Interview conducted in 2009
I was born on 6 April 1962 in Alexandria, outside P.E. I grew up on a farm called Houghton Park. My father was working on the farm, while my mother raised the children. We were five sons and six daughters.
Growing up on the farm was not easy. It was a long way to school, almost twenty kilometres, so for the first part of my youth I didn’t go to school. Besides, I had work to do. I started working for the farmer on the farm where we lived at the age of ten years old. I worked in the shed. I worked very hard and earned wages, but it was only very little money. The farmer thought he did not need to pay me very much because I was young.
Eventually I started school at the age of thirteen.
The name of the school I went to was Coega School. It is opposite Coegakop Quarry. But starting school didn’t mean I stopped working at the farm. No! Instead I had to do my work on the farm after I had finished every day at school.
The school was very far away, and I used to have to wake up very early to get there. I got up at 5:30am when it was very cold, and often there was no food in the house so I would have to go to school without eating. After school and after work every day, I had to do my homework and my studies. That took me a long time and it was very difficult. You see, at that time, if you were an older student like me, the teachers didn’t start you in sub A. They just started you in an older class. I went into standard three in my first year at school but I had never done reading or writing before! I had never been to school before. It was very tough to have to try and catch up all the work.
The teachers didn’t try and help me catch up because they said they wanted me to do it myself. I was told to go outside with my books and make notes by myself. But that was not an easy way to learn! And it is not a nice way to learn either. It is boring to sit outside by yourself. Then, after I had finished work on the farm in the evenings, I had to ask the older children at home to help me understand my school work. They had to explain to me what was going on. I worked so hard that often I only got to bed at 10pm.
The principal at Coega School was a very strict man. His name was Principal Mofu. He had a policy that when you started school in January, you had to have your books with you. If you didn’t then he would beat you. In 1978, when I was sixteen years old and in standard five, my parents couldn’t afford to buy me books until March that year. There just was not enough money in the house to afford the books. As a result I was beaten every day for not having books! Every day from January to March! I didn’t like the way I was being treated at school. I was working very hard but I was suffering as a student. So I decided to leave.
At that time, I was worried about my father. He was getting very old and he was still working at the farm.
I thought I should go to the city, to the location, and try and earn money so that my father could stop working. So in 1978, I moved to Port Elizabeth Soweto with my mother, my three sisters and my two brothers. There were no houses there at the time; there was only an empty space. We built a Wendy house.
My father stayed behind at the farm to work because we needed the money he was earning. But me and my brothers and sisters tried to get work to help him. We would wake up in the morning and go and look for work in the northern area of Port Elizabeth. We would stay out all day looking, and sometimes we would get piece work. A job for this day. A job for that day. Maybe some work in the gardens. But we did not manage to get work every day. Sometimes we only got a few cents, and after we got back home, there was no way we would get supper.
In 1984, I found work at Pelts Products. They were a leather tanning company in P.E. I was working in the Pickle Department where I was a packer. When I first started working at Pelts, I didn’t know so much about politics or the unions. I was not so aware of things like the African National Congress (ANC) and the Communist Party. But there were two guys there who taught us.
The one was a guy who used to come to the factory sometimes. He wanted to talk to us but he was not a worker and so often the company did not let him near us. Then he would talk to us in the location. He told us about the unions and about politics. He was a recruiter, I think: an organizer. He used to call us to one side and talk to us about the ANC one day and then the Communist Party on the next day. He encouraged us to join the union. His words impressed us and we trusted him.
The other guy did work in the company but not for very long because the management hated him. His name was Sicelo, but I don’t know his surname. He used to wear khaki. During lunchtime, all the young guys would go and sit with him in the workshop where he worked. He would tell us things we didn’t know, things that were new to us. I remember that Sicelo used to tell us that South Africa was our country. He told us that we were not free. He explained that the little amount of money that we earned as African people was not fair. He said it was unfair that white people earned so much more.
Sicelo used to tell us about Mandela and Tambo. He told us their history. He told us about the banning of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the ANC, which we didn’t know about. He told us that when Mandela and Tambo were free, we would all be free. Sicelo really opened our eyes. We found what he said so interesting. But he used to tell us that he was only a vehicle to help us join the union: to join the struggle.
The company didn’t like the fact that there was a man like Sicelo there so they tried to isolate him from us.
They put him to work in the toilets, thinking that he would not be able to spend much time with us there. But he still recruited from there! He would put the form under the door and say, ‘Sign.’
I remember hearing once that, during the days of apartheid, there were people who were deployed to the factories to build the struggle. I think that Sicelo must have been one of those people. I think that he probably belonged to the ANC and the Communist Party and he must have been deliberately placed in my company to teach us politics. I mean, this man was brilliant! He really was.
It was from my lessons in politics that I began to get involved in the workers’ struggle.
I had learned that a trade union was an organization of workers that could help us in our struggle. There was a union at the factory at the time called MAGUSA, and I supported it.
In 1987 however, I remember that a wage negotiation had just happened and that the workers at my company had not received a report back from our organizer. That made us upset. Some of us wanted to leave the union. Myself and seven other workers went to the union and found our organiser. We talked to him and told him what he had done wrong, and later he came to the company to give the report back. Workers were very happy with it, and our relationship with our organizer remained good after that.
The next year, in 1988, I got involved in the Liaison Committee at work. The Liaison Committee worked between the workers and shop stewards. If there was a problem between them, the Liaison Committee would sort it out. We assisted shop stewards a lot and the more I worked with the union, the more I began to love the union and I became an active member. I didn’t like the fact that without a union, workers could be dismissed without any warning and without any compensation. So I saw the union was a thing that protected workers. And I liked the fact that workers in the union were allowed to speak freely and there was lots of hope that they would make life at work better. It was nice to be involved in something like that; something that made a difference to people.
I began to give up more of my time for the union. I didn’t mind it.
The union office was very far away and we could only go there after work, but I never used to say that ‘after hours’ was my time. When work ended at 4pm, other workers would go home, but often I would only get home at 8:30pm because I was dealing with problems.
In 1993 and 1994, I went back to study. I wanted to finish my matric so I went to night school in Motherwell. I did Xhosa, English, Maths and History. I really enjoyed History and the stories of the people who were involved. Eventually I managed to pass up to standard eight.
1994 was the same year that I left Pelts. I was there for ten years and I left because the company didn’t offer the workers a pension. There was no pension at all. It was like I had been a casual worker. When I left the job, I got nothing except the back pay that I was owed.
Afterwards I went to work at Exotan. I was there for over fourteen years. Exotan is also a tanning company, so it was not difficult to move to a new company. It was not like I had to learn a whole new industry. For the last eight years I worked as a laundry machine operator. Every day I started my work at 7:30 in the morning by cleaning the machines and then cleaning the skins. To clean the machines, I had to use a pipe and something like a rake. When that was finished, I had to clean the ostrich skins. When you wash the skins you don’t use water, you use a pack that has an industrial solvent in it. I had to use the mask to protect myself from the chemicals. I enjoyed my work because no one stood over me to check to see if anything was happening. I knew my job. I was independent. I even trained some guys to use the machines.
When I got to Exotan, the union was there but they were not very strong. Many of the people in the company were not in the union and they were not interested in joining the union. Especially in my department, people were not interested in being in the union. They had this idea that they would fix the problems themselves. But eventually people began to get interested, and I was voted as a shop steward in 1996. I think that the workers probably voted for me because I could talk in meetings. I could give solutions and I think that people liked the fact that I would offer solutions. I had learned the rules at the Liaising Committee and so I knew how things worked.
Looking back on my time in the union, I can say that I have spent my life respecting older people.
I have never been to jail. I have never done something bad. I always try to assist other people, especially young people. I don’t think that young people have the heart or love towards the union - or other people - like the older stewards have. I want them to learn.
I am not someone who talks a lot, but people have learned to respect that about me because although I am quiet with my words, I am loud with my actions.
People can see that I have love for other people and that, if I think something is right, I act on it. My passion to help others has meant that I was elected into a position at church and to be the Regional Chairperson of the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (SACTWU) in the Eastern Cape.
The amount of time that I had to spend at the union eventually became a problem for my wife. In 2003 my wife and I decided to separate. Her name is Ida. She worked at my factory with me. I knew her before and then I asked my management to bring her in.
Ida didn’t want me to be so involved in the union. You know, it’s not easy to juggle your family with the work you have to do as a shop steward.
The thing is that, as a shop steward, the workers give me a mandate to be in meetings and deal with cases. So I can’t ignore my duties. It is my job as the mandated leader. At one point, I even went to work and told the comrades that I was going to stop being the Chairperson at work because my wife and I were fighting. But the workers called a general meeting the next day and said, ‘Phumelele, we need to talk to you. We want you to stay! We need you to be our leader.’ They went to speak to my wife. She was very angry so she left me. It is a big thing to sacrifice your marriage for your work. The thing is, I believe that if you love your organization and if you love the workers, you are supposed to sacrifice. The union is my life. I’d actually love to work for the labour movement one day as an organizer – but I can’t because I don’t have my matric.
A few weeks ago, at the beginning of September 2009, I lost my job. My company closed down. They said they needed to downscale their operations and open up somewhere else. They said they had too few orders coming in and they couldn’t afford to keep running. SACTWU did everything it could to stop the retrenchment. In the end though, both my ex-wife and myself lost our jobs. The thing is, we have two children to support, Thando and Vuyokazi.
It’s not easy when you don’t have money.
Research and Writing: Simon Eppel
Photographer: Andrew Christopher Barker