Siphiwe Ngidi

Interview conducted in June 2018

I was born on November 3, 1951 on the south coast of Durban. I was born and bred there.

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My mother’s name was Lillian Nokusho and my father’s name was Madoda Campbell. I also had six siblings. Now I am left with three siblings, my brother and my two sisters.

Growing up, my family had our ups and downs. We were a working family. We were okay sometimes, but it depended on my father if he had a job or not. When he had a job, we’d have good times. We’d have food and good clothing. Together with my father and brothers would plough for other people to get money and sell second-hand clothes. But other times, my father would lose a job and we would have nothing. Those were the downtimes whereby we will rely on ploughing and selling.

My mom could do almost everything any woman could do.

She sewed garments together to sell, baked bread and scones for us. She knew how to preserve fruits and grind her own meals. But she also trained as a First Aid Nurse in the area to help us and people. She used to form co-operatives with other women to develop the area. We were taught to always do something about our situation.

With my father’s savings, he bought two cows and we would plough to earn money for food and school fees. We also did a lot of our own ploughing and growing mealies, beans and vegetables to eat and sell. This is how we were fed and brought up.

So growing up, I was gardening, ploughing, and grinding my own mealies.

I came from a background of hard work. My parents taught me to work hard. They also taught me that I should not live beyond my means. We grew up in a mud house. They taught me to aspire to be wealthy but to only use what is available. My parents also taught me about respect and Christianity. I am a fully-fledged Christian.

I did my primary education at Imfume. My Standard Four teacher had a big influence on my development. The highest standard that can be achieved in our area at the time was Standard Nine, that will earn your Junior Certificate (JC). That is what I have JC as my highest level of education.

After I finished Standard 9, my parents wanted me to be a teacher.

My aunty insisted to my mom that she was prepared pay the fees involved if I got trained as a teacher. But I refused to be a teacher. At the time, teachers were not paid timeously. They would graduate, get employed, and six months down the line, they wouldn’t get paid. I knew that I couldn’t risk it. I couldn’t work without getting paid.

After Standard 9, I wanted a quick way to make money.

I came from a poor family and I wanted a consistent income. I wanted no more of working with the ground or ploughing. I wanted a good, steady source of income. I knew I always liked mechanical things and was good at fixing things around our home. If something break, I would go quietly, open it up, learn everything about it, and make it work again. I decided electricity had everything I wanted.

But at the time in Durban, there was only one school that was training in electricity. Only 6 black applicants were accepted per year, so I finished my application very early and my admission was confirmed. I didn’t hear back, so I went to the school to start classes I was told my name was not on the record of applicants. I suspect someone took my name out for a preferred student. This corruption thing isn’t new.

My second option was to be an auto mechanic, so I started a three year course at a technical school, Umlazi Vocational School.

The first year was just a waste of time. They would just give us a big block of mild steel and tell us to cut it straight. For the whole year, all I learned was how to use a heck saw to cut a big item straight. If it wasn’t straight, they taught us how to file it to make it square. We taught ourselves how to use a cutting torch and a welding machine. We had to teach ourselves because our teachers were very lazy and he was an African, Zulu speaking. Completely useless.

Then, the second year, an Afrikaner was my teacher.

He was the best teacher. He also spoke Zulu. We were his children. He taught us everything at the time. Within the first half of the second year, we started fixing cars, getting our own clients, driving cars in and out of our workshop, and making money. Because I was making money, I started paying my own school fees. From that time onwards, I was financially dependent on myself.

But in the third year, we got another lazy teacher an Afrikaner. He taught us maybe 25% of what he was supposed to teach us.

While I was in vocational school, I became a bit politically active. I started to join bigger movements, but at that time, there was too much intimidation from the apartheid regime. You couldn’t say ANC or PAC at the time.

After I finished the auto mechanic training, I had to go out and be a man working for myself.

There were no CVs at the time. I had trouble making an application but the brother of my father helped me out. Some may call him an uncle, but I call my father and you have given me the freedom to say the things I want to say.

I made a list of 13 companies to apply to. My father looked at my list and struck ten of the companies off the list, saying, “No, they are not stable companies. If they employ you, you will have problems every day.” I learned that ehen, is true in the clothing industry. If the company itself is not stable, the workers are in for problems.

The last three companies on the list were Mvoti Sugar Mill, Sappi Saiccor, and Clover Dairies.

When Clover Industries called me for an interview, they said, “Hello, is Mr. Ngidi here?” And I said, “No, he is not here.” I thought he was asking for my father. That is the first time I was ever called Mr. Ngidi. I had an interview with Clover, but I declined the job.

I finally started working at Sappi Saiccor. My father had actually worked at Saiccor at one time. When my father worked there, Saiccor had just come over from Canada or England to build a factory. I remember that my father brought home the blueprints to show us. Then five or ten years later, I got employed and saw the real place.

 
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I had applied at Saiccor as a motor mechanic.

They didn’t have a vacancy for a motor mechanic but they didn’t tell me when I applied. It was not only me that they didn’t tell—it was quite a lot of us. At the time, they were using Italians to rearrange the company and work on the mechanical side. Then they started to employ local people. I was in the second group of local people with mechanical qualifications. Because I applied as a motor mechanic, I thought I would go to the garage. But I went to the workshop and started getting trained as a fitter mechanic. I started fitting and repairing parts. I worked in the workshop repairing broken machines and equipment.

As I said, we were working with Italians and their English was not very good.

I remember very well that my foreman only knew 17 English words in all. All of our conversations revolved around the 17 words he knew. As an example, he knew the word “inside.” If he wanted you to put something on top of the table, he would say to put inside showing the table. We had to learn to understand him. If we didn’t understand him, he would make it look like we were the problem.

I remember the first time I heard about unions when one guy who was in the first team showed us his membership card. He was saying we need to join the union, but I didn’t even know what a union was. He said that the union in Durban was doing good work, but I didn’t know what he was talking about.

At Saiccor, I felt like my pay was not correct.I wanted them to pay me correctly.

I was in the grade 3 pay group, but in my view, I was supposed to be in the grade 3C group, so my increases were not correct. I started fighting with my immediate supervisor and the foreman. I asked them to change my pay group, but they were not happy with that. They started pushing me into a lot of overtime. Sometimes overtime was good, because I earned some more money. But sometimes overtime is a punishment. You plan your weekend, and then, on Friday at four o’clock, you’re told that tomorrow you must work.

I refused to work overtime and was fired. I worked there for five years in all.

At the time I was fired, I was also a Sunday School teacher. I am a Christian. I believe in God and pray. Shortly after I was fired, there was a Sunday school teacher conference in Port Elizabeth. Without a job, I didn’t have enough money, but I fought to go anyway. There wasn’t enough space on the bus, but I fought my way on anyway. I said I would stand on the bus. They said I couldn't stand all the way from Durban to PE, but I said I would. I said that if I got tired, I would sit down on the ground.

While I was in PE, a friend of mine called Shandu applied for a job for me at Beier Wool also known as Isipingo Textile Corporation (ITC). We had become friends at Sappi Saiccor, but he’d left to go work for ITC, a factory owned by Beier Industries. Shandu talked to his foreman and convinced him to allow me to come in for an interview.

Shandu went to my father’s house where I was living to tell me he found a job for me.

When I came back from PE on the next Monday, I took an A4 envelope and put all of my certificates inside. I took my brown envelope to the interview and got the job.

I was self-sufficient in terms of finance. I lost a job, but I found another one.

After about 3 months at ITC, they started organizing the union. That’s when my unionism started. At the time, it was the National Union of Textile Workers (NUTW), one of the founding unions of SACTWU. I wasn’t sure. I did not understand what a union was, but I felt pressure to join because everyone was joining a union. Everyone was saying that “anyone who doesn’t join needs to be beaten up

 

I resisted joining.

I was more skilled than most people. I was in engineering, doing welding, and fitting while the people joining unions were ordinary operators and labourers. They were pressuring that something has to be done.

I went to my classmate who was my neighbour working at Defy, a factory that made cooking stoves. They had a union there, so I asked him about it. He said, “No, no, Siphiwe, a union is a good thing. The union takes care of us so that we can’t be exploited by an employer.”

Then I had the feeling that if I was part of a good union, they would fight for me.

I double checked him by asking my brother-in-law the same question. He was working for a company that makes chemicals. They were under the chemical union and my brother-in-law was a shop steward. So I double checked with a shop steward and learned more information. I received more encouragement about how good unions are. So, I thought, “Ok, I must just join.”

I went back to the factory and pretended like I was still stubborn. I told people that the senior shop steward, must come to me. I’m not going to him. When he came, I told him “No, I am not joining.” As he was walking away, I said, “Hey, come back’’, I just want to ask one more thing and I gave him my name tag.

 He was so happy and he wore my name tag next to his and started running around, waving my name tag and telling everyone, “Hey, we got Siphiwe now!”

They were recruiting me because they wanted me to be their senior shop steward.

But I said, “You are recruiting someone who did not even know what a union was. And you are telling that person to be a shop steward?” I said that I was ready to join but I was not ready to be a shop steward or a senior shop steward.

But he took my name tag and popularized me. There were four shifts. A straight shift and tree rotational shifts. I was on a straight shift and now everyone on the day shift knew that I was joining. When the day shift got off at 2pm, they told the next shift the same story. I was the story of the day.

By the time of elections, everyone had heard the story and knew my name, so they elected me as a senior shop steward.

I was elected on a Wednesday and on that very same day, I was told I would be attending a NUTW National Congress on Friday. I only knew one person who was our organiser, Elias Banda. The congress went well in my view. I started to know branch comrades and other comrades in other branches. I heard that there was a rival union, Textile and Allied Workers Union (TAWU) which was a breakaway from NUTW. This was the most serious issue in that congress and the strategy to curb it was put in place.

Shortly after I was elected, I attended my first Branch Executive Committee meeting in Jacobs.The General Secretary, Johnny Copelyn was present in the meeting. He said to me, “You know that there is a rival union in your factory.” But if someone says something that I do not know, I will always ask what it means. He answered, “There is a new union called United Workers’ Union of South Africa (UWUSA) that is taking everybody.” I told him, “Let me deal with it.”

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Johnny gave me a list of all of the people in my factory that had joined UWUSA. People had signed the list to indicate that they were resigning from NUTW. When I looked at the list, I could see that some of the handwritings were forged. Some people had been signing for two or three people. So I used that in my advantage. I went to a general meeting and said to the workers “I know some of you are joining another union. All of you elected me as your shop steward, but behind my back you have betrayed me and gone to another union. But I am worried about people whose names were fraudulently signed to this list. I have a list of everyone who resigned from NUTW, but I can see that some of your names were written by someone else. I want all of those who think their name may have been added fraudulently to come and scratch their name off the list.” Almost everybody, about 99%, scratched their name off the list. Even those who I could see had signed it themselves said, “Yeah, even me. Even my name was added fraudulently.” So I got the majority back again. 

Annual General Meeting (AGM) and COSATU meeting

At the AGM, there was an announcement that all of the shop stewards must go onto the stage. We were told that there was a COSATU meeting tomorrow, so we needed to go discuss the agenda items and have our own positions.

We were told to go spend the night in the Pinetown union office. They said it was suitable for sleeping because it had a carpet. We didn’t have blankets or anything. That was the struggle at the time. There was no option to choose the nicest hotels or the best transport available.

During my time as a senior shop steward, I did quite a lot of things in my own factory. I want to mention that in the negotiating room,

I convinced our factory to give three weeks’ annual bonus to all workers.

 While I was working at ITC, there was a factory next door called Cotton Waste. This factory was unorganized, so I started going over there to recruit them to the union. I would go before I started work and during my lunch break. It was a small factory, but I alone convinced the majority of workers to join the union. I asked the office to negotiate the recognition agreement. I could not get everything in the agreement but I got access. I got the employer to recognize a shop steward and even got them to agree to negotiate wages.

So these three things—winning the three weeks’ annual bonus, sorting out the rivalry, and recruiting workers from Cotton Waste, led the organizers and office bearers to start to notice me. I also had a valid driver’s licence They recruited me to work for the union. They asked me if I wanted to help stop exploitation of workers in other factories and other branches. I, of course, said yes.

The union employed me in 1987 to work under the Coastal Branch, which is now the Northern Natal Branch.

Around that time, in 1987, the NUTW merged with two other rival unions to form Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union of South Africa (ACTWUSA). The three unions were all merged together. The three unions all had different cultures, so the merger was not seamless. When the merger occurred, we were all put on a six-month probation. Everybody. We had to prove ourselves. Some people thought it was too much pressure and left.

In Isithebe, there were many factories but the unions were very few.

The Coastal Branch leaders saw an advantage I had a driver’s license. They gave me a car and sent me to recruit in Isithebe. It was very hard there. When I started, there was a lot of violence. The Ikatha Freedom Party (IFP) was very active and was fighting with us like you can’t believe.

The IFP did not believe in the union. They believed in a “free enterprise,” as they called it at the time. They believed that if you wanted to sell your labour, it was between you and the employer. If your employer wants to pay you R10 and you agree to work for R10, no one should interfere. Their accusation was that we were scaring the investors, and they would go back or go to other countries.

 
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As we continued to mobilize and organize workers, there was a taxi strike. There was a fight between the commuters and the taxi owners. The taxi owners and the IFP said “It is all because of this man. It is because of this Ngidi person. Before he came here, everything was quiet. He’s coming up and down in his car and feeding people with the wrong things.” Because they thought I was causing trouble, they started chasing me. One day the IFP and taxi owners and drivers tried to kill me, they chased me till I had to run inside a Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU) organized factory for protection. Outside, they broke all of the windows of the car and punctured the tires. The car I was using at the time was under Johnny Copelyn’s name and was insured by him. So when I went to make an insurance claim, they asked what I was doing. I said I was working and everything fell apart because the car was insured for private use. Insurance refused to pay.  

I was also unlawfully arrested many times and put into jail. They would say I was inciting people to swear and disrespect the elders of the area and Mr.MG Buthelezi, the leader of the IFP and the prime minister of the Zulu Nation. He was also the minister of KwaZulu Police and the Premier of KwaZulu Government.

When I was in jail, no one would know for several days. So, when I didn’t phone for a week or so, they knew something must have happened, because normally I would phone the Regional Office every second day. Chris Gina would take a car and drive to Isithebe and look for me. He always knew to check the jail first. When he finds me in jail he will organise the lawyers and the bail for me.

 

Once, Elias Banda and I acquired a microbus from the union. We picked up shop stewards in the microbus and went around to all of the factories on a recruitment drive. The IFP guys came after us and gave us a hiding.

While we were there, the struggle never stopped. The IFP guys would beat us. They would break into our cars and do whatever they wanted. At one stage, they broke into my house. Luckily I was not there, but they stole my radio and my coat. They would chase us. In the back of my mind, I was always thinking of escaping. Hiding and escaping.

During that difficult time, the only thing that kept me going was the idea that I was working to eradicate the exploitation of workers.

The union’s mission was to recruit all workers under the textile industry and end the exploitation of labour. So we had to keep on going.

Even though the IFP was intimidating people, it was not that difficult to convince workers to join the union because of their conditions. They had problems. There will always be problems. We would listen to their difficulties and give assistance. On the weekends, we would also call meetings to educate people about the union was all about. We would start inspiring them and give them forms.  

When we got majority membership, we will negotiate recognition of the union, wages and other conditions of employment. One battle we fought over wages involved a subsidy. The governments of those areas made efforts to convince companies to move to these areas by some incentives. One of those efforts was to provide incentives like subsidies. The government would subsidize R19 per week toward the salary of each worker. The companies were obliged to pay a total of R25 per week, in terms the Wage Determination Act. So, they would only need to pay R6 themselves because the R19 subsidy covered the rest. However, some of the companies so unscrupulous and would only pay the workers the R19 subsidy. Some would even keep some of the subsidy for themselves and only pay the workers R15 or R16. So that was the big fight at the time. We would insist that “every company must pay R25.”

I spent five years in Isithebe. Five very difficult years. Traumatizing years. Five years of always looking behind me instead of ahead, like how you look in the rear view mirror when you are driving.

Even though these years were difficult, it is also what I am proudest of. I formed the Isithebe branch.

I arrived with only a car, a pen, and union forms. And by the time I left, I had organized a fully-fledged branch.

In 1989, ACTWUSA merged into SACTWU. We’d really grown. NUTW amalgamated into ACTWUSA and then into SACTWU. We merged up five or so smaller unions. Before, there was a textile giant and a clothing giant. After we merged together, we were a bigger giant. I would say that the different unions all felt the same to me. They were all fighting for the same goal: to end the exploitation of workers. They were the same, but as we got bigger, we became stronger and had access to more resources.

In 1992, I was moved to the Pietermaritzburg branch. There was a lot of fighting between the IFP and UDF in Pietermaritzburg. Our own members were accusing us of accommodating IFP members. As a trade union, we’ve always disregarded political or religious affiliation of any worker. COSATU is an ally of the ANC. Some people in COSATU think that we should not associate with anyone who is an IFP member or any other political organisation. I differ on that view. We are the workers organization. It does not matter if a worker is ANC, PAC, IFP, DA, etc. They are free to join the union.

There was an incident at Mooi River Textiles. Some ANC leaders in the area and our members thought that we were selling them out by allowing IFP members to join the union. They thought we should dissociate ourselves with anyone in the IFP. Fighting broke out and people who were accused of being pro-IFP were targeted. One time, I was nearly killed accidently. The car I was using was similar to the car used by the IFP leader. So they wanted to kill the IFP leader but nearly killed me instead. I only survived by running to a shop steward’s house nearby. We were just lucky.

To get people to see past these differences, I organized a meeting. I helped people understand that we are an organization. We are a union. We could not kick people out of the union because they are of a different political affiliation.

No matter how difficult thing became, I never considered leaving the union because it is my passion to unite workers and to fight the exploitation of workers. Actually, there was one time. Just one. It was when there was a strike at Crosley Carpets. The workers went on an illegal strike. I could not control them. They were swearing at me and demanding that I allow them to continue the strike. I felt discouraged and wrote a resignation letter in front of them at the factory. I did not submit the letter though. I did not give it to anybody. I realised what was going to happen to them if I left. I realized that without me to sort everything out, the management would just fire all of them. And I knew it was not all of them. It was only a few ringleaders who were pushing everybody. So instead of resigning, I went to the office and spoke to my superior to help.

Around 1993, we formed the Textile Administration Company (TAC) to try to form a Textile Bargaining Council, which was successful at the end of the day.  I worked in Pietermaritzburg for about three or four years. After that, I went back to Durban for five years and then went to Isithebe for another five year term. But this time, it was much better in terms of violence. The IFP accepted that workers could join any union of their choice.

Because of my union work, I learned negotiating skills. I even won two cases against qualified lawyers that I’m very proud of. One was against SA Clothing in regard to contract workers. They would hire workers on a contract basis. When a worker’s contract expired, they would employ another worker for the same job or they would employ the same worker again on another short contract. So the same worker is employed again and again and again. So I fought a case on that issue and I won it.

Another case I was very proud of was a shop steward case. The company was represented by an attorney and I argued the objection. It was about the Labour Relations Act. My objection was turned down but they offered to postpone so I could have more time to get a union lawyer. I opted to just carry on, and I am proud to say I won that case. That was a big thing for someone like me. I don’t even have a matric certificate but I won a case against an admitted attorney.

I have six children, all girls, and four grandchildren. My hope for my children and grandchildren is that they are properly educated, and that they go into business. What I’ve learned, is that you need an extra hand to be successful. You can work on your own and be self-employed, or you can work for someone else.

My hope for the future of South Africa is that we share. I would love for this country to really share its wealth.

Even if cannot be shared equally, we must try to make sure people get a fair share. My hope is that everyone can find work and that the workers get paid fairly. I don’t know when we can achieve this, but we need to achieve equality. We need to end the exploitation of workers around the world: in South Africa, China, Bangladesh, everywhere. And also, I would love for this country to be a God-fearing country.   

 

My post retirement has had its ups and downs.

Firstly, I did not have any savings, investments or anything except the SACTWU Provident Fund. When I was calculating what will happen, when I retire after paying all my debts, I was surprised to see what I would be left with. With my financial status at the time, I could only survive for 4 to 5 years at a rate of 60 % of my last monthly salary. Under the circumstances, I had to try invest in businesses.  

Unfortunately, some businesses were scam and I lost a lot.

What was and still is good, is my relationship with SACTWU. SACTWU re-called me continue to serve as a member trustee in the Textile and Allied Workers Provident Fund (TAWPF). At this stage this fund and 4 other provident funds had a problem with one investment manager called Trilinear. At this stage this asset manager has lost a lot of money from 5 Provident Funds and this issue was trending in all papers, and fund members of SACTWU were very worried.

Having served in TAWPF for more than 10 years, actually from inception; SACTWU and the member trustees felt it appropriate to recall me to continue serving and try to and stabilise the situation as member trustee at the expense of SACTWU and the fund.

While attending the Trilinear Empowerment Trustees (TET) meeting representing TAWPF, member trustees from Textile Industry Provident Fund (TIPF) approached me to offer the same services as the TAWPF because they were under the same circumstances. With SACTWU’s approval I was recalled back. When I came back I was requested to serve as member trustee and the chairperson of the board. To date, I am serving as an Independent Trustee and a Principal Officer of the TIPF.

SACTWU in KwaZulu Natal (KZN) Province with the approval of the Head Office approached me to run the SACTWU Durban winter School in 2012. In 2013 we extended the winter school to Isithebe in Northern Natal Branch. In 2014 we extended it to Newcastle Branch and in 2015 we extended it to Ladysmith and Loskop under the Ladysmith Branch. In this programme I am involved with the overall budget and managing of all 5 schools. Our KZN budget is in excess of R0.5 million and I physically run at least two schools.

At times I will also be requested to manger some programs like building security measures at the house of Deputy President Beauty Zibula. And when the house of our former Deputy President Andrew Joyisa burnt down; the union asked me to manage the re-building of the house.

In my post retirement SACTWU has not forgotten about me.  

 

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

SACTWU