Alvina Phindile Mahlangu
Interview conducted in 2009
My name is Alvina Phindile Mahlangu and I was born in Alexandra, in Johannesburg, on 9 November 1959. That makes me forty-eight years old.
My mother was a domestic worker and, until I was four years old, I lived with her. But she shared the house we lived in with her sisters and her brother, and there was not much space for us. That was the reason I eventually had to leave my mother, and Alexandra. I had to go and live with my grandparents.
My grandparents lived in Villiers in the Free State. Villiers is close to Heidelberg and in those days it was still a rural area. My grandparents had their own land with cows on it and they planted food too.
There were other children living with my grandparents when I arrived: my cousins, the children of my uncles and my aunts. You know, it was very difficult for me to stay with my grandparents.
My grandmother liked her other grandchildren better than me.
She would hit me, and when my mother sent me presents, my grandmother made me give them to the other children.
I lived in Villiers for many years. I went to school there, at the Villiers Community School, until I was in standard eight. In 1975 or ’76, my grandparents moved from Villiers to Qalabusha, a town nearby. I moved with them, but I didn’t stay there for very long because in 1976 I went back home to my mother in Johannesburg.
My mother was living in Soweto when I returned to Johannesburg. 1976 was the year of the Uprising, but I arrived before it started. While I was in Soweto, I began to discover this thing called ‘Black Power’. The other students were talking about it. They were talking about black people coming together and standing together to resist apartheid. It was very exciting for me to hear people talking about things like that and I began to participate in the struggle. That made my family very angry with me.
After the shooting on June 16, I remember that many people were killed.
It was a dangerous time for us as students in Soweto! I remember that we had to hide ourselves from the police. Because of the danger, my grandfather said I had to go back and live with him in Qalabusha, so I returned there in January 1977. The next month, in February, my grandfather died, and in the end I only ended up staying in Qalabusha for six months.
When I returned to Soweto, the student protests were not very big anymore and the place was much quieter. But despite the fact that the schools had opened again, I never managed to go back to school because, in 1978, I fell pregnant. I had a baby, Zakhele, and life started to change.
I had to raise my baby. I had to do it alone. I had to get a job.
I went out with a friend to look for work. Eventually we saw a company called Unigar Creations and we asked if they needed people. They did and I was hired as a general worker. Working for Unigar was my first time in the clothing industry. I am still in it today, thirty years later!
I only stayed at Unigar for one year because there was a woman at the factory that I didn’t get on with. Sometimes we would fight - so I left the company. Afterwards, I stayed at home for a year, until my cousin found me a job at Elite Clothing. I started there in 1980 and I was there for four years. There was a union at the factory when I started there, and I joined the union. It was one of the unions that came before the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (SACTWU). Even before the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union of South Africa (ACTWUSA).
By 1984 or ‘85, I moved to Pride Knit to be a machinist. I stayed there until 1988. It was while I was at Pride Knit that I really got to love the union. That was the time when I first started buying union shirts.
I remember that we had a demonstration at Pride Knit during one of our lunchtimes. It was the first demonstration we had ever had and I felt very good about it. We made a ‘Human Chain’ and sang ‘Yonke ndawo, o mzabalazo uya sivumelela!’ It was from that demonstration that I first started to see that you have to fight for what you want as a worker. I had a very strong shop steward in those days called Mama Mabusang. She used to say, ‘Alvina, if you want something, you must fight for it. Your rights won’t come in your sleep. You have to fight for your rights. Things don’t just happen over night. We have to keep working.’
After Pride Knit, I moved to another company, Fowaz Embroidery, but I had a fight with the employers over my wages, so I left. I was entitled to be paid a machinist’s wage but they were not paying the right amount. I decided it would be bad for the other workers if I stayed. You see, in those days, the union was not strong at that workplace. I thought the company might try and victimize the other workers - and then what would have happened if the union could not protect them? I thought it was best if I left.
From Fowaz, I moved to Barge Creations, which also did embroidery. Hyo, there were bad conditions for workers when I started there! Barge wanted us to work overtime with a flat rate! They also wanted us to work more than forty hours, and they wanted us to sacrifice our lunch! If they wanted to fire us, they would sometimes do funny things. They would take a garment from the production floor and then, as you were leaving the company, they would pull you aside and search your bag. Then they would put the garment in your bag and pretend you had taken it!
Eventually conditions at the company began to get better. One reason is because the company was opposite the union’s offices and I think the bosses were a bit scared of doing the wrong thing. But conditions also changed because all the workers at the company stood together. We managed to change things by challenging the company and being active in the union.
We changed the history of our factory. I changed it too.
I left Barge in 1990 and went to work at Protea Sport. I was also an embroidery machinist there. There was no shop steward at Protea and the workers didn’t know their rights! The working conditions were not good. When you made a mistake on a garment, the company deducted money from your wages - but you were not allowed to keep the garment. That was unfair because the company was accusing us of ruining the garments, and we were made to pay for them, but we didn’t get them.
I fought against that system until it was eventually stopped.
Workers who came from the homelands were not even allowed to use the phones at the company when their children were sick! They were not allowed to touch the phones at all. Although I was not a shop steward, I also fought against this problem and we managed to solve it in the end.
Eventually I left Protea in 1994 and started work at G&C in 1996. When I arrived at G&C, there were not too many problems at the company because there was a strong shop steward there called Nomonde Dumse. But then the company changed employers and things started to get bad for the workers. That’s why I finally decided to become a shop steward in 2001.
Workers have wanted me to be a shop steward for a long time. In the past I always refused because I didn’t want to be fired. Shop stewards sometimes get victimized for standing up for the workers. When the workers voted for me at G&C, I thought to myself, ‘How long will I run away from this thing? Maybe one day I won’t have my own job? A shop steward is a dealer, a purveyor and a deliverer of hope! I must go for it!’
As a SACTWU shop steward, I have fought in the SACTWU campaigns against Foschini, Edgars, Woolworths and Stuttafords. I have fought in the ‘Buy Local’ campaign. We sang songs like ‘SACTWU ebatswarele keliloku lama China’. We stopped people from going inside because we told them that those companies were not selling local garments. We made the shops close.
In 2003, I separated from my husband after being married for fifteen years. I went back to live at my mother’s house. A year later, in 2004, my husband got sick. He had a stroke. He is paralyzed from the stroke and so I decided to move back in and look after him. It is not easy looking after my husband and going to work, and also doing my union duties. But I must look after him. He is not well.
I also look after my four children. Their names are Zakhele, Phumzile, Zanele and Simangele. I also have two grandchildren.
Research and Writing: Simon Eppel
Photographer: Andrew Christopher Barker