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Origins of the trade union movement

Young boy helping his mother load onions on a farm near Brits in the North West Province, was taken by Gille de Vlieg on 27.09.1985In 1919, the first trade union for black workers came into being.

The Industrial and Commercial Union (I.C.U) was formed by Clemens Kadale and some dockworkers. Their basic demands were a minimum living wage and decent working hours.

There were many strikes by African workers challenging the discrepencies in wages between workers. These strikes were crushed with force by the police.


Black farm workers' wages were miserably low:

- Men earned R1.20 per month.
- Women earned 50c per month.

Black industrial workers earned:
- R1 per month in rural areas.
- R6 per month in towns.


Poster by Judy Seidman

In 1925, the ICU had just over 30,000 members; by 1927, its membership had increased to over 100,000.However, within three years, by 1930, the ICU had collapsed. How did the ICU grow so quickly, and why did it collapse so quickly after that?

One of the reasons for the ICU’s rapid success was that it was able to respond to important issues that directly affected the African people. In the 1920s, African sharecroppers and squatters were facing increasing hardship on white-owned farms. Many were evicted; others faced severe wage cuts. Violence broke out on a number of these farms. The ICU focused on the anger of these African squatters, and took direct action.They took some white farmers to court, protesting that the evictions were illegal. The African farmers saw the ICU as an organisation that was actually doing something to help them. And so, their support increased.

However, despite such widespread support, the ICU quickly collapsed. The organisation was not well organised. Some officials stole money from the organisation and there was fighting amongst the leadership of the ICU. This led to a split in the organisation and a loss of membership. By 1930, the ICU had effectively disappeared.

However, the ICU was not a complete failure. Later black trade unions were able to learn from its mistakes.It was also important because it tried to organise farm workers, a group which was often ignored by other political organisations. It provided hope, albeit for a short time, to the dispossessed people of South Africa

Exhibitions in the classroom

Reading the past:

Read the text above and answer the following questions.

• Give three reasons why the ICU collapsed so quickly.

• Choose one of these reasons. Does this still happen today? Give an example that illustrates your answer and offer reasons.


SOURCE: Labour History Group booklet, The ICU, date unknown

Analyse the ICU poem below and find two examples in the poem which show why a trade union would be of benefit to workers. Explain why this would benefit workers.


I.C.U Poem 

We are building up a union,

With which we hope to save the land

I.C.U are its initials,

In its ranks we take our stand.


We shall show by workmen's councils 

How to banish sweated ills

How to raise the blackman's status


How to conquer strife that kills:

Union means an all-in movement

None outside to scab upon us;

With folded arms we'll stand like statues

Sing our songs but make no rumpus.


That is how we'll win our battles

make good our claims to rights;

We have no other weapon left us

Brains not Bombs shall win our fight.


Forward then in one big union

All in which we're organised

Solid phalanx undivided,

No more shall we be despised.


I.C.U spells workers only,

I.C.U - fraternity

I.C.U means liberation;

I.C.U - "Labour holds the key."

- Labour History Group booklet, The I.C.U, date unknown.



Next: Early mineworker's struggles 


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