Interview conducted in 2009
I was born on the 28 February 1962. In my family we were eleven children, six boys and five girls. Both my parents were working. My father worked for a farmer called Mr Johan Meyer and my mother worked in the Meyer’s kitchen. When I was ten years old we moved from the farm to the location in Devon and my father looked for another job. He found one in a transport company, driving trucks. My mother followed him into that company and started to work in those kitchens too.
The only thing I remember from when I was a child was my first year at school. On the first day, I came home and told my mother that I didn’t want to go back.
All the other kids except me had shoes, and I was embarrassed to be the only one without shoes.
I asked my mom to try to get me long trousers and shoes, but she said that she didn’t have enough money. Eventually she convinced me to return without the shoes and trousers that I wanted.
At school there was a guy I will never forget. Not even until the day I die. I met him in the second month at school. His parents had money and he used to sometimes buy me the things that I couldn’t afford. Even his parents used to help me. His help and friendship made me feel stronger, and I felt better about going to school. That’s when I decided to take school seriously. For example, it was a twenty kilometre walk to school, but even when it rained I would still go. My parents noticed a big difference in me; I was determined.
The name of my primary school was Nomekhane Primary. I stayed at Nomekhane until standard six and then I moved to Pelotona High School until standard eight. In standard eight I was careless; I got a girl pregnant. That is why I left school. I wanted to finish my matric but I needed to go and earn money.
From this time I worked in different factories as a contract worker. I have had a lot of experience of contract work.
When you’re not employed, you will take whatever you can get - even if it is just contract work. But when you are a contract worker, you don’t get to enjoy the benefits of being a permanent worker. There is no job security. The contracts are temporary and unreliable; it can be three months or even less!
Then in 1982, I got a job with a company called Lombard. That was my first permanent job. When I started there I used to listen to the guys talking about the union. It was the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union of Southern Africa (ACTWUSA) at that time and the workers were complaining that some workers didn’t want to join the union. I heard what they were saying about becoming unionized, and liked it, because as a contract worker I had realized that I had no rights. I liked the idea of having an organization help me to improve my conditions of work.
One day I started talking to a worker called Thomas. He lived in Mamelodi at the time. He was a shop steward and I actually asked him, ‘Will you take me to this union and show me this politics that you are talking about?’ He was prepared to take me and show me because he could see I was serious. Thomas gave me big books of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan African Congress (PAC) and asked me whom I wanted to be involved with. He said I should read what the books had to say and then choose my politics. It was by listening to him and reading the books that he gave me that I decided to be involved in workers’ issues.
A lot of things changed for me after I joined the union.
When I started working, I was earning R50 a week. After joining the union, I started earning R90 a week!
My working conditions also changed. I realized that if you belong to the union you are actually protected. This thing of bosses just simply firing you doesn’t happen when you’re in the union!
Eventually I became a shop steward in 1988. I had two mentors. The one was a lady by the name of Emily Taukobong. She was one of the Deputy Presidents of SACTWU. She took me under her wing and said, ‘Cornelius you must do this,’ or ‘Do that.’ My other mentor has been comrade Themba Khumalo, the current president of the union. Although he was staying in Durban and I was staying in Johannesburg, he used to call me and I would call him. We talked all the time.
I learned many things from my mentors, but there are three things that stand out the most for me. The first was that I should never undermine other shop stewards in a meeting with management. The second was that I shouldn’t think about the other workers as ‘the ordinary workers’. There is a tendency sometimes among shop stewards to talk about themselves as ‘the shop stewards’ and about other workers as ‘ordinary workers’. But we are all workers! Shop stewards are just workers with another job in the union. The last thing I learned was that I should not challenge the union officials rudely if I think they are wrong and I should not try and bulldoze them. I should not say, ‘I am your boss, I am your boss.’ There is a way to disagree and be respectful at the same time.
The one thing that I remember very well from the days of ACTWUSA was the merger at the Congress of 1989. I will never forget it. It is not easy to bring people from different sides together. But since we were working in the same industry, it didn’t make sense to have different unions. We had to merge.
I remember that the General and allied workers’ union (GAWU) and ACTWUSA had different ideas about the struggle and different expectations of their shop stewards.
As ACTWUSA stewards we were shocked to hear that GAWU stewards were given an allowance for meetings on a Saturday. They were given traveling money and money for food. In ACTWUSA we were given nothing. We had to pay for ourselves. We didn’t get an allowance except when the workers from our factories would come together and donate money for our travel or food. For example, if I was going somewhere, workers would make a list and put down R5 or R2. They would say, ‘Cornelius, you are going to Johannesburg for the union meeting. How much is your transport?’ And then they would give me something towards it.
So, from the beginning of the 1989 Congress, I realized that merging would not be easy. We, the people from ACTWUSA, did not want to lose our leaders; comrades like Jabu Ngcobo and Amon Ntuli. But the reality is that when two unions come together, some people have to go out of the leadership. Eventually, the first President of the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (SACTWU) was comrade Amon. Lionel October from GAWU was our General Secretary.
Since we became SACTWU, I can say that a lot of things have improved.
For example, the education is excellent. I have had a lot of training in SACTWU. I’ve attended Open School three times. The Open School brings in teachers from outside the union to come and teach. It is very good. At Open School I learned about the economy of South Africa. I also learned about politics.
In 2002, I was elected to be the Deputy Chairperson of Gauteng region. But even though I was in that position, I was not an outspoken person. Not like I am today. The change in me happened at the 2004 SACTWU National Congress. It was in Cape Town, and I remember deciding that I wanted to become more serious about the union. I wanted to add something to SACTWU. If there was a debate, I wanted to get involved. I decided to do this because SACTWU is supposed to be a worker-controlled organisation but if workers are silent then it can’t be one. If workers don’t talk then it will be an organisation that is controlled by the officials - and that is not how it should be.
One way that I added my voice was by telling the Branch Office Bearers that I thought it was wrong of them to always speak on behalf of the other branch representatives. You see, if I come to you and tell you what I want to say, you will not be able to say my thoughts like I can say them. Your words won’t be my words; they will be yours. So I told the BOBs that I thought we should be allowed to speak on our own behalf.
At our last Congress in 2007, I was nominated to be a National Office Bearer. I didn’t expect to be nominated and I was really surprised. Some branches were saying they wanted me to stand as the First Deputy President! Others were saying Second Deputy. I was not sure what nomination to sign, so I signed the First Deputy President nomination. When we went to the voting I was nervous. But Ebrahim Patel, our ex-General Secretary, was open with me and told me that I had to be strong. He told me that if you are nominated, then you have to be prepared to lose as well as be prepared to win.
I thought the other nominated candidate, my late comrade Violet Seboni, was going to win by a wide margin. But I actually did quite well. It was nice to know that people saw me as a good leader. It was nice to know that they thought I had that potential.
Since the tragic passing away of my comrade Violet this year, I have been elected to be the First Deputy President of SACTWU.
I am grateful for the confidence that comrades showed by choosing me for this position.
There was even a time once when I thought of resigning as a shop steward. It happened when I became a supervisor at work. It’s difficult to balance being a supervisor with being a shop steward. I phoned my comrade, Themba Khumalo, and he told me that I didn’t need to resign. He told me that the company didn’t give me the power to hire and fire and that I was still a worker. He told me to go and speak to the workers and see what they had to say. They told me not to resign!
One of my jobs as a supervisor is to discipline people. It’s not easy to do that as a shop steward but I have managed. I always try to explain to the comrades what they have done wrong and show them the right way to do things. Sometimes when I sit with management they tell me to take off my cap as a shop steward and just be with management. But it is not easy to stop thinking like a shop steward. How can you just turn those thoughts off? If I am a shop steward and a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP), how can I just forget all of that?
While I am a shop steward, I am also a family man.
I am married, and have been married before. My first wife and I were together for fourteen years. We had three kids together; one boy and two girls. My son is twenty years old and my daughters are twenty-three and twenty-five. Only my son is still at school. Both my daughters are doing clerical work. After my first wife and I separated, I got married again. My new wife and I have been married for eight years and we also have three kids, one boy and two girls. My son is just over a year old. The girls are seven years old and nine years old.
SACTWU has made me into the person that I am today; confident, strong and militant. I can handle anything that comes at me.
I am the Cornelius I am today because of SACTWU. Any issue about workers that comes to me, I can deal with. I deal with it all.
Research and Writing: Simon Eppel
Photographer: Andrew Christopher Barker