Nomsa Mashaba

 Interview conducted in 2009

Nomsa Mashaba, COSATU, 10th National Congress, September 2009, Johannesburg

Nomsa Mashaba, COSATU, 10th National Congress, September 2009, Johannesburg

My name is Nomsa Mashaba. I am forty-one years old and I work as a layer-up at Zut Rags in Johannesburg. At my company we make knitted garments. We get our yarns from companies in Pinetown or Pietermartizburg and we supply our goods to all the companies that deal with school uniforms in Gauteng. Maybe your child is wearing a school uniform that I helped to make?

I am the daughter of Nora Mashaba and Thomas Aartjie. I was born in Springs in 1968. From the age of three years old, I lived with my grandparents, Mirriam and Aron Mashaba, in Mafikeng in the North West Province. I lived there with my older sister, Khanie, and many of my cousins: Nomalanga, Nobelunga, Sibongile, Oumatjie and Bongani. It was a lot of people!

My grandparents’ house was small. I remember that it was made out of mud and had grass thatch for the roof. The good thing about the house was that it was warm during winter and cool during summer!

My childhood was not much fun.

We were always helping my grandmother and grandfather with the household chores. We cooked, looked after cattle and ploughed the fields. We did a lot of boys’ work because there was only one boy in the family and he always needed help. That is why playing games was not a part of my childhood. I was too busy.

My grandmother was a quiet person and she loved all of her grandchildren. I can remember that she used to tell us stories when we were all together. She always spoke from her heart. She told us about the Boers. She explained to us that once upon a time, our family had been very big. But things had changed when the white people came and took our land. She said that was the time when our family stopped being together. They stopped communicating well with each other and they grew apart.


In her talks with us, my grandmother explained how the Boers moved the black people from our own land and sent us to live in other places. My family was forced to go and live in Mafikeng. The way she explained the move, I knew that it must have been a very sad time! My family lost many of their belongings. In those days, my grandfather had a lot of cattle, horses, goats and pigs. But he lost them to the Boers.

My grandmother told us how the Boers treated us very badly under the apartheid system – they treated us like animals!

She said they were abusing us and making us work like animals for only potatoes and mealies! I can even remember her telling me about some of the ways that my own mother had suffered under the system.

My grandmother told me that when I was about four months old, my mother and my aunt had been walking along the road, coming home. She said that on the way, my mother saw a police helicopter flying above them. Suddenly the helicopter flew down towards them and it came so close that my mother and my aunt had to lie down on the ground. They had to escape being hit by the helicopter, but when they lay down on the ground, the helicopter just flew away. You know, that helicopter was a scary thing for my mother. She was worried about her life and she was worried about me as a baby. Why did the police need to scare her like that? It was not fair.

My grandmother always told us these stories while we were in the house. She told them to us in private and she asked us not to tell anyone else what she said. She was scared about what would happen if we talked about these things to other people. She said that we might even be beaten to death by the police if they knew what we said.

Those were difficult things to hear. So for me, I can say that the fun began when I started going to school. It was especially fun because I went to school with my cousins. I was even in the same class as Nomalanga!

We got ready for school early in the morning. At that time, we did not have watches or radios and so we would wake up at sunrise, when the chickens had started to make noises. We would make a fire to boil the water. The water was for bathing because when we were growing up, we were told that children were not supposed to drink tea or coffee. Then after we had washed, we went off to school without any breakfast or anything to eat.

School was very far and we would walk for about twenty kilometres to get there. When it would rain, it was difficult to go to school. There was a river that would sometimes flood and it was not easy to cross.

We would have to walk into the river a bit to see how deep it was and then decide whether it was safe to cross or not.

After school, we would do the household duties and cook supper for the family. The girls took it in turns to cook the meals. We made pap with spinach or morogo and, sometimes, putu with sour milk. We only ate meat when one of my uncles came over and my grandfather would slaughter a goat or sheep to celebrate.

I was usually good about going to school, but I can remember one day that my sister and I bunked school! We were hungry and my sister suggested we should not go to school. We spent the day playing in the fields and only went home when it was late. When we got home, I felt as though I had done something wrong. For some reason our grandmother asked me about school. For the first time she said to me, ‘What did you learn at school today?’ I was so upset I just ran away.

I don’t think that my grandmother knew that I bunked school because we came back home at the usual time. But running away did not manage to solve anything because we were punished by our grandfather and our grandmother afterwards. I can remember that my grandmother told us that bunking school was wrong because we would end up missing a lot of important things. My grandmother believed education was important. She used to tell us that if we wanted to be successful in this world, we needed to study hard.

I left my grandparents when I finished standard five and I went to live with my mother in Soweto. We lived in a place called Dube. That is where I still live today.

Growing up in Soweto was very different to growing up on the farm in Mafikeng. For example, in the rural areas, a girl could not stand with a boy in the presence of any adults. Even if they were your parents! But in Soweto, girls could do that. I even shared my desk at school with a boy called Lazarus.

I really enjoyed school in Soweto. I feel I could write a whole book about my memories of secondary school! I was an active student in sports, in debating and in singing. I enjoyed debating a lot. I think it has helped me be a better shop steward today because now I know how to make a good argument. I can remember one of the debates we had at school was whether or not there was a need to follow our culture. I thought that it was a good idea to follow culture. That is what I said in the debate. It was very challenging but I did well; I even used some of the knowledge that my grandmother had given me from her stories!

I was in standard eight when we had riots at my school.

That was in the 1980s. I was part of the riots. The leaders at our school were boys who were older than me. I can remember two of them: Tshmale and Philemon. I remember that one day the soldiers came to the school looking for our leaders. On that day we were called to the assembly. When we got there, we were told that the soldiers were surrounding the school. We started to sing and shout slogans. Then we were told that the police were looking for our student leaders and the other people who were at the forefront of our activities. Eventually the soldiers fired teargas everywhere and we were running all over the school.


I decided to become involved in politics because of one of the books that we read in school. The name of the book was ‘Animal Farm’.

The book was given to us by our History teacher, Mr Mali. ‘Animal Farm’ was a book about farm animals. The animals took over a farm that was being run by a cruel farmer. They wanted to get rid of oppression but, by the end of the book, most of the animals were being oppressed by the pigs.

I loved that book. It was sad that the animals became slaves again, but I thought the book was very important. There was a line in the book that made me think about apartheid. It said, ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’ In the book, that line was written on a wall by a pig called Squealer. Squealer wrote it because he was saying that pigs were more important than other animals. To me, that line made me think about apartheid. It made me think about the way that white people got treated better than other people.

The book also made me think about all the things that my grandmother used to say to me when I was younger: all the things about the white people who took over the land and abused other people. I decided I needed to do something. That’s why I became involved in politics.

When I was very young, my dream was to be a traffic officer! It was because I liked motorbikes. But later, when I got involved in politics, I decided that I wanted to be a social worker. I felt that there was a need in our community and I wanted to make a difference. In the end, I had to leave school early because I fell pregnant. My mother was the only person who was working, so I had to be at home to raise my child. I stopped going to school during June 1988 but I still managed to write the year-end exams and pass them!

I was sad to leave school because I knew that it was important to finish my education.

I still wanted to be a social worker. That is why, in 1989, I attended night school. Our teacher at the night school used to tell us that we should not give up our studying even though studying was difficult. The teacher said we should try to achieve what we wanted in life. He told us, ‘Life is hard but you must not feel like a failure. Nothing comes easy! You have to work hard for your success.’ Those have been important words in my life.

The course was supposed to be for one year but, unfortunately, I only completed six months. I couldn’t finish because I didn’t have the finances. Also, the school was far away from home and it was not safe for me to walk there alone.

Between 1988 and 1994, I didn’t do much besides raising my child. At one time though, I got a job at a confectionery. That’s where my sister used to work as well. I left the company because the employer treated his workers badly and was underpaying them.

Eventually I started working at Zut Rags in 1994. At first I was a packer; then I went to the cutting room; now I am a layer-up. I have been in my current position for the last fourteen years.

I first became a member of the southern African Clothing and Textile workers union (SACTWU) in the year 2000. I wanted to join the union because I felt the treatment we were getting from our employers was unfair. I wanted to make our conditions of employment better.

I was elected as a shop steward in November 2001. I was interested in making things better for us and the other workers could see that. They could also see my passion for politics. I am now the Treasurer of the Johannesburg Central branch. I am also part of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) local and I’m the Chairperson of the Gender Committee there.
It is not easy to be a shop steward. You are always the first person in the firing line! We even have the problem that workers don’t want to be shop stewards because they think they will get fired. But that is wrong because no-one should be victimized for being a shop steward and standing up for workers’ rights.

I am proud of being a shop steward. I assist workers in their cases at work. I assist them if they have been treated unfairly. There was a case that I won that I am particularly proud of. It was for a worker called Thomas. The management of the company wanted to get rid of him because they said that he was not productive. They said that he made many mistakes by breaking needles - especially at night. But I argued that they should allow him to work the day shift. I said that he was more productive during the day and that they should change his shifts rather than get rid of him. Eventually I won the case. And you know what? He was more productive!

We also had problems at work with the load shedding. Our company asked us to work for nothing. They owed us for an hour that we had worked but they refused to pay us. They even threatened us with retrenchment but we stood our ground and won the case.

In 2004, the Regional Secretary of SACTWU in Gauteng, Jonas Mahlatsane, gave me a task. He asked me to lead a picketing campaign in Boksburg East Rand Mall for the Buy Local campaign. We went to picket outside a shop called Meltz. We picketed against the imports and asked people to buy locally made clothes. We would send two workers into the shop at a time until all of us were inside. And then we would start singing!


This was the first time that I was very involved in the union’s activities and I loved it. The workers united and we sang songs together: we sang ‘amabhunu amnyama’. It was so exciting, but it was also very emotional for us. I often get emotional when I see the desperation on the workers’ faces. We are desperate to keep our industry going. I think it is something that makes us all emotional.

When we were about to leave the mall, the management called the police and all hell broke loose!

The police fired tear gas at us! The police wanted to know who was the leader of the picket. I came forward and showed them the Section 77 of the Labour Relations Act. It was the section of the law that the union was using to allow it to protest against the imports. But the police just tore it up in front of us! They said they were going to lock us up in jail for picketing.

I am very worried about the job losses in the clothing industry.

My job is safe at the moment, but I know many other workers who have lost their jobs. I am told that we used to be 25 000 people in the industry in Gauteng. Now we are only 11 000! That is very worrying. Our industry is dying a slow death. We need to do something very quickly. We need to do something or maybe many more workers will lose their jobs. We need to save this industry because it is our life.

I am an African National Congress (ANC) member and an ANC Branch Executive Committee (BEC) member in the Fanyana Maisela Branch. You could say that my dream has come true by seeing the ANC come to power. Yes, it makes me happy. But this is not the end of the road. We still have a long way to go until we are free.

The thing is, young people think that just because we have a democracy, there is nothing left to fight for. But they are wrong! We have a baby democracy. It needs to grow. Young people need to know that there are still many changes that need to happen in our country. They need to know that they must make those changes happen.

I live in an RDP house in Langaville, Tsakane. East Rand. We are five people in the house and I support them all on R442 a week. I have two children, Busisiwe and Lungisani. Busisiwe is at college at the moment. She is in her first year studying Finance!


Research and Writing: Simon Eppel

Photographer: Andrew Christopher Barker