Interview conducted in 2009
I was born in 1958, January 24. That is the real date, but my ID says it is 4 March. It was changed when I applied for the new ID.
My mother was Theresa Yika. She was from Newcastle but she went to Johannesburg for work. She was a sister at Baragwanath Hospital. According to the history that I have been told, my mother left me at my father’s house when I was very young. She was in the PAC and was on the run. In my culture, if a woman bares a child, it is not right for her to leave it with the father. So my grandfather came to fetch me. He took me back to Newcastle to live with him and my grandmother. They lived on the farm of Mr R.G Steele, and I grew up with my grandparents raising me as their child. That is where I started school, my grade one.
Sometimes my mother used to come to the house to visit her parents at night. She would come very late at night, via the Orange Free State.
She would leave her transport far away and then walk down the mountain to the house.
But even though she visited, she never woke me up and in the morning my grandparents would say, ‘Your mother was here last night.’ Since she was working in the hospital still at that time, she would bring some of the basins, those metal ones. She would also bring us bed sheets but they would all have the name of the hospital scratched off.
When I was growing up, the police also used to come to my house to look for my mother. You know at night on a farm, you can see the car coming from a long way away. The police car would stop in the distance and the police would come and shout, ‘Where is Theresa?’ One night when the police came there were lights flashing outside. I didn’t know it then, but I think they must have been taking photographs.
My grandparents were scared of the police. My grandmother would say things like, ‘Because of my daughter, we are suffering with the police!’ I didn’t really know what she was talking about. In my mind, I started to think, ‘My mother is fighting the whites. Why is my mother fighting the whites? She must be a very bad person. Perhaps she will try and kill me one day.’
My grandmother was old and she didn’t have the strength to raise me anymore. So, in about 1968, I moved to Durban to be raised by my aunt - a teacher - and to go into standard two. I think I was the age of thirteen.
When I was in Durban with my aunt, I remember asking her, ‘Why do we have a picture of Jesus in our hall? Jesus was a white man. Why do we have a white man on our wall? My mother does not like the white man. That is why I can’t stay with her!’ It was the years of communism that time and my aunt used to say to me, ‘You are a communist! You are just like your mother!’ I didn’t know what she was talking about because I didn’t know what a communist was, and I didn’t really understand what my mother was doing.
I moved to higher primary school at Inanda. I was in Mr Vilakazi’s class. He was our religious teacher and our class teacher. I remember we were learning about a time in the Bible when Jesus was breaking bread. Jesus said something about the fact that it is not just bread that keeps man alive. Man must also have faith. I asked Mr Vilakazi, ‘How do you know that, Mr Vilakazi? Have you ever seen Jesus?’ Hey, he was cross with me! He said, ‘I am an elder and I know everything.’
That was not the only time I questioned what everyone else thought was normal. One time, the kids at our school were discussing the fact that manna fell from heaven. I asked them, ‘How do you know it fell from heaven? How do you know there was manna? What is manna? You don’t even have bread to eat but you are talking about manna! What is this?’ I don’t know why I asked that, or the other questions about Jesus. I don’t know where that part of me came from. It just happened. I would ask questions. But it was an issue at school. Especially the thing I said to Mr Vilakazi. They told my aunt and she was cross with me. She said, ‘Are you still saying this stuff? You are just like your mother. You will die very early. You won’t even go grey like me with this attitude of yours.’
For high school, I went to Ohlange High School in Inanda. It was the school that Dr John Langalibalele Dube, one of the founders of the ANC, had started. Phumzile Ngcuka was our senior then. She was in standard nine and I was in standard seven. We were schoolmates.
It was exciting to know that our school started with Langalibalele Dube. We used to learn about his history. There was even a song we heard; that he was guiding us from heaven, not Jesus Christ! The principal didn’t like the fact that we said such things, and he called in many of the seniors, like Phumzile. He wanted to put them in trouble. He said we must not sing all those songs.
At school we used to have our church services on Sundays. We had to gather at the hostels and parade to the chapel. The boys came from one side and the girls came from the other side, and we met in the middle. We were dressed in full uniform and we had our hymn books. One time, as we were coming up to the meeting point, some of the senior girls just turned around and walked away. But we, the juniors, didn’t know why they had left the parade so we kept on walking.
Then the guys came with sjamboks and they hit us! They shouted, ‘Why are you carrying Bibles? You are protecting the whites!’
We didn’t know what was going on, but we were so sore that we didn’t go to chapel. No one went, only the teachers. We all went back to the hostels. No one said a word. When the matron came, she found everyone so quiet. She asked what was wrong but no one said anything.
The parents were called in. The school didn’t know where this political attitude had come from, but they told the parents to talk to their children. Of course, all the parents went home and said, ‘You must not be involved in this politics. Politics is a dirty game. You must not join this movement!’ But we didn’t know about a movement. Most of us came from the farms. What did we know about a movement? That is when we actually began to understand that there was a movement. It was bigger than our school. It hit me, ‘Okay, now I understand. Langalibalele fought for black people!’
In those days, when you finished form three, your name appeared in the media to say you had passed. There was a procedure at our schools then, that at the end of the year you had to write a note to the teacher saying you would come back for the next year. I wanted to come back and I wrote the note, but I was not accepted. It was because I had a high voice, a loud voice; I was earmarked as a troublemaker. A lot of us were not allowed to come back.
My grandmother was also not happy about the fact that I was getting into politics. In 1972, when I came back to Newcastle for the holidays, she chased me away. She said, ‘I have heard what you are doing. You are involved in politics! If you come here now I won’t get any sleep. The police will come here and harass us. No, no, no. Go back.’
By 1973, there were all these political movements in the country. But in KwaMashu, where I was staying at the time, people didn’t know much about the movements or about the struggle. There was a guy there though, Linda, from the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). He was prominent in the IFP and he was able to collect all the youth in KwaMashu in the meetings that he had. He began to explain the political situation, everything, to us in the meetings.
The police used to come to the meetings and they beat us. I cannot run well, even at school, I couldn’t run well. I have a short stride and so the police sjamboked me hard. When I went home, my aunt said, ‘What is wrong with your back? Do you have a boyfriend?’ I was cross about the sjambok, so I told her what had happened: that I went to a youth gathering.
‘Oh, so you still want to continue with this thing? Even after the school meeting at Ohlange? You know, you went to boarding school. Not even my own kids went to boarding school! I have put so much effort into raising you, but you still want to do this thing? You can see there is no future for you in it. I am trying to get you into a school but no school in KwaMashu will take you. They all know about you. Yika is a Xhosa surname and they have asked about who this Xhosa girl is. When they find out, they don’t want you!’
In those days, my mother had fled South Africa and she was staying in many different countries. She used to write to my grandfather and tell him where she was. The police’s Special Branch used to come to the house and ask for the letters. They even used to go to the post-office and demand all the information about the letters that had come for the Yikas. Then they would come with a list and say, ‘Give us all the letters from these dates!’ From Tanganyika, from Bulawayo, from London.
One time, we got a letter saying my mother wanted me to join her in London. My family didn’t want me to go but I thought I should. I had to build up my trust with my aunt and make her think I was not going to go. I did it by giving her my first wages from my first job. In our culture, the first wages that you get from a job, you should take to your parents and ask only for the bus fare. I did that with my aunt, and she said, ‘I have six kids and none of them have ever done this.’ Then she wrote to my mom to say that I would not be coming to her in London. I found that letter when I went to London in 1979.
While I was in London, my mother lectured me.
She said, ‘The struggle is your life. While you are on this earth, you will have to struggle because no one will struggle for you.’
I was only in London for about nine months because I was deported. My aunt had decided to go to the Special Branch and she told them, ‘You remember Theresa? She took her child to London.’ I think there must have been communication between the South African government and the police in London, because I was staying at my mom’s place one day when there was a knock at the door. The Scotland Yard was there! They had a photograph of me from Ohlange, and they asked me, ‘Is this you?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and they said they were going to send me back home. They let me phone my mom and she came to meet me at Heathrow airport. Then I left.
When I got back to South Africa it was still 1979. I went back to my aunt’s house. For the next few years, I was not so involved in politics. Sometimes though I went to the United Democratic Front (UDF) meetings. There was this guy, I forget his name, but they called him Jehovah! He had the same kind of power that Linda had. We used to hold our meetings in D Section, KwaMashu.
In those days, I didn’t have to work. My aunt was a teacher so there was no reason for me to work. We were only two people and her children were all grown up. When my aunt passed away in 1986, I saw that there were tough times and I had to look after myself. I started to work at Sim Clothing, at Umgeni. Then I started at International Trimmings in 1989. When I got there, I noticed that workers were not being registered with the Department of Manpower. We could work even one whole year and not be registered. So I went to the office of the manager. His name was Davis. I said, ‘Davis, how long must people work without being registered? You must register us. We must earn our UIF (Unemployement Insurance Fund).’ I had heard about these things during our meetings with Linda and Jehovah. They told us that our fathers, who worked for Corobrick, did not work for any benefits. Even those people who worked for Huletts did not earn benefits. Linda and Jehovah told us that the same thing must not happen to us.
Mr Davis was a tall guy. He would shout, in a bold voice, ‘What do you want in my office?’ Hey, the comrades just moved backwards! But I said, ‘We won’t leave here till you accept our request!’ He told me that I had only just started at the company. I had started in January and it was March at that time. In any case, he took our names and registered us. From that time, the other workers looked at me and told me to be their spokesperson.
There was no union at International Trimmings then. So we went to CEWUSA, to their offices in Pinetown. When we got there, we didn’t want people to see us going in. We were scared to enter the building so we entered like rats. Inside we were told, ‘You are out of our scope. You cannot join.’ Then we decided to join ACTWUSA (Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union South Africa) so we went to their offices in Jacobs. They also said, ‘Your type of work does not qualify you to join ACTWUSA’. Thankfully though there was an organiser with ACTWUSA called Prince Pakkies. He told us that even though we weren’t included in their scope, he would organise at our factory. That was in February.
In September that year, the union became the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (SACTWU). I remember some of the ACTWUSA people there at the meeting. Mike Rivers was there. Vusi was also there, but I can’t remember his surname. And Thembi Caba was also there. After the merger, there was a parade of ACTWUSA and GAWU, the General Allied Workers Union. If you were from ACTWUSA, you had to hold the hand of the person from GAWU. It was a happy moment, even though I didn’t understand all that much about the union. What was a ‘Bargaining Council?’ Or ‘Agreements?’ I heard all those words. That was the start of my labour struggle.
Pakkies left the union in 1990, and we got a new organiser, Mhloli. At that time there was a major strike at work. It was the first ever strike at the company. We won lots of changes. Like equal pay for equal work. Before, workers doing the same operation would be paid different amounts. Pakkies had explained that that was wrong.
We also won one of the organisational rights for the union: the right to access.
You see, after Pakkies left, Davis didn’t want anyone from the union to come onto the company premises. But Mhloli managed to enter and had a meeting with us. From that day, the union used to come and give lectures.
All the workers at the factory enjoyed being part of SACTWU and part of COSATU, the Congress of South African Trade Unions. Even the rural workers! According to what they were taught in the rural areas, COSATU was a bad organisation. It had no respect for the employers and toyi-toying was not a blessing but a curse. But through the lectures, they began to understand it differently.
Even now, if you phone any worker from International Trimmings, they can explain to you what the union is and why it is affiliated to COSATU. They can also tell you that COSATU was founded in 1985. They can tell you all that. Even just a worker on the floor can know that information.
Since I have been in the union, I have been on a number of different structures. I was a shop steward from 1989 till 1996. I was also the Chair of the COSATU local from 1993 to 1996. Then I took a break from being a shop steward and let another person try the job, until I started again as a shop steward in 1999. I have been one ever since. I have also been the deputy chair of Durban Central Branch since 2005.
As part of Durban Central branch of SACTWU and the COSATU local, I have participated in the ‘Buy Local’ campaigns. We have staged pickets outside Mr Price, Jet, all voluntarily, on Saturdays. We stand outside the companies and tell people not to enter. We educate them that they must buy local and save jobs in South Africa.
The Buy Local Campaign is important because our industry is collapsing.
I have even experienced it at my company. We manufacture things like printed fabric labels, woven labels and paper labels. We also do waistbands. We used to get our woven materials from our plant in Cape Town, but then we started getting them from our plant in Hong Kong instead. When we stopped getting them from Cape Town, our weaving department there suffered.
In my operation, too, I have seen the effects of the imports. My operation is cutting labels, but we don’t cut as many labels as we did before. Some of our customers are the giant companies like DCM and Playtex, and they used to order massive numbers of labels. Now it is just ten thousand or so. The orders have decreased and with it, people are losing their jobs. It is scary for me that the industry is under threat from job losses. I am the only person in my household who earns any money. What will happen if I lose my job?
I earn R573 per week and, after deductions, it is R410. With that money I must support eight people! My niece and her three children live with me. She is unemployed. Then I also live with my son. He has epilepsy and is also unemployed. He used to get a disability grant but the government told him that he can’t get it anymore. They said he must find a job.
The problem is many places don’t want to employ you if you have a disability like that!
Then I also have my grandchildren, my daughter’s two children, living with me. They came to live with me in 2005 when my daughter passed away. She died of HIV/ AIDS. Before we knew that she had HIV, I used to ask her if she had it because I thought she had the symptoms. I knew the symptoms because I had done the HIV training course through SACTWU, so I recognised what was going on with my daughter. But she kept telling me she was fine. Eventually she got sick, and she was sick for about two years. It was a very tough time for us.
So what will happen to my family if I lose my job? What will happen to the children? Only the other day my production managers told us that we might have to go onto short time in the next few weeks. That is not going to be easy.
I am worried that the industry is just going to keep getting worse. Maybe by 2010, our industry will be in even more trouble?
Research and Writing: Simon Eppel
Photographer: Andrew Christopher Barker