Interview conducted in 2009
My name is Freda Oosthuysen. I am currently the National Treasurer of the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (SACTWU), which means that I am in charge of the finances of the entire union. I have been the National Treasurer since 2006. I have also recently, in September 2009, been voted as the National Treasurer of Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). In 2006 I became the Chairperson of the Clothing Industry Provident Fund, as well as the Chairperson of the National Bargaining Council. On top of all that, I work as an examiner at my factory, House of Monatic, in Salt River, Cape Town.
I know a little bit about the history of my family. On my mother’s side, my grandfather came from America. His name was George Blackie and he was a policeman! I have been told that he arrived in South Africa during the Second World War. When he arrived here he met my grandmother, Wilhelmina Lawrence, and they got married and settled in Athlone. They had a daughter, my mother Shirley.
My father’s name was George Ben Davids. He was a Damara man from Namibia. The Damara are one of the native peoples of Namibia. My father was a very clever man. He spoke English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, German, Dutch and Damara.
My father came to Cape Town on the fishing boats. He used to work as a fisherman between Walvis Bay and Cape Town. He met my mother because she was working for I&J Fisheries factory in Woodstock at the time. That was the time when Woodstock was right next to the water! It was before the government reclaimed some of the land of Cape Town from the sea.
After they got married, my parents moved to live on one of my mother’s parents’ properties. It was in Goodwood Acres in Goodwood. My grandparents owned property there. In fact, they owned lots of properties, or yards, and they rented them to lots of people. We grew up on one of the yards with all my family together. We were a close family. Sadly those properties were taken away from my family by the apartheid government.
My parents had seven children but two of them died; they were twins. The other five children are my brothers Joseph, Henry and Christopher and my sister Rachel and myself. I am the second eldest child in the family. I was born on 27 February 1962.
My father was a politically motivated man and I learned about politics from him.
He used to talk about politics a lot. In those days there was apartheid and I remember that my father used to say to us, ‘One day things will be different. One day they will be better.’ My father had a different perspective from many people. He had grown up in another country where there was not the same kind of oppression. He could see that what was happening in South Africa was not normal. He could see things from another angle.
You know, it helps when you can take a step away from the things that you know and learn to look at them from another perspective. When you see things from another angle you get the chance to see them with new eyes. That is what happened to me once when I was young. It was a lesson that was very important for me to learn.
I am a Catholic and I learned a lot from all my years in the Catholic Church. That is where I learned much of my politics as a youth. Being Catholic, we had many priests who came to us from Ireland. When they came they brought their politics with them. One of those priests was Father Peter John Pearson. He was the priest who made the biggest impression upon my life. Currently he is the representative of the church in parliament!
I was ten years old when I met Father Pearson for the first time. One Sunday, I remember that he came to talk to the youth at my church. It was the first time I had met him because he was not the kind of priest who was tied down to one parish. He moved around a lot between parishes but he came to talk to us because he cared about the youth. Father Pearson talked to us about the directions our lives could take. He talked about the importance of choosing the right path in life instead of the wrong path. The way he talked and the things that he said really inspired me. That’s when I thought of giving my life to helping people.
As I grew up I became more involved in the church’s youth group called ‘Justice and Peace’.
My older brother, Joseph, was also part of the organization. We used to go to meetings and discuss the problems in the country. We would have the meetings late at night at the church in Elsiesriver or in Bellville. We also used to have a meeting in someone’s yard. I remember that we dug a deep hole in the ground and put candles in it. Then we sat in the hole for our meeting. That way we could have our meeting in safety!
It was illegal to have political meetings and my mother used to get very upset. She used to tell me that she could accept that Joseph was involved in politics, but not me. She said I was a girl and it was not right. My mother was so worried about me that she eventually took me out of school and brought me into her company, IL Back in Parow. She wanted to keep an eye on me! That was in 1976, when I was fourteen years old. I started working as a cleaner and I earned R8.62 a week. That was a lot of money in those days. You could definitely live off it.
When I started at IL Back, it was the time of the 1976 riots. Students and activists from all over Cape Town were protesting against Bantu Education and against the fact that other students had been killed in Soweto on June 16. In those days I used to go up to the fourth floor level of IL Back and look out over the Cape Flats. From there, you could see Ravensmead and Uitsig. I used to see people standing on the bridges throwing stones. You could see the tyres burning in the streets! I remember feeling like I wanted to be in those protests too. I wanted to be doing something.
One day, during that period, the boss of IL Back closed the company and I was very excited. I wanted to go and join in the protests. On the walk home, my mother insisted that we walk on the side furthest away from the activists. But that was the side of the road where the stones were falling! That’s where the activists were aiming their stones. I told my mother that we should rather walk on the other side of the road, the side where the students were standing. That would have been a better idea.
In those days there were big trees lining De La Rey road. The activists would throw the stones from behind the trees because in those days the police would just shoot at people, and the activists didn’t want to get shot. But I didn’t want to be behind the trees. I wanted to be out in the front!
My mother had hoped that by getting me a job in her company, I would be too tired to be involved in politics.
She thought that at the end of the day I would not want to go out. But in 1978, at the age of sixteen, I became more involved. I joined the youth movement in Kasselvlei led by Reverend Allan Boesak.
I learned a lot from being in that movement. One thing I learned was how to drive! We used to have a bus that would take all the youth around in it. It would take us to our meetings. Rev. Boesak used to tell us that we needed to learn to drive the bus in case something ever happened to the driver. If many of us knew how to drive, then there would not be a problem. In those days the person who often drove the bus was Johanna Oliphant. She was small but she drove this big bus! Johanna lived with Rev. Boesak for many years after the death of her parents. She was very involved in the struggle. Today Johanna is one of my comrades in the union and she is a shop steward at AJ CMT in Maitland.
At the age of eighteen years old, I did a course through the church that changed my life. It was called ‘Me, Myself and I’. That course was amazing. It taught me about self-control. It taught me how to plan my goals and how to know myself. The course was run by Father Peter John Pearson. The first thing he said was, ‘If you are in the road and there is a wall in front of you, what will you do? Will you walk up to the wall and bash your head into it? Or will you take a detour and plan a way left or right around the wall? If you don’t know yourself, you can keep walking into the obstacles in front of you. But if you know yourself, you can plan how to get round any obstacle.’
Father Pearson’s words made a very big impression upon me. It helped me realise that if I didn’t understand the person inside me, then I would just end up making the same mistakes. But if I knew the person that was inside, then I could understand what I needed to do to take control of my life. In that course, Father Pearson also made me realize that I was not better than other people; that we are all equal.
While I was at IL Back, I became part of the union, General and Allied Workers Union (GAWU). I joined because the education that we had received through the youth movement had taught us that organizations should work together against apartheid. So I thought to myself, ‘I must join this union.’ When I first joined, there was a shop steward at IL Back by the name of Peter Holloway. He had a bald head and I used to tease him about it! But I also used to ask him lots of questions about what the trade union did. I was interested. I remember that Peter once said to my mother, ‘Your daughter has a lot of questions that she likes to ask. You will see, she will go far.’
In those days shop stewards were not so involved in fighting for the workers like they are today.
The shop stewards acted strangely. They were scared of the bosses. If the bosses said, ‘Jump’, they said, ‘How high?’ In those days, when the boss came into the room, everyone shivered. Shop stewards were scared to confront the boss. Even negotiations were a problem. When we used to get increases we would just be informed on a piece of paper that we were getting our increase, even though we were not involved in negotiating it. I didn’t like it. Thankfully things have really changed since the union became SACTWU.
By the mid-1980s, IL Back got into financial trouble. That was when I moved from IL Back to Bertish. Bertish later became known as House of Monatic and I have been there for over twenty years now.
When I started at Bertish, I joined GAWU there too. In 1987 I became a shop steward. I was sitting in a meeting at a union report-back session. The report-back was on whether or not to have an uprising to free Mandela. The steward who gave the report-back did not make me happy. She had said, ‘Yes’ to the idea at the union buildings, but when she came to the factory, she changed her mind.
It was not right in my eyes for her to change the story. It was a matter of principle. You cannot just choose what you want to say whenever you want to say it. As a shop steward you are part of the union; you are supposed to represent the views of other workers.
I learned that principle in the church. Sometimes the thing that the preacher says is meant for you, and sometimes it is not meant for you. Even when it is not meant for you, you can’t just dismiss the advice as unimportant. How do you know that you are not supposed to take the message to someone else? Maybe that message will be the very thing someone else needs to hear!
So I stuck up my hand in that meeting and said, ‘This is not right.’ I said that that if you hear an instruction at the union, you should take that instruction to the workers. That is what your role is as a shop steward. If you disagree with what the union is saying then you must tell the union that you disagree. But don’t pretend to be one person in the meetings and then be another person outside them. You should be honest about what you stand for.
The steward said to me, ‘As jy so baie will se, nou kan jy die shop steward wees!’ Since I was not scared to be a steward I told her that I accepted! Hey, the workers clapped and shouted, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’
When I first became a shop steward, I told the other stewards what Father Pearson had told me years before:
‘If we want to deal with the obstacles at work and take control of our lives, we have to start with ourselves. Your relationship with yourself is the most important relationship you have. That is where we must start to fix things.’
You have to ask yourself, ‘What am I lacking?’ You have to ask yourself, ‘What do I want to achieve?’ And then you must look at where you are at the moment. That will help you get to your end point.
If you have a bad relationship with yourself you will be blown about by the wind. But if you get to know yourself, then it will be like taking a piece of rope and tying one end to your body and the other end to a big rock. When the wind blows, you will be anchored and can weather any storm. That is how we will succeed as shop stewards.’
From that time on, the shop stewards committee started to organize itself differently. We looked at what each of us had and we used our skills to help each other. One of the stewards could speak more than one language so she could help us communicate better with workers who spoke different languages. Other stewards were very good at fighting cases, so we elected them to be the people who only dealt with cases. I was one of the stewards who took up cases, but I always said that I wanted to take another steward into the hearing with me. I wanted everyone to learn from the cases. I wanted to grow our skills.
When I first joined the union in 1987, GAWU had started having talks with Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union of South Africa (ACTWUSA) about a merger. Those were the days when Lionel October was General Secretary of GAWU. Lionel October had been a cutter at IL Back and so I knew him well. I also got to know Mr Rodgers very well. He was one of GAWU’s organisers. He was the kind of man who would come past your house if he could see you looked sad and unhappy at work. He would come by and motivate you and tell you not to give up.
On the day that we merged with ACTWUSA, a few of the comrades were worried that we were going to lose ourselves in the merger. They felt we might get bulldozed. But at that time, Ebrahim Patel, our ex- General Secretary, helped us a lot. When GAWU comrades got worried, he used to come and talk to us. He had a way of telling us that things would be okay. He would come and make a bold speech and our minds would be at peace. The thing is he understood the clothing workers. His mother used to work for Ensign. He knew where we came from.
I always thought that there was a lot we could learn from the textile workers. They were much more militant than we were. When they opened their mouths to talk, the things they said sounded right! To be honest, I really believed that we were behind them, and I wanted to be more like them. They really brought in a new broom and they swept GAWU clean.
One thing they taught us was how to negotiate better. When wage negotiations were going badly, the ACTWUSA guys taught us how to use psychological warfare. I remember that during the negotiations we used to sit in the same room as the employers. They sat in the front of the room and we sat at the back. When they would offer us only a little bit of money, we would take out a tray with half a loaf of bread and a glass of water on it. Then we would walk around the room with our tray and stick out our tongues to show that it was only a little bit of money!
After GAWU became SACTWU I became more and more involved in the union.
I worked hard to protect the workers at my workplace.
You know, being in the union was my way to continue the struggle that I have been fighting for my whole life. It is the struggle for equality and freedom.
My involvement in the union grew throughout the 1990s. By the mid-1990s I had moved up the structures of the union. I had become a member of the Salt River Branch Executive Committee (BEC). By the early 2000’s I was a Branch Office Bearer for Salt River. But even in those days I never thought that I was going to move up to where I am now!
In 2006 I was the Chairperson of the Salt River branch. That year SACTWU was having a National Executive Council meeting in Cape Town but I was not at the meeting because our branch was being represented by one of my comrades from the BEC.
I was at work at House of Monatic when I got a call from Wayne van der Rheede, then our National Organising Secretary. He told me that I had to come down to SACTWU. But since my BEC comrade was already there, I decided not to go. I had work to do. Wayne kept phoning me to ask me to come down and eventually after being phoned three times, I decided to walk down to SACTWU and see why I was needed. When I arrived at the union, Wayne and Aziza Kannemeyer, the Western Cape Regional Secretary, met me at the office. They offered me coffee and asked me to sit down. That kind of thing does not happen every day and so I knew something was going on! I wanted to know what, but they wouldn’t tell me. Eventually I was taken into the NEC meeting and I was told that I had been elected to be the new National Treasurer of SACTWU! They told me the position was starting immediately!
I was so confused! I had never been in a position like that before, and I was not sure what I would have to do. I was thinking, ‘Why me?’ and I was so overwhelmed that I just walked out of the meeting and out of the union and went straight back to House of Monatic! Wayne had to come and fetch me to take me back to the union, and when I returned I decided to take up the challenge.
I had a lot of help in the beginning from Ebrahim Patel. In the beginning, he sat with me and showed me that I could do the job of National Treasurer very well. You know, I was nervous about taking this position on at first. I thought that I didn’t have the skills or the knowledge to do the job properly. I thought I was just an examiner; I mean, what did I know about being a National Treasurer? But I realised that I was being given the opportunity to grow and learn from the challenge.
And I have managed to take up that challenge well.
Later in 2006, I was also elected to be the Chairperson of the National Bargaining Council. That is the Council that the union and the employers in the industry all sit on and where they conduct wage negotiations every year. As the Chairperson of the National Bargaining Council, I have to chair the bargaining meetings and wage negotiations. We have had to overcome many challenges. For example, in that first year, the General Secretary and Deputy General Secretary of the Bargaining Council left the organization! For a while I was left alone at the head of an organization that I did not know very well. But it made me determined to find out everything I could about how it worked and what it needed to do. That’s how I overcame that challenge.
The other position I got in 2006 was to become the Chairperson of the National Provident Fund for the Clothing Industry.
Apart from everything that I do with SACTWU, I still have another life! I am married to Dan Oosthuysen. We have been married for twenty-seven years! Dan and I have two sons: Dorian, who is the eldest, is twenty-eight years old. He is unemployed at the moment, but wants to be an electrician. That is his dream. My other son is Virgil. He is eighteen years old and is at Voorbrug Secondary in Delft. Apart from my two sons, I also have a grandchild, Dornell. He is Dorian’s child and is three and a half years old.
If I could give the world a gift, I would want to give it the gift of better education. That is what the people need: better education. Those of us who had to leave school early to work, know how hard it is to make a living in the world without formal education. A formal education is important. It will allow our children to get better jobs. It will allow our children the chance not to struggle as hard as we have struggled.
But you know, even though I say that education is important, it is also important for workers to know that you can make something of your life without an education! Not everything is lost if you don’t have an education. You can still make a difference in the world!
Research and Writing: Simon Eppel
Photographer: Andrew Christopher Barker