Mymoena Williams

Interview conducted in 2009

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The history of my family says a lot about the ways South Africans pretend we are different from each other.

We say we are ‘coloured’ or ‘black’ or ‘white’, but so many of us are mixed! For example, my mother’s grandfather came from England. He was a Christian and his surname was Hussey. He came here when gold was discovered in South Africa, in the 1800s, I think. He was a bartender and he eventually married a Boer woman. They lived in Goodwood and they had thirteen children, but they couldn’t even speak the same language!

When their daughter, my grandmother, was fourteen years old, she went to work for a Jewish man in a shop in Woodstock. She fell pregnant and her child was my mother. My mother was then raised by her grandparents and while she grew up, she believed that her mother was really her sister! It was only when her grandfather was dying that he told her the truth. My mother used to say that she had a faint memory of an old white man who used to come and bring her presents at times like Christmas. She never found it strange that he brought her the presents and not any of the other children. She never really thought about it.

On my father’s side, his mother was an Indian woman who fell pregnant by a Scot. His surname was Scow, or something like that. They were not married and she then married a man called Mr Jacobs. He was a Muslim, and my father was raised a Muslim too. When my mother and my father got married, she also became a ‘Jacobs’ and she converted to Islam.

I was born in Belgravia but I grew up in Athlone, in Boyd Avenue. My mother and father were separated and my father was a polygamist. Polygamy happens in Muslim families. From his first marriage, he had six children. From his marriage to my mother, he had five children. However two children died; one at six months and the other, my brother Rashaad, at the age of eighteen years old.


Rashaad had a heart condition.

He got sick when he was about eight years old. He had difficulty breathing and so my mother used to sit up on the bed and let him sleep against her chest. She had to sleep while she was sitting, which is uncomfortable, but she did it so that he could get some sleep. She did that, and then she would go to work all day! My mother was a very courageous woman!

My brother was operated on by Chris Barnard. Then he was operated on by Marius Barnard, Chris’ brother. In fact there was even a book written about Marius and my brother called ‘A Piece of Bread’. They wanted to make a film about it, but I wrote to the newspaper and said, ‘How can you do that without asking the permission of the family?’

When my brother died, Marius got Rashaad’s name wrong on the death certificate. Marius called him ‘Richard’, not ‘Rashaad’, and because of my family’s white ancestors, my brother actually looked white, so the hospital put him in the white morgue. Even in the mortuary there was apartheid! At first my father could not find the body because it was under the wrong name, and it was also in the whites’ only mortuary. After we found Rashaad and buried him, the police kept coming to the house for about a year accusing us of taking the wrong body! It was very traumatic.

By the time that Rashaad died, I had already been out of school for a few years. I had been going to Belgravia High and when I completed standard seven, I decided school was not for me. So I went to go and get a job when I was fifteen years old.

My first job had been as a clerk with Bonwit where I earned R5.05 a week. In those days we had ten cents deducted for coffee and tea, so I actually took home R4.95! After my year at Bonwit, I moved to Alpex where I also worked for a year. There we made underwear and baby vests. It was when I was at Alpex that Rashaad died. It was also at that time, at the age of seventeen, that I got married to my first husband, and I had my first child at the age of eighteen.

My husband was sixteen years older than me. To him, I was the most prized possession in the world. He put me on a pedestal, but there were rules: for example, I had to be home at certain times.

After working at a few other factories over the years, I then moved to Bibette in the late 1970s. I started as a machinist. In those first few years at Bibette, a lot of things happened in my life. I became part of the Working Committee at the factory and then, when Lionel October and the union decided that the Working Committees had to be replaced by Shop Steward Committees, I became a shop steward. That was twenty-eight years ago!

That was the time when I also left my first husband. I left him when I was four months pregnant with my second child.

I realised that I did not want the life with him. I didn’t want to be controlled like that.

When I left him, I did not tell him where I was going. I just left. If I had not, he would never have let me leave. So I raised my children all by myself.

My sons are now thirty-three years old and twenty-seven years old. The oldest has dreams about things that actually happen to him later in real life. You can say he has psychic abilities! When he was young, he was frightened by his dreams. Now, when he wakes up, he tells his wife his dreams, but then he forgets them later. He only remembers them again when the dream is about to happen in real life. Then he thinks ‘Oh, I must do this’, or ‘I must do that.’

When he was young, he used to have an imaginary friend called Warren. I remember one time when my son came to me to tell me that Warren had been hit by a bus. At the time it did not make sense to me. But one day I saw a man standing outside the house. He came to the door and told me that he used to live across the road when he was young. He told me that there had once been a little boy in my house who was killed by a bus! I had shivers on my skin! When I asked him for the name of the boy, he did not remember. But he came back a few days later and told me it was Warren!

My other son, Tazleem, is going through a bad stage of being a drug addict.

You see, because I work so hard at my factory and for the union, I always used to rely on my mother to help me look after my sons. Just to keep an eye on them. But when my mother passed away, I was still working hard, and I think I took my eyes off the ball. So my son started doing drugs.

At first it was dagga. Then, when he finished school and went to Bellville Tech, he started doing ‘buttons’ too. It got so bad that he didn’t go back to do his second year at Tech. Instead he started to do more drugs and he started stealing from me. He was taking my clothes, the curtains, our electric appliances, my jewellery. If I bought something, the next day it was gone.

I blamed myself at first, but then I realised that we are the authors of our own books. You can’t blame anyone for your problems. You are what you make yourself.

He says he is not doing drugs anymore, but I am not sure.

I wasn’t always as dedicated to the union as I am now. The thing that changed me was the 1996 Clothing Industry Strike. At the time I was just an ordinary steward who wasn’t very active, but on the first day of the strike Aziza Kannemeyer - who was my organiser - told me to grab the taxi that was standing nearby and go to the other side of Lansdowne. She wanted me to go to the factories there. It was raining that day and we were worried workers might leave and go home. Aziza told me that I needed to make the workers understand that the union was coming to pick them up. She wanted me to entertain them until they were collected. As I was going there, I wondered, ‘What am I going to say to the workers?’ But when I got there, it just happened!

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I kept them entertained.

After that a lot of workers knew me. They would see me and say, ‘There is a unionist’! Some of them even thought that I was an organiser! That first day gave me a sense of pride about who I am and what I can do. It really changed things for me.

The 1996 strike lasted for about seven days. It was a first for us but sadly it was also a last. We have not had another industry strike like it since. No one thought we would hold out as an industry for so long, but we did! And we achieved our goals of a ten percent increase. We worked hard. We gave up a lot. We sacrificed our time. We were always busy during the day with the strike, and then we were busy in the evening preparing for the next day. We would have to put up posters all over the factories in the evenings: posters which said things like ‘We are not monkeys! Don’t pay us peanuts!’ I remember one night we went to hang posters in Maitland, and we had to walk through the cemetery at night! It was terrifying!

As a steward, I take pride in defending the workers and winning cases so that they can keep their jobs.

There are two cases I am particularly proud of: the one was for a worker who was absent almost a hundred days! The company dismissed her on the charge of excessive unauthorised absenteeism and I had to take the case up. Aziza told me to take up the appeal but I thought she was mad. How did she expect me to win when the worker hadn’t been at work for a hundred days? The worker was at home more than at work!

But Aziza asked me if I could see what she could see, and when I didn’t I got nervous like I always do when she says that to me. I told her I would study the case and phone her back. Eventually I appealed on the basis that the worker had only two unexcused absentee days from the whole one hundred days of not being at work. Since she had been dismissed for ‘excessive unauthorised absenteeism’, I managed to prove that two days of unexcused absenteeism was not enough to dismiss someone! I don’t think any shop steward has ever won a case like that, and I was very happy for having saved that worker’s job.

The other case was of a worker whose employment was terminated while he was in jail. We appealed eight months later and got him reinstated with back-pay and full holiday pay! He is still working at Bibette!

Working as a steward can be hard and it can take you away from your family. But I love the South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (SACTWU).

SACTWU has taught me to be a woman in power.

The union took me, even with my little bit of education, and they put in time and money and gave me lots of education. I owe them for that. The union can empower you if you want to be empowered.

I spend half my day at SACTWU and the other half of the day at Bibette. Bibette keep calling me in and saying, ‘It’s not fair that you are not here. You need to think, Mymoena.’ But I ask them, ‘Will you fire me? I am only exercising my rights!’ I am working for the union, working for the workers. It is my passion.

I think that the union did a wonderful thing to get the China Quotas in place between 2006 and 2008. The quotas slowed down the retrenchments. During the quota period the industry may not have been thriving, but it was more stable. But now? Workers are losing their jobs so quickly again!

We have to change the mindset of our management and our workers. We need to learn to work together to make it through this crisis.

But we also need the support of the consumers. Bibette manufactures a hundred percent of our production for Woolworths. We supply them with ladies’ outerwear. Woolworths’ customers must support us by buying local.

Research and Writing: Simon Eppel

Photographer: Andrew Christopher Barker