Allison Wessels George Champion was born the 4th December 1893 at Sans Souci School, Lower Tugela, Natal. His father whose native surname was Patiya Mhlongo, had been adopted by an American Board Missionary and given the surname of Champion. The young Champion attended school at Amanzimtoti Training Institute, where he became known as a difficult pupil, not taking kindly to discipline. He was often punished and eventually expelled. Allison Champion left school in 1913 at the age of 20 and was employed as a Native constable in Johannesburg. George ChampionHe retired from service after acting as a plain-clothes constable in Dundee, Natal, in 1915. From 1917 to 1925 Champion was engaged as a clerk on the Crown Mines. Elected second president of the Transvaal Native Clerks’ Association, he played a prominent part in the Gamma Sigma Club. He was also a member of the Joint Council of Europeans and Natives, Johannesburg, and the Bantu Men’s Social Centre.
In 1925 George Champion resigned from the mines and was appointed Organising Secretary of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU) in the Transvaal. On several occasions he represented Native workers before the Government Commissions of Inquiry in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein. In Durban he embarked on a highly successful campaign against the hated by-laws, such that ‘dipping’, the curfew and the character reference workers had to get on their passes when leaving an employer, were all declared unlawful. In 1927 he represented the workers at the Wage Board Inquiry in Durban and in 1929 was a witness before Mr Justice De Waal’s Inquiry as to the causes of the Native riots.
In an interview with S Trapido in 1946 he indicates that “…the reason [why the ICU was so strong in Natal] was that the native workers and those who were on the rural farms under European farmers, as well as those in the native reserves were suffering under many harsh restrictive regulations.
He said: ‘…we established branches in every magisterial district of Natal and Zululand. The head office was in Durban, and we had offices in Pietermaritzburg, Estcourt, Ladysmith, Newcastle, Dundee Vryheid and Eshowe. All these offices had a branch committee, the officials of which were paid from the subscriptions of two shillings a month for a male worker and one shilling a month for a female worker. We had members here in Natal who were Indians, Coloureds and Basutos. But it was the first time our natives were organized in the province of Natal. The effects of harsh restrictive administration provided a sort of fertile soil, unexplored by any other organisation.”
In terms of its constitution, it was a trade union organisation. But like all other trade union organisations, it did deal with politics.
On the question on the reason for the decline of the ICU in the 1930s, he responded:
“Firstly, there was a difference of opinion between myself and Mr. Kadalie, my chief. I submitted to conference that we should turn to buying land for our members, because most of our members on the farms became wanderers. Even in the native reserves classes of people were bred who were not wanted. Mr. Kadalie did not see eye to eye with me. Then he left for overseas to attend a conference at Amsterdam International, and when he came back he found that there was trouble between the government and me. There had been rioting in Durban, bloodshed. I was in the bad books of the government, so much so that in 1930 I was served with a notice by the Minister of Justice, Advocate Pirow. This gave an opportunity to our enemies to exploit the situation by forming a multiplicity of craft organisations, which was contrary to our organisation because we wanted everybody to come into one union. That caused the decline of the ICU…”
On the relationship between the ICU and the African National Congress (ANC) he commented “…there was no formal relationship, but the officers of the ICU as well as other members were allowed to join the ANC in their own areas. For example, I became the Minister of Labour of the ANC at the time when the Rev. Z. Mahabane, J. Gumede and Dr. Xuma were the presidents. I had the qualification of knowing everything about trade unions and about workers throughout the Union. So in order that the Congress be kept informed about industrial questions which affected the natives as a whole, they appointed me as Minister of Labour.”
Mr. Justice De Waal reporting to His Excellency the Governor-General, was of the opinion that “Allison Wessels George 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 was capable of much good or infinite mischief.” The judge regarded his evidence as straightforward, and his demeanour left a favourable impression. Standing for total political, economic and social equality with Europeans, his arrival caused a a noticeable stir among the community and the politicians of the day.
George Champion has had a chequered career. In 1929 the Commission, consisting of Drs. Roberts and Lorum, Durban Council Native Advisory Board 1935-1936. AWG Champion stands behind the Mayor in the third row from the front, sixth from left. Photograph courtesy KwaMuhle Museum Major Herbst and Mr. Van Niekerk, recommended that if Mr. Champion did not change his attitude he would be prevented from mixing with other natives, as they said his influence was too great with the ‘raw native’. Mr. Champion had a farm at Inanda and, assisted by his wife, was doing well. To see him on his farm gave a different impression than one gathers in his office and on public platforms.
On the 24th September 1930, Mr. Champion was exiled by the Minister of Justice from the whole of Natal and Zululand, excluding the magisterial districts of Newcastle, Dundee and Utrecht. This was the first action of its kind under the Riotous Assemblies Amendment Act 19 of 1930.
As a result of Mr. Champion’s activities in Natal, the Durban Corporation formed the first Native Advisory Board of its kind, consisting of ten European Town Councillors, two representatives of the ICU, two representatives of the Native Congress, four representatives of the Corporation’s Institutions and two of the SAR and H compounds. After the lifting of his banning order in 1933, he served together with John Dube on the Durban Native Advisory Board for a number of years.
Source: First President: a life of John L Dube, founding president of the ANC by Heather Hughes, 2011