Mary August

Interview conducted in 2009

Mary August at her machine at Little Slipper, Port Elizabeth.

Mary August at her machine at Little Slipper, Port Elizabeth.

I was born in Port Elizabeth on 22 November 1955. That makes me fifty-three years old. I have a daughter, Danielle, who is married with two children - Darren and Danielle. They all live with me because I am a widow. I was married in 1987 and my husband’s name was Nicholas August. He had an aneurism, a heart condition, and he passed away in 1998. He was working at General Motors. He worked there for thirty-six years.

My mother’s name was Mary Rose and my father’s name was Henry Matthew Baines. My mother was born in P.E. in a place called ‘The Valley’ in the South End. My father was born in New Brighton. My mother and father were both removed from the areas in which they were born due to the Group Areas Act. 

I grew up in a two-bedroom house, a semi-detached. I lived there with my parents and my three sisters and one brother. My mother worked in the shoe industry and my father used to work for the motor industry. He worked for General Motors, Ford, Citroen and Volkswagen. VW was the last place that he worked before he died. He was there for eleven or twelve years. 


My father was not involved with the trade unions but, I think, his experiences at work made a big impression upon me.

I think they helped make me into someone who wanted to fight to make jobs better. You see, my father used to come home after work and talk about how terrible his working conditions were. He used to tell us how the employers could make your life a living hell. In fact, that’s actually why he moved between so many jobs from one workplace to the next workplace. He moved because of the poor conditions and because he was treated very badly. 

We used to suffer as a family when my father left the companies. He didn’t manage to find work again immediately and that meant that for a few months we would have no money. It was particularly hard for us as children. This problem caused a lot of domestic conflict and eventually my mother was forced to go out and find work, just to help us out. 

It was during one of these times that I actually left school in standard eight to go and find work. I was about fifteen or sixteen at the time and, like my mother, I was forced to go and earn money because my father was out of work. He had been working at Citroen, but he left them when he heard that the factory was just about to close down. He didn’t receive any kind of severance pay. In those days you didn’t. 

My first job was in a sweet factory called Turn Rights.

They made Brazil nuts, chocolates, and Easter eggs, stuff like that. They were the sweets that Beacon sells but when the factory moved out of P.E., I had to leave that job. 

Eventually I found work at Eveready but I was dismissed in 1977 because I was pregnant! They fired me when I was four months pregnant. My child, Danielle, was born in July 1977 and I looked after her for a few months at home, but then I had to go and beg to get my job back. 

After getting my job back I became a steward.

I was motivated by what had happened to me: by the fact that I was just dismissed like that for being pregnant. The union at Eveready was called MAWU (Metal and Allied Workers’ Union), I think. It was before the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) was born. This was the time when I first started to learn about the labour struggle, and I learned how to mobilize people. In those times we were trained in the 6 Ws –Where, Why, When - all the question words! In those days as a steward, you had to come up with your own plans and use your own discretion. You had to figure out how to do the cases yourself. We didn’t actually have training in law like we do now; we just had to fight the monster that was in front of us. 

We went on an illegal strike at Eveready in 1978.

We were about five hundred to six hundred workers at the company and about half of us went on strike. We wanted better working conditions because things were really verkrampt in those days. I remember I was working on the one line with all the white women. In those days you had to call them ‘Missus’. It didn’t matter if I had trained the woman, she knew in the end that I had to call her ‘Missus,’ or ’Mevrou’. ‘Ja, Mevrou’,’Jammer, Mevrou’. She could do whatever she wanted and you couldn’t backchat; that triggered it for me. We were really demoralized. We worked harder but the white women were paid more and got better bonuses. It was like that in those days, you know, and the company could also just hire and fire as they liked. 

It was the first strike I had ever been on.

It was also the first strike for women workers in P.E. It was a really important strike. We even got funding from an overseas trade union. We, as workers, would get together and discuss our problems and talk about the situation. Unfortunately we were dismissed in the end. We had to give up our strike because there was not enough support. I believe that if everyone had gone on strike together, we would have won. Since this didn’t happen, we lost. No one who was dismissed because of the strike was re-employed. 

Between 1978 and 1980, I was struggling with unemployment, but I helped to look after children to earn some extra money. My parents helped me a lot financially because they were both employed at the time. Then my mother organized a job for me at Edworks, and that’s when I got my first job in the shoe industry. When I started at Edworks, I worked as a general worker for six years. Then I worked as a machinist for seven years. 

While I was at Edworks, I became a steward in 1981, but the independent union there called the National Union of Leather and Allied Workers’ (NULAW) didn’t want to engage in politics! They just wanted the workers to say ‘yes’ to whatever the union officials said. I didn’t understand at that time that the workers were supposed to be the employers of the union! We thought we had to do what the officials said and they acted like our employers! 

Mary August with co-workers at Little Slipper, Port Elizabeth.

Mary August with co-workers at Little Slipper, Port Elizabeth.

By 1984, there were riots but NULAW wouldn’t let us get involved.

They even had an agreement with the companies that they wouldn’t go on strike. Then one of our senior stewards from NULAW became a manager and we were very disappointed and felt that we were sold out. 

One of the workers, a guy called Majola, who had been victimized at work a lot, felt that NULAW were not protecting the workers properly. NULAW and the employers saw him as a communist, and they didn’t like him. So he left NULAW and helped bring the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union of South Africa (ACTWUSA), another union, to our factory in 1985. After a few months, I became a shop steward for ACTWUSA in my factory. I was about twenty-nine or thirty years old at the time. 

ACTWUSA was very militant, which intrigued me.

That’s why I am still so committed and passionate to this day. In those days, the people were honest about what they wanted and they would fight for it. The union inspired me. If we saw that we were being deprived of something important, we would fight for it. We had passion and determination. We would go for what we wanted even if it meant death; we didn’t care. We knew that at the end of the day, we would win and that is all that mattered. 

At that time, I remember we had a strike and people from different factories came. These workers came from Bagshaw, Malana, Medicus and Edworks. The workers from one factory would come and fetch the workers from the other factories and we would all go out. Then the employers would phone the police and the police would come with their guns and shoot teargas and bullets at us. They would throw the women into the vans, even the pregnant women, but at that time we didn’t care. It was a strike for an increase in wages and we needed the money. 

I didn’t like Edworks very much and they didn’t really like me either.

In fact, they dismissed me for being a shop steward in 1993! I fought them for unfair dismissal and eventually they offered me a package. In the end it was good because the company was in trouble and the workers who stayed got nothing. So at least I got something. 

I stayed at home for eight months and then joined the Little Slipper Company in 1994. I am on the Slipper Line there and I am not just good at my work - I am excellent! We are producing slippers for Woolworths only. I must tell you, we are very fortunate because we are much better off than other companies. We are the only company in South Africa producing slippers, so we are in a much better position. We also make children’s shoes and school shoes. We don’t have the problem of short time; we rather outsource our production because we have so much. 

Most of us at Little Slipper were all ex-SACTWU (Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union) members. There were a lot of factories that had closed at the time. We taught the workers who didn’t know about SACTWU what the union was and what it could do for our factory, but it was not an easy thing to do. In fact, I was also dismissed from Little Slipper for being a SACTWU shop steward. At that time Andre Kriel, our General Secretary, helped me get my job back. 


SACTWU is a strong union.

When there was a call for stay-aways, we all stayed away. We did the same for marches and everyone would go, but not just workers, even unemployed people went. We all fought because we knew it was one fight we were fighting together. Black and coloured people came together and supported each other. 

I was very much influenced by the example set by people like Andre Kriel, Ebrahim Patel and also Freddy Magugu. I was influenced by the ways that they thought, by their passion and commitment; the ways they put their own lives on hold to help other people. They didn’t have to do that but they did and it has encouraged me to be the person I am. 

I think we as workers, and as a union, became sweethearts when we entered into a democracy in 1994. We had finally gotten the government that we fought for all those years! In 1994, we thought that everything was hunky-dory because we finally had our government. We didn’t want to take our government head-on because we thought that they would be helping us. 

Some things have certainly changed.

There was the implementation of BEE, Equity, Affirmative Action and all that. There was also the introduction of Labour Laws. I am so glad about the Labour Relations Act. In the past, if you became pregnant you could be dismissed, just like I was. But now you can’t be dismissed for being pregnant. Those laws only came about because we fought for them. We opened the roads that led to the laws. We fought those early struggles so that nowadays, in our shop steward training, we can learn about labour rights and worker rights. 

So, there have been some changes.

But there has also been little change. That is why Mbeki was fired; he didn’t want to listen to the poor anymore. Just look at the price of food! We can’t cope, we can’t manage. Remember, we are the lowest paid workers in the country and we can’t just go into Shoprite anymore and buy what we used to buy. It’s too expensive. You cut down and cut down and then you see you have to cut down even more. 

Now I can’t buy juice, ice cream, or a packet of sweets for the children anymore. No luxuries. I have even cut down on the fruit. If I run out of tea and coffee, I can only buy one of them. In the past I could just buy one or the other when they ran out. Now, I must save to be able to buy it. Now I make sure there is a nice lunch for Sunday, but we don’t eat well the rest of the week. Samp, rice, beans are so expensive. If you have those things you have food, but I can’t afford them like I used to. 

I think the same thing has been happening in the government. I think the people in the government have been working only for their own benefit. They promised us that they would work for the poor, but they haven’t. They are trying to enrich themselves! They are the same people who struggled with us, but they lost their interest in the people when they saw money. 

I hope we are learning from our mistakes.

All our eyes are on the government now. In one of our COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) bilaterals, we said that if this government won’t listen, we will use the same methodology we used to overturn the last government. We can just do the same with them if they don’t give us what we want. But we must teach the younger stewards how to fight like we did in the past. We must teach them how to stand together firmly like we did in the past. We must teach them that the struggle should be about all of us together. 


Research and Writing: Simon Eppel

Photographer: Andrew Christopher Barker