Marie Oliphant

Interview conducted in June 2018

I was born on October 13, 1953 in Bellville, Cape Town.

I’m 64 years old, nearly 65, and I have two sons. My first born is named Merrill and my second son is named Denver. They were born in 1974 and 1980. I have three grandchildren now: two boys and one girl.

I was born into a family of 7 children growing up. We were poor. My mother, Katrina, died when we were very small, so we never knew her. But we were fine growing up in Bellville. It wasn’t great, but we were fine.

My father, Stemmet, looked after us all. He worked hard to care for us, but we ended up being on our own most of the time. We were free to play, but it was during the Apartheid era, so we were limited. We couldn't walk and talk to whoever we wanted to. We did play though. We had a good childhood. At the time, we were 3 sisters and 4 brothers, but one brother was murdered and the other died of natural causes later on. 

My dad worked on the docks in Cape Town. As I got older, he showed me the things he did for the people he worked with, like housing applications. He taught me from an early age to care about people. I think that’s why I’ve been caring for people my entire life.

Because my father worked so hard at the docks, we were alone most of the time. I was the third child, but it felt like I was the eldest. I don’t know where it came from, but I was always the one looking after everyone. My two sisters both still stay with me today.

Marie at the Bargaining Conference in March 2014 to ABSA Bank in Durban.

Marie at the Bargaining Conference in March 2014 to ABSA Bank in Durban.

Marie at the Congress 2010 meeting in Cape Town.

Marie at the Congress 2010 meeting in Cape Town.

When I was in Standard 5 or 6, I had to leave school and help my father work.

My eldest brother was working at the butchery and didn’t stay at our house anymore, so I had to help my father. I had a dream to be a doctor at the time, but it was not meant to be. I worked so that my other siblings could finish high school. 

If you start working at a young age, you don’t have a childhood. There was no time to play. You have to work. 

When I left school, one of the things I missed most was running. When I was in school, I was an athlete. I ran cross country. 

 I started running because I didn’t like netball. They put me in the group to run around the field and I was good. I loved it. I ran the mile, did high jump, ran hurdles, and threw javelin too. They called me "Impala" because I had long legs and was fast.

I won with my eyes closed. I beat the boys too. One guy, Melvin Apolis was a big guy and I ran against him. I won the race and he started beating me up. Those were the days.

I was on my way to Durban to run for the Western Province but then there was a big earthquake. And I had to leave school to work, so I couldn't try again the next year. If it wasn’t for apartheid, I would have won a lot of medals. 

My first job was in 1968 at Sweet Orr and Lybro in Salt River.

One of my friend’s mother told me about the job. I was only 14 when I started work, but I pretended to be 16. As soon as I started, it felt like, “I’m a grown up” because I was able to help my father. It was an expectation to help. I know I made my father proud. The wages were R4.64, but that was a lot of money during this time.

Later, the company moved locations and they asked me to produce my birth certificate. They found out that I had lied about my age, but at this point, I was already 18, so they couldn't do anything about it.

I was a runner and when I look back, it was an easy job. They explain to you what you must do and you could ask questions if you didn't know or were confused. They called us the "bobbin girls." I was always running, thinking, I give you cotton, I give you bobbins. 

I was fascinated by the machine. If someone was working on a machine and I brought them cotton, I would look to see what they were doing. I would watch the machinists feed it yarn. I learned through watching. I would also come early or used my lunch or tea times to try it myself. My supervisors saw that I had learned how to work the machines and promoted me to be a machinist. I became a double feeder.

I was very young when I worked there, but two ladies always looked out for me; Aunty Ann Peters and her sister. I became their daughter. They gave me the feeling that I belonged.

With them, you were never on the outside. You were on the inside.

After six months as a machinist, I won a trophy for being the best performer. I had 100% production for a week. I got a Tom Jones record as a reward. I appreciated the record, but I like country music more. 

My father had a stroke in 1976.

He went to work that morning and didn’t come home at night. Nobody told us where he was. I phoned someone my father worked with and learned he had been ill. We looked around the hospitals for two days before finding him. He was paralyzed in one side because of the stroke. At that time, my son was two years old. I told my sisters "I found Papa."

My father was walking again when then hospital sent him home, but he couldn’t work anymore. I became the only breadwinner living in the house.

He died one month later of a heart attack.

It was July 23. He went to the toilet and when my brother got home from his night shift, he knocked on the toilet door. My brother didn’t hear a sound, so he kicked the door in. He saw that my father was on the floor, laying behind the door.

An ambulance came to take him to the hospital. He was still speaking to us at the time. He told us everything in that ambulance. He told us to look in the Bible because he had hidden money there. He told us not to run around if we needed something, but to look there instead. But when the ambulance arrived at the hospital, he was gone.

I heard someone screaming in that moment, but I didn’t know it was me.

I don’t want to talk about it.

My father was a good man. I learned so much from him. I learned to be patient from my father.

You can ask anyone at SACTWU about my patience. My father would listen to everyone. He always me that even if someone is saying something to make you upset, you still need to listen . Even if you are very angry, stop talking and listen. Because of him, I don’t get upset or mad easily; but when I do get mad, there’s no turning back.

Let me tell you about my father. We didn’t have a mother so we told him everything and he taught us everything we know. He never had another wife after my mother died. He had to look after us. My father always told us that brothers and sisters don’t lend money to each other—they give each other money. Family gives. If they ask for something and you have it, you give.

He also taught us how to cook and bake. I’m not a home person, but when I had a child, I wanted to make nice food for him. I remember the first cake I tried to bake. It was lopsided, but my dad ate it anyway. I hadn't mixed the sugar properly so every time he would chew, I would hear the sugar crunching, but he still said it was the best cake he’d ever eaten. It was then that my father taught me how to bake a cake properly.

My father also taught me how to change a diaper. He told me to stop changing my baby every 5 minutes, saying “He’s a live person, not a doll.”

And lastly, my father taught us to never mind what people say about you. If they can’t say it to your face, don’t question them. Only a coward talks behind the other person’s back. Tell it to their face. If you have something to say, confront them.

I try to teach these lessons my father taught me to my children.

Marie at Congress in Durban in 2013.

Marie at Congress in Durban in 2013.

I was in my early 20s when my father died, and then it became just my two sisters, three brothers, and me, at home. 

A little while later, in 1977, I stopped working at Sweet Orr and Lyrbo. All of the people I knew working there had died or retired. It didn’t feel like home anymore. My friends at another factory would say to me that “we see that you’re not happy. Come work with us instead.”

So, I left Sweet Orr and Lyrbo and went to Judron when I was 22.

This was the second place I worked and stayed with them for about 20 years. That’s where I really started. 

Judron started to feel like a family right away. I could talk about everything with them.

When I was in Standard 4, my teacher had said that it seemed like I was “always looking through a window,” as if I was an outsider looking in. But, at Judron, I felt like I was on the inside. I felt like I was a part of the family. I only see without the window when I am talking to people and everyone is truly listening to each other. That was the way it felt at Judron.  

We were more like family than friends. 

And my bonds from Judron have lasted more than 40 years. 

At that time, George Abasali and Veronica were the shop stewards. We were all best friends. They would take me to meetings and I’d sit in the back. I always went, listening and learning. Even today, I prefer to sit in the back of meetings and listen. My teacher in Standard 4 said I would always be a looker. I was always looking around for people to listen to and help. I came to see that I could help and listen to people as a shop steward.

George died, and it became just Veronica and I. Everyone at Judron started to trust me, and started coming to me rather than Veronica. She ended up resigning as a shop steward.  Only three months after arriving at Judron, the people elected me as their shop steward.

You know how people like to complain? I sat and listened. They really have issues. The Lord works in mysterious ways though. I was never a doctor, but this is how I got deeply involved in social issues of people. What I learned from my father about caring for people really came forward. I felt like I was helping people.  

As a shop steward, you are the link between SACTWU and the members.

Today, people become a shop steward for the wrong reasons. They just want the position, but you can’t do that. You need to be a shop steward to serve the worker. You need trust. A strong strong shop steward depends on trust. If people trust you, they will stand behind you. And when you become that person that workers trust, you become a mother, nurse, lawyer, priest, social worker all in one. That's what it means to be a shop steward. 

I was everyone's mother at Judron, even though some of them were older than me. I looked after them and they looked after me. If someone told me their husband had beat them up, I would be at their doorstep the next day. I saw it as my duty to go visit. Many of the workers have trouble coping with children or parents, so it was my duty to support them by going to visit. Also, if someone was sick, I would take them to the hospital and look after them. I often knew more about their sickness than their own family. After my father died, I made a promise that no one would die alone if I could help it.

We loved each other. We still love each other. We had a little family at work.We’re closer to each other at work than with our own family. I’m not shy to say it—it’s the honest truth. I’m open with them. 

Marie at the Congress Gala Night in --- .

Marie at the Congress Gala Night in --- .

SACTWU also became my second family. I have good relationships with the people here. Simon is always full of energy and running around. He’s my baby boy. I love that man to bits. I remember one time I went to Congress and someone called, but my I couldn’t hear the other person because my phone was broken. Zongi and Monroe decided to buy me a Nokia. I still have that phone today—I don't want to throw it away. Simon bought me a phone once too. That's what SACTWU is like: people here always have each other's backs. 

I left Judron in 2001 when it liquidated. We are still very close, though, and have reunions.

But after it closed, I was recommended by my organizer to join Lontana. I began working there, and started to unionize the workers right away. 

At first, the boss at Lontana was against us. His name was Vosloo and he was very rude. He played the shouting game. I told him we were on the same team. We both wanted the same thing: for the company to do well. I slowly changed Foslu's mind. He saw that we cared about his workers and he cared about the workers. He began to give workers money if they were sick. Eventually, I even convinced Vosloo to join SACTWU.

I started organizing during lunch or tea times or smoke breaks. I would tell people “Do you know what SACTWU stands for? SACTWU stands for the benefit of the worker.

I would tell them all the good things about being in SACTWU. I would tell them that SACTWU will always defend them. But if you don’t pay, you only have the bargaining council to back you up. I told them SACTWU had a health center where they could take their children. The next week, they would say “bring us our forms!”

I was able to convince them because I love this organization.

You will see my name in the top 10 best recruiters of the Western Cape. I organized the unorganized. I started with 35 workers and it grew to 200 workers! 

I believe that the union is important for workers and believe they must be protected. Anyone can be a shop steward but you need to have passion and commitment. If you aren’t committed, you’ll be a wishy washy shop steward. If you want to see that worker have his or her rights, you are fighting for more than money. It’s more than money.

Recruitment is the strength of the organization. Shop stewards keep people happy—they are the link between SACTWU and members. Workers become my children and I look after everyone. 

I elected most of the shop stewards. I led them. But I never force you. I love you just the way you are.

We had a very good working relationship at Lontana where we look out for each other, and I worked to keep the people together. At our largest, I organized 300 people in the factory. It’s emotional when I think about them because they are more than workers. I know them personally, each and every one of them. I cared for them. I loved them. I lost some of them.

They chose me to be a social coordinator at Lontana because I was so close to the workers. They sent me to get training. As a social coordinator, I helped the workers with all of their social issues. I tried to also work on the machine as much as possible to help out. 

One person I worked with as a social coordinator was Steven, who had HIV/AIDS.

He was divorced but very young still. He did not want to burden his family, so I went with him to hospital visits at Tygerberg and to counseling. I made sure he took his medicines. He trusted me so much. He was like a son to me.

It makes me angry though when I think about it. If he had told me earlier that he had AIDS, maybe I could have helped him better. It was such a sad time for me; he told me things he had never told to anyone else.

He died about 15 years ago. I drew up his will with SACTWU’s help.

Another person who was very dear to me was Ruwayda.

One day, she came to me and said, “Auntie Marie, I don’t know what is wrong. I tried to put on my pants this morning and they fell off.”

I took her to the hospital and they ran tests and examined her. I later got a phone call and learned that she had cancer. Through the process, I stood in for her mother. We learned that she only had 28 days to live. I was injured in a taxi accident and was in the hospital myself, so could not visit her for several days. When I could finally visit her, I was shocked. She was so cold and sweat was running down her face. She was dying. But 27 days passed and she was still hanging on. She even seemed to be getting better. We all wondered if maybe the doctors were lying and that she would live longer. But on the 29th of August, the phone call came.

You see, I had always wanted to be a doctor, but it was not meant to be. My dream did not materialize, but I still had the opportunity to work with sick people.

Marie at Congress in 2010 collecting a prize.

Marie at Congress in 2010 collecting a prize.

Lontana is still very close to my heart today.

Everyone will tell you that Lontana was my company more than it was Vosloo's company. I fought for the survival of the company. I became the boss. I fought for the survival of the company so the workers could stay together. The company had cash flow problems, with some of the major customers leaving. It was also hurt by cheap imports. We tried to stabilize the company. Simon and Etienne helped a lot, offering their guidance. They helped us find work. Frieda, the Treasurer of SACTWU, also helped get a connection with Proudly South Africa. I always thought I would die at Lontana, but despite our best efforts, it liquidated. 

I went with some of the other workers to TCI Apparel. 

It was never the same though. I was at Lutanna for 15 years. We were together for 15 years. We miss each other. When I think about them, I feel emotional. We would pray as a group. When someone walked in, everyone rose. We were one.

But I never feel like I belonged at TCI Apparel the way I did at Lontana. It’s a SACTWU company, but I didn’t feel like I belonged. You can’t just take an old tree and replant it. It will die. At TCI Apparel, everybody moves past each other, like wind blowing past you. But at Lontana, we asked, “how are you?” They call them a family, but it didn’t feel like one. They didn’t live like one.

Sometimes, when you’re dealing with everyone else’s problems, it can be difficult to cope with your own.

One of my brothers, Johannes, was murdered when he was 29 years old.

He was working and a gang came through. If anyone was in their way, they killed them. My brother was in their way. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. No, actually, he was at the right place at the wrong time.

I was at work when it happened and heard about it when I came home. My other brother came with me to find him. When we got there, everyone said, “don’t worry here comes Marie.” But it was too late. The officer didn’t want to tell me his body was laying there and blocked me from seeing. Later, his body was taken to the mortuary at the union. I came to the union to see the body and identify him.

Afterwards, we found out he had children, which we hadn’t known at the time. His first born was named Elrico. Five months after he was murdered, his girlfriend who he had been staying with also had a child. Her mother named her Juliet.

A few years later, Juliet’s mother brought her to us. She was a mother of two daughters and staying with her own mother. They couldn’t support Juliet, so I adopted her. She was about two or three years old when she came to live with us.

I was raising all three children on my own.

I was around 37 years old at the time. There was no father. Juliet stayed with us until she finished matric, then her mother came for her and took her back. My children called her their sister. Even today, she is still their sister. 

I also had trouble coping with my son's drug addiction. 

My eldest son, Merrill, had children, a nice family, and a house. Everyone knew him. But then he got started with drugs. Be became addicted. He had a mental problem; he would throw my grandchild against the wall. So, he moved in with me. He has been with me for three years.

His addiction became so severe that he tried to kill me. I had never fought for my life before that day. That day, though, I fought for my life. I fought for survival. He took a garden rake and swung it at me. I tried to run but the safety gate was locked. We fought and he hit my hand with the rake. He then hit me with his fist. I couldn’t breathe.

My sister came and stopped him. She said, “you are not going to kill your mother in the yard.”

The person I looked at was not my son. He had become something else because of the drugs. 

Everyone told me “you must throw him out.” But, I refused to give up on him. I checked him into a psych hospital. He was held there for three months under sedation and I went to visit him every day. I told him he would get better.

He did not laugh for three years. My child didn’t laugh for three whole years. But one day, when I brought his child to visit him in the hospital, I heard him laugh. I knew he would be coming home soon after that. I have a lot to be thankful for.

He has been off drugs for one year and three months now.

He does not remember trying to kill his mother. He can’t believe it is true. But then I show him my hand. I show him the scar.

I became depressed because of the situation.  I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t sleep through the night for three years. Every time I would try to fall asleep, I thought my son would try to kill me. SACTWU supported me through this difficult time. I talked through everything with Simon. He brought me sleeping tablets and that helped.

I also decided to retire because of everything that happened. I knew I must be there for my son.

You know, if I am poor, I can still be rich inside.

I can be rich in what I do. And sometimes, when you are good with people, you can forget that you are poor. If I am hungry and I see some people that I know, we can talk and I can forget my hunger. I can have a full day. Then, only I come home at the end of the day, do I remember, "I did not even eat today."

Today, I am retired, but my work is never done.

People still phone me everyday. I tell them what to do and I guide them everyday. Being a strong shop steward depends on trust. If they trust you, they will stand behind you, even when the position is over. My neighbour has also been sick so I look after him too. 

I try to do things for fun now that I'm retired. I listen to country music. I read mysteries. I like mysteries because I try to figure out the ending before it finishes. I still run when I can. I also climb mountains. I didn't think I could, but I did. 

But I'm not a home person. I like to work. 

Now, I’m busy with my own company.

It’s already been approved by the government. It’s a clothing company that will train unemployed people to operate machines. I started it with Frankie, my sister, and Sally. We brainstormed a way to do something for the community. We want to do whatever we can to help teach the youngsters who are walking around without work. Simon is busy with a plan for us. Hopefully, we will have it done this year.


Interviewed and transcribed by Lisa Petersen, Lily Koning and Sheridan Wilbur