The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

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This collection provides fresh perspectives on the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa (ICU). By far the largest black political organisation in Southern Africa before the 1940s, the ICU was active in six African colonies as well as in global trade union networks.

Thirteen original chapters by major scholars examine different aspects of the ICU’s record in the 1920s and 1930s, assessing its achievements and its failures in relation to the post-apartheid present. In its syndicalist One Big Union approach to protecting workers’ rights; its emphasis on economic freedoms; its internationalism; and its robust protection of women and migrant workers, the ICU challenged fundamentally the axioms, tactics, and programmes of rival organisations like the African National Congress. More than simply an exercise in excavating a crucial chapter in struggle history, this volume demonstrates that the traditions and legacies of the ICU are of great relevance to contemporary Southern Africa.

Open Access

Product information

Format : 240mm x 168mm
Pages : 390
ISBN 13 : 978-0-7969-2641-8
Publish Year : January 2023
Rights : World Rights


List of Abbreviations



Section A The ICU in Southern Africa

Chapter 1: The ICU, the Mines and the State in South West Africa, 1920-1926: Garveyism, Syndicalism and Global Labour History, Lucien van der Walt.

Chapter 2: The Rabble-rouser: Robert Sambo’s ICU Stint in Rhodesia, Anusa Daimon.

Chapter 3: Organising the Unorganised: ICU Internationalism and the Transnational Unionisation of Migrant Workers, Henry Dee.

Section B Local and Regional Histories of the ICU

Chapter 4: The ICU in Free State Dorps and Dorpies, Peter Limb and Chitja Twala

Chapter 5: The ICU and Local Politics: Kroonstad, from the Late 1920s to the 1930s, Tshepo Moloi.

Chapter 6: Trouble Brewing: The ICU, the 1925 Bloemfontein Riots and the Women Question, Nicole Ulrich.

Chapter 7: The ICU in the Western Transvaal, 1926-1934: Re-imagining Ideological, Spatial and Political Realities, Laurence Stewart.

Chapter 8: The ICU in Port-Elizabeth: The Making of a Union-cum-Protest Movement, 1920-1931, Noor Nieftagodien.

Chapter 9: ‘Home Truths’ and the Political Discourse of the ICU, Phil Bonner.

Section C Factions and Legacies of the ICU

Chapter 10: Leadership Contestations and Worker Mobilisation in the Early Years of the Twentieth Century: Selby Msimang and the ICU, 1919-1921, Sibongiseni Mkhize.

Chapter 11: The Communist Party of South Africa and the ICU, 1923 – 1931, Tom Lodge.

Chapter 12: Elizabeth van Heyningen, Illusion and Disillusion: White Women and the ICU

Chapter 13: The Romance and the Tragedy of the ICU, David Johnson.

About the Editors




David Johnson is Professor of Literature in the Department of English and Creative Writing at The Open University. He is the author of Shakespeare and South Africa (Clarendon Press, 1996), Imagining the Cape Colony: History, Literature and the South African Nation (Edinburgh University/ UCT Press, 2012) and Dreaming of Freedom in South Africa: Literature between Critique and Utopia (Edinburgh University/ UCT Press, 2019); the principal author of Jurisprudence: A South African Perspective (Butterworths, 2001); the co-editor of A Historical Companion to Postcolonial Literatures in English (Edinburgh UP, 2008), The Book in Africa: Critical Debates (Palgrave, 2015). Stuart Hood: Twentieth-Century Partisan (Cambridge Scholars, 2021), and ‘I See You!’ The Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa, 1919-1930 (HiPSA, 2022). He is the General Editor of the Edinburgh UP series Key Texts in Anti-Colonial Thought.

Noor Nieftagodien is NRF Professor in Local Histories, Present Realities at the University of the Witwatersrand, and Chair of the Wits History Workshop. He has published a number of papers and chapters, is editor of One Hundred Years of the ANC: Debating Liberation Histories Today (2012, with Arianna Lissoni, Jon Soske, Natasha Erlank and Omar Badsha), Students Must Rise: Youth Struggle in South Africa Before and Beyond Soweto ’76 (with Anne Heffernan, 2016), and author of Kathorus: A History (2001, with Phil Bonner), Alexandra: A History (2008, with Phil Bonner), Orlando West, Soweto: An Illustrated History (2012, with Sally Gaule), The Soweto Uprising (2015), and Ekurhuleni: The Making of an Urban Region (2018, with Phil Bonner and Sello Mathabatha). He serves on the editorial boards of African Studies and the Africa Perspectives series.

Lucien van der Walt is an academic and labour educator, in Sociology at Rhodes University, affiliated with the Wits History Workshop and Director of the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit. He has published widely on labour, the left and political economy. His books include Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940 (2010/2014, with Steve Hirsch, Benedict Anderson etc.), and Politics at a Distance from the State (2018, with Kirk Helliker). He has published over 45 chapters and papers in peer-reviewed books and journals, including African Studies, the Canadian Journal of History, Capital and Class, the Global Labour Journal, Labor History, Labour, Capital & Society, and Mundos del Trabalho. Serving on numerous editorial boards, he was also southern African editor for the International Encyclopedia of Protest and Revolution (2009), and winner of the Labor History and CODESRIA PhD prizes.

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