Khonzeni Mkhize: A trade union leader on the rise

The Numsa organiser in KwaZulu-Natal has been a committed activist, and a leader, since her school days.

A woman with a beaming smile ascends the staircase at the KwaZulu-Natal regional offices of  metalworker union Numsa. She opens her arms and offers a warm hug. “Welcome to the revolutionary office, feel free here,” says Khonzeni Mkhize, who then graciously leads us into her office.

Fondly known as “Dombie,” which is short for dombolo, because of her chubby stature as a young girl, Mkhize was born on 23 December 1974 in Hopewell (Nsuka), a location just outside Pietermaritzburg.

Although Mkhize is a descendant of a royal family, there’s nothing over-the-top about her. In fact, at first glance, she appears to be a humble and shy woman. It is only during the interview that her prowess and passion for labour shines through.

The daughter of the late Maria “maBhengu”, who died in 1993, and chief Henry Lawrence Mkhize, she is the couple’s only surviving child. Mkhize’s siblings, her brother Mbongeni and sister Nozipho, both died in 2010.

Henry Lawrence was a teacher before he retired as a chief, and maBhengu was a domestic worker who was passionate about education. “With the little that she [her mother] had, she provided. She loved the community and helped the neighbours. She was also a leader in the church,” says Mkhize.

Recounting her childhood, Mkhize says Nsuka was a small, peaceful community surrounded by farms where everyone knew each other. “It was not for the rich,” she adds. 

“Like every child growing up, I fetched water from the river; we also did the washing there and I often fetched wood to make a fire.”

Schooling turmoil

Mkhize had a tumultuous upbringing and was forced to change schools often during the heightened violence at the time in KwaZulu-Natal. Her schooling career began at Hopewell Primary School and her father quickly re-enrolled her at Gabigabi High School in Mophela, near Hammarsdale, after violence broke out. “This is where my father’s royal house was situated,” she says.

Mkhize was later moved to Mzamo High School in Newcastle.

Her activism at the age of 14 was partly to blame for her unstable schooling career. “When I started being active, we were dealing with issues of absent teachers, poor management and poor sanitation. When I moved to Newcastle, I could not go to school because the principal thought I was going to be a bad influence,” she says.

In 1992, after being refused a place at Mzamo High School, Mkhize sat outside the principal’s office until the chairperson of the school’s governing body intervened. After concerted attempts in convincing the school authorities, Mkhize was allowed to start classes in February. She used the time to catch up on all the schoolwork she missed.

Youthful activist

She was in grade 10 at the time, and remained fairly well behaved until grade 11. Then, she says: “I showed my true colours. I used to meet with boys under the tree to discuss and strategise on how we were going to overthrow the principal.”

Soon after those meetings, protest action began and the school became the first to form the Congress of South African Students in Newcastle. Mkhize was elected deputy secretary.

Her father promptly received a letter from the school, asking him to discipline his daughter. “He told me he was tired of me … So I started behaving after my father reprimanded me,” says Mkhize.

But tragedy struck on 13 August 1993, when maBhengu died from a long illness while Mkhize was in grade 11. “Everything changed. I decided that I was going to focus on school. At the time, I did not know what I was going to do but I dreamt of becoming a teacher because I came from a family dominated by teachers.”

Holding her right hand over her head, Mkhize says life was difficult without her mother as, all of a sudden, she had to talk directly to her father.

Mkhize returned to Nsuka after matriculating in 1994. The following year, she went to stay with her father at the royal house. In 1996, she enrolled at Boston College to study entrepreneurship. That same year, she fell pregnant with her daughter Nondumiso, who is now 21.

“My father disowned me and sent me to the baby’s father, and told me to only return when the father was ready to pay for damages.” The man paid damages in 1998 and, in 2004, he began the process of paying lobola. In 2004, Mkhize gave birth to her second child, Luyanda.

From mother to shop steward

These tribulations would prepare Mkhize for her first job at Toyota Boshoku, a company that manufactures Toyota car seats and door panels in Amanzimtoti, south of Durban. In 2007, Mkhize was elected shop steward at the plant, where she and six others represent about 700 workers. She still works at the plant.

“At plant level, we need to make sure that we defend the workers, make sure that workers comply with company policies, and teach workers about their rights and how to conduct themselves,” says Mkhize.

She also encourages employees, who are mostly young, to study further.

Some of the problems Mkhize has to deal with include inflexible management and alcoholism among employees, which leads to high absenteeism. “When there are challenges, management sometimes does not want to resolve matters and that makes life difficult. These are the things that lead to illegal strikes,” she says.

According to Mkhize, it is also difficult to control young and energetic workers. When they give you a mandate, she says, they expect an answer. “We often remind workers that their jobs are not theirs but for their families and their children’s future.”

But with all its challenges, Mkhize enjoys what she does. “I am starting to realise that this is my calling. To be honest, it is not easy leading workers but what is important is to remain principled. I am very passionate about the workers because I know the system,” she says.

A woman in a male space

In 2009, Mkhize was elected local secretary in the Isipingo local municipality and, in 2011, she was appointed to lead Numsa’s youth desk. In 2015, she was elected as Numsa’s deputy chair in the KwaZulu-Natal region.

This year, union federation Saftu elected Mkhize to lead the federation on labour issues. She is the first woman in the province to be elected in this position.

She is proud to be a member of Numsa, the largest union in the country with more than 350 000 members nationally and 65 000 members in KwaZulu-Natal. “During my time here, I have been trained to be a good leader, negotiator and how to fight legal cases for the workers,” she says.

On a personal level, Mkhize has learnt to be more patient with workers and to impart the knowledge she has acquired. “As a woman, it is sometimes difficult to lead because this is a male-dominated space. Most women are afraid to be elected because you need to be fearless and have confidence. You need to take the mandate from the workers to management, then provide feedback.”

She says that as a leader, you need to be prepared to make unpopular decisions and sometimes workers might not agree with the feedback from management.  As Numsa deputy chairperson, Mkhize is responsible for nine locals (branches) where shop steward councils sit.

“Some locals sit once a week, quarterly and once a month. I go and address shop stewards on what is happening in the organisation, industry and country. We also talk about issues affecting workers in different plants in the province,” she says.

Mkhize also deals with Saftu-affiliated unions. “We deal with workers who are members of the Food and Allied Workers Union so we attend meetings at Huletts Sugar, Illovo Sugar Limited and Rainbow. We also attend meetings involving the South African Policing Union.”

Mkhize praises her family for shaping her into the woman she is today. “Remember that I come from a royal family but I have never put that into my head. I think my mum taught us to love others; my dad as well. My brother was an intelligent straight-talker. He was someone who was protective over his family and a brilliant politician.”

Today, Mkhize is a mum to eight children: her two children and her deceased siblings’ combined six. It’s something she describes as a tough juggling act.

When asked what the future holds in store for her, she says: “I see myself as the minister of labour in this country. It does not matter how long it takes. I know that it is a long walk to take in order to bring about change in the lives of workers.”

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