Writing gender and family into the biography of a black trade unionist in 1920s South Africa

One of the hardest aspects of my recent research has not been accessing secret police records or conducting interviews with important historical figures, but finding out about particular women and their private lives.[1] Researching the history of Edinburgh University’s African alumni with Tom Cunningham and Ismael Maazaz over the last year, the biographies of more than 50 male graduates were readily available, often integrated within nationalist historiographies and complemented with quite detailed historiographical debates.[2] In stark contrast there was little to no research on Edinburgh’s first black women graduates: Agnes Yewande Savage, probably the first West African woman to qualify as a doctor, only had a few fleeting references and one brief bio; the lives of others such as Susan de Graft Johnson and Matilda Clerk still remain under-researched.[3] The only way of ‘recovering’ the life of Agnes Savage was through correspondence with her nephew – and compared to other research endeavours it was pretty difficult, haphazard work.[4]


Similar gaps and silences dominate much of South African historiography – with the important women, extramarital affairs and domestic abuse associated with Nelson Mandela, for example, only recently coming to light through the work of Paul Landau.[5] In my own PhD research into the life and times of Clements Kadalie –  a leader of Southern Africa’s first major black trade union, the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (commonly known as the ICU) – women and family have been notable ‘historiographical gaps’. Kadalie’s private life has been almost entirely left out of previous historical accounts of his life – not least because his autobiography mentions neither of his two wives, and entirely leaves out his five children. Numerous women, however, were integral to both the success of the ICU and Kadalie’s life, and just as in the case of Agnes Savage’s family, interviews and correspondence with relatives – in particular granddaughters Yvonne and Rhoda Kadalie – have been crucial to addressing these anomalies, and tying together otherwise disparate, fleeting archival references.

Johanna ‘Molly’ Davidson’s passport photo, reproduced with permission of Yvonne Kadalie; Clements and Alex Kadalie together with Simon Elias, from the Alexander Kadalie Papers, University of Western Cape


From interviews with Rhoda and Yvonne, it is clear that Clements Kadalie’s first wife Johanna ‘Molly’ Davidson (of Cape Malay descent) was crucial for his integration within the ‘Coloured’ community in Cape Town, which formed the bed-rock of the ICU’s initial support. From the family archives of Alexander Kadalie, the first son of Clements and Molly, which Rhoda pointed me to, it is clear that the Kadalie children became regular features of their father’s speeches, and often toured the country with him on ICU business. And from the personal papers of other black trade unionists, fellow ICU comrades acknowledged that Clements’ second wife Eva “pulled him out from many things and [she] built a home for him, rebuilt his name and built the home of the ICU in East London.”[6]


Victor, Eva and Clements Kadalie in East London, from Ilanga lase Natal, 27/09/1947; and a portait of Eva from the Alexander Kadalie Papers, University of Western Cape


The absence of women and family from previous ICU history is, in part, due to the misogyny that dominated the trade union and labour movements in both interwar South Africa and Britain. But is also because the personal was highly political. Having had numerous affairs both in South Africa and Britain, Kadalie eventually resigned from the ICU in early 1929 because “he anticipated trouble and legal proceedings against him by his wife [Molly]; and it was his desire that when such matters came up before the public eye, he should not be officially connected with the Organisation.”[7] The masculinity of his subsequent autobiographical self-representation, then, was at least in part a means of literally silencing damaging criticisms and rumours.


What to do with the obviously politicised rumours and side-comments which pepper surviving ICU archives, however, is more problematic. In many cases they are crucial to reconstructing the private life of Clements Kadalie – a history that he, and his embarrassed children, didn’t want to have written. Yet it must be questioned how seriously we should take the assertions of his rival, the British trade unionist William Ballinger, that Kadalie was “one of the worst scoundrels I have met” –  who left “a trail of debaucheries” across South Africa – regularly “appropriating a Bantu maid to serve him for the night”.[8] Or the troubling claim of the renowned pan-Africanist CLR James, a decade after Kadalie’s death, that the British novelist Winifred Holtby “was supposed to have sexual difficulties which were supposed to have been rendered by Kadalie. Some talk that she was a lesbian. I was a young boy. I do not think it was a rumour about Winifred Holtby.”[9]


After the separation of Clements and his first wife Molly in 1928, their son Fenner ripped up his father’s letters and he never spoke to his children about their grandfather – Rhoda only learnt of her ‘famous’ grandfather’s past when she was in secondary school. When historians approached the Kadalie family in the 1980s about archival records, they only partially responded to requests. Research into Clements Kadalie’s private life today is only possible because his first son Alexander admired his father and was an avid archivist, together with the fact that more distanced (and critical) grandchildren remember their grandmother Molly fondly, and are proud feminists who are happy to talk about their family’s past. Many of the more speculative rumours surrounding Kadalie are unlikely to ever be pinned down – but at the very least they point to the continued political potency of the personal across the decades.  

Henry Mitchell is about to go into the third year of his PhD at the University of Edinburgh, based in the Centre of African Studies. He is interested in transnational and labour histories across South Africa, Malawi and Britain. 


  1. This is a shortened reflection of a longer paper presented as part of the Awkward Biographies panel at the 2017 Southern African Historical Society conference, Johannesburg, available at  https://www.academia.edu/33844317/Debaucherous_scoundrel_or_dynamic_leader_Public_projections_and_private_silences_in_the_biographies_of_Clements_Kadalie
  2. See for example J. McCracken, ‘Banda in Edinburgh’, Society of Malawi Journal (2017).
  3. Agnes Savage is briefly mentioned in M. Sherwood ‘Two Pan-African political activists emanating from Edinburgh University: Drs John Randle and Richard Akiwande Savage’ on Afe Adogame and Andrew Lawrence (eds), Africa in Scotland, Scotland in Africa (Leiden: Brill, 2014). E. Keazor has pioneered research into Agnes in E. Keazor, 120 Great Nigerians You Never Knew (Johannesburg, 2014), and I was lucky to find a Savage family email address on one of his blogs.
  4. https://centreofafricanstudies.wordpress.com/2016/11/16/cas-students-to-lead-seminar-on-universitys-african-alumni-pt-iv-agnes-yewande-savage/
  5. P. Landau, ‘Fidelities: Self-telling about 1960s South Africa’, paper presented as part of the same Awkward Biographies panel at the 2017 Southern African Historical Society conference.
  6. Wits Historical Papers (WITS) AWG Champion Papers A922, C61 Champion to Eva, 03/12/1951.
  7. P. Wickins, The Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa, (Cape Town, 1978), p.176.
  8. WITS Ballinger Papers, C2.3.7 Ballinger to Creech Jones, 30/01/1929 and Ballinger to Creech Jones, 15/05/1929.
  9. WITS Sylvia Neame Papers, Initial Transfer, Carton 7, Box 20 – ICU Interviews: Sylvia Neame interview with CLR James, 19/06/1968, London

One thought on “Writing gender and family into the biography of a black trade unionist in 1920s South Africa

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  1. The village where Clement Kadalie is still available at Chifira in Nkhata bay in malawi. Research needs to extend.
    Rhoda should connect roots


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