A mother for many


Zora Mehlomakulu of the General Workers Union

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.

“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.

“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.


Zora with her son, Thandisizwe

“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.

“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.

“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.


Zora Mehlomakulu does not work in the tidiest office in the world but who would dare to tell her?

“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.


Workers in Cape Town help each other

Nine workers gave up their jobs in Cape Town last month. They gave up their jobs so other workers could keep their jobs.

The nine workers live in Cape Town. They gave up their jobs for migrant workers from the Transkei.

The workers all work for Trident Marine Services. At the end of June, the bosses said 12 workers must leave. They said business was bad.

Learn and Teach spoke to Shadrack Gqiba. Shadrack is one of the workers who gave up his job.

Learn and Teach: How long have you worked for Trident Marine Services?

Shadrack: I have worked there for 8 years. But I have done the same work for over 50 years.

Learn and Teach: What did you do there?

Shadrack: We look after ships in the harbour. We tie the ships to the pier. We paint, blast, clean and spray the ships. I was in charge of my team. I was called a workhand.

Learn and Teach: Did you enjoy your work?

Shadrack: I enjoyed my work very much. This work is the only work I know.

Learn and Teach: How did you find out that the company wanted some workers to leave?

Shadrack: On the 24th June the company called the workers to a meeting. People from our union also came to the meeting. The company told us business was bad. They said 12 workers must leave.

Learn and Teach: Why do you think business is bad?

Shadrack: The companies are getting little work. I think the same thing is happening all over the world. I don’t know why.

Learn and Teach: Who said that the migrant workers must stay?

Shadrack: It was my idea. I said we must look after the migrant workers. They come from Transkei. Jobs are very hard to find in the Transkei. Also, some of the migrant workers are in the middle of their contract. If they lose their jobs, they can’t get jobs for the next 6 months.

And another important thing: Migrant workers may get section 10 rights soon. Section 10 rights let workers and their families live in cities like Cape Town. The Appeal Court in Bloemfontein will decide about this soon.

Migrant workers will get section 10 rights if they have worked at the same place for 10 years. Some of the migrant workers at our company have worked for nearly 10 years. So they can’t leave now. If they leave now, they will never get section 10 rights. Section 10 rights are very important these days.

Learn and Teach: What did the migrant workers say at the meeting?

Shadrack: They were happy to stay. But they were sad to see us go.

Learn and Teach: What did the workers from Cape Town say?

Shadrack: Nine workers from Cape Town said they will leave. They wanted the Transkei workers to keep their jobs. Only 3 migrant workers left. But they left because the company closed their department. The Cape Town workers could not help them.

Learn and Teach: Was it difficult for the Cape Town workers to leave?

Shadrack: Most of us have families to feed. I have 10 children and 5 grand­ children. Only one of my children works. My wife is a cleaner. She earns very little money.

image295_1Learn and Teach: Did Trident Marine Services pay you out?

Shadrack: Our union spoke at the meeting. They said the company must give us 4 weeks pay. I got R500. Now the money is nearly finished.

Learn and Teach: You spoke about a union. What union is this?

Shadrack: The General Workers Union. We joined the General Workers Union three years ago. Before we joined the union, we had a liaison com­mittee. But I did not like the liaison committee. The liaison committee worked for the bosses.

Learn and Teach: Are things different with the General Workers Union?

Shadrack: Everything has changed. We were treated like children before. Now we are treated with respect. We are treated like people.

Learn and Teach: Are you sorry you gave up your job?

Shadrack: No, I am not sorry. But I am worried about my age. Old people can’t find jobs easily.

Learn and Teach: What will you do now?

Shadrack: Most of the workers were lucky. They have found jobs. Some com­panies read about the story in the newspapers. They wanted to help the workers. They gave them jobs. But I have no job. I will wait until next month. When the rain stops, maybe I’ll get a job painting houses.