Samuel Makama Martin Masabalala was born in 1877 in Uniondale in the Cape and was educated in Grahamstown and Port Elizabeth. He worked for some years in Rhodesia and served in an African unit in the Boer War. Thereafter he worked at various times as a teacher, battery driver and electrician, and pharmacist's employee. Moving to Port Elizabeth in 1914, he became the leader of a workers' association that later merged into the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU). About 1919 he became an official of the Cape African National Congress (ANC). Following a riot by Port Elizabeth workers in 1920, Masabalala was tried for incitement but was acquitted; as a result he became quite well-known. He was appointed ICU organiser-in-chief about 1922 but apparently did not remain long in this position. He was a good platform speaker, Clements Kadalie later recalled, fluent in Xhosa, Sotho, and Afrikaans, "but for trade union work he was not properly equipped, as he did not avail himself of private study." Prior to the general election of 1924, Masabalala accompanied Kadalie at the latter's meeting with J. B. M. Hertzog. In the late 1920s, he was a member of the ANC national executive committee, and in 1929 he joined the staff of Abantu-Batho, the ANC newspaper.