Published on website November 30, 2018
Tribute to John Mtoleni Zikhali at his funeral, by SACTWU Union General Secretary Ebrahim Patel (2006).
John Mtoleni Zikhali was born on 14 February 1960, five weeks before the Sharpeville massacre by the police seven weeks before the banning of the African National Congress (ANC).
He was born in Ngudwini in the Eshowe District in KwaZulu Natal (KZN), an area of green rolling hills where the cattle graze that he looked after as a young boy. His father was Macaleni Zikhali and his mother is Khonzephi Zikhali. He has three brothers and a sister. John started school late; at age 10 in 1970 at Ngudwini Lower Primary. He commenced Std 2 in 1973, the year of the big strike by 100 000 textile and other workers in Durban. After finishing Std 2, he went to Hlungwini Higher Primary School where he completed his Std 6. He left school after 1976.
His political thinking was already starting to take form as he saw the poverty, the hunger and the oppression of his people. He found work at Canvas Textiles and worked there for a few years. The company closed in 1980 and John went through a period of unemployment. On 29 November 1980, he married Sibongile Sizakele. The lobola was 11 cows. This was also the year when the schools boycotts started in the Western Cape, spread across the land and the Meat Workers strike took place. In 1983, he found a job in the Industrial Division of Romatex. The company was part of the then Barlow Rand, now known as Barloworld, John's factory had 1200 workers. In 1983, the year he started work at Romatex, the United Democratic Front was formed and a serious battle for control of KwaZulu and the province of Natal started.
He became involved in trade union organisation and was elected as a shopsteward in 1986. He rapidly grew in the movement, becoming active in Durban South branch which under his leadership grew to 16 000 strong, the size of a small union. By the late 1980s he was active in the formation of Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union of South Africa (ACTWUSA) and the creation of the National Romatex Shop Stewards Council.
In the late 1980s, John had become a very effective shopsteward, and during one of the briefing sessions on a disciplinary enquiry, he was accused of intimidation by the company, and dismissed. This sparked a strike of all 1200 workers. At the appeal hearing, the union prepared its case carefully, using legal argument and the evidence it had obtained. Workers at the company felt something was missing, so they prepared and cooked a chicken and mixed it with umuti and union organisers Chris Gina, Prince Pakkies and John Eagles were asked by workers to finish the chicken before they went in for the appeal hearing. Clearly the combination of the strong umuti and the good legal preparation was enough for the company to reinstate our dear comrade.
By the early 1990s John had become involved in organising outside the urban area. Union organiser Siphiwe Ngidi, had recruited a large number of workers in Isithebe in 1987 as part of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) campaign to organise the rural areas. The companies collaborated with the police to crush the union, and we lost a few thousand members. John together with Chris Gina were instrumental in 1993 to revive the organisation and we rapidly re-established ourselves in the area. By 1993 he was elected vice-chairperson of the region, and a year later Chairperson of COSATU in KZN. This period also saw him actively involved in building the political voice of his community and the working class perspective within the movement. He had become strongly involved in the peace process in the province, and showed a courage in going to no-go areas and building the profile of the movement. His work in building peace is one of his important legacies.
After the 1994 election, John was offered a promotion as a Director of one of the Divisions of the company he worked for. He was to act as the company's lobbyist, with a very attractive financial package. John represented workers on the Central Executive Committee of COSATU for a number of years. He discussed the matter in the union and made it clear he will not accept the offer because he saw his role to be with his members. Shortly thereafter, when the company unbundled, John was transferred to Cotton King, a company that was not expected to survive, but the new owner worked with his staff to modernise the factory and today it still operates, producing cotton-wool for the nation's hospitals.
During this period, John was active in helping workers outside our sector. He resolved a large strike in the Inkandla area, earning the love of the workers and the respect of the Inkosi of the area. Later he was deployed to do political work in the area because of his good reputation. He was also involved in resolving the strike at King Edward hospital in 1995 and now many years later workers still remember him and welcomed him when he visited the hospital. In 1999 he was elected Deputy President of the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (SACTWU) and a year later when Cde Amon Ntuli stepped down, he was elected President, a post he was unanimously re-elected to in 2001 and 2003
He served the industry on the Cotton Board and interacted with the Department of Trade and Industry on issues of jobs and imports and passionately believed that the industry can and will survive the difficult times it faces at the moment. He took a special interest in labour law and regularly briefed lawyers and discussed the intricacies of complex legal cases with union officials and Senior Counsel. He also served as Vice-President of the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation, a global union federation that brings together millions of clothing, textile and leather workers. In October this year he was due to visit China to see how we can assist to unionise workers in the clothing, textile and footwear industry. In this he was a true internationalist with a vision beyond the day-to-day, beyond the borders of our country.
When we pass away, we leave behind the essence of our being in the memories of those whose lives we have enriched. We remember John Zikhali as a humble person, as a courageous activist and as a thoughtful leader. John was a person of few words but deep thought. Destiny chose for him that he will lead only in difficult times. He took over as COSATU KZN Chairperson when the war in our community was at a high point and when it needed skill and courage to lead; he took over as President of SACTWU when the level of Chinese imports into our country is tearing an industry and its workers apart and when it needed wisdom and clear thinking to find a way to deal with the challenges of globalization and the pain it inflicts on a sector. That he has been chosen to lead in difficult, not easy, times, is a tribute to his inner strength and capacity.
He had a calm and calming style of leadership. He would frequently say: don't worry, take it easy, there is no crisis. Behind those words was the deep organisational wisdom that avoided rash actions and impulsive decisions. The relationship between a President and a General Secretary is an intense one, that to be successful, it must be marked by mutual respect and deep trust. Where it does not, organisations unravel and fall apart.
John Zikhali lived in the world of the union and political movement and the world of the church. His death has brought these two worlds together, two worlds that try to speak to the same truth about the lives of our people.
At age 46 a life that had already achieved so much for workers and the poor was cut short, a life that promised so much yet. John, you will be missed by many, by all in your family, by your wife Sibongile Sizakele, your children Celiwe, Phiwe, Khulekani and your very special son Nkosinathi, you will be missed by your blood family and your union and political family. You earned very little, you lived very modestly and you showed your beliefs in how you lived your life.
Members of SACTWU paid tribute to John Zikhali in a nationwide moment of silence in more than a thousand factories across South Africa.
We must now say goodbye - it is painful, it hurts inside.