Phistus Mekgwe: Mr Distributor

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Phistus Mekge

“I was born in Soweto, Orldando East on 15 September 1957 but grew up in Rustenburg. It was a village of Luka, Phiring, part of the MoPhiriing clan. Phiri means “hyena”.

“However, for many Bra Fees was Mr Distributor, who was responsible for distributing Learn and Teach to unions, communities, churches. He made many trips to the post office too, posting subscriptions to the readers far and wide.

“When I left school in 1980, I went to work at SASOL, then only SASOL 2 and SASOL 3 was still under construction. SASOL 3 was also part of their plans. Then in 1981, I was transferred. There was no union.

“We organised ourselves into CWIU, which had their offices in Germiston. We were working with Tshidiso Modupi, who later became an organizer.

“Meshack Ravuku also worked with us, more or less underground, to form the union. Sasol at that time was under heavy security and did not like discussions or pamphlets on progressive things. They also lectured us about terrorism and unions.

“You see I had arrived at SASOL the first time, after the ANC bombing of which Solomon Mahlungu was implicated.

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Bra Fees with community activist Thusi Rapoo

“So the bosses were very strict with us, in terms of security. And I was an organising then members in the plant, in a very hostile environment.¨

“We organized for the simple reason: because our wages / salaries were very low, and Apartheid inside the company was very strong and the whites had a lot of power. The place was fully segregated: the canteens, the toilets, etc. One could not even use a mug that was reserved for whites…

“All these factors coincided in them responding to the call of COSAS for a national stay away. This all came 5 and 6 September 1984 when the mass strikes resulted in 6 500 workers were dismissed.

“One demand we made that was very important to us, was that of UNION Recognition… SASOL could not believe that the workers could join a union, after they tried to brainwash us, the workers.

“I was a shopsteward and a recruiter for members to join our union.

FIREDLearn and Teach’s Marc Suttner came to do a story on the strike. More or less at the same time, Mekgwe began to sell the magazines to striking workers, earning a small stipend whilst being on strike.

“Many of the workers were fired and some reinstated. In some cases, they were asked to re-apply. We re-applied but the cases of the leaders were rejected. The company had taken our photos and accused us of being the instigators of the strike… with the news that we will not be taken back. But many got back… Not me. I was one of those not reinstated.

“I was then approached by Learn and Teach. I had been a seller and was looking for work. So I began selling it at union meetings at COSATU and other union meetings.”

That is how Phistus became a contributor to knowledge creation and for him, sharing knowledge was very important.

Based on interviews Hassen Lorgat did with Bra Fees, on 17 January 2012

“Kippie Moeketsi is not dead yet”

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In the old days everybody knew Kippie Moeketsi. He was the best saxophone player around. He played with big bands like the Jazz Maniacs and the Harlem Swingsters. He played with Hugh Masekela and Dollar Brand. He played in big shows like King Kong.

Now Kippie’s life is different. He cannot find work. He lost his house in Soweto last year. He had no money for rent.

Kippie now lives in Mabopane. This is a township near Pretoria. He lives with Dolly Rathebe and her family. Dolly was a famous singer in the Sophiatown days.

Learn and Teach went to visit Kippie Moeketsi in Mabopane. He told us about his life.

Kippie Moeketsi was born in the slums of Johannesburg in 1925. When he was a baby, his family moved to George Goch location. Kippie’s father was a clerk in the municipality.

Kippie’s father loved music. He played the organ for the church choir. He wanted his six children to play music. All the children became good musicians. Jacob, the oldest son, played the piano for the Jazz Maniacs.

Kippie was the youngest boy in the family. All his brothers went to school and studied hard. Jacob passed matric. Kippie’s brother Andrew became a teacher. But Kippie was not the same. He did not like school.

Kippie had three good friends. They played together all the time. They were very naughty. Sometimes they missed school and went to the golf course. They got jobs as caddies.

“We only got paid one shilling and sixpence a day,” says Kippie. “So we stole golf balls. Then we sold the balls back to the guys we stole them from. We sold the balls for two shillings and six pence.”

They had another trick. They put sticky tar on the end of long sticks. They went to the shop in George Goch location. When the shopkeeper was not looking, they reached over the counter with the sticks. The tickeys behind the counter stuck to the tar. They went back to the shop the next day. They bought sweets with the same tickeys.

Kippie left school after standard five. He was 18 years old. He got a job sweeping floors in a men’s hostel. But the wages were low and the work was boring. He left the job. He got a job at a chemist. He delivered medicine on a bicycle.

Then Kippie got a present. His brother Lapis gave him a clarinet. At this time, Kippie decided he wanted to be a good musician. He worked in the day. At night he played the clarinet.

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Kippie Moeketsi and Dolly Rathebe are back at work again!

“I played that thing until 2 0’clock in the morning,” says Kippie. “On weekends I played for 12 hours a day. The neighbours complained about the noise. But I did not stop playing. I loved music too much.”

Kippie learnt how to read music. After two years he played the clarinet very well. Then he learnt how to play the saxophone. Soon he was also a good saxophone player.

Other young musicians also lived in George Goch location. They played jazz together. They started a band. They called themselves the “Band in Blue”. Kippie played the saxophone for the band.

The Band in Blue played in an old house near George Goch. The band played marabi music – the music of the people. The people from the slums came to listen. They bought food and booze. They danced until 4 0’clock in the morning. Kippie’s problems started now. He started boozing a lot. He never stopped.

Kippie enjoyed playing for the Band in Blue. But he wanted to play in the townships. The small bands did not play in the townships. The gangs did not let them.

Gangs like the “Russians” and the “Spoilers” ruled the townships. The gangs only let big bands like the Jazz Maniacs and the Harlem Swingsters play in the townships.

Then Kippie got lucky. In 1948 the Harlem Swingsters offered him a job. The Harlem Swingsters started three years before in a backyard in Western Native Township. But now they were famous. The great Todd Matshikiza played for the group.

The Harlem Swingsters mixed American music with marabi. And they mixed it well. Music fans followed them all over the country.

The Harlem Swingsters had six good years. Then people stopped liking them. Kippie left the group. He started a small jazz band called the Shantytown Sextet.

The Shantytown Sextet played with a group of singers. The singers were called the Manhattan Brothers. The Manhattan Brothers were the best singing group in Africa. They were famous allover the world. They sold thousands of records.

The Shantytown Sextet and the Manhattan Brothers played all over the country. “Those were the days’; says Kippie. “Our shows were always full. I always had money in my pocket. We ate well in those days.”

In 1954 the Manhattan Brothers and the Shantytown Sextet went to Cape Town. They needed a piano player. Kippie saw a young man playing the piano in a bioscope. Kippie asked him to play for the Shantytown Sextet. The man’s name was Dollar Brand.

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Kippie playing with Dollar Brand in the old days

“Dollar knew nothing about music at that time’; says Kippie. “He was just a skollie. He followed me around everywhere. I taught him a lot. Now he is a big man in music.”

Dollar went back to Johannesburg with Kippie. He lived with Kippie at George Goch. They played together at a place called Dorkay House.

At Dorkay House they met other young musicians. They met Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Johnny Getz and Nathaya Njoko. Dollar and Kippie started a new band with these men. They called themselves the Jazz Epistles.

“The Jazz Epistles was the best group I have played with” says Kippie. “We played at four or five nightclubs in a week. Sometimes we played at two nightclubs on the same night. Then the white musicians complained. They stopped us playing at white nightclubs.”

The Jazz Epistles broke up after four years. Kippie got a job with a show called King Kong. He went to London with the show. But Kippie was boozing a lot. He got very sick in London. He went to hospital for two months.

img19Kippie came back to South Africa. But most of his friends had left. Hugh Masekela and Dollar Brand were in America. Kippie had no work.

Then Dollar Brand came back to South Africa. Kippie played with him again. But again the booze was a problem. Dollar fought with Kippie about the booze.

“That was the end,” says Kippie. “I have not played with a band since then. In 1977 I made a record with Pat Matshikiza. But that is all.”

Kippie never got married. He lived with a woman for 13 years. Her name is Becky. He met her in Sophiatown in 1951. They have two children. Becky left Kippie in 1964. She lives with her two children in Soweto. Kippie often visits them.

“I’m not bitter,” says Kippie. “But I’m angry about one thing. The record companies didn’t give me a fair deal. They made a lot of money from me. The record companies are now very rich. And I have nothing.”

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“I am poor now, but I am not crying,” says Kippie. “I’m fighting the booze. I’m going to win. Dolly and me are making a come-back. We are working hard together. Kippie Moeketsi is not dead yet!”

NOISE: a big danger to workers

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“We need a better law.”

Are you going deaf? Do your ears “ring”? Are you sleeping badly? Do you feel tired? Are you losing your voice? Are you losing your balance? Do you feel sick when you eat? Do you feel nervous? Do you get headaches?

If you answer “yes” to one of these questions, you may have ear damage.

Over 250 thousand workers suffer ear damage in South Africa because they work in noisy places. The law does not look after these workers properly.

South Africa has only 32 factory inspectors for 30 thousand factories. The inspectors can only check a few factories. And factories only pay a small fine when they break the noise law. R200 is the biggest fine a company gets when they break the noise laws.

Learn and Teach heard about the noise problem from the Technical Advice Group (TAG) in Johannesburg. TAG is a group of engineers and scientists who help workers. They have made a study of noise.

Most of the noise laws are in a law called the Factories Act. But the Factories Act is changing next year. So TAG thinks next year is a good time to change the noise laws.

TAG wants the government to make these changes:

The government must make employers pay a bigger fine when they break the law. TAG says a R200 fine is not big enough. And the government must get more factory inspectors to check noise .

img5The law now says that noise must not be over 85 decibels (A). Decibels (A) tell us how loud the noise is. TAG wants the law changed to 80 decibels (A). And TAG wants workers who work with noise over 80 decibels (A) to go to an ear doctor every year. The doctor must check the workers’ ears.

The law says that workers must wear earplugs when they work with noise over 85 decibels(A). But TAG says this law is not good enough. Most workers don’t feel comfortable with earplugs. TAG wants employers to do more. Employers must share noisy work among many workers. Workers must not do noisy work all the time .

Employers must build special rooms. The rooms must have special floors and ceilings. Then the noise won’t harm other workers in the factory.

Employers must look after machines properly. Many machines are noisy because employers don’t look after them properly. And when employers buy new machines they must think about noise. They must try to buy machines that are not noisy – even when quieter machines are more expensive .

Workers who work with noise must have quiet rest rooms for lunch and tea­ breaks.

img7Workmen’s Compensation must pay much more money to workers who go deaf. Workers who go deaf get very little money from Workmen’s Compensation. And deaf workers must get money more easily from Workmen’s Compensation. Many deaf workers don’t get money from Workmen’s Compensation.

Some workers work in noisy places but the law doesn’t look after them. For example, the law does not look after road workers, building workers, brewery workers and mine workers. TAG says the law must look after all workers who work with noise.

But TAG says workers must not wait for the law to change. Workers must stand together to make their jobs safer. One worker alone can’t make his job safer. But workers in a trade union are strong enough to fight for safer jobs.

TAG says workers can do things to make their jobs safer. Workers can:

1) Measure the noise: Workers can hire special machines to measure noise. This is the best way. But there is a simple test. Two workers must stand back to back. One worker must say 10 different words (example: cat, house, soccer, spade, table, shoe, bus, heaven, radio, pencil). If the other worker only understands half the words, the noise is dangerous, But remember. the worker must not shout the words. He must talk the words.

2) Complain to the employer: Tell your employer when you think the noise is dangerous. Ask your employer to get people to measure the noise. Ask your employer to make the factory quieter. Ask your employer to let workers share noisy jobs. And when the noise is over 85 decibels(A), tell your employer to send workers to a doctor for tests once a year.

3) Get the inspectors to visit your factory: If your employer does not listen, write to the Department of Manpower. Tell the Department to send inspectors to your factory. When the inspectors come to the factory, tell them about your problems.

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If you need help or advice, write to TAG. They will try their best to help.

News about the skin lightening cream struggle

WELL DONE DRUM MAGAZINE!

In the last Learn and Teach magazine we asked magazines and newspapers to stop advertising skin lightening creams. Drum magazine was the first to agree. They will stop advertising skin lightening creams. Learn and Teach thanks Drum. We hope other magazines and newspapers will do the same.

TOP SKIN DOCTOR GIVES ANOTHER WARNING

Ban all skin lightening creams with hydroquinone – this message comes again from a top skin doctor in South Africa.

The skin doctor is Professor Findlay. He has warned people about skin lightening creams for many years. He gives his new warning in the latest American skin doctors’ magazine.

Professor Findlay says the law the Health Department made in 1980 is no good. (I n 1980 the Health Department said skin lightening creams must not have more than 2% hydroquinone). Professor Findlay says the law is no good because people will just use more skin lightening creams.

Another skin doctor told Learn and Teach, “I don’t know why the Health Depart­ment doesn’t listen to Professor Findlay. He is the best skin doctor in South Africa.”

SCIENTIST ALSO GIVES WARNING

“Skin lightening creams are dangerous. They damage peoples’ skins,” a scientist told Learn and Teach. The scientist works at a university in Pretoria.

The scientist did tests with skin lightening creams last year. She tested creams that have hydroquinone. Most skin lightening creams are made with hydroquinone.

The scientist rubbed skin lightening creams onto guinea pigs. She rubbed the creams onto the guinea pigs every 24 hours. She did not give the guinea pigs a lot of cream – she gave the same amount people use.

After two weeks the guinea pigs’s skins went hard. They got bleeding scabs. After six weeks their feet and noses turned black.

THE HEALTH DEPARTMENT MUST BAN SKIN LIGHTENING CREAMS!

The man who made DRUM famous

img38Many great journalists have worked for Drum magazine. But Henry Nxumalo was the greatest. He made Drum famous.

People all over Africa and the world read his stories. His stories were about black people’s lives in South Africa. In these stories, Henry spoke up for the workers. Thousands of people said he was a friend who shared their troubles. They called him Mr. Drum.

Henry Nxumalo was born in Port Shepstone in 1917. Henry’s parents had 7 children. Henry was the eldest.

When Henry was at school, his father died. The family was short of money. But Henry wanted an education. He worked in the school kitchen to pay his school fees.

When Henry left school, he did domestic work in Durban. But Henry hated domestic work. He ran away to Johannesburg and found work in a boilermaker’s shop. In his spare time he wrote for the newspaper Bantu World.

The newspaper offered him a job as a messenger. But Henry also did not like messenger work. He told the newspaper that he wanted to write. After a while they let him write. Henry wrote about sport.

The Second World War started in 1939. Henry joined the army. He went to Egypt and England.

Henry saw a new world in England – a world without apartheid. Henry forgot about “Europeans only”. He made friends with British people and other Black people in England.

Then the army sent Henry back to South Africa. In Johannesburg Henry worked for newspapers again. He married a pretty young nurse. Her name was Florence.

Henry joined Drum in 1959. At this time Drum had stories about tribes, chiefs, religion and farming. Very few people bought the magazine.

Henry and his friends told the editor to change Drum. They said Drum must be a magazine for city people.

One man said: “Hey man, why does Drum write that stuff, man! Tribal music! Tribal history! Chiefs! Give us jazz and film stars, man! We want Duke Ellington, Satchmo and pretty women! And tell us what is happening here man, on the Reef!”

Soon Drum had stories on jazz, soccer, boxing and women. More people started to buy Drum. But a magazine called Zonk sold more than Drum. The boss of Drum wanted Drum to be the best. How could they get more people to buy Drum?

Henry had the answer. He knew that people wanted articles on politics. Henry said people wanted to read things that happened in their lives. So Henry started to write about the lives of black people in South Africa. These stories made him famous.

Henry’s first big story was about the lives of farm workers in Bethal. In 1952 he went to his editor and said: “By the way, have you heard about a place called Bethal? Bethal is a farming district in the Eastern Transvaal. They grow potatoes there. Of course, there is a lot of flogging there.”

img39“Flogging?” asked the editor.

“Yes, Bethal is famous because the farmers beat up their workers”. “How do you know about Bethal?” asked the editor.

“I went there about 3 years ago with a priest. We looked around the farms. I’m sure things haven’t changed. Bethal means the House of God,” laughed Henry.

Henry dressed up like a farm worker and went to Bethal. In Bethal he spoke to 50 workers. They were all unhappy. They told him the farmers were cruel. They told him about farmers like “Mabulala” (The killer) and “Fakefutheni” (Slave-driver). And 32 workers said the farmers had tricked them to sign a contract.

Henry visited the workers’ compounds. He said: “The compounds look like jails. They have high walls. They are dirty. They are often next to a cattle kraal. The workers breathe the same air as the cattle.”

After a few days Henry phoned Drum and asked for a photographer. The photographer took pictures of the farms, the compounds, and the farmers with their whips.

But Henry and the photographer had a hard time. Often farmers chased Henry and the photographer. Sometimes the photographer told the farmers he was interested in farming. And Henry said he was his servant. Henry went back to Johannesburg and wrote the story. The story was called “Bethal Today”. The article was by “Mr Drum”.

All the copies of Drum sold out. The government did not like the story. The Prime Minister said: “Drum wrote the story to make trouble”. The farmers in Bethal bought hundreds of magazines. They burnt them. They did not want people to read how they treated their workers.

After the story about Bethal the farmers treated their workers a little better. People also learnt about the danger of contracts.

Mr Drum became famous. Many people wrote letters to him. People asked: “Who is this wonderful Mr Drum?”

Mr Drum wrote more stories about farm workers. He visited the wine farms in the Cape and the sugar farms in Natal. He wrote stories about the workers on these farms. Mr Drum told the world about the suffering of people in South Africa.

Henry also wrote stories about life in the towns. One of his stories was about gangs and tsotsis. There were many famous gangs like “The Russians” and “The Americans”. Henry and other Drum journalists wrote about the gangs. The work was dangerous. The gangsters often wanted to kill the Drum journalists.

But the work on gangs was sometimes funny. Drum wrote a story called “Clean up the Reef”. The story said the police must clean up the gangsters and tsotsis. The police decided to listen to the story. They arrested hundreds of tsotsis and gangsters.

One night the police arrested Henry in a pass raid. He spent the night in jail. The jail was full of tsotsis. Henry asked the warder what was happening.

“Ag, haven’t you read Drum, man? We’re cleaning up the Reef”, the warder said.

img40Henry’s next famous story was about jails. Many readers asked “Mr Drum, why don’t you write about jails?” People wanted Henry to write about the hard life in prison. They wanted him to tell the world about the bad food, the dirty cells, the beatings and the “tansa dance”. The prisoners danced naked to show the police they didn’t have any tobacco. Drum decided to do an article on the Fort. The Fort is a jail in Johannesburg.

First Drum needed a photograph of prisoners in the Fort. Drum journalists thought about this problem. Then they saw a big building opposite the Fort. The Drum photographers went to the top of the building. They told the owners that they wanted pictures of Johannesburg. But instead they took pictures of the prisoners in the Fort. They got a photograph of a prisoner doing the tansa dance.

Drum had the photograph. But now they needed the story. One journalist said: “I’ll go to jail.”

“No” said Henry, “I’ll go. I’m Mr Drum.”

“So you think you can get in to the jail?” the editor asked.

“That will be easy,” said Henry. “My problem is always how to stay out of jail.” So Henry tried to get arrested. But he had problems.

First he went to Boksburg without a permit to visit a friend. His friend phoned the police and told them Henry was coming. The police waited for Henry. They took him to the police station. But at the police station the sergeant said:

“Ag! Don’t be silly, man. Go away and don’t do it again.”

The next day he caught a train without a ticket. The ticket collector came to check the tickets. Henry refused to pay. The ticket collector called a policeman. The policeman said “Go to someone and ask him to lend you the money.”

“No!” said Henry. He was arrested. The next day he went to court. But the magistrate told Henry to go home.

Henry tried again. He put a big bottle of brandy in his pocket. In those days black people were not allowed to drink. Henry walked up and down outside Marshall Square police station. The police did nothing. He started to sing and shout. The police still did nothing. Henry got drunk and started a fight. The police arrested him. The next morning Henry went to court.

The magistrate gave Henry 5 days in jail or 10 shillings fine. The court interpreter was Henry’s friend. He wanted to help Henry. He paid Henry’s fine.

The next night Henry tried to get arrested again. He walked around Johannesburg without a pass. A policeman saw him and asked for his pass.

“I haven’t got one,” Henry said.

He was arrested and the magistrate gave him 5 days in jail. At last Henry was inside the Fort. When he came out he wrote a story about the Fort. The story was called “Mr Drum goes to jail”.

After the story, life in the jails got a bit better. The police did not make prisoners do the “tansa dance” anymore.

The Orlando tsotsis gave Henry a party. They said: “Mr Drum, we liked your story. You did a good job.”

Henry’s next famous story was about farm workers. This time the story was about farm workers in Rustenburg. Farm workers suffered in Rustenburg. One farmer killed a worker. People called the farmer “Umabulala umuntu” (He who killed a man).

A reader wrote to Drum: “Why doesn’t Mr Drum have a look around here? Rustenburg is like Bethal.”

Henry dressed up as a farm worker and went to Rustenburg. He got a job on the farm of “Umabulala umuntu.”

Henry worked at the farm from 5 in the morning till 7 at night. He slept in a dirty compound. The workers told him many stories about the cruelty of “Umabulala umuntu.” Workers said the ghost of a dead worker came back to the compound at night.

One day Henry sat under a tree when it rained. The farmer called him and beat him. Henry decided to escape. He went back to Johannesburg and wrote his story. People wrote letters to thank Mr Drum for his story. They praised him for his bravery. This story about the Rustenburg farm workers was one of his last stories.

img41One night in December 1956 Henry went to visit his cousin Percy Hlubi. Percy lived in Western Township. Late that night Henry told Percy that he had to do a job in Newclare.

Percy said: “Henry don’t go now. It’s late and dangerous. Can’t you go tomorrow?” “Never put off for tomorrow what you can do today,” answered Henry.

The next morning Percy’s wife got up and went to work. On the way she saw a body lying on the grass. The body was covered in blood. She went to have a look. She saw that it was Henry. Somebody had killed Henry in the night. He was only 37 years old.

Henry Nxumalo, tried to make the world a better place. He died doing his job. He was the greatest journalist of them all.