a review by Nalini Naidoo, The Witness
PIETERMARITZBURG looms large in Jay Naidoo’s autobiography Fighting for Justice. Cosatu’s first secretary-general and a cabinet minister in Nelson Mandela’s government, he spent a good part of the eighties in the city.
Reading his book you realise that this is where he cut his teeth as a trade union organiser. He fought some of his toughest battles at factories in and around the midlands and won many minor victories, which in retrospect were huge, as workers were generally scared in those days and bosses were tough.
The city also remains etched in his memory because of the violence which claimed the lives of some of his closest friends in the union movement. In his book, he talks about the deaths of Phineas Sibaya, chairman of the Sarmcol shop stewards, Simon Ngubane and Florence Mnikathi.
Naidoo writes: “September 1987 had seen the opening of a new battlefront in Natal, mainly in the district of Pietermaritzburg. In just one week, 83 people were killed — the majority of them UDF and Cosatu members. The psychological toll was enormous. I rarely ate and the constant worry gave me a duodenal ulcer while at the same time attacking my soul. I would visit the homes of bereaved families and offer the little consolation I could.”
At the same time, he drew comfort from the large group of supportive friends he had made in the city. “Looking back,” he says, with an engaging smile, “those were the most remarkable days of my life.”
I met Naidoo at his book launch at the Chatsworth Youth Centre in Durban recently. He very generously ensured that he was allowed space to be interviewed by a Witness journalist from Maritzburg.
While Naidoo’s book is a very personal, frank account of his life, it also offers a fascinating glimpse into labour giant Cosatu’s untold history. He digs deep, going back to his family roots and the historic voyage of his great-grandmother Angamma, and her daughter Maraina, as indentured labourers to South Africa.
He also writes about his time in government, his relationship with Mandela, his marriage to French-Canadian Lucie Pagé and his venture into business. Now at the end of that journey, he has disinvested from business, and with his life anchored in the support of his wife and three children, he has gone back to his roots as an activist — an activism, he says, that was shaped during his formative years as a union organiser in Pietermaritzburg.
“I was exposed to the enormous wisdom of ordinary workers and I immersed myself in what I was doing and learnt to listen,” says Naidoo.
This was difficult at the time, he admits, as he had come from the student movement. “With the typical arrogance of youth we thought of ourselves as leaders of the revolution. I did not understand the milieu in which workers operated. In my naivety I made big mistakes and learnt valuable lessons.”
Naidoo says that as an activist he was anti-Bantustan politics and very critical of Buthelezi, while workers in KwaZulu-Natal in the eighties were overwhelmingly IFP members. “Only by understanding that and learning how to build an organisation by uniting people around bread-and- butter issues were we able to forge the foundation of Cosatu. I learnt that building the union movement was about building trust and respect,” he adds.
According to Naidoo, the wisdom from that experience was to fight for Cosatu to be an independent trade union organisation and never to be a conveyor belt for any political party or organisation. You can form alliances, but never become subservient to the will and actions of the party or organisation.
He says that his greatest teachers at the time were old ANC activists and former trade unionists such as John Makhathini and Moses Ndlovu. Through them he gained an understanding of how to merge ideas of the struggles of the past and how to build a sophisticated trade union.
“In fact, Dorah Khambule, who worked in our office, Makhathini and Moses were all family to me. Makhathini was like my father. He would sit me down and explain things to me. He had no formal education yet he was a remarkable teacher. I learnt patience and how to behave when in meetings or when talking to the workers, when to speak and when to keep quiet and most important, how to listen,” says Naidoo.
Looking at the massive organisation that Cosatu has become, it is difficult to believe that it was started by a handful of volunteers such as Naidoo, who initially did not get paid for their work. Naidoo recalls that some of his toughest days were spent in Pietermaritzburg.
He says it was a very lonely time and they were starting from scratch. Most organisations had been banned in the sixties and many trade unions had stopped functioning. He remembers standing outside workplaces like the Noodsberg Sugar Mill from 4 am and leaving long after 10 pm. “Sometimes I slept in the bush while waiting between shifts to speak to workers on their way to or from work. We couldn’t be seen anywhere near the factories and workers were afraid. They could be fired at any hint that they were forming a union. “Those who paid the heaviest price were the hostel dwellers who, when fired, were banished back to their homelands where they were ostracised for losing their jobs,” says Naidoo.
Shop steward meetings were held after work and he and fellow organisors such as Makhathini and Geoff Schreiner would pick up workers and after every meeting they would drive them back to their homes in various parts of the midlands from Edendale to Table Mountain and Howick. “Your day could end long after midnight. We had these two rickety old vans and we would fit up to 20 people on the back. Half the time the vans were breaking down — those were tough days.”
According to Naidoo, they only got paid when workers had paid their union subscriptions. There were no stop-order systems and workers only paid when they felt they were getting a service from the union. He adds that the funny thing at the time was that he never went hungry. He lived on a basic diet of pronutro, maas, sugar and bread, but he had a whole network of friends who embraced him as part of the family and where he was always assured of a cooked meal. Naidoo says he is really fortunate as so many people have taken care of him throughout his life.
We don’t realise how far we have come, we can only see it when we look back, he says. There were people such as local resident AC Naicker who, Naidoo writes in his book, was instrumental in his coming to Pietermaritzburg.
Naicker was a leather worker concerned about how the workers’ benefit fund in the leather industry was being managed. He and some of his co-workers did not want to belong to the sweetheart union operating in their factory. Naicker had contacted the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu), Cosatu’s predecessor, urging them to form an alternative union in the leather industry. Naidoo made sure that Naicker was at his book launch in Johannesburg.
He recalls that their office in Thomas Street was like a railway station. There was a constant stream of workers calling with their problems. “We eventually had a group of volunteers helping. People such as Fatima Carrim — Deputy Minister of Co-operative Governance Yunus Carrim’s sister — helped at the office every Saturday without fail. From those volunteers we built a coalition of progressive lawyers, doctors, activists and university students from across communities,” says Naidoo.
He adds that another lesson he learnt in Pietermaritzburg was the art of coalition building and getting the support of the broader community. We need to recreate that spirit of mass volunteerism, he says.
At this point in his journey, Naidoo is going back to his roots and ensuring that the deaths of unionists such as Sibiya, Ngubane and Mnikathi were not in vain. “The biggest challenge facing us is putting the poor back at the centre of politics and the Constitution at the centre of our lives. We need a civil society that holds government accountable. It’s the only way to curb the growth of a predatory elite. This is the choice I’ve made, to work with people who care and share the same values that I do.”