Interview conducted in 2009
My name is Sicelo Gumede. I am forty-nine years old and I work as a Hyster driver or forklift driver, at Frame Fibres in New Germany, KwaZulu Natal. Frame Fibres is the largest producer of non-woven products in Southern Africa. We make products for the laminating and roofing industries. We also produce blankets, the under-felt for carpets and also the felt for motorcars. Our products are exported all over the world. For example, we export to Africa, Australia and also Europe.
I am from the umZinto area, on the South Coast. That is where I did my schooling. At school I was not that aware of politics. Then in 1974, Bheki Cele joined us at school. He was into politics at the time and that is when I really became aware of it. That is when I joined the African National Congress (ANC).
From the beginning I started to recruit for the ANC.
I recruited other students at school and I have been an active member of the organisation ever since.
I finished form three, standard eight, when I was eighteen years old. That was in 1979. After that I had to look for a job and so, on 28 February 1980, I started to work at Frametex. My first job there was in the Weaving Department.
When I joined Frametex, the union was already at the factory. In those days the union was not called SACTWU, it was the National Union Textile Workers (NUTW). That stood for National Union of Textile Workers. I joined them in 1980.
The NUTW had started in 1973, after the famous Durban strikes. The NUTW was the union that represented the textile workers but it was not easy to get the employers to recognize the union in those days.
In May 1980, the workers at Frame went on strike. We were demanding a twenty-five percent wage increase. That strike in New Germany was the longest strike we had ever had; it lasted for three weeks! It was difficult to strike for so long.
It is not easy when you don’t earn any money. But we were fighting for a living wage so we had to go on strike!
At that time our wages were only R23. During the strike the police and the soldiers came. They came to stop us striking. They arrested some of the comrades. One of the comrades they arrested was Samson Cele. Later, we found out that they had killed him.
In April 1984, I was fired from Frametex because I was recruiting workers to come to NUTW from another union, the Textile Workers Industrial Union (TWIU). I was dismissed on a Thursday. On Monday I came back and I asked for my card at the gate. They just gave it to me and so I worked Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Thursday was the day when we got our pay slips and that’s when they discovered that I had come back to work. But I said to them, ‘How come I got my clock card? I can’t be fired if you gave it to me!’ The personnel officer was waiting for me.
They locked up my hands and hit me with a donkiepiel right on my head.
From there I went to a hearing with the owner of the company. His name was Sidney. He was the one who conducted my hearing. On the third day of the hearing they asked me, ‘Do you want a job?’ and when I said ‘Yes’ they gave me a car and took me to the other Frame company. I did not even know there was another Frame! That is how I was transferred from Frame Pinetex to Frame Fibres.
At Frame Fibres, they said, ‘What you were doing the other side, don’t do that this side. Don’t recruit for the union!’ But I was not going to listen to them. Fibres was un-unionised so I started to recruit for the union. Recruit! Recruit! Recruit! All the time! We even had a strike there to get them to recognise the NUTW at the factory! That’s when I was elected as a shop steward. That was in 1987.
In 1987, NUTW merged with another textile union called TWIU to become the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union of South Africa (ACTWUSA). I was part of the talks about the merger between NUTW and TWIU. I remember that we were not happy about the merger at that time. The workers from NUTW and TWIU felt like enemies. In my thinking at the time, the people who were not with us, were against us. We were against the other unions. I thought we should chase them out of the factory! I was not in favour of the unions coming together.
But our leader, Johnny Copelyn, convinced us to form one union. He convinced us that we would be stronger if all the workers in one industry fought together. It was better to fight side by side against the bosses, than to fight each other.
That is why we had a slogan at that time that said ‘One Union, One Industry’.
In September 1989, ACTWUSA merged with the garment workers union, GAWU (General and Allied Workers Union), to form the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (SACTWU). When we merged with GAWU it was the same story: we wanted one union for the whole industry in South Africa. We also wanted to be in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and COSATU said we needed to join with GAWU. But I can remember that when we joined we did not really know much about the garment workers’ union. The clothing sector is mainly in the Western Cape.
When I think about it now, if we had not merged, the textile sector might not have had any members any more.
We needed to become stronger to face the new challenges better. It was good to merge. It was also good to be in the federation, COSATU. By being in one union, we have managed to make many changes to our work. We have a much higher minimum wage. We have sick leave, maternity leave, minimum working hours and we can hold general meetings.
Within the union I am the Chair of the COSATU local in Pinetown, Western Branch. I am also on the structures of SACTWU. Since 1987 I have been a Branch Executive Committee (BEC) member. I have been the Chair of the Pinetown branch. Then I became the first Chairperson of the new, unified Western branch - it used to be Pinetown and Hammarsdale. Now I am the Regional Chairperson of SACTWU in KwaZulu Natal. I am also on the National Executive Committee of SACTWU.
All the time that I have been in the union, I have remained a strong supporter of the ANC. I am now the Chair of the ANC branch in Claremont. I was even an ANC councillor for a term after 1996.
In 1990, I formed an ANC branch in Mtwalume, my rural home. I was the Chairperson. As the ANC branch there we started a campaign demanding free education and better transport. Unfortunately our demands made us new enemies. The 1990s, you will remember, was a time of conflicts between the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the ANC. The local Chief was a supporter of the IFP and he didn’t want the ANC in the area. So he attacked us.
If you look at me when I walk, you will notice that I have a limp. At work they say that I am crippled. What happened was that the Chief and his men came to my house early one morning in 1993.
They came with guns. I tried to run away but they shot me and I fell down.
Thankfully my neighbour’s cows were on my land and so when the men came up to me, I told them I was just the person herding the cows. They did not know my face, so they left me alone. I was lucky.
But the chief had a list of the Executive of the local ANC branch and he went around killing them. He killed my Deputy Chair as well as the Treasurer. They even cut the Treasurer’s neck. They slit her throat, cut off her head and put it in the field of sugar cane. These were terrible times.
Eventually our branch was only around for about two years and we have not started a new one in Mtwalume since that time. If you want to start an ANC branch there, you will be killed. Even now in 2008, I believe it will happen.
Research and Writing : Simon Eppel
Photographer: Andrew Christopher Barker