Lunga Mapela

Let me tell you something; I have never written a story about myself before. But it is important for us as workers to know about each other. It is important for us to learn about the lives of our comrades, and maybe even learn from the lives of our comrades! It is important for us because when comrades come together in the union, our lives come together, our histories come together, and together we become stronger. This is my story.

I want to start by telling you that I have certain principles and beliefs that are very important to me.

You can say that these principles and beliefs make me into the person I am today.

My Beliefs and Principles:

The first principle of mine that is so important is ‘Self Criticism and Criticism’. This means that I believe that we must be open to have other people tell us about what we are doing wrong. It also means that we must be prepared to tell other people when they are doing something wrong.

For me, these two things are very important because they help us grow. When a comrade tells me what I have done wrong, and when I am prepared to listen to the comrade with an open heart, I give myself a gift; it is the gift of having the opportunity to make myself better.

It is the same when you are prepared to tell your comrade when they have done something wrong, and when that comrade is prepared to listen to you; they also have the chance to make themselves better.

If we do this together as comrades, we can help each other make ourselves, and our struggle, more effective.

The second belief of mine is that, if we want our struggle to be successful, comrades must participate actively together. If you want to change something, you must get up and help to change it. You must be active. The only way to change something that is wrong is if people use their power. But if we do not use our power, and if we sit down and ask someone else to stand up for us, then nothing will change.

Collective leadership is the third principle. It means that all the people, together, have the power to decide what our organization does or does not do. It means that all the comrades must be allowed to have our voices heard. It means that we must respect and hear the voices of our other comrades.

It means that together we make the decisions of our organization.

An organization that works with collective leadership can have a person who represents them. Maybe that person is the Chairperson, or the Secretary, or the President? But that person cannot just make any decision that they want to. He or she must make decisions based on what the members say.

If the person who represents the organization does not do a good job, and does not represent the members well, then I believe that members must be able to take that representative out of that special position of power. That is what it means to ‘recall’ someone from power.

The last principle is ‘Democratic Centralism’. It means being able to debate things freely inside an organization, but when a decision has to be taken and a vote is made, the majority decision wins. Then, all the members of the organization have to support the decision.

For example, maybe we as a union wanted to discuss going on a strike. Workers would all be allowed to debate openly and honestly about how we felt about going on strike. Then we would take a vote. We would ask: ‘Who wants to go on strike and who does not want to go on strike?’ Maybe lots of workers would want to go on strike and only some workers would not want to go on strike. That is where the principle of democratic centralism would be important, because then we would say ‘We will all go on strike. Even those comrades who did not vote to go on strike, will now strike. We will all do this because it is what we, as an organization, have
decided to do”.

Me and My Family:

I was born on 14 December 1973 in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape.

I come from a very poor background.

Initially we were 6 people in my family; I was an elder son. Sadly both my parents are now deceased.

My mother was a so-called ‘kitchen girl’ for almost 25 years for the De Wit family. That means she was a domestic worker in their kitchen. My father also worked for the De Wit family. He was the so-called ‘garden boy’. That is what they used to say in those days; a ‘kitchen girl’ and a ‘garden boy’. It was the language of apartheid and the language of racism. How could my  mother, who was a woman, and my father, who was a man, be a ‘girl’ and a ‘boy’?

After work, my mother used bring us sour milk and the left-over food that the De Wit family did
not finish. She did that so that we could have food to eat at night. My father used to bring us back old clothes and big shoes so that we could wear them to school. We had no other choice because we had no other clothes or shoes, so we had to use those old ones. I suppose though that way we were luckier than some other children who had nothing.

Growing Up:

I grew up in a two-bedroom house. It was an mkhuku, a shack, in one of the informal settlements known as Veeplaas in Port Elizabeth.

To be honest, during that time I joined the wrong group of friends. But one day, one of the guys was caught by the police.

He went to jail, and when that happened, I got a shock and realized that I had chosen the wrong way to survive.

Now I condemn the things we did in those days because I realize that there are a lot of other ways that we would have tried to survive.

My Uncle: A Source Of Inspiration:

After the problem with the bicycles, my uncle talked to us. He had a passion about education and he gave us words of wisdom. I remember his words very well. He told us that education plays a very important role in the life of an individual.

He said that education is a tool that we can use to help us in our lives.

My uncle was very interested in politics. He felt that people needed to understand and learn about politics. He was the person who began to teach me about the politics of South Africa and the politics of the struggle. When the anti-apartheid organisations - such as ANC and PAC - were banned, my uncle used to put me on his shoulders and he taught me to say:


He also taught me:


That was during the time of Black power. That was the time when I first became passionate about politics.

High School Activism:

During my time at high school, I was fortunate to be elected into the SRC where I was Secretary for Political Education. The task that was given to me, as well as to comrades from different schools in the area, was to attend every community meeting around Port Elizabeth. At the meetings, we had to explain to our parents why it was important for us to boycott classes.

You see, our parents thought that we just did not want education. They could not understand that we were attacking the government by boycotting school. They did not understand that we were saying that we no longer wanted schools with a lack of toilets, no electricity, shortages of teachers and books, and too many students in our classrooms. We wanted decent education and we were fighting for it.

They would not understand that we were fighting against apartheid.

As students, we organized a powerful and famous campaign. It was called the ‘Employ The Black Teachers Campaign’. You see during that time you would find white teachers were teaching in our schools, while black teachers, with diplomas and degrees, were working in the factories.

Black teachers were unable to teach us because they were not getting the jobs.

We were angry about this because we firmly believed in anti-racism and anti-sexism.

University Activism:

After school I managed to get accepted into Vista University. I went to do a Bachelor of Science degree (BSc). The university was a place where I became more of an activist.

Soon after I started there, I went to a General Meeting of the students. I remember that the President of the SRC was talking to the students. As I listened to him, I became upset because he was using the ‘divide and rule’ tactic of the apartheid regime. He was trying to convince the mass meeting that coloured students and Indian students were better than black students.

I decided to stand up and call him to order! I said: Comrade President, I disagree with you because in this country, if you are not black, you are white. There is nothing which is called ‘coloured’.”

Apparently he thought of himself as a coloured man. So I said to him: “White people do not want you to associate with them. But they don’t want you to associate with black people either, so they decided to give you a different identity which they called ‘coloured’. It is a very insulting name”.

Finally, I decided to give the mass meeting a precise definition of what it means to be a black person in the South African context. I said: “Black people are the indigenous people. But they are also the old slaves, and those people whose parents have different colour skins to each other. Black people are people who through law, tradition and history have been discriminated against as a group. And they are the people who continue to be disadvantaged”.

The students at the meeting were impressed with my speech and during that same year, I was elected to be Secretary General of the SRC. I served the students to the best of my ability. I was a loyal servant of students and I made a lot of sacrifices in the process of being the Secretary General. I did this without any desire for material gain. All my interactions with the students were based on my passion to make our country a better place, and
prepare the way for a socialist future.

Sadly I had to leave the university before I finished my degree. I had to leave because I did not have enough money to finish my studies.

My journey as a student leader was a long one. But I suppose it was also short because it was over quickly. It taught me many lessons about life. I learned that sometimes the people you trust will break your trust, and sometimes the people you don’t trust will be the ones who comfort you in the end.

Sometimes I felt that students appreciated the contribution I made, but not the person I was. But I had the strength to change a negative into a positive and I learned to see good things where other people might only see bad things.

I learned to make new opportunities in difficult situations. And in times of troubles, I learned how to walk tall and not let difficulties stop me from getting to my goals. Most importantly I learned to always remember that I live for a purpose - the purpose of fighting for socialism - and that nothing can make me lose my faith.

Becoming a Shop Steward

After I left Vista University, I got a job at Mario Levi Leather Manufacturing. I decided to keep a low profile. I still had a passion about the politics of the working class, but I did not want to make too much trouble in the beginning.

Employers can victimize workers who they think are being ‘too clever’, and I did not want to be victimized.

However my comrade Lawrence Xola (who is now the Regional Secretary of SACTWU in the Eastern Cape) convinced me to change. He said I had to change my policy of quiet diplomacy if I actually had a passion for working class politics. That is why I became more active.

After comrade Xola spoke to me, I decided I would become a shop steward. So I accepted the nomination when the workers voted for me. That same year I was elected to be a senior shop steward. That was after the old senior shop steward decided he didn’t want to be in that position anymore.


A Worker In, And For, SACTWU:

I wanted to add value to the members in my factory and SACTWU in general. One way was just by being myself. You see I am young and I am bold. I am not always over-cautious. I do things in a responsible way, but I do them with excitement. This is the power of the youth.

I always think that a youth who is in the midst of elders must behave maturely. But he or she should never lose a spirit of adventure! It is the wisdom of the elders that guides the youth - but it is the hope and energy of the youth that helps the elders not become conservative.

Comrades, think about it: sometimes if you say something at a meeting, the other comrades will clap for you. But maybe they are not clapping because you have said something new. Maybe they are clapping for you because you have said something that is easy for them to hear - something that they are comfortable to hear.

The thing is, if something is comfortable to hear, it is not always right.

Sometimes, something is nice to hear because it does not challenge us too much.

The youth are sometimes good at saying things that need to be said.

Another Thing About Leaders:

Shop stewards are leaders in the workers struggle. We are also sometimes called ‘torchbearers’
of the workers struggle. It is an important position to have because we represent the workers at our factories. We represent them at the union meetings. We take their problems and concerns to the union. We also try and deal with our workers’ problems with the management of our companies.

We as shop stewards get important education to help us to do our jobs. But I firmly believe that we must share the knowledge we learn. We must not keep it to ourselves! What good is education if only one person has it? What good is knowledge if it does not help the workers?

I believe it is the duty of shop stewards to share their knowledge with the workers.

Thanking SACTWU:

I want to earnestly thank the SACTWU family for giving me an opportunity to grow up within
her ranks. Thank you also for letting me serve in various structures in the union.

SACTWU is a constructive school. It is a school that helps you look at yourself and grow. The union has nurtured me to become the person that I am today.

It has been a great honour for me to mingle with one of the best leaders to be found in South Africa. Yes, I am talking about our General Secretary Ebrahim Patel! It is a fact that many workers in other unions envy SACTWU because our leadership has such great intellectual ability.


Supporting a political principle can be like supporting a soccer game. Some supporters decide to give up one their teams when they think things are going wrong. But other soccer loving people are proper fans! They stick with the team, no matter what.

Fans don’t lose faith in their team if it loses. Their support is constant and unconditional. It can be raining or cold chilly or dusty, but you can always be sure that fans will be at the game with warm support.

To fans, their team has become their home. And no circumstances will make them leave your home. Not even starvation will make them forsake their home.

Home is just home, and paradise is another place you could visit and return home afterwards.
In the political struggle, the name we give to fans is ‘cadres’.

I am a cadre. SACTWU is my trade union and it is my home.

If my home ever has any problems or challenges, those challenges motivate me to build my home. I do it like I would build any decent house. This is a principle of belonging and it for this reason that SACTWU will live forever!

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