Interview conducted in 2009
I started working in the clothing industry in 1976 when I was fourteen years old. In 1986, I started working for Rex Trueform in Salt River. Have you heard about Rex Trueform before? I think many people in the country have heard about the company. Even the ex-President, Thabo Mbeki, eventually heard about Rex Trueform. You see, my company closed down.
Many people in Cape Town worked at Rex Trueform at some point or another. Even some of our mothers and grandmothers worked there. The company was over sixty years old. My plant, the Salt River plant, was Rex’s biggest. We made tailored garments, like suits, jackets and formal pants. They were good quality and we exported a lot of them to top overseas companies in Europe and America. Then, in 2005, we closed down. 979 workers lost their jobs. That is 979 families that probably didn’t get food on the table. At least for a while.
The workers in our industry are not in a good position anymore.
The clothing industry is sinking. The cheap foreign imports are really damaging us. They are causing us heartache. You see, the countries where the imports come from – like China – pay their workers very, very low wages. The government in China even gives each worker a food and housing subsidy so that the bosses don’t need to pay them very much. They don’t have to pay much because workers’ basic needs are already being met. We don’t have the same system in this country. We can’t live off the wages that Chinese workers get, so we can’t compete well with them. Companies all want to get their goods made in China now because they will make a bigger profit. That’s why we are losing our jobs.
With all these problems in the industry, it feels hard for the union to say to bosses ‘do this’ or ‘do that’ like we used to say in the past. In those days it was easier; our industry was stable. But now workers are scared to strike because we are scared of what’s happening in our industry. Will we have another big strike some day? It would be nice but I’m not sure. Most workers are mothers, single mothers. They don’t want to lose their job if they can help it.
Where is this crisis going to go? I don’t know. I can remember that our HR manager at Rex once told us, ‘If we had a crystal ball, maybe we could say it will be alright. Maybe then we could be positive.’ But we don’t know if we will come out of this. Something needs to change for us to survive.
I have many great memories from my years of working at Rex Trueform.
To me it was not just a factory - a place where I worked - it was a place where I grew up; a place where I gained a new family. I had friends there. I learned about life there. I developed as a person there.
I can remember the year that I joined Rex; we had a major strike. It was famous because it lasted for twenty-one days! It was one of the biggest strikes by clothing workers in South Africa. Sometimes, when your stomach is empty and your children are hungry, the sacrifice seems too big. But we must always remember that when we strike, we sacrifice our wages now so that we can get higher wages in the future. Workers must be brave to go on strike. You can only be successful when your fellow workers, your comrades, are with you. That was an important lesson that I learned from that strike: to stand together.
Twenty-one days is a long time when you are not earning money. It’s a long time to motivate yourself every day and remind yourself every day that the sacrifice is worth it.
Even in those days I was a militant worker. Every day of that strike we sang and protested. And in the end we succeeded in winning the battle! It was because of our power and determination that we won. In fact we even made it possible for the whole industry to get an increase that year! That’s another reason why Rex Trueform was a famous company. We often led the way for other workers in the industry.
My commitment to workers‘ rights meant that in 1994 the workers eventually decided to vote for me to be a shop steward. They could see that I cared about them. They could see that I was interested in standing up for them and speaking out for them.
When I first became a shop steward, one of the shop stewards I worked with was Connie September. She used to be the National Treasurer of the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (SACTWU) from 1991 to 1999. She was also the 1st and 2nd Deputy President of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Then she became an ANC MP. I was also a shop steward with Wayne van der Rheede. He is now the Deputy General Secretary of SACTWU. Connie and Wayne left soon after I became a shop steward. From then on the shop stewards’ committee at Rex Trueform had people like myself, Greg Hoedemaker and Nathan Adams in it. We were there together for a long time and we became friends.
In those early days I was still a National Party member. There were actually lots of NP supporters at Rex. There were also lots of African National Congress (ANC) supporters there. I got involved with the National Party because I used to meet NP people on the bus and the train. We would connect and talk. At that time my father was an ANC supporter, but as a child and a young man I used to think I could see the bigger picture. Even in standard six I had my vision and it was firmly in place. I remember that when my father said to me,‘You must be a supporter of the ANC.’ I said, ‘No, I want to support the NP.’
In the early 1990s we used to have members of parliament come to the factory to campaign for our votes. I would give out pamphlets and lead the workers out the factory and round the corner to listen to the NP speakers. It was people like Pieter Marais and Martinus van Schalkwyk who came to talk to us. I would listen to the speeches and then give report-backs to the other workers later.
Although I was an NP supporter in those days, I was also a worker leader.
As a worker leader, I used to have to represent the views of NP and ANC workers. If some workers from Rex had questions that came from an ANC viewpoint, I had to take those questions to union meetings. It made me learn a lot about what each party was doing and eventually I saw where the ANC was going. By 1999 I began to support the ANC. I had lots of conversations with my fellow shop steward, Greg Hoedemaker. He had a long history in the struggle and he taught me about the ANC.
I was always very busy at Rex Trueform. I was the chair of the shop stewards’ committee for six years, and I was also very involved in Adult Education. You see, many of the workers at Rex couldn’t read or write or spell. Many couldn’t use their bank cards at the ATM. We came from disadvantaged backgrounds. The apartheid government didn’t teach us well, and many of the workers didn’t go very far in school. Many had to leave school to help support their families. I was one of those people and so I felt passionate about giving workers new skills. That’s what the Adult Education program did. I used to love being involved in that program. I always enjoyed being able to help the workers. I enjoyed it until the day that Rex closed.
The closing of Rex was a big thing for us. I can remember being called in to see the management one day. Me and the other shop stewards sat opposite them. We waited for the managers to talk. When they did, they told us about the retrenchment. I remember that as I sat opposite them, the news broke my heart. There had been some rumours flying around in the factory about a retrenchment coming, but we hadn’t been sure. When the news finally came - when I found out that it were true - I was devastated.
It was the job of the shop stewards to give the message about the retrenchment to the workers.
For me, as the chairperson of the shop stewards’ committee, it was a huge burden to carry. Do you know how hard that was to tell my friends that we were going to lose our jobs? Do you know how hard it was to tell the workers that Rex Trueform was going to close? Imagine standing in front of so many people and having to be the one who brings them that bad news. It was a sad moment in my life. It is not something I want to have to do again. Some of us were crying! I was also crying. You know we gave our lives to that company. We worked there every day. We spent more time with the workers there than with our own families! We were like a family at Rex Trueform.
One of our jobs as shop stewards was to help negotiate a retrenchment package for the workers. The company told us they were bankrupt but we didn’t believe them. In fact, some of the managers had even told us before that the company was not actually bankrupt.
We were skillful negotiators.
You see, for every year of service that you work, you are supposed to get one weeks’ wages. It is the law. But we realised that something wrong was happening. We realised that the company was not being honest with us. That’s when we decided to use the power of the union. We called in some of the leaders to help us. Our ex-General Secretary, Ebrahim Patel, came. We also called in Andre Kriel (then our Deputy General Secretary, but now our General Secretary), Wayne van der Rheede (then our National Organising Secretary, but now our Deputy General Secretary) and our Regional Secretary, Aziza Kannemeyer. Then we negotiated a better deal: about two weeks’ wages for every year of service! It took three months to go through the whole retrenchment process. We even had to go to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).
I remember the last meeting that the Rex Trueform workers held at the union. That union hall in Salt River was packed, packed, packed! There were more than a thousand workers there; people had even come from all over the Cape Flats to give their wishes to us. Together we sang a song as our way of saying goodbye to each other. ‘Let there be love shared among us; let there be love in our hearts.’ I don’t know if there is any other company around that has an anthem. Maybe there is, I am not sure. But that was our anthem and we sang it at our last meeting together.
After I left Rex, I managed to find another job. I was a lucky one. I used to meet up with my old friend Nathan after work - he is working in security now. We would drive in the car and sit outside the Rex Trueform building in Salt River. We would watch the building and talk to each other about the good old days.
We felt like we had lost a lot. You know, some of us still can’t accept that we are gone.
Photographer: Andrew Christopher Barker
Research and Writing: Simon Eppel