It was a historic moment on 20 September, when union federation Cosatu elected Zingiswa Losi as its first female president.
When Losi was announced president at Cosatu’s 13th national congress, the sound of women ululating and singing “wathinta abafazi wathinta imbokodo” (you strike a woman, you strike a rock) filled the air as Losi was hoisted aloft and led onto the stage.
Losi, who served as Cosatu’s second deputy president since 2009, was elected unopposed as president to lead a federation with more than 1.6 million members. But she has her work cut out for her in the male-dominated federation, which finds itself in difficult circumstances due to factionalism, declining membership and other challenges.
New Frame sat down with Losi to speak about her new role and the challenges she faces. Her deep, commanding voice and warm smile are striking. As she leads us into her predecessor’s office on the 9th floor of Cosatu House in downtown Johannesburg, she explains that she has not been too eager to move into her new office. Its spacious interior is adorned with a bust of Oliver Tambo, and large portraits of Albert Luthuli and Cosatu’s first deputy president, Chris Dlamini. According to Losi her job is about the workers and getting things done and not rushing to occupy the luxurious office.
Zingiswa Phyllis Losi was born in KwaZakhele on 2 October 1975 to Graham Mzwandile Losi, 80, and the late Vuyiswa Esther Losi. A year after Losi was born, her family moved to New Brighton.
The mother of two daughters, Chumani, 20, and Chulumanco, 14, says growing up in a family of nine siblings was not easy. Her mother was employed as a domestic worker and later found employment at eMpilweni Hospital, where she worked as a general assistant until she retired. Her father worked at Santa Hospital as a general assistant, and later as a debt collector at a furniture shop.
Life was difficult for the impoverished family. “When we grew up you would literally have one meal a day. You would wake up in the morning with nothing to eat, go to school and you know, at least, that you are going to have supper,” says Losi.
The family was never certain where the next meal would come from. When they were hungry, Losi says, they were told by their parents to walk to their grandfather’s house after school, where they ate slices of bread with pilchards and drank tea.
In her formative years, Losi attended Phendla Lower Primary, which was in walking distance from her home. She then went to Phillip Nikiwe High School and later to Ithembelihle Senior Secondary School.
At 10, Losi became politically aware and conscientised about the situation in apartheid South Africa. “My brother Xolani left for exile in 1985 and my sister Ncamile Nonceba followed in 1986. That is what gave rise to my activism because they were active. My family was very political and I noticed from a young age that they were not normal. My family would go and attend funerals and tell us stories of how teargas was thrown at them,” says Losi.
Thinking back about her sister leaving, she recalls how she helped her out of the bathroom window, not knowing that moment could have been the last time she would see her.
After matriculating, Losi, who has a twin sister named Zamela, left home and registered at the University of South Africa in 1995 to study economics. She dropped out the same year because she could not produce a matric certificate on time. She decided to return home, where she registered at Algoa College of Education, even though she dreamt of being a lawyer.
During her teaching studies, she applied for a post in the military and was accepted to serve as a technical assistant to aviation artisans.
Toughening up in the army
It was at the South African National Defence Force that Losi first experienced patriarchy and racism directly. At the time, soldiers were not permitted to join unions and, because of that, Losi became a victim of unfair labour practice.
Shortly after giving birth to her eldest daughter, she made arrangements with management for her child to live with her in the single quarters. Management agreed, but a senior white sergeant later told Losi she had 48 hours to send her newborn back to Port Elizabeth.
She then discovered that a white female officer had complained about Losi living with her baby. The officer insisted that if Losi could live with her baby she wanted to live with her dog. “I wrote a long statement saying politics were not allowed in the military … but this was political and racial … I knew that it had happened to me and it would happen to someone else,” she says.
Losi, who also serves as a member on the ANC’s national executive committee and the SACP’s central committee, says she has always been vocal and honest. “I am one person who, if I do not like something, I would rather tell you and if not you, I will rather not tell anyone. I will keep it in until I tell you.”
According to her, taking this approach has shaped her into the woman she has become today. “I would not go back and trade my experiences for anything. They built the resilience in me but they have also taught me how to be humble and understand the different levels where people are and be able to fit in at the lowest level. If you can fit in there, you can fit in anywhere,” she says.
A voice for the workers
After serving three years (from 1996 to 1999) in the army, Losi relocated to Port Elizabeth in 2000, where she worked as a casual worker at Jet stores. “I continued to be active in the ANC Youth League in the Nelson Mandela Bay region then I was employed at Ford Motor Company in 2001, where I stayed until 2014.”
She began representing workers when she became a shop steward for Numsa at Ford, and later joined the Civilian Secretariat for Police Service in Pretoria, where she is currently employed as the deputy director.
Losi, who was just 34 when she was first elected to lead, speaks passionately about Cosatu. Some of the challenges that she has faced as she rose through the ranks include men making sexual advances. “When I pick it up, I confront it. At first we relate to each other as comrades and then I start seeing how the person gradually responds. When it continues, I tell them to stop it. I do not appreciate it because I take members as my comrades, my brothers and sisters.”
All thanks to mum
Losi often reflects and marvels at how far she has come in life. “I think I credit who I am today to my mother. As I grew older, I began to appreciate the woman that she was. My mum taught me to stand up for myself.”
Losi says that she learnt from a young age to choose her battles. “It toughened me up because I learnt when to fight and why. Even during difficult periods at Cosatu, people would do and say things about me expecting a reaction, and they will never get one because they want to inflict pain. While growing up I did judo, from which I learnt discipline and self-defence.
“Even when I was in the army, I learnt when to respond and how to respond and when it was necessary to walk away. So when I’m dealing with issues now it’s not about me being a woman, it’s just about me being a person and saying this is right or wrong. One thing I have learnt in the trade union movement is to separate myself from the position,” she says.
Losi enjoys spending her rare downtime catching up with her family and friends, and on her favourite TV shows (she binge-watches shows on Crime & Investigation Network and TLC). She is also studying project management at Rhodes University.
As we walk out of her new office, we are greeted by a bouquet of fresh flowers to congratulate her on her new position.
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