The Heroic Story of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa (ICU): learning the lessons

Compiled by Warren McGregor (TAAC, ZACF)

The Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa (ICU) was formed in Cape Town in 1919. In 1920 it merged with the revolutionary syndicalist union, the Industrial Workers of Africa, and other unions. It grew rapidly in South Africa among Coloured and black African workers and tenant farmers. It also spread, in the 1920s and 1930s, into neighbouring countries. The ICU was not a revolutionary syndicalist union, but it was influenced by syndicalism.

The Workers Herald - ICU

What were the aims of the ICU?

The aims of the ICU were sometimes a little confused. It was influenced by many ideas. But according to the 1925 Constitution of the ICU, and many speeches and statements, the ultimate aim of the ICU was: to abolish the class system through worker and direct action, and to equally redistribute economic and political power, in conjunction with organised workers throughout the world.

The unions would run the factories and farms. In the South African context, this also meant land occupations by and for black and Coloured workers, ending the power of big white farmers. The ICU aimed to end national oppression in South Africa, championing workers of colour.

The ICU constitution stated that it wanted to reorganise society along socialist lines in accordance with the principle: “From each according to ability, to each according to need.”

The ICU’s short-term aim was to organise workers across industries, and in both urban and rural areas. ICU activists believed their strength was in their numbers, and could be grown by uniting all workers into “One Big Union.” Many members were not workers. They were tenant farmers: peasant families who rented land from white farmers, paying with labour or crops or money.

What were the strengths and achievements of the ICU?

A big achievement of the ICU was in its numbers – over 100 000 members at its height in South Africa alone– and the union also managed to mobilise across much of the larger southern African region. The ICU was the largest trade union to have taken root on the African continent until the 1940s.

Another major achievement was that the membership, by the late 1920s, was mostly rural workers and tenant farmers, who are generally much harder to organise than urban workers.

It also made international connections, with support from American and British unions.

What were the ICU’s weaknesses?

The ICU had a basic class analysis and an idea of what it wanted (a free society, where blacks and Coloureds were treated with dignity, and where workers were not exploited) and what to use (trade unions) to get there. It lacked, however, a strategic analysis of how the ICU trade union was going to bring this about. This, combined with poor organisation and problems with finance and in-fighting, made the ICU quite ineffective despite its strength in terms of numbers.

Also, the ICU’s politics were often confused. Sometimes the ICU used a class analysis, sometimes it was nationalist, sometimes it was radical, sometimes it was very moderate. It spoke of strikes, but did not organise many. It spoke of bottom-up structures, but many ICU leaders were corrupt and accountability was weak. By the early 1930s, the ICU had collapsed in South Africa.

ICU contributors: Abram, Anathi , Bongani, Eric, Jane, Leila,
Lucky, Mzee, Nobuhle, Nonzukiso, Pitso, Siya, Warren