Interview conducted in 2009
My name is Busisiwe Msimango. I am fifty-seven years old and I was born in Durban on 8 January 1952.
My father, Absalom, died when I was four months old. I am told that my father had a tumour, and that he died in his birthplace at Kranskop in Natal. Unfortunately, I never had the chance to know him or his family. I have only seen him in photos. Sometimes I wonder whether this story is true or not because my mother is not even sure of the year that I was born.
My mother’s name is Tryphinah. Her family worked on a farm in Kwazulu Natal. After some time her father left the family and there was not enough money for them to take care of themselves properly. My mother didn’t get the chance to attend school and instead ran away to Durban to find work. It was the only place to go in that area and she needed to make some money. She found a job as a domestic worker in Durban and was still doing this work when I was born.
After I was born, my mother and I moved to Orlando West in Johannesburg to live with my grandmother. My mother married another man and so my grandmother didn’t allow me to live with my mother anymore. I was not supposed to live with a man who wasn’t my biological father. This was a part of my culture. Instead, my grandmother arranged for me to stay with her and my aunt and uncle.
My aunt and uncle took responsibility for sending me to school. They paid for my school clothes, books and school fees. Life with them was hard. They were very strict with me. I would visit my mother once in a while. She also came to see me sometimes. But my mother’s husband was never allowed to visit.
My aunt and uncle ran a shebeen out of the house where we were living. They made me go and buy liquor for them.
I had to sell drinks to their customers. It was like the life of a slave! They would make me work all the time: cleaning, washing, cooking, everything. They would hit me all the time if I didn’t do what they wanted. They were supporting me and taking care of me but they also had many rules for me. I was never allowed to play with friends or have fun. I always had to stay at home and do work for them.
Let me forget about this now and talk about myself, who I am. I started attending school in Phiri, which is where we settled after my grandmother moved from Orlando West. In Orlando West we lived in shacks and wanted to move to a four-roomed house.
The name of the school I attended in Phiri was called Phumzile Lower Primary and after I finished there, I went to Bafikile Higher Primary School. Then I went to Skekane-Toana Secondary School. My lifelong dream was to be a singer. In school I was really good. I even used to sing solos. My favourite song was ‘Sekuyiminyaka’: it talked about revolution and all the people who died struggling against apartheid.
Unfortunately I didn’t complete school because my aunt and uncle wanted to send their children to school and they couldn’t afford to pay for all of us.
I finished up to standard nine and my aunt said to me, ‘I can’t afford to send you to school anymore. You must go and work.’ I was only nineteen years old at that time. I remember I was crying like a baby, but I had no option. I had to go and work.
My aunt was working as a presser in the factory of an Italian company called Renee Models in Doornfontein. In 1974 my aunt took me there and got me a job as a plain sewer. The factory was a very different environment for me. I was using a needle to put beads on dresses, and buttons on winter jackets. When I started, I didn’t know how to use a needle; I actually didn’t have any skills in sewing. However, an older woman named Edna who had worked there for a while would sit next to me and show me how to do everything.
I worked at Renee Models when the Soweto riots of June 16 1976 happened. The atmosphere had a big impact upon me and that’s why I became quite committed to the struggle. 1976 made me so angry! Because of apartheid, my mother couldn’t attend school. I, too, should have been in high school. I remember walking home through Soweto and witnessing people fighting in the streets and seeing shops, trains, buses, everything going up in flames. Seeing this made me quite sad and angry.
This experience made me realise that, as workers, we had to stand against apartheid in our workplace.
That’s why I started to fight for workers - even though I wasn’t yet a shop steward. I made sure that employers respected workers’ rights.
In 1976, I was allowed to attend machinist’s training. When I came back, my supervisor, Mrs. Kruger, wouldn’t promote me to be a machinist. I left the company.
That same year I got pregnant with twin girls. The father was my boyfriend, David. We were friends in school and he was my boyfriend for three years before I got pregnant. David and I got married in 1981. Today David and I have five children. My twins and my other daughter - their younger sister - are all working currently. My youngest daughter is eighteen and in grade twelve. I have one son who is also still studying. David is not staying with me any more; we are separated but not divorced.
After the birth of my twins, I spent about two years at home. Then in 1979, I found a job as a Sewer with Emsil Creations, which was also in Doornfontein. It was at Emsil Creations that I first started getting involved in the workers’ struggle properly. At that time, we didn’t have very much work; there were very few orders. My manager told me one day to go upstairs and start pressing. I told him that I didn’t know how to press and that I had never done it before. He then got angry and said, ‘If you can’t press, then you can leave!’ I spoke to my co-workers about this and about how our boss had made such unreasonable demands. I told them, ‘If he does this to me today, then tomorrow he will do it to one of you.’ They all listened and agreed with what I was saying. Then we all stood up, left our workstations, and walked out the factory that very day!
Since I fell pregnant again, I worked at Emsil for only a short period of time. I stayed home again to take care of my children for a year. During that year, the owner of Emsil Creations passed away, causing the managers - Mr. Emert and Mr. Silver - to fight over how to run the business. Mr. Emert left the company to start Dorvic Sports on his own. He hired me in 1981. I worked for Dorvic Sports in East Rand as a finisher. Later, I started working in the Dispatch Department - doing invoicing. Currently I am working in the same department as a final checker. If I am correct, I have been working at Dorvic Sports for twenty-seven years!
I remember a time when many workers came to my factory from Natal looking for work. The workers from Natal were generally quite poor and didn’t have pass-books, so they had no rights and protection at the workplace. I remember seeing how the workers with pass-books were treated much better and were favoured by the management. I also remember how the workers without pass-books were abused and treated poorly.
As a worker who had more rights in the factory, I started standing up for the workers from Natal.
I couldn’t stand to see such injustice at our work. This was the first time I stood up to the management for workers’ rights; I demanded equal and fair treatment for all the workers.
I was elected to be a shop steward in 1989 at the time when the two clothing and textile unions were merging. I was a member of GAWU (General Allied Workers’ Union) and we merged with the textile workers’ union called ACTWUSA (Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union of South Africa), to become the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (SACTWU). You may wonder why workers elected me as their shop steward? It is probably because of my looks! I am just joking.
The former shop steward had retired and all the workers in the factory were looking to replace her. The workers came to me and asked me to represent them.
Let me tell you about the time SACTWU made the Human Chain in October 1990. It was in support of the Workers’ Charter. Eight thousand workers took part!
We all linked hands together in long, long lines. It was a huge success. Workers were unified. We made our mark and we showed that SACTWU was really growing as a union.
I went to my first SACTWU National Congress in 1993. That was my first experience of debating a Union Resolution and making a campaign Program Of Action.
In 1996, I was part of the national clothing sector strike for a ‘Living Wage’ and centralized bargaining. In fact since I became a steward, I have participated in all the strikes and campaigns that we’ve held against job losses, non-compliance of employers and the flood of imports from the East due to globalization.
Thankfully, with the wages I was earning, and because of help from the SACTWU bursary fund, I was able to make sure that my children completed their studies and attended university.
I would like to salute SACTWU for giving me an education. As I’ve said before I never completed grade twelve. Yet here today I can write my history! I can stand in front of the workers and speak proudly! I can argue with the employers for the rights of workers and I have become knowledgeable regarding politics.
I am currently a member of the African National Congress (ANC) and I’m an executive member of the Women’s League. I also hold positions in the union. I am Regional Treasurer of Gauteng and an National Executive Committee (NEC) member. I am also a member of COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) and I’m a Ditsela board member, as well as a chairperson of the Northern Chamber.
Religiously, I am a Christian and Pastor in my church.
In conclusion, I would like to encourage the shop stewards who are coming after us that dedication and perseverance are very important. As a shop steward, they have the opportunity to further their goals and to serve the workers. As I have said, my dream and ambition when I was at school was to be a singer because that was my talent. That never happened but I don’t have any regrets due to what I have achieved in serving the workers.
That is me. Busisiwe. Forward the struggle of the workers.
Research and Writing: Simon Eppel
Photographer: Andrew Christopher Barker