadership’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 21/01/1928.
  17. South African National Archives, Pretoria (SANA) NTS 2076 166/280 ‘Influx of Nyasaland Natives into the Union’.
  18. SANA NTS 2076 166/280 ‘Influx of Nyasaland Natives into the Union’; NTS 7670 86/332(1) ‘Native Unrest: Police Reports: Cape Town’.
  19. S. Msimang, ‘Congress and Blantyres’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 18/02/1928.








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