Thandisizwe Mehlomakulu is playing on the floor. His mother, Zora Mehlomakulu, is sitting at her desk. The office around her is not very tidy and her scarf is slipping off. Zora’s eyes are sleepy while she talks.
Many workers in Cape Town think of Zora as a mother. And the bosses know that they must be careful when Zora Mehlomakulu is around. Zora is an organiser for the General Workers Union.
Zora is not only a mother to the workers. Zora has two children of her own, Nosizwe and Thandisizwe. Learn and Teach spoke to Zora. We asked Zora if she found work in the union hard, especially as a mother and a woman.
“A NO – CHANCE BUSINESS”
“I don’t think that I have found working as a woman in the union difficult,” said Zora.” But when I started in the unions, I had big problems. I was only twenty years old.
“I had problems at home. My father did not want me to work in the unions. He thought that politics was a no-chance business. He wanted me to be a teacher, not a union organiser.
“When the people first asked me to join the union, I did not even know if there was an office. I thought that maybe they met in the veld. I only knew the name of the union — the Commercial and Distributive Workers Union.
“I got a big surprise. The union had an office. It was in Queen Victoria Street, in Cape Town.
EXTRA CAREFUL, EXTRA HARD
“The workers wanted the women in the union to wear two-piece suits and high-heeled shoes. They said we must look smart and respectable. I am not a smart and respectable person. I found dressing like this very uncomfortable.
“The biggest problem was my age. The workers thought that I was too young. I had to work extra hard and be extra careful to win their trust. I also had to behave like a leader. I could not do what other young people did, especially in those days.
“It was a bad time for the unions. The union belonged to Sactu. Many people in Sactu were arrested .Soon all the Sactu unions were working as one. There were not enough people to do the work.”
In 1964 Sactu decided that they couldn’t work in the open any more. Many Sactu people left the country and many were in jail. And some, like Zora Mehlomakulu, quietly waited for the workers to rise again.
In 1971 many of the old trade unionists came together. They talked about starting a new union. Zora tells us about it.
“We decided to start an advice office and not a union. The Minister of Labour was hard on unions at that time because the workers were still weak. The government wanted committees for the workers — not unions.
“When the Western Province Workers Advice Office started, we had nothing. We even borrowed a desk and a chair. Times were hard. The workers were scared. They thought unions led to trouble. The bosses were hard too. They used to throw us out — or call the police.
A FINE HUSBAND CALLED FRANK
“In the meantime, I was married to my husband, Frank. Poor Frank soon got used to me going out at night to meetings. The workers used to come to our house at any time with their problems. Sometimes we held meetings at the house.
“But Frank has always been understanding. Without Frank we would live in a big mess and we would never eat properly. When I work late, Frank looks after the children. Frank only gets cross sometimes — when I am away too much.
“I looked after the children during the day. Now they are at school. People used to think that it was difficult with the children at work, but it wasn’t. In fact, when we first started to organise, the children made things easier.
LEAFLETS IN THE BLANKET
“When Nosizwe, my first born, was three months old, we were busy organising in the docks. Now, you know that you are not allowed to give out leaflets in the docks. So I used to put Nosizwe on my back. Then I tucked all the leaflets into her blanket.
“No-one at the gate ever looked at me until one terrible day. Just as I got to the gates, Nosizwe started to scream. She shook all the blankets. The leaflets flew all over the place.
“The men at the gate came to see what these pamphlets were all about. They were very shocked. Those men thought I was an old woman, coming to do cleaning jobs. They refused to let me through the gates that day. And afterwards I was extra careful at the docks.
“The children always made it easier to get into factories. Even after Thandisizwe was born, I used to take him with me. I would go to factories with him on my back. At the gates, I used to say: ‘My husband works here and I have come with the sick child.’
“The foreman would show me where to go. Then I would choose any ‘husband’ to be Thandisizwe’s father. I would talk my business with that man, saying that there was a meeting or this and that. And then the foreman would show me out.
CAUGHT SHORT AT DORMAN LONG
“Once I was caught at the Dorman Long factory. I went in, as always, looking for my ‘husband’. I went to a room at the back. Then I started a meeting. Suddenly I noticed all the workers looking very hard behind me. I could see in their faces that they wanted to tell me something.
“The boss had got in quietly while I was talking. But he did not understand me because I was talking in Xhosa. So I said in English: “Not everyone has paid for the hats I knitted. I want my money now”
“But the boss knew that I was lying. Someone was waiting for me outside. She had told the boss I was looking for my cousin. So he threw me out.
“Later when we had more members at Dorman Long, we had a meeting with the bosses. I had long forgotten how they threw me out. But when that boss saw me, he got angry again. He made the union say that we were sorry for telling lies.
GROWING WITH THE CHILDREN
“Things are very different in the union and at home now. My children have grown. They are both at school — except Thandisizwe. He still likes to come to the union and not go to school. Sometimes he creeps into the taxi behind me. When I see him, it is too late to stop the taxi. That is why he is here today.
“The union, like the children, has also grown. We don’t have to lie to get into factories anymore. We don’t have to go and look for workers to join the union anymore. So many workers come to us now. The union is strong, like the children.