From the Archive | Mother of the union

‘The women started at 7.30am and knocked off at 10.30pm. You won’t believe it, but at that time we were earning R6.30 a week. We had to be thankful for what the employer was giving us.’

Jean Farbairn’s Flashes in Her Soul, a biography of Jabu Ndlovu, a shop steward of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) was first published in 1991. Ndlovu was assassinated in Mbali, Pietermaritzburg, in May 1989.

This is an edited extract from the book.

There are 150 full-time workers at Prestige. Of these, about 120 are women. There are six departments on the factory floor, producing 448 different kinds of kitchen utensils. In the industrial bakeware department, workers make bread and cake tins for the big bakeries. In the plastics and assembly department, workers make plastic handles and attach them to kitchen utensils. In the plating department, workers paint utensils and coat them with chrome. Then there is the warehouse, and Jabu Ndlovu’s department, the press shop.

One of the bosses described the press shop as “a very masculine environment” – yet most of the 55 people who work there are women. There are two kinds of presses – small presses and big presses. You need plenty of strength and muscle to operate the presses. The work is laborious and monotonous. It is hot and noisy. All day long there is the sound of clanging and tearing as the small presses cut sheets of metal into utensils like spoons or graters.

It is even worse where the big presses are: here giant machines lift and drop weights of up to 150 tons on to metal sheets to crush and bend them into different sizes and shapes of bakeware and other products. Jabu worked both kinds of presses. When she died, she was working on the big presses. She was earning about R180 a week. In the press shop, the workers have earplugs and gloves, safety measures Jabu fought for when she was a shop steward. The workers are still fighting to have fans installed to deal with the heat.

In 1974, when Jabu started working at Prestige, there was no union in the factory. A close friend and union comrade, who started working at Prestige a few years before Jabu, remembers their long hours and bad working conditions: “The women started at 7.30am and knocked off at 10.30pm. You won’t believe it, but at that time we were earning R6.30 a week. We had to be thankful for what the employer was giving us.”

There was racism in the factory: African workers were never chosen for certain jobs, which were reserved for whites. Workers could be dismissed without explanation. Overtime was not fairly paid and workers were not given uniforms or overalls. Health and safety regulations either did not exist or were ignored. Sometimes, workers who became pregnant would lose their jobs when they went home to have their babies.

‘Many grievances but no voice’

Workers got increases on “so-called merit”, the friend remembers. “When the boss liked you, he gave you an increase. But when he did not like you, no matter how hard you worked, he did not give you an increase.” Workers at Prestige had many grievances but no voice, says Jabu’s friend. “We were not happy but could not complain, because if we did we were threatened with
dismissal. That is why, when the union started, we decided to join.”

The two Metal and Allied Workers Union (Mawu) organisers who first came to the factory gates with pamphlets in 1981 were Geoff Schreiner and John Makhathini. Management immediately called a meeting of workers to remind them that they had a liaison committee. Liaison committees were the creation of management in terms of legislation aimed at preventing African workers from forming independent unions. Workers would choose half the members of the liaison committees and the bosses would choose the other half.

Management encouraged workers in their factories to support liaison committees instead of unions, because the committees made it easier to control workers and prevent strikes. But workers saw liaison committees as toothless bodies. In the early 1980s, the position of African workers all over the country was like that of the workers at Prestige. Workers were not well organised. Thousands had no union at all, although the trade union movement was growing again as a result of a wave of wage strikes which began in Durban in 1973.

Twenty years before the Durban strikes, in the 1950s, the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu) had tried to organise workers under the banner of nonracialism. But fearing a united working class and because of Sactu’s links with the ANC, the state had crushed Sactu by banning and jailing its leaders. By 1965, Sactu was no longer operating in South Africa. Those leaders who had not been banned or jailed went into exile. The nonracial trade union movement had been smashed.

The Bantu Labour Act

The government introduced new laws aimed at discouraging Africans from forming unions. One of these laws was the Bantu Labour Act. It was this law that created the system of “liaison committees”, aimed at replacing unions in the factories.

The Durban strikes of the early 1970s broke the silence caused by the repression of the 1950s and 1960s. Rising prices were biting into workers’ pockets, and more than 60 000 workers from 146 different factories took part in the strikes. After the strikes, workers began to organise again to build strong unions. Jabu’s union, Mawu, was one of the unions born out of this strike.

Mawu held its first meeting in May 1973 in Edendale, outside Pietermaritzburg, and from there began organising in factories all over the country. Slowly its numbers grew, and soon Mawu members in factories throughout South Africa were pushing for recognition agreements.

Jabu joined Mawu in 1981. In 1983, she became a shop steward, and in 1985, she took over as senior shop steward. Many workers remember how she fought with them for recognition at Prestige.

This is an edited extract from Flashes in Her Soul: The Life of Jabu Ndlovu, an account of the life of a shop steward of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), who was also a community leader in Imbali, Pietermaritzburg. It was first published in 1991 and has been republished by Jacana.

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