Makhosazana Hlengwa

My name is Makhosazana Hlengwa, but many call me Makhosi. I am forty-six years old. I was born on October 14, 1967 in Esigqinigini, in eNjobokazi, Kwazulu. When I was two years old, my parents relocated to Mpumalanga township. There, they raised me, my older brother Sibusiso, my younger sister Hlengiwe, and my younger brother Sandile. I have lived there ever since. 

I come from a family of clothing workers, beginning with my mother, Philda, whose nickname was Sishuphu. She taught me how to cook, how to support children, and how to be a businesswoman. She used to be a machinist at Natal Overalls, but was retrenched in 1970. She then started working at Progress Clothing, but left in 1972 because she gave birth to my sister. Afterwards, she stayed at home and became a self-employer. She went to Durban, and bought a used Harrison sewing machine so she could sew garments at home. She used to buy her fabric at Galvano Textiles, Clodina Textiles, and Progress Clothing as well. She would then sell her products, which would include tracksuits, pillows, jerseys, and shirts, in the township to members of the community. Sometimes she’d go door to door, but when I used to go with her on Saturdays, we would stand outside a factory called Rainbow Chicken on Umlazi Road. My mother would go to the gate, and people would come to buy from her. Workers would often bring goods to barter, such as eggs, if they didn’t have money to pay.

My father was also a clothing worker. His name was Simon, but he went by the nickname Ngquzu. He worked at Mediterranean Textiles as a general worker, left there, and then began working as a presser at Hammersdale Clothing. My father used to help my mother cut fabrics, or assist her in other ways when she was busy with her job. My parents had a loving relationship and used to attend church together often. They weren’t that strict on my siblings and me, but they raised us with strong Christian values.

I attended Enyosini Lower Primary School, where I was a prefect. I wanted to be a nurse when I was in school; I always liked taking care of people. As children, we played outside all the time, and I would assist my classmates when they were injured. Football was my favourite sport when I was younger. When I was at Zeminkhandla Higher Primary, I played on the football team. In a game we played against Okhoziki Higher Primary, I scored 10 goals!

I went to Gabi Gabi High School until 1986. That year, I was in standard nine, and I gave birth to my first daughter, Gugulethu, in October. In 1987, my family began to face difficult times. My mother was struggling as a self-employer, and I was worried about her. We had lost income from my father; he was diagnosed with TB, and had been very sick for two years. He passed on in August of that year. My brother looked for work to provide for the family, and he took a job at Ninian Lester, a fabric knitting company that made bras and underwear.

I told my mother I was looking for a job, because the man who got me pregnant was not employed. Despite her grief, she was happy to know she would have my help to support the family. My neighbour who was also looking for a job told me about an opportunity at Hammersdale Clothing, where my father had worked previously. I needed a job quickly, and I was willing to take anything.

 The next day, I stood outside the gates of the factory. I recall there were a lot of people there standing with me, all looking for a job. When the employer came outside, everyone was very anxious, hoping to be selected. I had no experience at all, but or some reason, he chose me and another woman from the crowd. I didn’t understand what was happening in the factory, because I was coming directly from school.

There were over 1000 workers in the factory when I stared working. Now, there are less than 500.

I was placed on the factory floor as a general worker, but my manager, Mr. Machele, found my education to be an asset to the company. Within a few months, he made me an assistant supervisor. He decided to place me under a supervisor who was not well educated because he thought that I could be helpful to her. I performed tasks such as issuing garments to the workers and collecting needles in the storeroom. When it was time to deliver pay slips, she would ask me to write the clock numbers for all the workers in my department, give it to the wage clerk, and collect their wages for the week. I was given a lot of responsibility within the factory from very early in my career.

SACTWU did not exist back in 1987. At that time, the union was ACTWUSA. There was also a rival union called GAWU, but it only had about 20 members in my factory. A man named Thulani Mweli came to me with the form secretly, and told me that if I joined the union, I would be protected. I wasn’t sure at first, but the factory was largely unionized, and I thought it would be good to do what the other workers were doing. I took the form with me to the toilet, signed it, and returned it to Thulani. An older lady came in and saw me writing in the toilet. She was very confused, and asked me why I was writing in the toilet!

Thulani became one of my biggest influences at Hammersdale. He was a senior shop steward for 33 years. He worked in the cutting room, and represented the workers there. We had a great relationship, and she helped me to become a leader. He was patient with me and corrected me when I made mistakes. He taught me to how handle cases step-by-step, and how to negotiate. When we had National Bargaining Council meetings, he would bring me along, and introduce me to important individuals. He eventually left our factory and became an organiser. Unfortunately, he failed his probation, and is now working at Kingsgate.     

As a young, single mother working in the factory, my sister Hlengiwe helped me by taking care of my firstborn while I was away. At times, it was very difficult because at that time there was a war in Mpumalanga between the Inkatha Freedom Party and the United Democratic Front. My boyfriend was named Dumisani Sithole. He was a leader within the UDF, and a member of MK. Inkatha knew this, and they were looking to destroy him. In December 1987, when my child was two months old, my sister saw three IFP members as they were approaching my house—they were roughly 100 meters away. Thinking very quickly, she forced the door closed and locked it with the key. They broke all of the windows so they could kill my daughter. They said,

“Put the child up to the window, so we can shoot it.”

My sister did not listen to them, and instead, lied down on the floor next to the child. They could not shoot my daughter because my sister was protecting her, so they eventually left. When they were gone, she immediately phoned me. I left work, and then we called the police to look for the attackers. Afterwards, we moved in with my aunt for safety. The police found the guys, but Dumisani wanted revenge. He found one of the guys responsible for the attack and he shot him dead! Unfortunately, members of Inkatha murdered Dumisani before the month was over.

Looking back, I consider him a hero for fighting so bravely.          

After they killed Dumisani, the IFP wanted to kill me too. Everyday, when Inkatha members saw me at the taxi rank, they would try and intimidate me. One day when I was waiting there, a man drove toward me and said, “Your boyfriend killed us! Come here so I can shoot you.” I ran away as fast as I could, and I fell on a glass bottle. Luckily, another man from the UDF saw what was happening, and chased him away. I still have the scar from where the bottle cut me that day. Another time, I was in a taxi on my way from work, and an Inkatha guy stopped next to the taxi, pointed to me and said, “I want that lady! Please take that lady out!” The taxi driver ignored him and just kept driving. The harassment finally stopped when two ANC members, Comrades Muzi Mkhize and Guduza Gumede, went to the IFP and told them to leave me alone.

Being politically involved was difficult in those days.

I was an ANC and a UDF member, and I would regularly attend meetings to be informed on what was going on. I would also go to strikes and protests. There was a lot of absenteeism in the factory in those days due to the political violence, but in 1989, peace finally came to Mpumalanga.

I remember the day in 1990 when they released Mandela, we were in the streets singing and chanting. It was a very big day. Everyone was celebrating. We sang the song…

 Kusasa ukuseni ngo4 O Clock, sikhulula uMandela

"Tomorrow morning at 4 o‘clock, we are releasing Mandela".

A stroke took my mother’s life in 1996. She was washing, and she collapsed next to the outdoor sink. My family was once again faced with financial difficulties. My older brother was working part-time then, usually two or three days on and off. I was the only person in the home with a steady job, and I was supporting seven people at the time. My sister knew that I communicated regularly with my employer. She told me to ask him to hire her so she could help me. So, I asked my boss to employ my sister, telling him I was poor and that my mother had just passed away, and I was the only one working. He said to me, “Makhosi, tomorrow, come with her.” From that point on, she worked with me at the factory, but a few years later, she began to grow very weak. She went to sleep one day and told me, “Sister I’ve got a problem, I have no power.” She was sick for two full months before she passed away in 2004. The doctor said she died of natural causes. Her son, Siyabonga, was in standard five at that time. He stayed with me after she died, and I became a guardian to him.

I became a shop steward in 1997, and I have been one ever since.

At first, I was scared to be a shop steward because I was told that I would be targeted by my employer. However, I took on the responsibility in order to help the workers and to protect the workers. During my first few months in the position, I often looked to Thulani for guidance.

In 2001, the factory changed its name from Hammersdale Clothing to its current name, EThekwini Clothing. That same year, I became an all-around machinist. I am qualified in multiple parts of the factory, and I am a first-aider for my company. If there is an emergency, I am often called upon to take people to the hospital. One time, a worker fainted in the factory. I went to her to check her pulse and her breathing. I saw that she was not fine, and I asked my boss for a car in order to take her to Addington Hospital. It turned out that she was on treatment for high blood pressure. In 2002, we had a man collapse and die on the factory floor. He was diabetic, and he just collapsed. That was such a sad time at the factory. It was heartbreaking to see his family come in to pick up his things.

Although I take a lot of pride in being a shop steward, the job involves a lot of stress.

Some workers respect you, but others do not. I give my full effort in protecting the workers. If a worker has a problem in the factory, I am the best to make a solution. However, sometimes the workers try to take advantage of my advocacy. I make it a point to tell the workers straight—work is work. One of the most valuable skills I have learned as a shop steward is how to cool down in difficult situations. If a worker is talking badly, you cannot follow or endorse this speech. You must set an example. You must correct behaviour, but not in front of the other workers. Call him or her aside, or phone in the afternoon.

Nobody is dismissed unfairly in the factory as long as I am there. I deal with difficult cases and I always win them. I will represent someone until the end if the employer tries to dismiss him unfairly, but if someone does not follow instructions from the employer, there is not much I can do. If I see the employer saying degrading words to the workers, I address the situation directly and say, “Look. You are the boss. I need you, you need me.”

Communication and collaboration are vital skills in the workplace.

There are now four shop stewards in my factory and I am the chairperson. SACTWU has taught us how to deal with employers, respect the workers, and come up with solutions. At the National Congress I learned about politics, and useful skills such as how to debate. I am a better leader because of the skills and experiences I’ve gained from SACTWU.

I am the mother of the factory, and I share in my workers’ pains and triumphs. I am saddened when there is not enough work in the factory. When I hear employers talking about a short time, I become very worried, because I know where the workers are coming from. I represent workers in many different departments who come from very different homes, and some come from very poor backgrounds. Some are the only ones able to work and support their households. That’s why I’m so worried about the workers. If I see a worker cry, it is difficult to me. They are the same as my family.

There are times when my confidence frustrates my superiors. If someone else is handling a case, the employer is happy. Employers’ faces change when they hear that Makhosi is representing a worker. However, they respect me for my leadership and share many things with me. Things the employer used to withhold from the workers are now given to us. If I have a document saying that we deserve a wage increase, the employer puts it on top of our wages the next week without delay.

In 2010, my employer said to me, “Makhosi, my company is not getting enough orders. I need to retrench 187 workers.” I asked him, “Look, is there any solution? What about the families? What about the mothers with no husband who are working alone? Sometimes ten people are looking for food coming from one worker.” I cried that day. My employer told me, “Makhosi, I hear what you are saying.” The next day he came to tell me he was going to Isitebe to take another order.

Because of my communication, I was able to save 100 workers’ jobs.

He retrenched only 87 workers instead of 187. I then asked my employer to put the workers who were retrenched on an upcoming job, and he listened to me. All 87 workers were able to come back.

I take pride in making clothes for the state. If I see a soldier wearing camouflage, or the police wearing their shirts and trousers, I feel proud to know those came from my hands. Aside from the state, my factory also supplies retailers such as Woolworth’s and Ackerman’s.

I am known to sing a lot of music. In the factory and in meetings, singing encourages people. I sing Christian music, election songs, and toyi-toyi songs.

I am a strike leader, and I find that singing helps the power of the strike, and being in solidarity with one another through song gives the strikers extra motivation to keep going.

I was involved in a big national strike in 2010 when the workers were fighting for a wage increase. I brought some colleagues from the SACP and ANC to assist me in pushing the strike forward. It took four weeks, but at the end of the day, it was successful.  To date, my employer has not forgotten!

Whenever we have a strike, I like to sing the song…

“Sifuna imali, sekwanele mqashi. Amandla wethu, awasikholule, igazi lethu lisikhulule. Kudala sinikela ngamandla ethu.”

"We want money, we have had enough from the employers. Let our strength lead us and our blood free us. We’ve been struggling for too long". (Loosely translated)

We met difficulties because there was one factory working during the strike. There is a problem with mice in the factory, so workers had brooms and sticks to try and get rid of the mice. When the police heard about this, they came to the factory with guns wondering if thieves had come. They didn’t realize that the workers were just trying to get rid of the mice! I told the police to go into the factory where the mice were and get the workers out.

Afterwards, the police joined us the in strike just like anybody else! That was a very powerful moment.

 During election time, we come together and sing…

“Vele vele, Msholozi, sivotela wena.”

"Surely Msholozi, we will vote for you".

I go to the 12 Apostolic Church, and I also sing there. If I die, please sing this song…

“Ngijulise nkosi, othandweni lwakho. Yandisa ukukholwa kwami. Thatha uqobo lwami, nokho konke okwami. Ngiyavuma nkosi. Anginakho okufanele ukubonga wena.”

"Consecrate me, Lord, in your love. Strengthen my faith. Take all that I have and that I am, I surrender. I have no words to praise thee".

I wanted to complete my matric, but I was supporting too many children. I supported my younger brother Sandile up to standard six. He went to university in Joburg and is now a manager at FNB. I had plans to support my sister through nursing school when she passed away.

I raised my own children with proper discipline, teaching them to respect everybody, and treat everyone as family. I am proud to say that all three of my kids went up to matric. My sister’s son, Siyabonga, also finished school, and is now self-employed as a paramedic. This would not have been possible without the bursaries that SACTWU provided. My eldest daughter was working at the housing department, but now she’s an Imbongi. She is married, and I have one grandchild, Okamdali Nzimande. My second child, Mbali, is currently in her fourth year at Regents Business School studying Bicom.

I have been at the same factory for all of twenty-seven years in the industry, and have no plans to leave. Today I am the SACTWU branch treasurer for the Western branch in KZN.

Throughout my life, I have learned the importance of respect, collaboration with others, and discipline. I am grateful to God for his many blessings throughout the years.