Interview conducted in 2009
My family originally comes from Mkomazi, there in Kwazulu.
It was my grandfather who came from Mkomazi; but he was pushed out of the area by the Boer War and went over to the Eastern Cape to a place near Alice.
In Alice, my family lost their land again. This is because the old government made a policy to take away most of the land from Africans, and they set up something called the Reserves. That forced my grandfather to sell his cattle. He told my father and his brothers to go and find work somewhere else. They moved to Stutterheim.
I was born in 1954 and I grew up just outside Stutterheim, in a place called Kubusi village.
We lived on the farm of Mr Daniels; he was my father’s employer. My mother also used to work for them; she worked in their kitchen. The Daniels family were not nasty people. They were white people, and we were African people, but they were kind to us. I remember that I used to play with Mr Daniels’ children. I don’t remember all their names but the one who was my age was named Coreen. We were friends. We used to play in her room - it was fun.
Eventually when I was eight years old, the Daniels family moved away from the farm and my father had to look for more work.
Mr Daniels was concerned about my father and made sure he found him a job. He found him a place at C.J. Rance Pty Ltd. C.J. Rance was a logging company in the Keiskammahoek, and my father was a driver. We moved to live there and stayed in a mud house.
My father’s name was Mangaliso Makwayiba. I am very proud of my father! We were very close. He was not an educated man, but he was brilliant. He was a very reasonable man. He was not a man who used to shout. He was not the kind of man who used a sjambok. He was fair. When he was upset with one of the children, my father would call a meeting of the family. We would all come together and talk. If he was upset with you, he would tell you that you had failed. But he would not shout.
My father never earned very much money.
When he was working for Mr Daniels, he was only earning ten pence for his wages. But he knew how to economise! He never had any accounts. He lived on what he earned, but because he managed his money so well, he even managed to buy a car. He paid for it with cash! You can only do that if you economise.
Even though we had very little money, my family always had food to eat at home. You see, my father had some sheep and a little bit of land where he grew food. We would eat the meat and the food we grew. Other children even used to come to our house to eat and have food. My father took care of the land, and so the land took care of him.
I went to school in the Eastern Cape.
My first school was called Mkqantosi School. Hey, that school was just like Robben Island! It was so isolated. Nobody was there. If you looked around you, you could see only one...two...three houses and just lots of forest everywhere else. I was there from sub A till standard three.
My next school was called Isidenge School, and I went there till standard six. In isiXhosa, ‘isidenge’ means ‘fool’, so the name of the school was ‘Fool School’. I never understood why they gave it that name. The only thing I can think of was that it came from the time of the wars between the amaXhosa and the Boers. You see, Isidenge was the place where the king of the amaXhosa, King Sandile, fought with Boers. It is the place where he died. Maybe when the Boers defeated them, they called the place ‘fool’ because the Boers thought black people were stupid. I really don’t know.
I went to Keiskammahoek High for my high schooling.
It was a boarding school and we were sent to the Church there. The priest was a man by the name of Mabitsha. I joined the Church choir and so I used to see Priest Mabitsha quite often. He used to come and teach us about politics, history and human rights. Priest Mabitsha tried to open our eyes about the world. By teaching us history he showed us how people in power abuse their power. He taught us about the Emperor of France, Napoleon. He told us about how Napoleon used his power badly. He also told us about Baron von Stutterheim, the German man who the town of Stutterheim is named after. Baron von Stutterheim was also a man who abused his power. He came to the amaXhosa and chased them off the land.
Priest Mabitsha believed it was important to teach the youth about politics. He believed it was important because we were suffering at that time under apartheid and he wanted to teach us why it was so wrong. He wanted us to see why our human rights were being abused. He showed us how unfair things were in South Africa under apartheid. He showed me that it was unfair for my father to be paid so little as a worker. Ten shillings was very little. It was not right.
He also told us that if we went to the white school, we would not find cockroaches in our morning porridge.
That’s what used to happen. In the morning if you looked into your porridge there were cockroaches in it! But we knew that if we didn’t eat the porridge we would be hungry - so we would eat it anyway. What Priest Mabitsha did, was show us that not all schools in South Africa were as bad as ours.
I can remember that Priest Mabitsha used to tell us that we should pray to God, but not everything will come if you pray.
I remember that he also said that you have to work hard to get the things that you want. We had to work hard for change.
My lessons from Priest Mabitsha happened at the same time as the protests against Bantu Education in 1976. My brother and I were both involved in the protests. I had become passionate about human rights from the classes with Mabitsha. In the protests I remember thinking to myself that if I believed in the cause, I should be out in the front - not somewhere at the back. I should show my face and not hide it from the people. I could not just stand back. I wanted to be active. In fact, I used to sing a song on the marches about being active and not standing back. It went like this:
‘You can’t cross the sea with only your eye.
You can’t cross the sea just by looking at it. You have to swim.
You have to swim even if the wind is blowing.
You have to swim. Keep on swimming!’
The song was about the struggle. We were saying that you couldn’t win against apartheid just by looking at it. You had to stand up, fight and be active.
I finished my matric in 1981 and spent a year at home.
Then, in 1983, I started studying a two-year course through UNISA. I did Labour Law and Biblical Studies because I thought that they went well together. In 1983 I also started working at my father’s workplace - CJ Rance. That was the only place you could work in Stutterheim. It was a family place. Everyone who had a child got their child a job at the company. I was working with timber. I was a consignment clerk. I had to see that the consignment note on the shipment corresponded with the timber on the truck. I did this work for four years - until 1987.
In 1988 I got a call from my friend Nothemba Gqirana.
We went to school together and she was living in Cape Town. She told me that if I wanted to change my life, I should come to Cape Town. So I left Stutterheim and went to Nothemba. She was living in Langa at the time, in Moshe Street. She was working in Beatrix Clothing in Koeberg. I lived with her and managed to get a job at her company. The manageress brought me in even though I was not trained then. She trained me.
In 1990 or 1991, Beatrix closed and Adidas bought them up. I worked for them until 1992. Then, on a Saturday in November 1992, I found out that my father had died and I had to go home to bury him. He died because a log fell onto him. He was supposed to have finished work on the Friday but his boss asked him please to come back to work on Saturday and help finish a job. My father didn’t know he was going to die the next day. How could he? So he said, ‘Yes.’ On that day my father was helping load logs onto the truck. He was standing outside the truck giving directions to the man in the crane. Suddenly the logs came loose from the crane and they fell on top of him. My father was sixty years old when he died. He had worked all his life; he looked after his family. He was due for his pension but he never even got the chance to enjoy it.
I returned to work at the beginning of 1993 and when I got back, I saw that my name was on a retrenchment list.
I wasn’t too worried though; I knew I would find another job so I went to look for one.
I can remember standing outside Monviso Clothing Manufacturers in January 1993, hoping they would have work. I looked around me at all the women waiting outside with me and I realised that I only saw lang hare mense. Where were all the black people? One of the managers, Keith Maree, saw me standing at the back. I stuck out of the crowd. He asked me to come in and work inside.
Although I joined the union when I was working at Beatrix, I only really became involved when I was at Monviso.
My passion for it began on a Sunday in 1997. In those days we used to work on Sundays from 8am till 5pm. I was working that day and we, the workers, had a problem: we wanted to go home at one o’clock. It was a Sunday after all. But the management wouldn’t agree. And the shop steward was on the manager’s side! I could see that the steward was not going to fight for us and I didn’t want to have a shop steward who didn’t fight for us. So I decided to become more involved with the union because I knew I could do a good job fighting for the workers. Eventually my chance came in 1999. One of the old shop stewards was promoted and there was a vacancy. When the workers elected me, I said, ‘Yes.’
Unfortunately when I started as a shop steward, some managers suddenly saw me as an enemy.
They said things like ‘Mandisa, you are the master of labour law.’ I know they didn’t say it as a compliment. They don’t like me. But, you know, it doesn’t matter to me because I believe in what I am doing. Besides, a dog doesn’t chase a car that’s not moving. It chases a moving car! I am moving, so they chase me!
I believe that God has made me into a leader not only to be involved in politics.
He had made me into a person who also cares about other issues too. Like the equity problem, for example! I wanted to solve the problem of not having enough African people in the company so I got onto the Equity Committee. I am pleased to say that now we have a good balance of people in the company. Probably half the workers are now Africans!
As a worker leader, I used to have a lot of respect for my late comrade, ex-President John Zikhali. He was a great man. I didn’t work with him personally but I remember him very well. I admired him. He was great because he wanted to unite the regions. He treated people equally and I liked that. I also like the fact that he was an African person in leadership in the union. He was all about equality. Equality means a lot to me.
I have also learned from our leaders and officials: our ex-General Secretary Ebrahim Patel (EP), as well as our current General Secretary Andre Kriel, and our Regional Secretary Aziza Kannemeyer. You know, EP is very wise. He has passion. When he was with SACTWU, he stood up for what he thought was right. He did not give up. And he had a nice way of talking! It was amazing how he could talk. He could convince you with good arguments, even if you were upset and had been standing up and throwing stones at him with your words. He just talked and people calmed down.
Today, I’m the Deputy Chairperson of SACTWU in the Western Cape.
Being in this position has taught me a lot. I have learned where I can give input to the union. I have learned better how to build the organisation.
At home I have one child - but really I have seven because I have raised six children that were not my own.
Four of them live with me in Langa. We rent a council house there. My other children live out of home. I am making R749 per week before deductions, and I must send some every week to look after my mother in the Eastern Cape. Thankfully my older children send me money every month to help me look after the younger children.
If I ever have free time, I like to read books, or I like to spend time with my children.
I like to talk to them, give them lectures. My father used to do that for us when we were children. Although he never went to school, he used to tell us how to be a good human being. I do that too. I tell them how my father raised us. I tell them that they don’t need to look at their neighbours and see what they have. They must see what we have. I tell them that if we can’t afford to buy meat, they must not sniff the meat from next door. They must appreciate what we have. Do you know that of all the children I have raised, not one has been into drugs? That is a big thing in my community! It is a big thing, so I must be doing something right!
Research and Writing: Simon Eppel
Photographer: Andrew Christopher Barker