Desmond Mathe

Interview conducted in 2009

Desmond Mathe, Bolton Hall Durban, September 2009

Desmond Mathe, Bolton Hall Durban, September 2009

Eliza Mathe. As you can see, I have my mother’s surname; my parents did not get married. She was also born in Lamontville. My father was Vusumuzi Selby Kubheka. He was born in Ladysmith, which is where we moved to in 1957. That is how I came to spend my childhood days in my father’s hometown.

I grew up with my grandfather and grandmother, as my mother was working in Durban. She used to visit us when she was on leave, and sometimes on the weekends.

In 1964 I started school at Watersmeet Primary School. My class teacher was Mrs Khumalo. We had Bantu Education and it was inferior to the education that white people received. It was while I was at school that I began to question everything that I was hearing from the teachers, and also from my grandparents. I was curious about everything. I could not just believe the first answer that I was given. I would want to question each and every answer. I remember my biggest question. I asked it during our religious education. The teacher was teaching us about the Bible and I wanted to know about God and Jesus. “Where does God stay?” I asked. Then I asked “When will we get to see him?” I wanted to know more. I also wanted to know why all the religious pictures that we had were of white people! I thought this was a bit suspicious. I always found that the answers that I was given were not enough for me.

All this time while I was at school, I was also working on the fields of a white farmer. At 3am every morning I would take the cattle to the fields and plough with them. By about 5am I would milk the cows. I would have to be finished all my work by 8am so that I could be at school on time. If I did not get to school by 8am, I would be in trouble.

The punishment was being beaten with a sjambok!

One day I lost one of the cows. I tried to cover up my mistake by getting one of my friend’s cows to stand in my herd. But I was found out! The white man asked the other workers - who were all black men like me - to find me so that he could punish me. I was so scared of being beaten that I ran away. I left everything behind me; I even left my permit book behind me. That was a big problem because in those days black people had to carry a permit book with them. But I chose to lose mine instead of getting beaten.


You could say that that incident was the event in my life that formed my consciousness about apartheid. I was angry that the black farm workers had not tried to help me, but I learned that they felt they had no choice. They were scared of the white man too. It was from that moment that I decided to stand against the injustice of apartheid.

I moved back to Durban when my grandmother passed away in 1972. After her death, my grandfather started to victimize me. He would not feed me unless I worked for the food. It was a struggle that I had in those days, and I knew that what my grandfather was doing to me was wrong. Sometimes when he went out to his friends, I would go into the kitchen and eat food without having done the work that he ordered me to do. I did it because I was so hungry.

The problems between my grandfather and I got worse and eventually he opened a case against me at the community court.

When I was allowed to tell my story, I won the case. Because of this, my mother asked me to come and stay with her in Durban. She had heard from me about everything that had gone wrong with my grandfather and she decided enough was enough. So I went to Durban in 1973 and continued with my schooling there from 1974.

Unfortunately, only one year later, my mother got sick and I had to leave school to look after her. Leaving school meant that I only completed my standard five. It was the next year that I started working in the clothing industry, and that is how I found out that working conditions were very bad.

The first company that I worked for was called Playtex. While I was at Playtex, I was employed by Bob Calder. I think many people in the union will remember him because he served on the Council for many years.

I was the youngest worker at the factory when I started there. All the adult workers - as well as all the white staff - used to send me to do their chores. I remember I had to go to the shop for them time and time again. While I was at work, I also began to see even more how black people were treated worse than white people. It made me even more determined to be involved in finding a way for all people to be treated with the same respect. But I didn’t find the solution at that time because I was the youngest person working with adults, and so I was always treated as less than them.

It was on July 19 1985 that I left Playtex. I had applied for a position at the company as a mechanic three years before, and the company had promised that they would send me on a training course. I waited all that time only to find that they employed another man, an Indian man, for the job and not me. I was so upset that I gave them notice and left the company. It was painful for me to leave because I had been there for ten years. But I saw that they did not respect me for my potential; they still saw me as a black man – and under apartheid a black man was considered less important than other men.

On November 19 1986, I was employed at Kingsgate. The following year, we as workers decided to approach the management to ask them about our back-pay which was owed to us. The workers at the company had been going to work every last Saturday of the month, and had never been paid for it. In other words, we were working for free!

I was upset. I asked myself; ‘How can I leave my home on the weekend to come and work for free?’

So I started to talk to the other workers in my department. They were also upset but they were not sure about whether to say anything. They were nervous, so I started to influence them. I told them we had to do something about what was happening. As more and more workers became concerned about the back pay issue, we started to speak about what to do. We knew that as workers, we could use our union; but the problem was that we were not in a union that we liked. You see, in those days employers would decide which union they wanted at the company – and then all the workers were told they had to belong to that union. So our union at that time was not the union of our choice!

Then, during one Friday at lunchtime, four of us from the same department went to Dalbridge to meet with Johnny Copelyn from the National Union of Textile Workers (NUTW), the union of our choice. It was from him that we learnt about Comrade Elias Banda who was going out to the factories to recruit people. We were told he would come to our factory.

After a few days, Elias came to us with joining forms. It was very difficult because we couldn’t let our employers know what was going on. Then some of the workers told them. They were the izimpimpi, the traitors. Fortunately it didn’t affect our progress because after that, we were still able to get people to join the union. I was one of the major players in terms of getting workers to join.

Once we had the union to back us up, we went to the director of the company to claim our back-pay. The boss called the security to come and translate on our behalf but the security guard was telling us the wrong information! I looked at him and said, “Tell us what the boss is really saying. Do not tell us lies.” The workers then got him to tell the truth.

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The company said they did not recognize our union, so they would not negotiate with us.

Then, in 1987, we decided to strike! The strike was very effective because afterwards the company paid us our back-pay pay. They also changed our lunchtime back to thirty minutes long, which is what it was like for workers at all the other companies. They also asked us to approach them with our problems in the future and talk to them. This was important because it meant that Kingsgate would recognize us as union members. Significantly, they also agreed to allow us to have union meetings on the premises.

But the fact that the company allowed us to join the union actually brought a new problem: two unions started to organize at our company! They began to compete with each other. There was Elias Banda, Prince Pakkies and Chris Gina on the NUTW side. On the other side were Margaret Chetty, Welcome Mzombe and Yunus Schaik from the Garment and Allied Workers Union (GAWU). In the end, the workers had a vote to see which union had the majority in the company. It was a very difficult situation, but eventually NUTW won with the majority of votes.
In 1987, the NUTW changed into the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union of South Africa (ACTWUSA). But even though we at Kingsgate had voted to be part of NUTW (and ultimately also ACTWUSA), we found out that our company was paying our subscriptions to GAWU! This caused more conflict until, in 1989, ACTWUSA merged with GAWU to become the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (SACTWU). It was a long journey to become SACTWU but we were happy with the final merger.
I was elected to be a shop steward from 1987, and I joined the Durban North local of the NUTW. We used to attend the LEC, or Local Executive Committee meetings. Then after the union became SACTWU we changed the locals into branches, so now we go to Branch Executive Committee meetings. In 1991 I became an office bearer of the branch, in the position of Treasurer. Today I am the Chairperson of the branch.

As a shop steward from one of the biggest companies, I represented many people and it was therefore a very important position.

There were approximately 1200 workers at Kingsgate in Annandale – and if we included the workers from Kingsgate Leopold - we were about 3500!

I will always be grateful for those first years that I spent as part of the union in the 1980s. The 1980s were a powerful time for the organisation. We had all those inspiring people; comrades like Zephrede Ngubane, Mike Rivers, Prof Sineke, Jabu Ngcobo, Elias Banda, Prince Pakkies and Chris Gina. We also had Mike Gwamanda, Andrew Joyisa, Thandi Khubeke, Mamane Xulu and many more.

I look back now at how we managed to build the union and benefit so many members and I think we achieved a lot. But it is very sad that today we losing so many jobs. Too many members have lost their jobs.

We are facing a bad situation in the industry and therefore a bad situation for SACTWU - because with the industry being in decline, SACTWU is in trouble.

I believe that if all players in the industry, including the employers, work together, we can build the industry up again. We can do this even though we are facing such intense global competition.

As I talk about the achievements from the past, I see that today we are fighting for our survival. We need to rebuild the industry so that our new generation will benefit from our struggle and learn more about the working environment. I hope that all my comrades think the same thing. Although the union is becoming modernised, we must never forget where we came from, and what we are fighting for.

Research and Writing: Simon Eppel

Photographer: Andrew Christopher Barker