Caroline Scheepers

Interview conducted in 2009

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I was born in Elsies River and I am the fifth of eight children; seven sisters and one brother. My mother’s name was Francis Caroline Glass. Her father was a Jamaican man called Charles Glass! Can you believe that? She was born in Cape Town city centre, at 13 Searle Street. Later in her life she worked as a domestic worker for a Jewish family in Sea Point. They were called the Godkins family. The Godkins couldn’t speak English so my mother had to learn some of their language. It was called Yiddish!

My father’s name was Edward Sam Williams, but ‘Williams’ was not his real surname. He chose it for himself. He was born in the Ciskei and he worked as a railway worker. I remember that he used to leave our house in the evening after he came home from work. He would walk out the door wearing a long black coat and carrying a briefcase. He would only return the next morning. I used to wonder to myself, ‘Was he seeing another woman?’ But when I got older my mother told me that my father had become involved in the politics of ‘Native Affairs’.

She told me that he was fighting against the apartheid system!

My father used to try and mobilize people. He even helped organize the Potato Boycott of 1959. In that boycott everyone was told not to buy or eat potatoes. I only discovered the reasons for the Potato Boycott much later in my life. It happened because workers in the potato fields used to suffer terrible abuse from the farmers. They had to dig for the potatoes with their hands and didn’t get equipment to help them! The farm owners would also often beat them, and sometimes even beat them to death on the fields! Then the bodies would be buried in the fields where the potatoes grew. When I learned this part of history, I understood why my father sometimes used to say to us, ‘There is blood on those potatoes.’

 

Since my father was so busy, my mother raised us by herself. She was a strong woman who did the best she could for all of us. But it was very difficult and we suffered. In fact, since I suffered as a child I decided I wouldn’t do that to my children. That’s why I only have two children of my own.

But I have also adopted another child. His name is Micarlo. He was the son of a SACTWU (Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union) shop steward - my friend Lillian Malan. Lillian passed away when she was only forty years old! Wow, she was a strong woman! She stood firmly against male dominance. When she passed away I promised to look after Micarlo. That’s why I now have three children.

As a child, I went to school at Elnor Primary School and Elswood High School. I left school in standard eight because my mother couldn’t afford to buy me a hardcover book. My teacher, Mr Williams, used to beat me because I didn’t have one.

I couldn’t take that kind of abuse so I left school and went to find work.

My first job was as a packer at Gatti’s Ice cream in Goodwood in Cape Town. I was sixteen years old and took the job because I could eat us much ice-cream as I liked! The rule though was that you couldn’t take any ice-cream home with you after work.

After working at Gatti’s for a year, I started work at Ensign, a clothing factory in Searle Street, Cape Town. It was the only factory that took black people at the time. I worked as a machinist there for five years and I earned R5.16 per week. After Ensign, I moved to Alta Fashions in Woodstock for three years, and then moved to Meritex in Parow. Now I work at Luomo in Atlantis. I’ve been there for twenty-five years but I’ve been in the industry forty years in total! At Luomo I’m a supervisor. I had to fight for the position because at first the company didn’t want to promote me. They said I spent too much time at the union. I didn’t think that was a good enough reason though. And I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer!

Caroline Scheepers, L'uoma clothing factory, Atlantis, September 2009

Caroline Scheepers, L'uoma clothing factory, Atlantis, September 2009

As a supervisor I earn R779 per week and I’m not at all satisfied with my wages! I want a living wage!

I live below the breadline. I live day-to-day to make ends meet. When you do that, you’re only just living. That’s why I’m always looking out for bargains so that I can live within my means.

At the moment, my husband works for the City Council in the water works sector. Before he had this job though, I was the only breadwinner. My husband used to drink and he used to do drugs and smoke dagga all the time. In those days he never gave me money. He also used to beat me. The beatings only stopped when I decided I had had enough! I went to the police and I sent my husband to jail for three weeks. When he got out, SACTWU and the social workers helped me to get a court interdict to protect myself against him, just in case. But he has reformed since those days. He’s changed completely. That’s why I tell people, "If you want to be free, you must free yourself. The people who oppress you will not let you be free. They will not give you the chance. It is not in their interest. You have to be the one to make change happen. It can only happen if you do something.’’

Learning to challenge oppression is something I learned in the struggle.

I have been active in the struggle for a long time. During the apartheid days, I was involved with the United Democratic Front (UDF). I was one of Boesak’s people. Then when the African National Congress (ANC) was unbanned, I became a member of the ANC. In 1990, I was even one of the people who went to fetch Madiba in Paarl when he was released.

I have also been involved in the workers’ struggle for a long time. I’ve been a shop  steward for thirty-seven years – which means I’m one of the longest serving shop stewards in COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions)! As a shop steward, I’m like a lawyer for the workers; they tell me what is wrong, what they want, what their problems are, and I take them to the union to get them sorted out.

Do you know that in the past, the garment workers’ unions never used to allow Africans to join? It was myself and my comrades who helped to change that policy. I joined the union when it was still known as the Garment Workers’ Union of the Western Province (GWU-WP). As an active member of the union, I pushed hard for the GWU-WP to merge with the Garment Workers’ Industrial Union (GWIU) of Durban. Eventually in 1987, we merged and formed the Garment and Allied Worker’s Union of South Africa (GAWU-SA). I was also one of the people who created SACTWU! We as GAWU merged with the textile union, ACTWUSA, to form SACTWU.

Today I am the Regional Treasurer of SACTWU in the Western Cape.

I feel lucky because SACTWU has offered me so many opportunities that I would never have had otherwise. For example, I have been able to travel. The union has sent me to Brussels, to Ireland for six months to study, and even to Israel for three months! Through the union I have done some frequent flying!

Being in my position in the union takes up a lot of my time, but I love it because I love to serve the workers. I won’t let anything stop me. Not even illness.

You know I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006.

We seem to have it in my family since some of my sisters have died of cancer. I got my results on the day of the COSATU Congress. I was so sad but I was determined that I would not miss the Congress. I would rather miss my own funeral before I miss a COSATU Congress! I went to the hospital in October that year and I chose to have the cancer cut out - no chemotherapy! I just wanted it gone from me. When I told this to the doctor, he was shocked. He couldn’t believe that I didn’t want chemo. It took me three months to recover, but I have recovered. I’m very proud of myself. I’m Mrs Scheepers!

Research and Writing: Simon Eppel

Photographer: Andrew Christopher Barker

 
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