Interview conducted in 2009
I am forty-nine years old and I am the chairperson of the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (SACTWU) Maitland branch in Cape Town. I have been the chairperson for seven years. I work at SA Fine Worsteds. My company has two plants: one is in Atlantis and the other is in Maitland. The plant in Atlantis manufactures spun wools and yarns. At the other plant, where I work, we use yarn from Atlantis to weave and finish worsted fabric. Most of the fabric we manufacture is turned into men’s and ladies’ outerwear. But we also produce upholstery.
I was born on 15 September 1960 in a place called Pacaltsdorp, in George in the Western Cape. As far as I know, my family has been in Pacaltsdorp for many generations. My mother’s family is from there and my father’s family is from there. But I do know that one of my ancestors from my father’s side was a man who came from Scotland. His name was George Twigg. He was my great-great grandfather. He must have come to South Africa more than a hundred years ago! I have been told that when he arrived here, he moved straight to George. George went to George! That is where some of my family still live today. When I was growing up, I had two brothers and five sisters. Most of them still live in the George area. It is only me and one other of my siblings who live away now.
I finished school in 1981 at Pacaltsdorp Senior Secondary School. That is where I completed my matric. After school I needed to get a job so I worked at OK Bazaars for a while. After the job at OK Bazaars finished, I spent two and a half years in the army as a soldier. I didn’t like it and so I left and came to Cape Town.
In Cape Town I started working at the Spar in Mitchell’s Plain. I began as a perishables packer but the company soon saw that I was good at my work, so they made me into a supervisor of the perishables section. Eventually the Spar in Mitchell’s Plain was bought by a company called ‘Wembly’ and I continued to work there for a year until my family called me back to Pacaltsdorp when my father died. After the funeral I decided to stay in Pacaltsdorp and work with my brother, who was doing carpentry work.
It was while I was back in Pacaltsdorp that I met my wife. I actually met her in my parents’ house! She was tjomies with my sister and when I came into the house I saw her sitting at the table. We took our relationship from there and got married in July 1989.
I came back to Cape Town in 1988. My first job did not last very long because the place burnt down. Then, in February 1989, I started to work at SA Fine. I decided to join the union in 1990. At that time the union was already called SACTWU. The old unions, ACTWUSA (Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union of South Africa) and GAWU (General Allied Workers’ Union), had already merged.
When some people join a union, they don’t know what a union is. They don’t know what a union means. But I was not one of those people. I had heard about unions before. I read about them in the newspapers and I saw them on the TV. I knew that a union was an organisation that protected the workers. I knew that it was important for me to join it.
I was lucky in my company because there were very strong shop stewards and they helped me learn about the union.
When I sat in on meetings, I listened to them. I heard what they said in their report-backs. I talked to the stewards about the benefits of the union. I tried to learn as much as I could. The other workers could see my interest in the union. They could see that I was outspoken. I believed in what I said. I am not the kind of person to say nothing when I see something that I think is wrong. For me, when something is wrong, it is wrong! There was no other way about it! I will challenge something that I think is wrong. That is why, only two years after I joined the union, I was elected to be a shop steward. I served for two years – then I took a break for a year – and then I was then re-elected in 1995. I have been a shop steward ever since. That means that I have been a shop steward for almost seventeen years!
There are some important skills to being a shop steward and I learned some of them through the union training workshops. You see, the union teaches shop stewards about some of the best ways to handle themselves. They also give us knowledge of the labour laws so that we can defend workers’ rights.
I was also fortunate to learn from some great worker leaders at my company. I’m not sure why, but my company often produces very strong leaders. I think it’s because the senior stewards at my company always mentor the newer stewards. We teach and pass on information and advice. I learned a lot from my comrade Johnny Malebo, a steward at SA Fine. I also learned a lot from Monroe Mkalipi, another steward. At the moment, Monroe is the current Regional Chairperson of SACTWU and the current Regional Chairperson of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). So you can see that we have strong leaders.
We have a tradition of powerful worker leaders at SA Fine.
I watched what comrades like Johnny and Monroe did. I listened to the way that they talked and the kinds of things that they said. I believed in them and when they asked me to do something, I trusted them and did it. They taught me that there are three kinds of leaders. The first one walks in front and makes his followers come behind. This kind of leader does not practice democracy. He makes all the decisions himself and tells everyone what to do. The second kind of leader makes his followers walk in front while he walks behind. If there is a bullet, these leaders let their followers suffer first. But the last kind of leader is the kind of leader who walks next to the people he is leading. That kind of leader says, ‘We will walk together, side by side!’ That is the kind of leader I want to be.
I want to walk with my comrades, my workers, my friends. Forward. Together.
At my company we have many strong stewards today and so we give leadership to different people. Everyone must have something to do. Monroe is the Regional Chairperson. I am the Branch Chairperson. My comrade, Diane Fillies, is the chairperson of the SA Fine Maitland Shop Stewards’ Committee. The other stewards at SA Fine are also very good; we all have different strengths.
I enjoy being a steward. I enjoy talking to people. I like to see things going right.
I like to let workers feel better about their workplace. It is always so horrible to go to a place where workers are feeling heavy. I want to make the atmosphere lighter. I want to change things.
We as workers have a lot of power. We don’t always know that we have power, but we do. I remember that one time, a few years ago, I listened to a speech by Mandela at a COSATU National Congress. Mandela said to the workers, ‘When the government of the day does not listen to the poor, do unto the government what we did to the old regime. Show them of your power.’ I thought, ‘Yes! That is right!’
Recently SACTWU started the ‘Buy Local’ campaign because our industry suffers from the cheap imports. One of the things that we did in the campaign was go to Mr Price stores and picket outside them. You see, Mr Price sells many garments that are not made in South Africa. Every second Saturday we went to a different Mr Price store. One Saturday I went to N1 City, but then I got a call to go to the Waterfront. Some of my comrades from the union were being arrested there for picketing and asking consumers to ‘Buy Local’. Some stewards had even been taken to jail! Later, I found out that when the first stewards were arrested, the rest insisted that they should be arrested too! It was funny because the police couldn’t fit so many people in the cells; but the workers made a point: we will stand together to fight against losing our jobs.
I think there was some success with the Buy Local campaign. You can see it when you talk to people. They seem to understand the issue about buying local. A few years ago I went to a shop and wanted to buy a belt. I asked the shop assistant where I could find the belt and she showed me. When I inspected the belts I saw ‘Made in China’ on them all. All the same! I went to the shop assistant and told her I had a problem because I could not find a belt that was made in South Africa. But nowadays it seems you don’t have to explain so much about buying local to retail salespeople. I have heard them say to me, ‘This is made in South Africa!’
You know, it can be hard to balance my commitments to the union with the time I spend with my family.
I have been married for nineteen years now and my wife and I have two children. My wife works in the clothing industry. She is a checker at Rock ‘n Roll Fashions in Woodstock. She started working in the industry in the same year as me. On the same day in 1989! Our son is eighteen years old and our daughter is twelve years old.
Apart from spending time on union work, I spend a lot of time in church meetings too. I am a Deacon in the United Presbyterian Church. I became one in the year 2000 and now I am the Deputy Deacon. Whenever the Reverend is not available and we have to have meetings, I have to chair them. I also sometimes lead services. The last service I lead was in December 2007. We had a different kind of a service that day. Every one of the Deacons had three minutes to talk.
I believe it is important to assist in my community. I believe I should be involved in making life better. I have to have the support of my family to do that, and I am very grateful for their support.
Research and Writing: Simon Eppel
Photographer: Andrew Christopher Barker