The lion of the lowveld

The people of Matsulu, a village next to the Kruger National Park, can sometimes hear the lions roaring at night — but do they know that they have a lion living among them in the village?

The lion’s name is Lawrence Mooi — and like most trade union organisers in the rural areas, Lawrence is sharp and fearless. He has learned to sniff out trouble when he hunts for new members for his union — and how to bite the bosses and never let go.

Lawrence Mooi organises forestry and sawmill workers for the Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied workers Union (PPWAWU). He is also a member of the Matsulu Civic Association.

Lawrence has been chased by the bosses, has ducked and dived from the police, and was once mistaken for an ANC member. But he talks about his cat and mouse games with a smile on his face. He learned a long time ago that an out of town union organiser must be able to see the lighter side of life.

THE FIRST LESSON

Two years ago, soon after Lawrence began working for the union, he caught a taxi to the Twello forests outside Barberton. He was wearing orange trousers and a yellow jersey.

When Lawrence got to the forests, he waited for the workers to ; come back from work. He had a good meeting with the workers and he left when it was already dark. He told the workers that he would see them the next day.

On his way to the bus stop, a young boy stopped him and said: “Bhuti be careful, the police are looking for a man who is wearing orange trousers and a yellow jersey. They say that man is with the ANC.”

Lawrence knew that he was the man they were looking for. He ran into a priest’s house nearby. He told the priest about his problem and asked him for an old pair of trousers. The priest refused and told him to go away. He then ran up and asked a woman in the street for help. She said: “‘Ok, I’ve got my old boyfriend’s trousers. You can take them.”

Lawrence thanked her and walked back to the bus rank wearing a pair of brown trousers and carrying the yellow ones under his arm. Then he saw two police vans driving towards him.

“Luckily for me they still use the bucket system in that place — and there were many buckets on the streets waiting to be collected. I threw my trousers into one of the buckets and got into the bus.”

The police later stopped the bus and looked for a person with orange trousers and a yellow jersey. But they did not find him. That is how Lawrence Mooi learned that trade union organisers should not wear brightly coloured clothes.

BACK TO RANDFONTEIN

Lawrence Mooi has not always lived in the tiny village of Matsulu outside Nelspruit in the eastern Transvaal. He was born in Mohlakeng in Randfontein. His family moved to Matsulu in 1969 when his father got a job at a factory in the area.

“I did not like the place when we first came. It was in the middle of nowhere with very few houses. I was not used to seeing wild animals walking around where people live. But after a while I began to like the place. I forgot about our neighbours — the hippos and elephants — that come from the Kruger National Park to eat our mealies.”

Lawrence said that the truth about apartheid and homelands came to him in 1978 when he had to look for a job. There were no jobs around. So he packed all his clothes into a small suitcase and caught the Maputo to Johannesburg train. This train is called ‘Intentewane’ because it is always full of people on their way to the mines.

Lawrence found a job at a mine called Randfontein Gold Estates, where he worked as a time clerk.” My job was to tick all the names of workers as they went down in the ground to dig gold. I also had to write down the numbers of those workers who did not come to work and give them to the bosses.

“I did not like what I was doing. We were all working there to try to make a living. Now here I was getting other workers fired by bosses who did not even think of them as people. I saw that the bosses were using me as an ‘impimpi’ to get at my brothers.

“The bosses were not happy with my work because I always tried to protect the miners. One day I went to them and asked for another job. They gave me a job working underground as an electrician. That was where I nearly stabbed a white miner with an okapi after he called me a kaffir and punched me in the stomach.”

In 1983 Mooi started organising workers on the mine. The following year he got many workers to join the National Union of Mineworkers. In 1985 members of the union fought with the SADF outside the mine. A few days later the mine bosses told him that his contract was finished.

BUILDING THE FOUNDATIONS

Lawrence went back to Matsulu to find his village in a bitter struggle against higher bus fares and poor education. The people in the village started the Matsulu Civic Association and Lawrence became a member.

At that time workers were also trying to start trade unions in the area. Lawrence, together with other comrades, began to build the foundations for trade unions.

He can still remember the day when he took a taxi to Ngodwana to organize workers at SAPPI, a huge factory. On his way he decided to get off at Elandshoek to sign up some forestry workers next to the station.

He saw a group of workers having lunch and began to hand out membership forms for the union. Just before the end of the lunch hour, the foreman came to see what was happening. He grabbed Lawrence’s briefcase, which was lying on the ground, and tried to take it away.

Lawrence took a quick step forward and pulled the briefcase out of his hands and ran away. He hid in a shop nearby. “While I was waiting there I saw a police van speed past with the foreman’s bakkie behind it,” says Lawrence.

Mooi hitched a lift to Ngodwana — only to find that the police were there waiting for him. He asked the driver to keep his briefcase for him and then slipped into the mill to talk to the workers. That is how he learned that a trade union organiser should never carry a briefcase. It’s best to carry papers in a plastic bag.

LEAPS AND BOUNDS

But getting chased by foremen and police vans are not the only problem for Lawrence. His offices have been raided time and time again. In April last year, the Nelspruit offices of PPWAWU and other Cosatu unions were burned to the ground. Lawrence believes this was done by the people who want to see COSATU dead.

Just last month Lawrence was arrested at a meeting to remember the ‘Lowveld Massacre’ — when many students were shot by the police outside the Kabokweni magistrates’ court near White River. Lawrence says he was released after he was badly beaten.

But all these problems just make Lawrence and his comrades stronger. He says that the union has grown in leaps and bounds. “Jumping fences and getting into hostels to hold secret meetings has done wonders for the union,” he says with a smile.

The union now has a strong  membership in the sawmills and the forests in the eastern Transvaal. The bosses can no longer pay the workers nothing and treat them like slaves.

The sun is slowly beginning to rise for the workers — thanks to brave union organisers like Lawrence Mooi. It’s good to know that as the workers march forward, there are lions to lead the way.

NEW WORDS
rural areas — the countryside, out of town
forest — a place where lots of trees grow
tiny — very small
neighbours — the people who live next door or close by
hitch a lift — to get a lift without paying
massacre — when a lot of people are murdered together

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