Devarani Naidoo

My name is Devaranie Naidoo and I am a machinist at Playtex in Durban. The factory is actually called DBApparel, but everyone calls it Playtex. I have been working at Playtex for 20 years, but I have been working in the clothing industry since 1980.

I grew up in Clairwood, which is a small suburb of Durban. My father’s name was Govansamy Vadivelu, and my mother’s name was Sumdri Vadivelu. My father was a machinist in a printing press called Haywe & Gibson. His father had worked there and was the first Indian man to have shares in the company, which my father inherited. I also have two brothers and a disabled sister. We used to call her Kantha because her name was complicated. On the weekend, I would help my mother take care of her. She needed to be changed out of her nappies, and she still drunk out of a baby’s bottle. At the age of twelve she died. My mother came in one morning to bathe her and she had passed on in her sleep. I was fifteen or sixteen.

When she died I became very lonely, but we were very unified. We were renting a house; we lived with eight other families in a yard with a landlord. Everyone was very close. My brothers and I would play with the landlord’s grandchildren. We didn’t feel like tenants. She had a very big garden, she used to plant carrots, cauliflower, coriander, cabbage… We used to be excited to help them growing up, to go out in the garden. I loved to see how the plants would grow. Sometimes, my auntie would sell the vegetables at the market in Durban. At home, no one was very political. We came from a very holy, very simple background.

I became interested in designing and making clothing since primary school. I would go out and buy paper patterns at a place called OK Bazaar and I would use my mother’s machine to make myself clothing. She had an old-fashioned Singer machine with a paddle. School life was not very interesting to me, I always looked forward to doing something in my life. I was more interested in making clothing, working in the garden.

After primary school, I went to high school at Clairwood Secondary School. There, I was very good friends with a girl whose name was Sylvia. She was Christian and she had three sisters. One of her sisters was disabled, like my sister. We shared this, and so we became very close. She was like me. We had kept in contact but recently she moved and we have lost touch.

I left school in standard eight. I wanted to go to university, but it was apartheid. If you were not white, you couldn’t get where you wanted to be. In those days we didn’t have proper universities, they were colleges. We didn’t have the same opportunities so I could not be placed in the university. That is what pushed me to get into the clothing industry. I had family that had people in the industry, so that is how I started.

When I left school in 1972 I started working in a clothing store called Ideals. Sometimes, they would ask me to model for them. I was very slim and trim, you know in my young days. I was 16 or 17 years old. In the store I would make sales and model to bring in customers.

We used to earn 3 rand a week.

Then they started paying seven rand, then nine rand. Finally someone in my family said you should come and work for me, and I will pay you even more. I accepted, but I didn’t realize he would give me a job at the machine. I thought I was getting a job at the office. He took me to the machine and it was very exciting because I had all these designs in my head… I was excited to sit and sew, to make things. The first thing they taught me to do was to make a men’s shirt, with cuffs and collars. That is how I ended up being a machinist.

After that I moved into swimwear. Then I moved into a very big company called Men About Town. They specialized in suits. They were situated in Mobeni.

The reason I left that company was that my personal life was not very good. I was married in 1976 and I had three kids. I had to leave the company and move on because I went through a divorce. My ex-husband used to worry me a lot, so I actually had to move from the area where I was working because I was living close-by.

I could not be living and working close to him.

Growing up, my family was very religious. I am Hindu; I wear the dot and the yellow string. When I was 18, my granny introduced me to someone of the same culture to get married. You couldn’t fall in love. I obeyed instruction and learned to be a wife, because I didn’t know. In those days people weren’t open about sex or about having a baby. I just went into marriage, and I didn’t want to have an affair with my husband because I didn’t even know what it was. I was too young. People were telling me, and I started grooming myself. I’m not saying I fell in love with him, but I started to respect him. That was my kind of life.

As time went on, things were not going well.  He was a very abusive man. He was controlling, and I was not used to it. I couldn’t tolerate that kind of life, it was emotionally draining. Not only for me, but for my kids as well. For ten years I was with him… So I divorced him in 1986. I took my three kids. My mum had her own house in Phoenix, she had moved from Clairwood. I had lost my father to cancer by that time. So I left Mobeni and went up to Phoenix and lived with my mum and children for a little while.

The relationship between my parents was excellent. We didn’t know what trouble between them was. They were very loving, smart people. We were very united. Living all together, taking care of my sister, we were very close. You expect when you get married that you will have the same relationship. What I went through came as a surprise to all of us.

My mother, my granny and my brothers were very supportive through the divorce.

They knew that we didn’t come from an abusive family. We didn’t know what it was to experience that, someone throwing things at you…

If I was still in that marriage, still in that abusive life, I don’t think I would have been able to work so long in the industry. I would be just a housewife. I would be a dead woman. I released myself and moved on with my work. Without it, I would not have been able to be an independent woman. Without work, I would not have been able to leave. I don’t know where I would be today.

I own a house now, and I am proud of that. I bought it on my own and no one helped me. I have four kids. They are now 37, 31, 30 and 25. Three girls and one boy, and they have all finished matric. One of them used to work here at Playtex, but she had to leave because of retrenchments.

Going through the divorce taught me a lot. When I became a single parent, it taught me to do things independently, on my own. To raise the kids, pay rent, do things for my mum, buy food, go to work… Be a woman of your own. I didn’t need anyone’s support. Without my job, I would not be able to do this. Before, I was tied to someone, I couldn’t go anywhere. I didn’t know what it meant to go shopping on my own.

The divorce made me a stronger person.

Then another soldier came along. He wanted me and fell in love with me. I had to give it time because I was too scared to take another step forward. I came from my mother’s lap, into the world, and I wasn’t even prepared to be there. I suffered for ten years, and I didn’t want it to happen again. I didn’t want it to happen to the children. I didn’t want them to grow up in that kind of an environment. So it was scary for me to make another step. But after hearing many people’s advice, I did. I never actually got legally married to my present husband. I’m culturally married to him, and I have been for the past thirty years.

In Phoenix, my present husband who I married after three years was working for Playtex as a mechanic. He said, “This is a good company, try and get a job here.” I was lucky, I tried and I got it. The company actually takes you around seven machines, and they make you try them out in front of them. Then you fill out a form, and they ask you if you can start now, or when you can start, and I said I could start now. That was the 12th of January, 1994. 

When I was a little girl I wanted to become a designer. Today I’m not a designer, I’m just a normal machinist who can work in any industry. Whether it is dresses, suits, underwear… Like here, we make bras, panties, and men’s underwear: boxers and briefs. I enjoy sitting and sewing in this factory. We learn a lot. The bras look very small, but it takes about 26 machines to complete one bra. Each style is different, and we actually sew them ourselves here. The sewing floor is a great place.

To tell you the truth, I was asked to become a supervisor many times. Because I am a shop steward, I am more passionate about the workers than becoming a person that earns more money.

I want to be with people, not sitting in an office and bullying workers. I have a passion.

That is why I never took the position and I am still a machinist.

Even before Playtex, I had been a shop steward. I first became a shop steward in 1989 when I worked at the swimwear company. At the time we were part of a union called GAWU. I had been a part of that union since I had started in 1980, but at the time we didn’t have shop stewards. I was also a shop steward in other companies as well. So when I came here in 1994, I knew I wanted to be a shop steward.

Playtex was very big. We had to deal with about 200 workers in a department, and I was not used to it. We were trained before handling cases. In the beginning, I would sit in with the senior shop steward Prince Njaba. He was a mentor for me; I learned a lot from him. This company was very strong, they had many directors. We were meeting mostly with whites. It was difficult. With him alongside me, guiding me, it was good.

I have learned a lot from being in SACTWU. SACTWU actually made me a strong woman. From the weak woman that I was, it made me strong. We have done many courses with SACTWU, sending us to colleges, sending us to trainings. Now I can say that I can actually help people inside the company. Being a shop steward makes me a strong person. It makes me feel that I am capable of being somebody like a manager, or even a director. My boss can depend on me. I know I can work my way out of any problem.

If someone is in trouble, if they are charged, we prepare ourselves and we know how to handle the case. You become the lawyer. You’re defending the person. There are a lot of things that I know I’ve done well inside this company. I’ve won cases with 35 people at one time.

SACTWU has trained us to become someone great.

You still get ups and downs in a company, especially with the supervisors. You cannot be correct all the time. Sometimes you get a supervisor that comes and screams at you, and that is the most irritating thing that you don’t want. Or supervisors taking you to the manager… Sometimes that happens between a supervisor and a worker. Just as a worker, with someone above you, that is always a problem, because that person will always have the upper hand.

The way I spoke to workers, the workers knew. When I started in the company they knew that they could depend on me to talk for them. You have to be in between. When you can help the worker, you help them. But also, if the worker is wrong, you can tell them. If the company is doing something wrong to the worker, then we give assistance. If it goes too far we can launch a grievance.

I have also been involved in two strikes. The first one was in the late 90s. It went on for a week. It was my first experience with a strike. Normally in negotiations we got what we wanted, but we didn’t. The strike helped, and we got what we wanted.

The other one was later, around 2000s. It was a three-week strike. The workers were united, they were prepared to stay home. There are factories in the metro area, and factories outside in the rural areas. The people from the rural factories were earning lesser wages. Many factories were not complying. It was not fair for them not to receive the increase when we were receiving it. So we came together and we were united. We wanted them to have the same increase to try to fill the gap between us and the non-metro area.

The best thing about being a shop steward is meeting all race groups, and learning languages that you didn’t learn from your mum or dad. You know when you grow up, when you get married, you are restricted. But becoming a shop steward, you learn to be a woman with power, to have courage. You become a mentor to another woman, a woman who is discouraged in the world. I encourage her, I tell her she can be like me. I become an inspiration to people that never see the world. You get abused women, who don’t know how to help themselves. I was like them. With SACTWU, we receive lots of training. That motivates us and makes us who we are. We have more and more women in the industry, and more female shop stewards. These are strong women. If you go around, you can see.

I am a very proud woman to work in my company. There was a time when we were just hearing about HIV/AIDS. We went for trainings with SACTWU; I completed a course on how to sit and council a worker. There was one woman in the factory that was HIV positive and she depended and trusted in me. She knew I would be with her. It was in the early 2000s when the virus became serious and there were no ARVs given to anyone… With the trainings I got from SACTWU, it was something that I could do to save this person. So it was so great to me. That woman is still here in Playtex. She is strong, she can hold her head up high. She is still living now. She was a dying woman, it hurt me to know that someone was in crisis like that. Today she is a strong woman working inside this company.

I am proud to go out in my company and tell them how to protect themselves, how to protect their children. Sometimes you get abuse, especially if someone is HIV positive at home. Sometimes you get the father who is abusive, even to the child. I can talk about these things. They depend on me to speak. In the past, people were scared. We were trained to talk to workers. You know when you talk about it you can release your mind, be free, and not be scared.

I have also started doing national work for SACTWU. For instance, I am working with SETAS (Sector Education Training Authorities). I started in the office with Andre Kriel, our General Secretary. It was Chris Gina who gave my name to Andre Kriel. He knew he could depend on me. He knew that if I sat in on the skills development, I could groom myself. I was recognized by them. When I was chosen to do the job I knew it would be a very difficult job because it is all about going back to school. Andre Kriel told me that I must not worry about it, that I will learn, and I have become an expert in it. We were separate in the clothing sector SETA, and then we merged with textile, and then three years ago with pulp and paper. Now it is FP&M SETA. It helps with skills development and deals with education.

These responsibilities are all related to being a shop steward, doing trainings, explaining to workers what training is all about. You know, our skills in South Africa are very low. The government wants the clothing, textile, footwear workers to get involved with the grants they provide to us.

When I left school when I was young, I knew nothing. SACTWU has taken me up in terms of skills development. It has shown me how important education is in the country. Even as a sewing machinist, learning to sew properly, handling the machine. It teaches you to help yourself in the industry, but also in life.

In the community, I am an ANC member. I canvas for my people. I throw away other people’s boards and I put my board. That is my party. During the election time, people ask me who I will vote for and I say I work for SACTWU, I am ANC!

I was not very political before. I was married, religious. We had this thing, if you are married you stick with your husband. We had to be respectful. Wear long hair, long clothes… Not like now you wear jeans and a short skirt. And I cut my hair! In those days that never happened, we were restricted. You can say I learned a lot working in the clothing industry. The clothing industry is my home. It has allowed me to grow, to see things.

My retirement is coming near, maybe in two years time. I’m looking forward to helping my community, especially with the ANC.

As a strong woman, I stand up and I am still standing. I just turned 58 years old. I am a very strong woman. I can take any amount of stress. Nothing will beat me, nothing.