Interview conducted in 2009
I am the daughter of Mr and Mrs William Buys and I was born in 1950. I was born just south of Durban and my family lived in a barracks of a chemical company called A.E.C.I. My father started working there in 1940. We lived there until I was five years old and then moved because my father started a new job at Sappi Mills in Mandeni. But we did not move with him. Instead, me and my mom and my siblings moved to Malagazi. It’s like a farm area, also in the South Coast, somewhere near Isipingo. My mother worked there for an Indian family.
My father used to visit my mother only once in a blue moon. He indirectly abandoned us and my mother brought us up.
She never complained about her predicament. She never said anything; she just looked after us. She even helped to build the shack that we lived in.
I remember that when I was a child, Mandela used to come into Malakazi! He used to come with a group of people and they would march in the streets. People would be collecting money for the struggle and we, as little children, used to go and also put money in the container. We didn’t know why they were there though. When my mother found out, she used to give us a hiding for taking part in the marches.
My eldest sister was married to a Sotho guy. He was an activist but I didn’t understand what that African National Congress (ANC) thing was, at that age. He used to come home sometimes covered in mud, and say he had to swim from one place to another when the police were after him. Because of him, the police sometimes used to come and sit in our house, not saying anything. They would even just sit on the table, watching us. My mother used to tell us to go to sleep. I knew the police were there because of my brother-in-law, but I didn’t understand why.
And I wondered why people were jumping so high to help the black people.
It was difficult to get to school when we lived in Malakazi. We had to catch the train to school in Melbourne Road, in Durban and the station was very far away. Me and my brother and sister would leave home when it was still dark and walk for ages to the station. I was very small and I found that walk very hard - especially in the winter months. Apparently somebody saw me and my siblings walking one morning. This person decided that because it was too dangerous for us to walk, they would sponsor us to go to boarding school. I have no idea who that person was. My mother never told us. In those days, children were not as inquisitive as they are nowadays.
We changed schools and went to St Monica’s in Hillary when I was ten years old. My first teacher was Mrs Minggay. She was a white lady from England. The school only went up till standard six and I passed it. I was very intelligent at school. I always came out first in my class. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t. But after I finished standard six I stayed at home. We couldn’t afford to keep going to school, and my mother definitely couldn’t afford to send me to do nurses’ training – which was my dream then.
At the age of fifteen, I met my husband.
In those days, in my family, if you had a boyfriend, you had to get married. Even if you were not thinking about it, you had to do it. We got married when I was seventeen and he was twenty-one. He was an Indian man and we were living in Chatsworth. At first I did not understand much about marriage. My husband actually taught me what you have to do as a wife. He taught me how to iron, to do all the things a wife must do. After a couple of years, we bought our own house in Isipingo, where I am still living now. The house is in Orient Drive.
My husband was a graphic designer. He had a very successful business. He was also very involved in the apartheid struggle, but I didn’t know it then. Activists used to come to my house and they would sit with my husband. He would tell me to go to bed and they would make tea and talk. These meetings used to be very silent and people came to our house one by one. I never guessed anything.
While I was married to my husband, I was a housewife and I knew nothing about working outside the house.
But, at my niece’s wedding, I met my future employer and I made a joke and said I was interested in having a job in his factory. My husband didn’t want me to work though. He said, ‘No wife of mine will ever work, and especially not in a clothing company.’ I remember that he also said, ‘If you did go work there, you would probably become a shop steward. You have a big mouth!’ I didn’t know what he was talking about. I had never heard of a shop steward before.
When I was thirty-five years old, my husband died all of a sudden. He was murdered and they never found the body. After that I was desperate. My husband had not put any of his assets into my name and I was ignorant at that time. I didn’t know how businesses worked or how to make a claim to my husband’s possessions. My husband’s business partner took all the money and left and, as a result, I was struck down to poverty again. I had to live on welfare.
I was embarrassed to go from having money to suddenly being poor again.
I didn’t want to admit that anything was wrong and I struggled to keep up the same standards of living. I didn’t want my children to see the changes we had to make. They couldn’t understand what was happening.
Luckily I saw my niece and talked to her. Then she spoke to her employer, the one I had talked to at the wedding. He told me that he had a brand new machine at work, just for me. ‘Come to work on Monday,’ he said. This was on the Sunday. I tell you, when I went to work on Monday, there was a new machine! But I had no idea how to work it. I could only turn it on. Just turn it on! I sat in front of it and they brought a big pile of clothes for me to sew. I thought, ‘How am I going to do this?’ I began to cry thinking, ‘How will I be employed?’
My supervisor helped me a lot. He showed me how to work and he encouraged me. There were some nasty people though who dumped all the repairs on my desk. I felt so upset because I had a huge bundle of repairs and all the other girls did not. I remember crying to myself during the lunch break while I was working, but my supervisor told me that it didn’t matter. He said I would learn soon. The supervisors just sort of took a liking to me. This was in 1987.
While I was working at the company, I noticed something. I noticed the way that workers were treated. They were spoken to just ‘any-old-how’. Sometimes they were hit with the garments over their heads. Sometimes when workers fell asleep, the management would just pour water on them. It was not right to treat someone like that. I thought, ‘I won’t allow anyone to treat me like that. It won’t happen to me.’
I didn’t know about insubordination and such things at the time so I used to simply say whatever I wanted to say.
I stood up for myself. When it came to the shop steward re-elections, the organiser, Pakkies, said to me, ‘The workers want you to be a shop steward.’ I went and told my friends. They said, ‘Oooooh, a shop steward! No, you don’t want to be a shop steward! If you are a shop steward, you have to march on the street. You have to be ANC. People will even hit you. Don’t be a shop steward!’ So I said, ‘No’ and I turned down the position.
Two years later at the next elections, the workers got rid of the old stewards and they voted for me again. They said that if I wasn’t going to be their steward, they didn’t want one. But the organiser said they had to have a shop steward and so, when I did turn down the position, the workers eventually voted for two other people. Those shop stewards didn’t even make it to the end of their term!
In the early 1990s - I can’t remember the exact date - I was at the shop and my manager, a white man, came running to me. He said, ‘Margaret, you had better come quickly to the workers. They are having a meeting and they are shouting your name! These people want you to be their shop steward.’ The workers really felt like I could liberate them from their problems. So I decided to stand!
The very first day we went to the union meeting at the hall, I was shocked. The stewards then were very militant and I was not used to seeing people screaming and jumping. I thought, ‘Oh my God, are they going to fight with each other?’ I thought they were going to hit someone. But then the steward who I went to the meeting with said to me, ‘No, no, they are just singing. They are not angry. You will also get like that one day!’
Every year since that time, I have been re-elected.
As I spent more time at the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (SACTWU), I began to learn more about the struggle. But actually the time it made the most sense to me was when I watched the movie ‘Gandhi’. Gandhi came to South Africa when he was younger, and the part that I remember was watching him try and catch the train. The police pushed him out. Gandhi was an educated man, a decent man, but the South African police just saw him as a black person and pushed him out. The other thing that made an impact on me was the way that Gandhi brought himself to the level of other people. He never tried to pretend that he was greater than they were; he always tried to be humble. That really affected me. That is the time I really became born into the struggle.
The way that Gandhi behaved reminded me of something I had read in the Bible. It said that you should speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, and you must protect those who cannot protect themselves. I knew that in my company, there were people who could not speak for themselves and couldn’t protect themselves. I say it humbly, but I was the boldest person in my factory and I knew I could fight for those poor people. You know, many people in my company were illiterate. They did not understand their rights. I thought to myself,
‘If I can protect these people, then I must do it.’
At my company, workers didn’t know about union meetings. The old shop stewards had never held them before. I decided to make sure that my organisers were free to come into the factory and talk about SACTWU. Because of that act, the workers started to love me even more. They could actually see the official from the union, and that made them happy.
My employer and I used to have arguments when I first became a shop steward. We used to be at loggerheads. He didn’t understand that the union was not there to take over his business. He thought the union was there to cause trouble; that it was there to make workers strike. He thought he was supposed to fight with the union, and I thought that as a shop steward, I always had to fight with the boss.
As I began to go through SACTWU’s training, I began to have the knowledge that I needed. I didn’t have to seek the help of the organiser all the time.
I could work by myself. I could sort out my problems by myself. I was educated about labour.
I started educating the workers about the union. I also started educating my boss. There were no rules in my company before that; everyone just did what they wanted to do. My employer used to just fire people when he felt like it. My manager also used to be very nasty to workers. I helped to build him up. I taught him that you have to know your workers, each one’s character. You must know each person, and how to talk to them individually. You can’t just walk around and swear at them.
Now, at my company, we have a wonderful relationship. The workers love SACTWU and my employer is probably one of the best employers. We get on very well. He complies with everything that SACTWU does. When I tell him something needs to be done, he always complies. For example, he knows that every year we have the increase in July. He would come to me and ask me, ‘Margaret, what is happening with the wage negotiation now? When must I start to pay the new wages?’ When he does this, I get very proud of him because, as an employer, he is taking an interest in the wage increase before he has to.
In our company, there is only really one problem that we have now: HIV and AIDS. We have started to educate workers about it. The saddest part is that the older workers do not want to accept the fact that there is an epidemic.
We have lost a lot of workers to HIV/AIDS as a result!
There are so many memories that I have from my time in SACTWU. I remember going to the harbour a few years ago as part of the campaign to stop illegal imports into South Africa. We went there in the morning and we took our blankets. We were going to spend the whole day there. We sat outside the warehouse where the imports come in and waited for the right moment to go inside. We had our spies and they watched to find a good time to go in. As we watched, we saw that the security didn’t even bother to open up and check what was inside the containers.
Since we were so subtle, the security at the harbour didn’t know what we were doing. Then, before they could stop us, we went inside the warehouse. Some of the braver stewards went up to the inspectors and said, ‘What are you doing? Why are you not checking the containers? We can be losing our jobs because you are letting in illegal imports!’ We made the inspectors check the containers properly. We made them open them up. We saw a lot of things: cars that weren’t supposed to be in containers, and clothes too.
The police did come in the end. There was even a police helicopter above us. We didn’t listen to anyone because we had a job to do and we wanted to finish it. It helped us that East Coast Radio was there, watching the whole show. The police were a little bit scared to do anything to us.
We were there for the whole day and we slept at the union at night. It was a real experience. Wherever we could lay our heads, we put them down. When I went to work the next morning, my boss joked with me and said, ‘This is the way you want to live, carrying your blanket to work?’
At the end of 2009 I’m going on pension. The workers are already upset. They are actually starting to cry from now. They have said, ‘Margie, what will we do without you?’ and I tell them that they will have to get another shop steward. They have all seen the way that I behaved and ran the company and protected them at all times.
But there are also other things that I want to get involved in - like working in my community. In my community, we have councillors but they are not doing a proper job. I have even been approached to stand as a councillor. I have a lot of factory workers in the area and they would support me. I don’t know if I will do it, but my son said he would sponsor me. Since he is now running my husband’s graphic design business, he says that advertising will be no problem because he can do it all from the company. That is the thing that costs the most.
In my going-out years, I thank SACTWU so much for making me the woman that I am. I will always thank SACTWU for what they have done for me. SACTWU brought out in us what we didn’t know we had. For example, I didn’t know I could speak publicly. When I go to places these days, people sometimes think I am from some professional job. They listen to the way I speak and what I say and they ask me, ‘Are you a teacher?’ and I say, ‘No, I am a factory worker.’ Now where did I learn all this from? It’s from SACTWU. I can sit and speak to anybody. I don’t have any fear. I know how to speak to people. I know how to carry myself.
That is what SACTWU has done for me. It has brought me out of poverty.
That is why I get very angry with some shop stewards when they start other jobs. They see us in the streets, toyi-toying and they say, ‘Are you still doing this job?’ I say, ‘When you came to SACTWU, you were standard five, standard six, standard four. You moved up because SACTWU gave you training!’
SACTWU have given me so many opportunities. In my dreams I never thought I would go in a plane! I actually cried that first time I went in a plane because I had never thought I would. With the rate of pay that we get, how would I have been able to? For me, it’s like a miracle. Maybe it seems stupid to other people, but for me it is a miracle. I would never have had the experiences that I have had if I was not part of SACTWU.
When I go on pension, with the level of education that I have received, I can do something else in my old age. But I wish SACTWU would have something for us old people, some way that we are not forgotten in the struggle.
I have two girls at the factory, ordinary factory workers, whose children are doctors through SACTWU’s bursary scheme. SACTWU made it possible. My manager’s daughter is a chartered accountant for a very big company, but she got her studying funded through SACTWU too. She has just started working and she already has her own car!
I have three sons and six grandchildren. My eldest son, Chris, has a degree in Theology and he is also a qualified welder. I live in the same house as my middle son, Bronson, and with his two children and his wife. She is a nurse and she works at the same hospital as the wife of my other son, Andre. Bronson never studied but he is running my husband’s old business, with Andre. When Bronson was scratching around, trying to get the business to work, I helped him financially. That’s because he had to buy his materials, and they are expensive. He also needed all the machines and office equipment. Now that he has his own shop, he looks after me financially and doesn’t allow me to spend my money. He even gives me taxi fare!
Research and Writing: Simon Eppel
Photographer: Andrew Christopher Barker