From Garvey to Lenin, via Kadalie: The ICU’s “Ginger” Faction and the Transformation of Interwar Black Radicalism

Henry Dee

International Studies Group, University of the Free State


This paper focuses on the “ginger” faction of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa (ICU), a cohort of young black teachers and workers who started the 1920s corresponding with the moderate newspaper Umteteli wa Bantu, but ended the decade advocating revolution.

The paper makes three arguments. First, ICU “gingerists” were radicalised by promises of Garveyism, educational up-liftment and biblical salvation, as well as syndicalist and communist ideas. Throughout the interwar years, many communists opposed Marcus Garvey’s ideas as petit-bourgeois and reactionary. Many Garveyites reciprocated these antipathies. At the head of the “ginger” faction, radicals such as Thomas Mbeki, Keable ‘Mote and Stanley Silwana, however, worked closely with both Garveyites and communists, synthesising their ideas and leading demands for higher wages and strike action. Although ICU “gingerists” were sometimes noted for their contradictory “vacillations” and “opportunism”, they helped define a distinct radicalism particular to South Africa that emphasised the structural importance of both race and class.

Second, ICU successes transformed the priorities of communists, in turn, by demonstrating the possibility, necessity and significance of organising black workers in their hundreds of thousands. By the mid-1920s, the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) saw black workers as the instrument of historic change, and the era-defining Native Republic Thesis, in particular, was heavily shaped by ICU ideas and Comintern directives to take over the trade union.

Finally, the ICU’s class-based mass organisation transformed black radicalism beyond the CPSA, through Isaac Tabata and Anton Lembede in South Africa, Masotsha Ndhlovu and Charles Mzingeli in Zimbabwe, CLR James and George Padmore in Britain, and August Warreno and A Philip Randolph in America. The ICU created widespread disillusionment after its collapse, but it also popularised a new, particular form of mass radical politics that endured for generations, influencing communists and non-communists alike.


Henry Dee is a historian of empire, labour, and migration in the 20th century. His current research focuses on African and Asian trade unions and the politics of free movement in the British empire during the interwar period. Building on research into the life of Malawi-born Clements Kadalie and the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union of Africa (ICU), based in Southern Africa, he is now working on a comparative study between the ICU and the All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), looking at how both trade unions championed socialist internationalism, and challenged heightening worker repression and anti-immigrant restrictions.

“‘Hundreds of Native Workers are Joining the Communist Party in Bloemfontein; … which organisation … ever faced calamities, persecutions and prosecutions as the CP did?’: The Communists in the Free State, 1921-1940”

Peter Limb

Historians have largely neglected the history of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) in the Orange Free State due in part to its limited strength there relating to a largely rural economy dominated by hard-to-organise farm workers accompanied by a low industrial base that failed to spawn a large permanent black proletariat or black unions, and in part due to its scant written sources. The CPSA faced incessant hostility from the segregation state, churches, white-owned black press, and moderate black political figures in the ANC, ICU, and liberal organisations. After winning a greater degree of influence in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the party fell victim to sectarianism and declined. Nevertheless, it was influential at different times from the foundation of the party in 1921 to World War II.

I trace this complex history, bringing out the changing political and economic trends that influenced the party’s trajectory, elaborating the lives and ideas of oft-forgotten proponents of the CPSA, and analysing reasons for its weaknesses, but also for its occasional bursts of activity and short-term support. I draw on Sesotho columns of The Communist and other newspapers and diverse archives to paint a more comprehensive, nuanced history of the party in the Free State. Despite limited industrialisation, there were numerous black strikes across the province, some white communists lived inside black locations, agitating alongside black activists, but as their combined effectiveness rose, so they were banned or deported. Notwithstanding, Communist/Marxist terms and rhetoric were adopted by some provincial ICU and ANC leaders, and if often later discarded, the party, like the ICU began to lay down an imprint that would be built on by activists in later years of struggle. Today the province memorialises several important SACP figures including Edwin Thabo Mofutsanyana and Bram Fischer, although the class and other inequalities that the party committed to overcome remain.


Peter Limb, Emeritus Professor, Michigan State University and Research Fellow, Gender and Africa Studies Centre, University of the Free State, has published widely on South African history, satire, journalism, and anti-apartheid movements. His books include Historical Dictionary of South Africa (2020), with Chris Saunders, Taking African Cartoons Seriously, with Teju Olaniyan (2018), The People’s Paper: A Centenary History & Anthology of Abantu-Batho (2012), Autobiography & Selected Works of A.B. Xuma (2012), The ANC’s Early Years (2010), Grappling with the Beast (2010) and Nelson Mandela (2008). Current research includes a book on the Black political history of the Free State.

“Josie Mpama and the Communist Party of South Africa, 1930-1948” by Robert Edgar

Joining the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) in Potchefstroom in 1928, Josie Mpama became one of its most prominent black women leaders.  Based in Sophiatown in the 1930s and 1940s, she was an outspoken, independent voice in the Party on a range of issues: critiques of CPSA policies, relationships between whites and blacks within the Party, how the CPSA should involve itself in black politics nationally and locally, the relationship of black women with black men in political organizations, and strategies for mobilizing black women in local protests.

Mpama spent a year in Party training at a Communist International school in Moscow in 1935-1936.  This essay draws on records she left behind that are archived at the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Contemporary History in Moscow.


Robert Edgar is Emeritus Professor of African Studies at Howard University and Senior Fellow in the Department of History at Stellenbosch University. He has taught as a visiting professor at the University of Virginia, Georgetown University, the National University of Lesotho, University of Cape Town, and University of Western Cape. He specializes in the history of modern religious and political movements in southern Africa. Among his publications are An African American in South Africa: the Travel Notes of Ralph J. Bunche (1992), African Apocalypse: the story of Nontetha Nkwenkwe (2000),co-authored with Hilary Sapire, The Making of an African Communist: Edwin Mofutsanyana and the Communist Party of South Africa, 1927-1939 (2006), The Finger of God: Enoch Mgijima, the Israelites and the Bulhoek Massacre in South Africa (2018), Africa’s Cause Must Triumph: the Collected Writings of A.P. Mda (2018), co-authored with Luyanda Msumza, and Josie Mpama/Palmer: Get Up and Get Moving (2020).