Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Masabalala Riots of 1920

The name Samuel Makama Martin Masabalala is not well-known in Port Elizabeth nor is the fact that twenty-four people were killed in what subsequently became known as the Masabalala Riots of 1920. 

What is the background to this massacre and what triggered this deadly train of events? 

Main picture: Scene outside the Baakens Police Station

Biographical sketch

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.

Lennon’s in 1858

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.

Strike begets violence and death

During the period subsequent to 1915, South Africa was experiencing scattered industrial action both by black and white workers. Even the PE Tramways Company had suffered a strike by white drivers and in 1922 a strike by white mine workers almost toppled the government. At the forefront of that strike was the SACP which disavowed the rights of their black fellow workers at that stage. Hence there was no unity in action between white and black employees.

During 1919 and 1920, riots, strikes and mass meetings were taking place among African people in different parts of the country. A massive strike involving some 70,000 African miners on the Reef in February 1920 was broken up by the police. Meanwhile, in Port Elizabeth, a meeting was held on the 21st July 1920 in the City Hall to hear representations by a Black delegation to employers to decide on increases in wages. The Mayor presided and there were representatives of the merchant houses, Master Builders’ Association, Railways and Harbours and the Chamber of Commerce.

Dr. Walter Rubusana

In the meantime, Samuel Masabalala, employed by Lennon’s wholesale chemists, had established a Native Labour Union in February 1920. Masabalala attended the July conference of the ICWU in Bloemfontein. On his return, the local organisation was renamed the ICWU. Under the leadership of Masabalala, this mixed union of Coloured and Black workers, a first in South Africa, was mobilising the workers and threatened to strike over higher wages. A mass meeting was announced, which Masabalala would address. It would be held in Korsten on 23 October 1920. Dr Rubusana, an African leader from East London, and founding member of the ANC, was invited by the Port Elizabeth City Council to come to Port Elizabeth and use his influence against Masabalala. Not intent in listening, Rubusana was assaulted by a hostile crowd. Masabalala and the Secretary of the Union were arrested and taken to the Baakens Street Police Station. No charge was laid, and bail was refused. Later on the 23rd October 1920, a crowd of indignant workers gathered outside the police station where he was being held. Their supporters also began to gather in Market Square and, armed with sticks and kerries, demanded their release by 17h00. When this did not take place, and after a number of unsuccessful attempts were made by the police to disperse the crowd, protesters attempted to storm the doors of the police station. Stones were thrown. In the melee, a shot was allegedly fired at the police, who then responded by killing 24 people, including three innocent white bystanders and, in addition, 126 people were wounded.

Baakens Street Police Station

Later that day attempts are made to attack the Power Station and the Mitchell Cotts petrol store. The shooting is followed by random acts of violence and arson in Port Elizabeth’s White suburbs.

The Aftermath

The state denied liability for damages arising from the shooting, even though an official Commission of Enquiry had determined that the shooting had been unjustified. An amount of £2857 1s 0d was eventually paid out ex gratia to the claimants. Of this amount, £2327 11s 0d went to the dependents of the three whites who had been killed and twelve who had been injured. A further £377 7s 6d was paid to the dependents of the three coloured victims. The balance of £152 2s 6d was disbursed to all the Black victims.

Masabalala was subsequently tried on a charge of “public violence” and acquitted. The funeral of the dead workers was attended by a crowd of 30,000 people. Finally, in July 1921, the black municipal workers of Port Elizabeth secured a cost-of-living allowance.



Gerhart G.M and Karis T. (ed)(1977). From Protest to challenge: A documentary History of African Politics in South Africa: 1882-1964, Vol.4 Political Profiles 1882 – 1964. Hoover Institution Pres: Stanford University.

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

Capital & Labour in South Africa by Du Toit (2013, Routledge)

Social mobilization and political participation: the Gold Coast and South Africa by Ambrous Jacobs (1999, Stanford University. Dept. of Political Science)

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