Tselane Adeline Lipali
Interview conducted in 2009
My name is Tselane Adeline Lipali. Tselane is my Sotho name and I prefer people to use it. I don’t actually like my English name.
I was born on 1 April 1971 on a farm called Deveron in the Free State. My parents worked on the farm, growing mealie meal and wheat. Sometimes my mother worked in the kitchen. When the season was quiet they would both work at the farm next door that grew potatoes. That farm supplied Epol.
Unfortunately my father passed away in 1976 and so I was brought up by my mother, my grandmother and grandfather. Their names were Mamaferefere and Tohlang.
I started school at Lutterworth Farm School when I was six years old. It was on one of the farms in the area, Lutterworth farm. There were children from many of the farms in the area at that school.
It was very far to go to school. We would leave home at 6am and it would take at least an hour and a half to get there. I remember a time when my brother left me in the mealie meal yard because I refused to run to school. He said I was too slow!
My grandmother said that I had to go to school and she told me that my grandfather would take me on his bicycle. The next morning I said to my grandfather, ‘uGogo uthi... grandmother said you will take me to school on your bicycle and I won’t go if you don’t take me!’ Yhu, they just laughed and laughed.
As we were getting ready to go, the farmer came driving by in his tractor. He said he was going to drive past the school and so he would give me a lift. I got on the tractor and then my brothers and sisters rushed and got on too! They said, ‘We are leaving with you!’ I joked with them and said, ‘No. I am the one controlling this tractor! You can’t get on!’
After I finished standard five at Lutterworth I went to Tweespruit Secondary School in Tweespruit Township. While I was there I had to become part of something called the Eagles. The Eagles were started by the National Party to try and stop students joining the ANC. We had to join the Eagles and we had debates, had sports events, had dances - those kinds of things. The NP wanted to influence the way that students thought. They wanted to channel us away from politics.
One time with the Eagles we went on an outing to a conference in Ladybrand. On the bus, one of the students, a guy called Tsidiso, told us that enough was enough. We had to stop supporting the NP. We were ANC. So we started singing ‘Amabulu bazofa’. The words are:
Bawuthathe lomhlaba wethu
It means, ‘They are going to die, the white people. The grandparents are coming back. They are going to take the land back. They want us to return.’
We were excited when we were singing that song. We didn’t want to be in an organization like the Eagles that was a spy organization for the government.
We wanted to change the system: to make a revolution.
When we got back to Tweespruit I could not get involved in politics easily. I had to be like a submarine, under cover, because my grandmother was not happy about it, and because my brother was a policeman. In fact, sometimes the other students would not tell me about meetings or events that we were holding because they were worried that I might tell my brother! When I arrived at school the next day, I would suddenly be told, ‘We are going to burn this shop today’, or whatever else we were doing that day.
In 1989 and 1990 the schools in Tweespruit were so affected by student politics that we didn’t have any results from school for those years. The whole school failed! We heard that they were still having school in Botshabelo so I went to there to study up to my matric. When I got there, I stopped being involved in politics.
After school, I started work in the clothing industry. In 1994, I got a job at Fu Chang. At first I was a casual but then I became permanent in 1995. Fu Chang is part of the Hsin Chu Group of companies, and there are four companies in the Group in total. We make plastic bags that are exported to Lesotho, Malawi and Swaziland. We also supply the mining industry in South Africa.
When I started working at my company things were tough. We worked twelve hour shifts and we did not earn overtime. They also made us work on Saturdays and Sundays without earning overtime! That was oppression as far as I was concerned.
One Sunday I started talking to a guy at my church about the conditions at work. His name was Lerato Molekwa and he was an organizer for SACTWU. He told me he could help us and that I should get the workers at my company to join the union.
Lerato wanted me to set up a time when he could come and talk to the workers about joining the union, so the next day, on Monday morning, I called all the ladies and gentlemen together. I told them about Lerato and what he had said. I told them that he said the union could help us. Lerato wanted to come and talk to the workers at 7pm that evening, but the workers could not make it. Instead we organized for him to come the next day, on Tuesday.
The next morning the workers were interested and excited. They asked me if Lerato was still coming. When we left work in the evening, we had to find a safe place, far away from the company, to have the meeting. Workers are scared to talk to the union in front of the bosses! During the meeting Lerato explained about the union and what we would get if we joined. The workers agreed to join and Lerato gave them stop orders to fill out.
Lerato was supposed to come and collect the stop orders the next day but in the morning he phoned to say that he couldn’t make it. Instead I went around collecting the forms. I had a newspaper in my hand, and when workers gave me the forms, I put them inside the newspaper so the bosses couldn’t see. Then I put the newspaper under my seat.
Later in the day, one of the managers, a guy from Lesotho, came up to me and said he had heard I was collecting forms for the union. He asked me why I was disturbing things at the factory. I told him it would be a nice thing to have a mediator between the management and us. When he threatened to tell the boss, I told him it was fine.
I said, ‘Even if boss comes here, I will tell him the same thing. I will explain it to him.’
Boss didn’t want to meet with me but when he left, I was called into the office. The management told me that boss had said I should tear up the orders! But I wouldn’t do it. Those forms were not issued by me; they were issued by Lerato and they were his property. I told them that if they wanted the forms torn up, they had to ask Lerato to do it. I was brave to say the things that I did on that day. But Lerato had told me that if you are dismissed while you are a member of the union, the union would take over and fight for you. I knew I had the union behind me and that made me brave!
My company was so angry that the workers were joining the union! They accused me of organizing the workers without consulting them.
But I didn’t need to consult them! Then they told the workers that when the organizer arrived, they all had to resign. But workers didn’t want to resign!
When Lerato arrived, we all sat down together. The management took my stop order and looked at it. They told me it was my signature on the paper. When I said that it was, they asked me why I wanted to join the union and I told them that it was because of the oppression of the company. Then the management asked me if it was alright to deduct the union fees from my wages. After I said, ‘Yes’, they took the stop order and gave it to Lerato. The same thing happened with all the workers after me.
After that the managers began to call me ‘Madam of the Company’. They said I was in control of the company. They said they did not have power over me. But I told them that they did have power over me, and that was why I joined the union!
When it came to the elections for shop stewards, the workers voted for me. I was worried because I had Saturday classes at the time and I didn’t want to miss them because the union meetings happen on Saturdays. But the workers really wanted me to stand. So I did. Four stewards were elected in total: two for night shift and two for day shift.
In 1997, all the workers in the Hsin Chu Group went on strike for higher wages. It was a famous strike because we went on strike for about six weeks. Afterwards the company accused me of making the workers go on strike. They accused me of wanting to close the company and make everyone lose their jobs. But I told them, ‘No. Everyone has an interest to go on the strike! They are all in this situation together. I am not making them do something they don’t want to do. We want a living wage!’ Yhu, they got cross with that word.
‘A Living Wage’, they said, ‘if you use that word it means you must be a unionist!’
Did you know, they promised me a position at the company after the strike? They offered me a job as a supervisor. They said I could get nice money and a nice salary and work nice hours if I became a supervisor. But I told them, ‘If I become a supervisor, you will not let me be a shop steward.’ I didn’t trust them. At the company they didn’t even have a black woman working as an administrator. It was only white people, Indian people and Chinese people working in admin. And in the factory it is only black men who are supervisors, and they are supervised by Chinese people and people from the Philippines. I said to the managers, ‘If you really thought that black women could do this work, you would have other black women working as supervisors. I think you want to destroy me by making me work against the workers. Then you will kick me out when they don’t support me any longer.’
In 2001 the company demoted me from being an operator to being a general worker.
I was in Cape Town for the Bargaining Conference and that’s when I heard about the demotion. I think it was another way to attack me for being a shop steward because when I was demoted, my money decreased. You see, we get paid a basic wage of R5.24 per hour, but we can earn more if our production is high. As an operator I could earn production but as a general worker I can’t earn as much.
As a general worker, the company threatens me every day and night. They have told me that I have a better future in the union than in the company. It is true that I am very involved in the union. I was elected Regional Treasurer for the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (SACTWU) Central region in 2004. On the 8th February 2008 I was elected as the Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU) Regional Treasurer too.
But I don’t think I will be employed by the union anytime soon because my company keeps making things difficult for me.
For example, sometimes they don’t give me my letters from the union so I can’t go to training. If I don’t go to training, I can’t really move up. At the moment I am not too worried about it though. I don’t think it is a good idea to move up positions too quickly because then you forget where you came from. I would like to take it step by step.
I live with my mother in my house in Botshabelo. It is a three bedroom house with a lounge, kitchen, toilet and bath. We also live with my sister and her two children, and also two children of my other sisters. The only people working in my house are my sister and myself. She works at Fu Chang with me.
At my work we are paid every two weeks. If I work seven days a week, working every Saturday and Sunday, I can earn between R900-R1000 a fortnight. If my sister works night shifts then she earns about R1200.
Research and Writing: Simon Eppel
Photographer: Andrew Christopher Barker