Petunia Lorato Ngwato
Interview conducted in 2009
I was born in Galeshwe, in Kimberley, in 1969.
That is where I grew up. I grew up speaking Tswana and Afrikaans because some of my family is coloured and the other part of my family is Tswana.
On my mother’s side, my grandmother is from a coloured family. My grandfather also has some coloured family members as well as Tswana members. On my father’s side of the family we also have many coloured relatives. So although my surname is Ngwato, you can see I am not only Tswana.
I was at school during the 1980s.
That was a time when we had big problems with our education and we fought against the apartheid government. We were involved in the boycotts against the government. We toyi-toyied, we marched, we burned schools in protest: we were involved in politics.
Did you know that there was no school at all in 1984? The schools had been closed because many of them were burning. I was fifteen years old at the time and I spent that year helping my aunt, at her farm school where she was a teacher. I taught from sub A to standard one.
When I went back to school the next year, in 1985, the boycotts were still happening. I was a leader. I was in the Student Representative Council (SRC) and I was a marshall. It was our job to take the students out of school for the protests.
In those days politics was hard to talk about; we weren’t allowed to talk openly about it.
It was a very dangerous thing to be involved in politics because the police and the soldiers did not have a problem shooting students. You could easily compromise your life! I knew it was dangerous, but felt I had to fight against the government anyway because what I was fighting for was right.
I was a lucky one because the police never caught me. There was one time when it was close, though. That day I was in Vergenoeg for a meeting and while I was walking around, a white policeman caught me. He looked at me and said, ‘You don’t look like you are in politics. Why are you here?’ So I told him that I was a preacher!
When he asked me why I was not at my home in Galashewe, I told him that my mother had asked me to fetch something from my grandmother in Vergenoeg and that I was on my way home. So he offered to take me home but I knew that if anyone saw me in his car, it would be trouble for me, so I said,’ No.’
I can’t say that I always agreed with the way that some of our comrades fought the struggle.
I didn’t like the way that some of the male student leaders were very rude and aggressive. Some of them had very hard hearts. You know, in the struggle some of them wanted to do things that I didn’t want to do. They wanted us to do things that we knew were wrong. Sometimes they would ask you to do things you didn’t like and if you said ‘No,’ they would call you an impimpi, a spy!
In 1985, they wanted to attack another student that they accused of being a spy. That student had pretended to be one of us, a marshall. But he took notes and then he gave the information to the police.
On the day he was caught, some of the marshalls threatened to pour petrol on him and burn him.
I asked myself, ‘What are they doing?’ I said, ‘No! How could I live with myself if I did that?’ Those marshalls told me that if I didn’t do it, they would burn me too. But again I said,’ No.’ I told them, ‘You can do that to me, because I won’t kill that guy.’ I was so upset about the incident that from that day, I pulled out of politics.
By the time I got to matric, in 1990, I had missed most of the schooling for the year. We had started in January but only got our books in February. Then there were no classes till August because the schools were shut down by the Education Department.
At the end of August, I got a letter from the Department saying that if we wanted to write our final exams, we should go to the libraries and teach ourselves! My parents had already paid for my year so I felt I had to go and try and pass the exams. I only studied from September till October and I had to teach myself from books. It was very, very difficult and I didn’t expect to pass. But I did!
The next year, in 1991, I decided to further my education so I went to the RC college for a year.
I did N4, which involves basic skills like communication, accounting and computer training. I wrote a final exam, but when I went to go and get my results at the end of the year, I found out that the college had closed down! That made me very disappointed.
For the next two years, between 1992 and 1994, I volunteered my time for a school feeding-scheme. Since the families of many school children can’t afford to give their children school lunch, and since many schools don’t give the children food, we worked at our school to make sure that the children could have something to eat. Companies would give us bread, milk and jam and we would give that to the children.
From 1994 to 1996 I started volunteering as a preacher in my church, the Methodist church.
I would go from place to place and spread the word of God. I think that experience motivated me to keep helping other people. It showed me that I like to serve people.
Up until 1996 money was a problem for my family, but it wasn’t a big problem because my father was working. But then he just decided to leave. He didn’t say anything to us, he just left and didn’t come back. That’s when we really started to struggle!
That’s when I started working in the clothing industry. I started working for Jaff Clothing and I was a casual for three weeks until they made me permanent. My first job was as a dispatch packer, which I did for eight months. Then they promoted me to order maker. After two months I became a dispatch clerk.
In 1997 I was elected to be a shop steward. I didn’t even know what was happening in the clothing industry or what the union was doing. But I had been in the struggle at school, so I knew about demanding things that we wanted. I knew about fighting for our rights. I knew how to work hard for what we wanted to achieve. I had those skills from the past.
The workers didn’t know about my past when they voted for me, but they could see that I could think and talk.
I love to reason before I talk. To be a shop steward you have to think before you talk! You can’t just talk and then run the risk later that what you said was wrong! If you do, workers will be told the wrong things and you can get into trouble for misinformation. You also can’t afford to say the wrong thing to your bosses. You have to know what to say and the right way of saying it.
The situation of being a shop steward has become more difficult now, especially in the context of the China imports. We have to try and protect the workers jobs, but there are cheap imports coming into the country and we are losing jobs! Nowadays, I try to save the workers’ jobs by encouraging two things: they must decrease their absenteeism, and the most important thing is to be very accurate with the quality of their production. I have asked the workers to make sure that they are producing good quality work. If we do this, then the cheaper imports won’t be such trouble for us. Our quality will be better. No-one can take that away from us.
I suppose you could say that I have really found politics again in the trade union movement.
In 2001, one of the big factories in the area closed down and I was elected to be the Regional Treasurer. Last year I became Deputy Chair of the region.
I have also become a pastor in my church! Sometimes it is a problem for the older males that there is a female pastor, but when they make excuses about why I shouldn’t be there, the congregation always supports me!
In the beginning it was hard to be a pastor.
The first funeral I worked at was for a little nine year old boy. He had been brutally killed. His parts were taken to make muti. At that time I was only twenty- two years old. I struggled with how to comfort the mother. It was very difficult.
I spend my time between both organizations, between SACTWU (Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union) and the church. It is not always easy because sometimes, when there is a union meeting, there are also church commitments that I am expected to perform - like burials for example. But thankfully the church is flexible with my time and if I can’t attend, they ask someone else to fill in for me.
I have one child, a son who is twenty years old.
He finished matric a few years ago and then went to Northern Cape College. He was studying human resources and marketing. It was done in two six months courses of R1600 each that I funded! This is because the college does not comply with the rules of the SACTWU Bursary.
Photographer: Andrew Christopher Barker
Research and Writing: Simon Eppel