Monroe Mkalipi

Interview conducted in June 2018

I was born in Langa, only 10km away from the SACTWU head offices in Salt River.

Langa means “the sun” in Xhosa. I interpreted it to mean, “Wherever you are, the sun will shine.” Out of our repression, the sun will shine on us. It was a place where you should strive, and fight for your liberation. Your emancipation. You need to strive because you're trapped in the dark and you need to find your way out and the sun will come.

I am the son of a single mother named Monica who was a domestic worker and the grandson of a lay preacher in the Methodist Church. My grandfather immigrated from the Eastern Cape to Pinelands. I was very fortune because I had both my mother and my grandparents, Nathaniel and Meeta, who all cared for me very much. I knew my father, but he did not live with us. He was a migrant worker named John. He was from Alexandria, in the Eastern Cape. He didn’t have a specific job or qualifications but moved all around from place to place looking for work.

I was brought up in the church. We went to church every Sunday and I went to a church school. I was taught from an early age to follow Christian principles.

I lived in Langa until I was 8. We lived in a very small apartment. It had three rooms, but those rooms themselves were too small. The yard was too small for trees or flowers. There was no space for anything.

We had thirteen people living in that house: my grandparents, my mother, my mother’s sister, my three siblings, my five cousins, and me.

All of us lived in that three room house. We used to sleep on the floor, under the table, in the kitchen, and all over. It was fun. We all ate from one dish. One big dish. We used one spoon. You’d take one bite and then pass the spoon. If you noticed someone else wasn’t looking or was napping, you’d try to take two, three, four bites. If you got caught, when your turn came again, everyone would say “no, no, you’ve had your bites.” It had its significance. It built strong family ties and brought us closer. We were not allowed to start with a meal in the absence of other to an extent that we have to go get them.

 
 

 Then, I moved to Gugulethu. Guguletu means “our pride” in Xhosa.

The apartheid system gave an impression that we would be better off in the new township of Gugulethu, than our living conditions in Langa at the time.

My primary school in Gugulethu was called Vukukhanye, which means “arise and shine.” I attended school there from Standard Two to Standard Six. This was the highest primary level you could reach and after I finished Standard Six, I was very driven to attend high school.

I inherited this drive from my mother who had a passion for education. She wanted me to learn. Even though my school expenses were too much for her, she managed. She somehow afforded. But, she was ailing; she was next to nothing. I couldn’t take her suffering during my school days.

At the time I was about to begin high school, there were only two high schools for Africans in the Western Cape: Fazeka High and Langa High. These two schools were both extremely overcrowded and neither had enough space for me, so I decided to go outside of Cape Town to look for a school to continue my education. I took a train with a few friends to the Eastern Cape. We ended up attending Matanzima High in Cala.

Matanzima is named after the chief of the Xhosa tribe in the 1960s. He was co-opted by the Apartheid government to rule the homeland of Transkei in the policy of separate development..

The Bantu Education system was designed to teach us how to cooperate with the master and nothing more. We were not taught to broaden our expertise, but how to be capable slaves. They didn’t teach us how to be active in the economy, but only how to survive in the labor market and be subservient to our masters who happened to be white males. The school syllabus were drafted and created specifically for this purpose.

I was in high school in 1976 during the student uprisings, which started in Soweto and spread to all townships all over South Africa. The struggle of the children was a justifiable action in response to our conditions. At Matanzima High, the administration feared those who came from the townships, may bring influence to the rural schools that may result in inflicting more unrest and chaos. As a result of this, the attitude of the authorities in the Eastern Cape school system was hostile to us who came from the townships. And that caused many expulsion from those schools. This action angered parents who thought that the school was denying their children of an education.

While at school in Cala, I got a call from neighbours from my residential area in Cape Town. They told me to return to Cape Town to join the struggle. Any refusal not to follow the call, may result in you and your family getting into trouble with the community. The consequences were severe i.e. being labelled a traitor which may also result in an attack to you and your family.  

Because of this pressures, we had no option but to respond to the call and return home to join other students in action against the apartheid system with a special focus on education at the time. At this time, I was at the age of 17 or 18. We were a group of school children who did not belong to any political party at the time, but determined and committed to fight for the liberation of a black child and the injustices imposed to the non-white population during those days.

As the struggle intensifies, we also began to learn about political ideologies and their relevance they had in our situation.

This is the time whereby we started identifying and linking ourselves with some political organizations at the time, whose policies were identical and common to our struggle.

The army intervened and suppressed the unrest. We used underground influences and networks to keep us going. They declared a state of emergency and prevented our free movement. They had us from every corner and required everyone to be indoors after 9 pm.

During his period, we were not experienced about politics and the struggle, and we didn’t have the resources. Our meetings were not structured and frequently without agenda. We were driven by common purpose and that is to fight until the end for our rights. These meetings were held in open air. We used school premises, fields, stadiums and community halls. Everyone, especially the youth, were compelled to attend. Remember no prior notices were provided and you were called to meetings and you must attend, no apologies were accepted. But fortunately for us, we had a very few comrades who were experienced in liberation movement activities and has political and ideological consciousness, and were deployed to lead the struggle from the underground. As a result we utilized them, to give guidance to the masses.

After I joined the struggle, I did not go back to school but instead remained in Cape Town. My mother wanted me to continue going to school, but I became defiant and wanted money and went to work. I continued with night school for a while, but I got used to earning money and being able to buy things. That’s when I became a worker full time.

Life was not normal.

We were the victims of the security systems as youth. We were arrested, tortured and killed. This is a period which saw many of us leaving the country to join liberation organizations, who were banned and operated from foreign countries outside South Africa.

In 1977, I got my first pass book that enabled me to work. My first job was at the harbor. I worked for a fishing company on a crayfish company. Sometimes, we had to work with sharks. Guys were trained to dive for the shark. They would bring it up and when it was dead, we would squeeze the sharks to collect cod liver oil. It stunk where I worked because we had to cut the shark into pieces. We also prepared the crayfish for retailers to use in the restaurants.

The conditions at the harbor were very harsh. I worked long hours and weekends. I was in and out of the water and cold storages and my shift involved constant heavy lifting. I was just a kid and only 18, but I was doing a job for grown men so I went to look for another job.

 
 

I was introduced to father Curley, who was a former priest at the St. Gabriel’s Roman Catholic Church in Gugulethu. The church was situated one block away from my home. After retirement from the church, he became the HR personnel for SPH Cotton Mills; and through him, I started working for SPH Cotton Mills as a laborer.  

I was there for two years as a magazine filler. I had to fill the machine with sufficient yarn and with the prescribed quality formula. Thus enabling the machine would run.

My first shift foreman was a German who would come with a rifle. He would move from row to row and wield his rifle. He would time us as an attempt to make us work faster. He would also yell and threaten us. One nightshift, I became very sick at work. I was so sick that I fainted and fell on the floor. My colleagues tried to come help me up, but the shift foreman would not allow them to leave their work. He told them to “stick to your work and production. Wait until the morning to get aid.” I had to lie there on the ground all night. I am fortunate I made it through the night.

I got in a big fight with management when I reported the incident. I admit I was shouting and not talking. Father Curley was gone and the new Personnel Manager refused to see my point of view. The shift manager said I had retaliated and had defied orders. I tried to argue that I had been ill, but they said I was challenging authority and would not listen to my side of the story. I was not allowed to retaliate or disobey and did not have anyone to stand up for me so I was fired.

After the dismissal, I went to look for another job and I got employed at SA Fine in Maitland with worsted wool. I started working there in 1979. This is where I got involved with the union for the first time.

At that time, the Apartheid government still suppressed unions. We had no union or representation of any form. Our interaction with the company was not properly coordinated. We dealt with matters as individuals and on a case by case basis. We did not have any collective agreements or disciplinary codes in place. There were no retirement policies or benefits for workers in those days.

The management decided to set up what they called Workers Committees. These were useless structures. The employer appointed the members to serve on those committees and could remove them at any time. The managers also completely dictated their agendas. The committees did not have any power to transform conditions, defend workers, or even to raise discussion. The committees’ terms of engagement were manipulated to further the managements’ interests with total disregard of the interest of the workers. They were not representative of the workforce.

Because the Workers Committees were so weak, the conditions were harsh. For example, management adopted a unilateral approach on matters which affected the workforce. Things such as overtime would be imposed to workers without their consent and this was a recipe for conflict. Some of the matters we were subjected too was being disciplined for reasons beyond the control of the workers. i.e. public transport, ill health and social conditions

 
 
Poster from the Workers' Charter, which Monroe cites as a highlight of his time in the TWIU

Poster from the Workers' Charter, which Monroe cites as a highlight of his time in the TWIU

As a result of the situation, we as the employees decided to look for an organization that would understand the dire conditions to which we were subjected. We wanted to be recognized and have a legitimate representative body that would explicitly and collectively represent the workers.

Finally, we came to the conclusion to join a trade union. In the early 80s, we were organized by a sweetheart union called the Textile Workers Industrial Union (TWIU). This is the period whereby I was elected as a shop steward for the first time. TWIU was not radical or anti-government, but it was better than the Workers Committee. It was toothless, but it was a least a platform to alert management that conditions were not acceptable; and as a result, the unions task was to ensure that our conditions were improved through engagement with management.

Management at the time was reluctant to participate and accept the union as the legitimate representative of the workforce. Organizing was difficult at the time, especially signing up workers to join the union. This was regarded as an illegal, unlawful activity. As a result, we were suppressed, especially the ones who took the initiative to voluntarily sign up others as members. Different strategies were applied to circumvent this suppression. For example, the workers would organize outside of the work premises or from the residential areas. We organized union “JOLS” and sport events with the intention to increase union numbers.

At this time, we operated as individual employees and not shop stewards. Just ordinary workers determined to fight for our rights. For us to get recognition from the company, we needed to organize a majority of workers. Due to the political climate at the time and the dire working conditions, people eventually came to join in high numbers. The vibe and momentum at the time were very high. We even organized members from neighbouring factories who wanted to join. Due to the high numbers we accumulated, we managed to get the union officially recognized. We had the opportunity to engage with management on all matters affecting employees. Although the balance of power still remained with management, a platform was created to engage meaningfully and constructively with them.

The most important aspect of TWIU was to show the bosses our power. 

We often felt like victims as employees and saw the same oppression we fought during our school days, which existed in the workplace. We were used to struggling and would not accept our conditions lying down. We were prepared to fight and had to show our muscle and power. We were prepared to lose our jobs. We saw the power in our unity.

We had many victories with the TWIU. Our biggest accomplishment was when we won formal dismissal procedures and regulations like structured starting times and hours. We declared formal hours to around 45 hours a week. And it was subject to change through a phasing out arrangement of hours of work.

This time period was an era whereby the struggle was intensifying on the ground politically and in labour movements. The highlights of the time for the Trade Unions included the living wage campaign, organizing the unorganized in an attempt to make every worker a union member, the Worker’s Rights Charter, and Collective Bargaining to unify workers under the same common demands. These fundamental campaigns formed the core of the Trade Union approach and demands during macro level negotiations between labour, government, and business.

The TWIU was ‘workerist’ in its’ approach, and we were focused on workplace issues: bread and butter issues. We didn’t take the struggle beyond the workplace, like SACTWU does. SACTWUtakes the struggle beyond the workplace, and deals with things like bursary and education.

TWIU, however, was an essential stepping stone. We learned how capable we were at improving our conditions as workers. It was a new dawn to us. We had something to hope for.

We discovered other unions in the same sector and looked at the way they were dealing with things. We read about another union called National Union of Textile Workers (NUTW) in Durban, and read about their strikes and their successes. We did not have any problems with TWIU, but we saw that joining NUTW would advance our struggle to a higher level. TWIU had given us an important platform and now NUTW would give us the next platform we needed.

Our goal at the time was to gain respect and recognition.

We wanted the employer to see the worker as a major contributor to the establishment. Through this, they should realize that their successes are as a result of the workers contribution to their business and in this respect, workers deserve better treatment. We were not slaves or beggars, and wanted this recognition in material form. We wanted adequate pay, safe conditions, and an understanding of social circumstance and where we were coming from. We also wanted recognition that workers are not machines that you can turn on and off at will, but equal players in the industry.

At that time, we also had the goal of uniting workers in the same industry together under one umbrella. It became very necessary to integrate who operated in the same scope of manufacturing as per the above. It was a challenge because of political tensions between the unions. There was a shift, from sweetheart unions to more radical and politically active unions. The militant unions linked the struggle of workers to the national struggle. They believed that the struggle did not end at the factory floor, but is rather intertwined with all parts of a worker’s life.

Sometimes, serious fights could break out. At Mooi River in KwaZulu-Natal, I remember a fight amongst workers in the same factory under the same union (SACTWU). This was due to political and ideological differences. Community related struggles were impacting the workplace and the fighting found its way into the factory. It was no longer safe for people to go to work. The most tragic part about the story is that the people fighting were all members of the same union.

Despite these fights, we still hoped to unite the workers under one umbrella and one single union. The relationship between your conditions at work and how you live in the community are directly tied. We saw that many small unions united to form Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union of South Africa (ACTWUSA). On the ground, we knew exactly what we wanted: a merger with ACTWUSA. We sought the guidance of experts and soon we had legal backup saying a merger would help us all, as the clothing and textile unions formed a pipeline. When one of the sectors was impacted, the other was as well.

However, we often faced reluctance about a merger. People did not want to join those who they saw as their competitors for the fear of losing their status as a result of the merger. That was one of the most difficult challenges and sacrifices and compromises had to be made for us to reach an amicable solution. We had to overcome many difficulties. Some of the most controversial matters and challenges to the merger were the geographical locations, sectorial differences, cultural and political differences and more. And for us to advance, it was important to recognize and reconcile the organization and its diversity.  

Kwa-Zulu Natal and Eastern Cape had more African dominance whilst the Western Cape had more coloured female counterparts. Gauteng was also clothing dominant but with fewer membership numbers compared to the other provinces. And if you look at the above, there is an element and diversity considering our historical and cultural backgrounds. Apartheid heightened these perceptions of difference and taught people to be suspicious and fearful of each other.

We handled these challenges very maturely. We realized that the challenges were due to the fact that people did not know or understand each other, so we started to bring them together. We held functions such as discos and weekends out. We held rallies and meetings. We helped people to see that because they were all workers, all of their issues were in the same pot. If the recipe in the pot was not good, we would all suffer, because we all eat from the same pot.

This campaign succeeded and we formed SACTWU in 1989. We realized that we were one family under the merger. We had found each other at last and began to work as one. We moved past identifying people from what sector they were from. We grew because we made sure to reach agreements where we understand each other.

We still hold these values. What I like about SACTWU is that in every disagreement, we made sure we reached a point where we understand each other.

Monroe gives an address

Monroe gives an address

 
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1989 merger to form SACTWU: "We had found each other at last."

1989 merger to form SACTWU: "We had found each other at last."

 
Article published in  The Cape Argus  on July 29, 1996 about the clothing strike featuring Lillian Malan.

Article published in The Cape Argus on July 29, 1996 about the clothing strike featuring Lillian Malan.

 In 1990, I was elected as a chairperson of the Maitland branch, a position which was held by comrade Johnny Malebo who became the first deputy president of SACTWU, after the merger in 1989. Johnny Malebo and I were members of the SA Fine shop stewards committee who showed dedication and eagerness to fight and was committed to the struggle; and later served as a provincial chairperson of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in the Western Cape.

In 1995, I was elected by the Region Congress of SACTWU to serve as a deputy chairperson. It was at this congress whereby a female comrade was elected in a position of a chairperson in a region for the first time in the history of SACTWU. Her name was Lillian Malan, a shop-steward from a clothing factory named Charmfit, which was situated in Elsies River at the time.

In our term and during the same congress, another female comrade by the name of Carolyn Scheepers, was elected to a position of a regional treasurer. This was very a great experience for me having to work with them for the first time, and having no prior experience and knowledge as how to conduct myself in this new environment. I was encouraged by the strength and determination of these two comrades. They were pillars of the strength during very turbulent times.  

Throughout our history, females were treated as inferior.

Our struggle, however, taught us that no one is inferior. We needed total liberation. The lack of females in leadership roles was a historical and political omission that needed to be addressed. Lillian and Carolyn were elected because of their expertise, capabilities, commitment, drive, passion, love of the organization, and the sacrifices they made. It was a real test for them to further demonstrate and display these values at a higher level and for that, they needed encouragement and support from the rank and file.

The common theme we applied to reflect this scenario was “we cannot be spectators in a game that we are supposed to play”. This further meant that “nothing about us, without us”. They wanted to be part of the decision making as the constitution required them to so so, irrespective of their gender.

During our meetings, I sat between the two of them. I was squashed in the middle and they did most of the talking. We were an example to the organization that males and females can work together. And we were a good example.

Lillian was a real fighter. In 1996, she was instrumental in initiating the National Clothing Strike. It all started during a National Executive Committee (NEC) discussion on collective bargaining. At this time, the union was at logger heads with employers and negotiations had reaches a stalemate at that stage. One of the weapons that we as a union had to explore was the power of our unity. This is whereby Lillian displayed some leadership and character in highlighting the members expectations and the importance of their demands.

She gave a call of action and began a discussion about whether or not to embark on a strike. The key leadership (secretariat) were not in favour of industrial action at the time; and they were uttering many words of caution against a strike. But Lillian didn’t change her mind. She held her ground. The meeting got very heated. Lillian cried tears during that meeting.

Every time I wanted to raise a point, Lillian would stop me and say “leave it to me.” She was right. She stopped me from contributing at that particular discussion and it was not because she undermined or undervalued my input. i'm of the view that she had a good reason to do so and that demonstrated her willpower and political maturity to lead. At the time we were faced with two opponents.

The first was in our midst and those are the one's who holds the view that we shouldn't embark on any form of industrial action. The second was the main opponents. This was the employers who felts that the workers demands were unreasonable and our approach was irresponsible. 

After a heated debate of that NEC, there was a follow-up engagement and meetings amongst the clothing caucus, which was composed of worker delegation (shop stewards and officials). The final outcome of those engagements brought to us pleasant, challenging and exciting moments. This was due to the fact that the meeting agreed that the union should prepare for a national strike. This was a significant change of mindset in union politics.

For the first time after SACTWU was formed in 1989, this was the first and most powerful and successful strike we embarked on as a union. I dedicate this strike fully to comrade Lillian Malan and her caucus at the time. 

Lillian ended up convincing everyone to understand her point of view. They came to see that a strike was the only way. We needed to face the employers head on.

That 1996 strike was a major success. Over 90% of workers participated. We have never had any other strike with the same level of support and turnout.

We closed factories all over the nation. There was a total shutdown of the sector all over the country.

Richard Kawie addresses the crowd during the 1996 Strike.

Richard Kawie addresses the crowd during the 1996 Strike.

But it was also a hard, hard, hard strike. It lasted for a month and we didn’t have a strike fund. People went without their wages for weeks. It was only spirit, courage, and solidarity that kept people going. People got used to that situation, that “we are here on strike.” Workers realized how important it was to be involved in the strike. It meant a lot to workers, which kept them going, out of work, out there, until the strike ended. It was all tightly coordinated.

After the strike, things began to change for the first time.

Wages and conditions improved, but more importantly, the employers had a change in attitude. We gained recognition and respect. The industry realized how important the union and its members were. The days of employers unilateral decision making was over and many matters affecting workers in the industry was dealt with bilaterally.

I am of the view that the 1996 Clothing Strike should be celebrated as a reminder of the difficult past we have come from. This victory should be recorded in our history books.

 
1991 Human Chain in the Western Cape.

1991 Human Chain in the Western Cape.

And all of that success was because of Lillian’s persistence. She made her voice heard and made her mark on the organization. She had a passion for this organization and its members. She had a heart without fear. We lost her due to a health condition. We lost a shining example.

A few years after Lillian's passing, I was elected as the regional chairperson of SACTWU in the Western Cape. This was a position I held up until 2010. One of the two challenges we faced was retaining the standards set by out predecessors like Lillian and ensure that we improve and grow the union from strength to strength.

The National Executive Committee had regular meetings to ensure where the union stands and form standard items around key issues surrounding finances, state, and political activity. We would track progress made in each establishment and identify the places that needed more effort and action.

We couldn’t just protest, we had to plan.

Our reports outlined a program of action before implementing. If we talk about a march, we must establish that other workers understand the purpose of the march. We also dealt with Section 77 applications, which are needed for permission to embark on protest.  We would stipulate in the application, “we will be taking over Cape Town from 12-5 o’clock,” and the route we were going to take. We have legitimate demands that require action. And we are not irresponsible.

In the 90s, the industry faced many challenges due to the influx of cheap goods from China, which posed a major threat and destroyed jobs.

One of my proudest moments as a union leader was when we pulled 30,000 workers for a march in 1998 in a campaign to save jobs. We brought the entire area to a standstill. We were marching against what we thought was neglect and took over the entire city. It was a day to remember. We sent a strong message that “We are fed up. Do something to help us.” Spirits were high and were singing:

SACTWU sal nooit verloor,

SACTWU sal nooit verloor,

SACTWU sal nooit verloor

As ons dit nou verloor,

Sal ons weer probeer,

Want die spreekwoordsê,

Aanhou is wen”.

This means, “SACTWU will never lose. If we lose now, we will try again. Perseverance is the mother of success.”

 

As part of our campaign to save jobs, we also held human chains across Cape Town and surrounding areas. We held hands in solidarity with those who lost jobs. It was at a time when we were experiencing ongoing factory closures and retrenchments of workers. We intensified our struggle against job losses and that required many levels. The first level was an awareness campaign about the illegally imported clothing and how it impacted on our jobs. With regards to the second level we engaged business and companies with the intention of creating awareness that was focussed on our workers and ordinary people in society. On the third level involved engagement at government level through the relevant departments and discussions started to emerge with the focus on saving the industry. We sparked a discussion on how we should go about working problems to curb job losses. And we didn’t forget to apply for Section 77.

Another way we fought against job losses and foreign imports was through the Buy Local Campaigns. We demonstrated in front of major stores to convince people to buy local rather than imported products. During this period, we clashed with security personnel on the picket lines and it was an experience of hostile exchanges between us and authorities. At some stages, some workers were arrested.

In 2006, I was elected as the Western Cape Provincial Chairperson by COSATU Congress. That election posed difficult challenges at this time and one of the major challenges was balancing my new responsibilities at COSATU with SACTWU activities and my responsibilities at my workplace. No duties were neglected in fulfilling all of these roles. I still attended to all matters as required by the Constitution and the Programme of Action. This in essence meant that I had to put up more time and energy to execute my mandate. This was done mindful of my basic and fundamental mandate and that is first and foremost to serve the workers “Our members, elected us Shop Stewards

My mandate at COSATU compromised of the following: complying with the decisions taken by the structures of the organization, upholding the Constitution of COSATU and ensuring adherence to its principles and values and ensuring there was compliance with the Programme of Action set up nationally and provincially, and convening structural meetings.

As office bearers of COSATU, we collectively embarked on various campaigns. The scope and mandate of COSATU is broad and goes beyond factory level activities. It expands into socioeconomic issues. For that reason, we were involved in campaigns that dealt with HIV/AIDS, alcohol and drug abuse, promotion of gender equality, gangsterism and crime, public transport, farm workers’ struggle, labour brokers campaign and political education and empowerment of women. These campaigns are on-going and still form part of on the agenda of COSATU today.

In 2009, my term expired as Chairperson of the Western Cape COSATU province. I was re-elected to serve for another three-year term in the same position. At this time period, the world was experiencing a global recession which had a severe impact on our industry. Our company was focused on export markets and unfortunately, their customers were hit by this tide. The market was lost which resulted in great losses in business which ultimately and finally led to the company closing down in the first quarter of 2010. As per the Constitution of SACTWU & COSATU, my term automatically ceased.

Another way we fought against job losses and foreign imports was through the Buy Local Campaigns. We demonstrated in front of major stores to convince people to buy local rather than imported products. We were angry. We were shouting, singing, and even swearing. We also faced a lot of backlash. Many of us were asked to leave by the cops or locked up, especially when we were by the Waterfront. I was never locked up, but once someone hit me. A manager at Mr. Price came out and told me that we needed to leave because we were scaring away the customers. I said that we had followed the rules and weren’t doing anything wrong. She became angrier and angrier and ended up hitting me across the face. It was very, very tough, but we stood our ground.

During my time as a SACTWU Regional Office Bearer, I led a delegation that served as COSATU Western Cape Provincial Executive. In 2006, I was elected as the Western Cape Provincial Chairperson by COSATU Congress. That election posed difficult challenges at this time and one of the major challenges was balancing my new responsibilities at COSATU with SACTWU activities and my responsibilities at my workplace. No duties were neglected in fulfilling all of these roles. I still attended to all matters as required by the Constitution and the Programme of Action. This in essence meant that I had to put up more time and energy to execute my mandate.

My mandate at COSATU compromised of the following: complying with the decisions taken by the structures of the organization, upholding the Constitution of COSATU and ensuring adherence to its principles, make sure there was compliance with the Programme of Action set up nationally and provincially, and convening structural meetings.

As office bearers of COSATU, we collectively embarked on various campaigns. The scope and mandate of COSATU is broad and goes beyond factory level activities. It expands into socioeconomic issues. For that reason, we were involved in campaigns that dealt with HIV/AIDS, alcohol and drug abuse, promotion of gender equality, gangsterism and crime, public transport, farm workers’ struggle, labour brokers campaign and political education and empowerment. These campaigns are on-going and still form part of on the agenda of COSATU today.

In 2009, my term expired as Chairperson of the Western Cape COSATU province. However, the Congress re-elected me to serve for another three-year term in the same position. At this time period, the world was experiencing a global recession which had a severe impact on our industry. Our company was focused on export markets and unfortunately, their customers were hit by this tide. The market was lost which resulted in great losses in business which ultimately and finally led to the company closing down in the first quarter of 2010. As per the Constitution of COSATU, my term automatically ceased.

Monroe gives an address at the National Bargaining Conference in 2000.

Monroe gives an address at the National Bargaining Conference in 2000.

 
 
Monroe at SACTWU offices after our interview in June 2018.

Monroe at SACTWU offices after our interview in June 2018.

My memories from SACTWU and COSATU involve fun, tears, good times, and sacrifices. Maybe I’d still serve if my company didn’t close. In all probability I would still be serving SACTWU & COSATU if my company did not close.

Through my roles in SACTWU, I learned a lot about being a leader. When I first started in leadership positions, I was very quiet and others did not understand me. They would say “he is silent and observant.” I wanted to be seen as a leader people could approach, so I changed my ways. To lead well, you must change your own ways to match the people’s will. When you are a leader, you are not yourself. You become a servant of those who elects you. You take a second name that shows you are responsible to something beyond yourself and the workplace and home. You also learn that your attitude and conduct must be acceptable, both on the factory floor and in the union structures. You must treat everyone equally, realizing that being elected doesn’t make you superior. You must be prepared to sacrifice. You must share time with your family and the union. You must be able to respond whenever the union calls. Finally, you must treat everyone fairly and with respect. You have to have respect at all times and in all situations.

I got married in 1990 and I was blessed with 5 kids. My wife is a domestic worker who doesn’t have any stable employment. She had to be employed on a casual basis from place to place, with no formal and full-time employment.

But SACTWU was always my second home. Some days, SACTWU was my first home. Sometimes, you forget about your family when you are here. That’s why I say being in SACTWU involved sacrifices. But your family gets used to it. They get used to this life.

I started losing my vision slowly but surely because of my diabetes.

I underwent 2 operations. After my operations, I only survived about 6 months before everything got dark. I went totally blind starting in December 2016. When people cry about load shedding, I don’t know why. I’m in a permanent load shedding. I don’t see any light but I’m fine.

At the beginning, it was very difficult to cope with my new situation; and the support I got from home and elsewhere was not satisfactorily sufficient. But I decided that I would not just lie around at home and do nothing. A person from the union found the Cape Town Society for the Blind (CTSB) where I take classes’ everyday now. I’m learning basic computer skills. Type, talk, and teach. Typing, talking, teaching and emails etc. There is more training that is offered at CTSB and they are self-empowering in nature. The intention of CTSB is to build potential and encourage self-dependence for people with disabilities, but their focus is on the blind community.

 Now, can we call it a day?

Interviewed and transcribed by Lisa Petersen, Lily Koning and Sheridan Wilbur in June 2018

SACTWU