The arch agitator of the Union by Shula Marks, 31 January 2019

To mark the centenary of the founding of the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union (ICU), New Frame republishes work by historian Shula Marks about Allison Champion’s influence on workers in the years leading up to his banning in 1930. The first of this two-part series focuses on Champion’s rise to prominence in Durban by winning a number of legal battles on behalf of workers.

Early days

In September 1930, Allison Wessels George Champion, leader of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Natal (known as the ICU Yase Natal) received a notice from the minister of justice banning him from most of Natal under the newly amended Riotous Assemblies Act. Champion, who was described by Margery Perham in 1929 as “the arch agitator of the Union”, (whether of South Africa or the workers is not clear), had been a thorn in the flesh of the local authorities from the moment of his arrival in Durban as the secretary of the ICU in 1925.

The ICU was founded by a Malawian, Clements Kadalie, among dockworkers in Cape Town in 1919. By the mid-1920s, it had developed into a mass protest movement throughout southern Africa. An “all-in” union, it drew its adherents both from the intelligentsia and the newly pro­letarianised in the towns and from the dispossessed squatters and peasants in the countryside. Although the organisation was initially slow to get off the ground in Natal, within 18 months of his arrival, Champion had built up an organisation with 58 secretaries, clerks and organisers. To quote Chief Justice de Waal, Champion was “in many respects a remarkable man. Of good Zulu parentage, well educated, in the prime of life, held in high esteem by and exercising great influence over his fellows, he is capable of much good and infinite mischief. His arrival caused a change to come over the scene.”

Related article: From the Archive | C.L.R. James on the ICU

By 1925, Champion already had considerable experience in causing what Chief Justice de Waal was pleased to call “infinite mischief”. The son of a convert of the American Board of Missions, he was educated for a time at the famous Amanzimtoti Institute (later Adams College), the American Congregationalist school not far from Durban, before entering the police force. After a spell on the Rand, he served as a special constable in Dundee and Babanango, part of his duties being to spy on the Zulu royal family. His mother, Nomazembe Cele, persuaded him, however, “to leave the police and get other employment ... because [Champion’s] father had been a soldier in the army when the British troops fought against the Zulus. ‘Why should you again follow in the steps of your father against your own people?’”' she asked. Champion now went to the Rand to work at the mines. By 1920, he was employed at Crown Mines as a clerk and within a short while headed the Transvaal Native Clerks’ Association, agitating for higher wages and “disputing the welfare of the workers”, as well as giving evidence before several government commissions. In Johannesburg, he was a member of the newly formed Joint Council of Europeans and Natives and became part of its executive committee.

Becoming the leader

In 1925, when the headquarters of the ICU was moved from Cape Town to Johannesburg, Kadalie persuaded Champion to leave Crown Mines and become organising secretary for the Transvaal. A few months later, he was sent to Durban to organise the fledgling movement. There, he rose rapidly to the forefront as a leader, both in Natal and nationally, taking Kadalie’s place as national organising secretary when the latter was abroad. As Chief Justice de Waal acknowledged, in Natal his activities transformed the position of the organisation. By 1927, there were said to be over 50 000 members of the ICU in the province, 26 000 of them were in Durban alone – a remarkable number if correct, for there were only between 35 000 and 40 000 black Africans officially in the town. Funds from the province had become the mainstay of the head office in Johannesburg.

In 1928, after financial scandals implicating ICU officers in Natal had erupted in the local courts and Champion’s own honesty and judgement had been under suspicion, he was suspended from the national organisation. Such was his stand­ing, however, that he was able to take most of the local organisation and membership of the ICU with him into the independent ICU Yase Natal. As A F Batty, the one-time British trade unionist and veteran socialist, who had encouraged Kadalie to initiate the ICU in Cape Town in 1919 and later became Champion’s friend and counsellor, wrote when the latter was suspended, “thousands of natives in this town rose in might against the victimisation ... of their leader and insisted on his reinstatement.”

Legal battles

Champion’s popularity was largely the result of the notable series of legal battles he had won in close association with a white lawyer, Cecil Cowley, against both the Durban Corpora­tion and local employers in the previous years. Among his most important successes were the abolition of the nightly curfew for black residents and the removal from the pass (the document every African had – and has – to carry to prove his right to be in an urban area) of the so-called character column, where an unfavourable comment by an employer could well jeopardise further employment. He also accomplished the exempting of black women from carrying night passes, the lifting of prohibitions on Africans renting rooms and engaging in trade in the town, the restraining of the police from summarily demanding passes and the ending of the system whereby Africans could be tried in batches for the same offenses with policemen acting as interpreters. In addition, one of his most notable victories was the abolition of what was known as “the bodily dipping of natives”, the compulsory disinfecting of blacks on their entry into the city as an anti-typhus measure.

A series of letters to employers about wrongful dismissal threatening legal action unless workers were given pay in lieu of notice had not enhanced his popularity with the white citizens of Durban. As Maynard Swanson has pointed out, “these manoeuvres were, of course, at best tactical and short-run victories. In their context, however, and in their manner of achievement they represented unprecedented concessions wrung from a rather surprised and increasingly indignant white community. They provided visibility for Champion and gratification for his public from which he acquired great influence for himself and his union.” His legal victories, while undoubtedly discom­forting to the Durban Corporation, served to confirm the social order rather than invalidate it. But while they certainly did not challenge “rampant inequalities” in the social order, they clearly increased Champion’s standing in the black community.

Beer brewing

It was his instigation of a boycott to challenge the municipal monopoly of beer brewing, however, that gave Champion the opportunity of mass support, both in Durban and in the smaller towns of Natal. This was particularly important because by 1929 the popularity of the ICU may well have already peaked as evidence of financial mismanagement and the disagreements between Kadalie and Champion began to affect morale throughout the organisation. In opposing the extension of the so-called Durban system, whereby municipal revenues were raised through the sale of traditionally brewed beer (that is, utshwala, the beer that was an integral part of African diet), Champion had fastened on an issue that roused widespread popular resistance.

Although the mining houses on the Witwatersrand had early recognised the potential of alcohol as an instrument of social control in the compounds, it is to the Corporation of Durban that the dubious honour belongs of having pioneered the municipal monopoly of the manufacture and distribution of utshwala to finance African welfare. This tidy expedient got the poorest members of the community to pay both for their own services and for one of the instruments of their subordina­tion. Under Act 23 of 1908, Durban had been able to raise no less than £283 627 in 20 years and had used it to build a brewery, barracks and eating houses for workers as well as a hospital and a couple of schools. By the 1920s, the Durban system was widely admired as a method of raising revenue and of keeping down drunkenness, since the alcohol content of municipal beer could be so much more easily controlled than if it were left to the discretion of African brewers. Thus the 1923 Native Urban Areas Act, which replaced Natal’s “Native Beer Act”, encouraged municipalities in the rest of South Africa to copy the Natal example and establish municipal beer monopolies for Africans. Under the 1923 act, African women were prohibited from entering beerhalls.

It was the spread of the Durban system to the smaller towns and municipalities of Natal, and its extension beyond municipal boundaries through the 1928 Liquor Act, that enabled Champion to mobilise support. Oppressive as the earlier legislation had been, African women had been able to sidestep some of its restrictions by brewing beer for domestic consumption. Many had been able to smuggle beer into towns or to sell it on or just beyond the municipal boundaries. Under the new legisla­tion, these evasions were no longer possible. At the same time, the new act also made it necessary for Africans on farms to have the permission of both the local magistrate and the European landowner before they could brew, while even the possession of utshwala became illegal in the reserves. The chief native commissioner of Natal was forced to admit the effect of the new act “undoubtedly presses very hard on the people.”

The first rumblings of protest began to be heard in May 1929 when the local administration and health board of Sydenham (then beyond the municipal boundaries of Durban) published its intentions of applying for a monopoly of beerhalls in terms of section 21(1) of the Native Urban Areas Act. On 3 May, Champion addressed the board on behalf of the ICU: “Our union does not favour the manufacture and sale of traditional beer by health boards or municipalities. They protest against any attempt to obtain money from the poor natives by selling to them intoxicating liquor brewed by the local governments and they feel that such means of obtaining money from the natives is not a proper and honest way of maintaining the Western civilisa­tion in this land.” A further letter of protest was followed and reinforced by two organised marches from the ICU hall in Durban to Sydenham, headed at least on the first occasion “by a brass band, a native in ... a kilt ... a Union Jack and a red flag with a hammer and sickle on it.” The marches passed off with little more than a couple of minor skirmishes with local passersby.

The boycotts

The heavy-handed actions of the compound manager at one of the barracks in Durban’s harbour area, led to the declaration of a boycott of the beerhalls by the dockworkers, the most militant and organised element in the Durban workforce. The dockworkers’ cause was taken up by the ICU. At a meeting on the sand dunes opposite their bar­racks, Champion openly advocated a boycott of the beerhalls. When, on 17 June, in an attempt to enforce their boycott, the dockworkers clashed with the police, serious trouble appeared imminent. Champion was called in and was driven to the scene by the police. At the barracks, Champion, according to both his own account and that of Captain Baston of the South African police, offered “whatever assistance he could for the preserva­tion of law and order” and was able to calm the “somewhat unruly” crowd. The men were persuaded to disperse. Before this was known, however, an angry white mob had surrounded the ICU headquarters and in the ensuing melee, seven people were killed (two whites and five blacks) and 84 injured. That day and the next, white civilians besieged the ICU hall and set to work wrecking ICU property.

From Sydenham and Durban, the unrest spread to Pinetown, Howick, Ladysmith, Weenen and the Glencoe coal mines. Here the demonstrators were generally African women, many of them already suffering from the famine that was to afflict Natal for the next three years. As one of a group of some 500 women told the magistrate of Dundee in September 1929, “We are starv­ing and we wear sacks because our husbands spend their money and time at the beerhalls ... This beer is our old food, the food of our forefathers. When we make beer for ourselves, the sergeant raids homes.” Another added, “We appeal to the government. We never have any rest. When we make our tea [that is, African beer], the police are always raiding us. Our floors are dug up and every day we have to put new floors down. When we make beer for our husbands, we take it to where they are working and on their return they find no one at the kraal for we have been arrested. The government does not protect us. Our husbands spend all their money at the beerhalls and do not give us any.”

It was not simply, as the chief native commissioner thought, that the women wanted access to beer for their own consump­tion, or even – as was undoubtedly partly true – that “the beer monopoly made inroads on the lucrative shebeen (illicit liquor) trade, thereby destroying one of the few fields open to African enterprise.” Male expenditure in the beerhall was doubly crippling for the household. Not only was much-needed cash being spent, but the new legislation also undercut what had hitherto been an important way in which women could subsidise family income. In the smaller towns and in the peripheral areas around Durban, where there was still access to land and grain, women frequently brewed for sale as well as home consumption. Now money that had hitherto been redistributed within and between households went into municipal coffers or, at the mines, into the trader’s store. The response of the women in the small towns closely resembles that of the 18th century food rioters described by EP Thompson as they sought the restoration of a lost right and appealed to the government for justice.

Antagonism over the beer monopoly added to the many other issues causing dissatisfaction and disaffection in the countryside. Inspectors responsible for checking the dipping of African stock were met with hostility and obstruction. One group of women told the officials at the dipping tank in Bergville, “During the Great War, the Europeans took our men and children and drowned them. Now they want to drown our goats.” In other areas, too, women resisted the demands of the police and local authorities, perhaps encouraged by their peers.

Champion was swiftly on the scene, and the women were organised into an auxiliary branch of the ICU Yase Natal. Yet the struggle was not a success – according to Champion “because only women took an active part … their men were in collusion with the govern­ment and local authorities.” As at other times and in other places, the men felt threatened by the militancy of their wives and resented the absence of creature comforts that their wives’ political activities entailed.

This is an edited excerpt of The Ambiguities of Dependence in South Africa: Class, Nationalism, and the State in Twentieth-Century Natal (1986) by Shula Marks.

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