Sibongile Buthelezi

My name is Sibongile Buthelezi and I work for FrameCo. I’ve worked there for 39 years; it was my first job. In the beginning, I was employed as an operator. After that I was a mechanic, and after that a Hyster driver. Since 2010, I have been working as a creelar.

I was born in 1957 in St. Wendolins, near Pinetown. I started school when I was eight because I was so short. At the time, they never checked your age, but if you failed to touch your ear with your opposite hand you were too young and could not go to school. I was very small for my age, and so I had to start later. I was my mother’s fifth child, we were four boys and two girls. My mother, Dorah Buthelezi, was working as a domestic worker three days a week in Durban. I didn’t know my father.

I did schooling from my first year up to standard five. The name of my high school was Delane High School, and I took the train to get there every morning. I am still friends with many people that went to that school with me, and some of them still work with me at FrameCo. At school we played many sports, like soccer and basketball. We had tournaments, and people would come and watch.

In 1974, when I was doing standard six, I fell pregnant. I was seventeen at the time. My mother said I had to go back to school the year after, but I could not. I left my child with my mother’s sister and looked for a job in secret. The first day I went to FrameCo, I got a job. I started to work because the situation at home was very bad. My mother had to support six children, and at the time she was older, fifty or sixty. She was only working three times a week. I was working at Frame and my sister was doing standard five.

In 1976, I fell pregnant again with my second child. I took my maternity then went back to work. At that time my mother stopped paying school fees for my little sister, so I started paying them for her.

I supported her, my children, my mother and my brothers.

After that, because of apartheid, they told us that the place we were staying was not for us. It was for the Indians, so we were forced to move. It forced me to build a house for my mother because there was no one else responsible for my family at that time. Many other families also had to move. That was in 1978. I had to stay at a hostel called Transkloof Women’s Hostel because we were faced with the problem of transport if I lived with my family. My children stayed at home with my mother. Many women who worked at Frame stayed there, so I decided to move in. I still live in the same hostel today.

Sometimes there were problems because if you stayed in a hostel as a woman you were not allowed to bring children to visit you. You could not even bring your baby after you gave birth. Even our families were not allowed. People came to me and asked for advice; they knew me because at the time I was known as being part of FOSATU, which came before COSATU. We went to this older man who was a lawyer and we discussed the issues. His name was Achi Gumede and he was a community leader in the UDF that was helping the residents of the area. He told me that because I knew the union I could help the workers in the hostel.

There were also problems because people were in the UDF and United Workers’ Union of South Africa (UWUSA), which was associated with the IFP. We found that residents were fighting each other. We called community meetings with Achi Gumede to try to make peace within the hostel, which worked. We made committees because he did not stay in the hostel and we needed help to find a solution. He said that there is no need to fight amongst us, because this is apartheid. So we made many different committees, and I was elected as chairperson of the committees. That is how I became involved with the Community Policing Forum, and I am still chairperson today.

Around that time I also became involved with the UDF and the ANC.  The UDF was banned then. It was dangerous because we had no place to meet. We would meet sometimes under a tree, later, when it was dark.

The police would hear that there was a meeting and would come with the tear gas. They would beat us and we had to run away.

We sometimes had to fight. The people from UWUSA wanted to attack us. One of our shop stewards named Joseph Khumalo was killed by a member of UWUSA. They thought that his girlfriend had died, but she had not. A domestic worker found her lying under the tree; she was injured but she was not dead. They took her to the hospital. UWUSA began trying to find her because they did not want witnesses. They knew that I had information, so they were looking for me too.  Our ex-President Amon Ntuli, who was a senior shop steward, spoke to our managers in the company and they released me for two months from work. They hid us, the girlfriend and me. Her name was Thoko Shabalala. Even today I don’t know where that place is, they took us in the car. The people who were looking for me were dangerous, they wanted to kill me.

I came back to the hostel and there was the IFP Police. I had to leave and stay in the bush for a while. They were looking for us, so we chose to stay out. We would wake up in the bush, go to some houses nearby to ask them for water to wash up, and then we would go to work. It was me and some other members.

Violence would come around the holidays, especially June 16. The companies did not want to pay the holiday, but we wanted them to pay it. We tried to get those who wanted to go to work to stay. Some people would say they were forced to go to work. Sometimes people going to work would get beaten. We wanted the government to recognize the holiday as a paid day off.

One year, on June 15, the police came to my sister’s house in Clermont because someone told them that I was hiding there. I felt that someone was going to come so I went away. My sister was doing her shift at the time; she worked as a security guard. My sister’s son was grown, and at midnight he heard that the door was falling. They broke down the door. They checked everywhere with a torch, under the bed, all over. They were shouting, “Where is she?” My sister’s son saw the name of the policeman. My sister came home and asked what happened, and her son told her. She came to me at work and told me to come fix the door because it was my fault. She said, “Forget about the politics because you are going to die!” I told her to come with me to the police station. In front, I told her, “Do you want me to go in? If I do, I will not come back. They will kill me like the other comrades.” I told her to go inside and tell them a soldier was patrolling last night, to give them the name and not to tell them you know me. My sister was crying, but she went in and she told them what I said. She came out with the police and they went to her house to put in a new door.

I was hiding in the grass.

They never caught me. We had a friend that was on the inside, in the South African Police. The SAP was on our side. He would tell us to watch out, or when there would be patrolling, and we would run away. If they knew about something they would not keep it from us.

After 1990, the ANC was unbanned. Since then I have been a part of the Branch Executive Committee. I was also chairperson of the Women’s League. I first became involved with the South African Communist Party because of their alliance with the ANC. As workers, we know that the communist party is the working class. In 2007, we went to Congress in Port Elizabeth and I was elected there as a vice chairperson of our Branch.

I started working at FrameCo when I was 18 years old. There were old mamas while I was attending school, they worked there. When they were coming back from work their dresses were full of cotton. I asked them what they were doing there. They said they were making blankets, sheets… People would say they were looking for a job at “cotton.” That is how we called the factory in Zulu. I went with them and I was employed the first day. That was November 5, 1975.  

At work, we were not allowed to discuss politics, but we did it anyway. Some people were afraid, but there were also many people who shared the same ideas as I did. We had to be very careful about what we said because we could get fired.

I joined NUTW the year I was employed. At the time there were two unions, NUTW and Red Card. I chose NUTW. The closed shop started in 1985 after we won majority.

At around the same time, I started becoming more involved with the union. I always wanted to help, but I never really made the decision to become a shop steward. The workers elected me. I told them, “How can you elect me? I am not good at English.” They said no, you can go, because we trust you. Before, we were not officially recognized, we were not called shop stewards. We called it “conduct” because we were mediating. In August 1985, the union was recognized and we elected shop stewards. I was one of the first official shop stewards, and I have been one since then.

My life became more difficult because I was now in between. The workers were on one side and the employers were on the other. You know the youth sometimes they don’t want to listen, they do things that are wrong because they know the shop steward will cover them. The managers get upset and then you are in the middle, it is a problem. Sometimes as a shop steward I sit down with the workers and I try to correct their behaviour before the manager notices.

Sometimes I get tired of the job. I think I don’t want to do it anymore. But then I think of where I come from. If I leave them, they will suffer. It will take time for a new shop steward to learn. In that time management will do whatever they want.

The job is most difficult in times of wage negotiations. Sometimes workers don’t understand. Negotiating is a give and take. When I come back from a negotiation, I find workers shouting at me, swearing at me. Some abuse of language because they need the money, but you can’t get it for them.

At times, these negotiations turn into strikes. I have been involved in many strikes. The biggest one was in 1980, it was a strike for wages. Ten thousand people were involved. My shift was off, and the following day the unprotected strike started. On our day off we normally went into Durban to see movies. On the way back, we saw the people that were supposed to be working their shift. We went up to them and asked them why they were there, and they said the strike had already started. We were told to go to the stadium. It lasted one month, but we never got what we wanted. Many of us were dismissed when we got back and there was a lot of violence. The security in the company was beating the workers for striking. Some workers were also beaten by other workers when they tried to go to work during the strike. Other companies nearby were forced to stop working because we managed to chase out everyone in the area. If they wanted to go to work we said no. The heads of the other factories came to our factory and complained. At the time I was already a conduct. Even though the union was not recognized, the management knew who the leaders of the workers were. They came to us to communicate with them. We were singing and dancing… We were young and we thought of fear of dismissal after.

In 1985, when the union was recognized, the conditions improved. Before, people would come to the gate in the morning to find that they were already fired, without even having a hearing. These things could not happen anymore. If you did something wrong there were warnings.

In the 70s the conditions were very bad, that is why we joined the union. From 1985 to 2008, they improved after the factory became a closed shop. But from 2008, when we were reemployed, the conditions have dropped. We were retrenched and reemployed, so the agreement was dropped and a new one was drafted. Now we have the bare minimum, when before we had an agreement that was more favourable then the law. Before, we had shifts. Two shifts were working and the third was off, but you would still get paid. Before we got that money. We never get paid when we’re off anymore. People were paid more.

The 1985 agreement got time off for shop stewards to go to trainings. It allowed us to have meetings for committees inside the company, paid public holidays, Sundays off, night shift allowance… When the negotiation was made I was a shop steward, but I was new. Jabulani Ngcobo was helped by John Coplyn, who worked for NUTW and was studying to be a lawyer. He assisted Jabulani in order to get the agreement. They were very clever. Jabulani was the one who trained us, and now I am the one who is training. I have trained many shop stewards. Sometimes it takes them up to two years to understand everything. We were 22 shop stewards at Frame.

I looked up to Jabulani Ngcobo. He was a founder of the NUTW and he worked in my factory. We worked together and he recruited me. He was my role model because even though he only had standard five, he was never ashamed. He did everything for the workers. He was a brave man. Jabulani was always straight; if he spoke to somebody he always said the truth, even to the employer. And he was a good leader. He was the one who got the agreement for the workers, the good one that collapsed in 2008. He trained us, taught us to negotiate, the strategy. He taught us how to explain the agreement. He developed us as shop stewards.

Before, even if you understood English you were not supposed to speak to the managers. There were interpreters.

When someone did something wrong and the managers wanted to punish us they called a person to interpret for us. We saw that sometimes the person was interpreting wrong and the workers were dismissed. We felt that they were saying the wrong thing in order to dismiss the worker. One time, we went to a hearing, and we saw that the interpreter was not translating correctly. We stood up and said, “Hey, you are saying something we never said.” The manager then asked me if I spoke English, because before then we were not allowed to speak it. Many people spoke English better than me, but they were afraid to come out and say it.  They realized that we could talk for ourselves, and so they got rid of the interpreters.

If I don’t understand something, I am not afraid to ask people who know. In the workshops and trainings we get documents. At home, I take my books and ask my sister, who has matric and above, what the meanings of the words are. I read the Constitution. It’s not because I’m clever, it is because I want to develop myself. That’s why I’m always reading and listening to the people above me.

Sometimes management attitude is wrong. They don’t recognize the shop stewards. Sometimes even shop stewards are afraid. In another department once I had to intervene. Before the management never allowed workers to take a bath during the normal hours, only after 6pm. I told two people to go and take a shower. The management gave them a notification of hearing. Everyone said they would be dismissed. I just kept quiet. We went to the hearing with the accused. I quoted two lines from the agreement and the managers closed their books and said the hearing was over. The workers outside thought it was over, that they were dismissed. Even the two who took the shower were shocked. From that day the workers can take a bath when they need. They see it as a victory; they are no longer working as slaves. You sweat the whole day, but you are not allowed to go to bath. If you bath at six, then all the taxis will be gone. So now, everything is free in that department.

I am not afraid to stand up to the management, to tell them when they are doing something wrong. I fight for what I think is correct. When someone is oppressing you, you have to have the courage to fight. It is like when we were fighting for freedom, it is the same. Still today, I am very attached to the ANC. I use my position as a shop steward to tell people about it. Now I am allowed to discuss it, I can say “Vote ANC!”