A Chronological look (1943 to 1986) at the "Life and Times" of Mr George Ponnen
GANGEN-GEORGE PONNEN - SPEAKS OF HIS LIFE AND INVOLVEMENT IN THE TRADE UNION, POLITICAL AND NATIONAL LIBERATION MOVEMENTS IN HIS COUNTRY, SOUTH AFRICA.
I was born on the 1st June, 1913 in the district of Rooikopjes near Durban, Natal, South Africa.
My father Ponnen was born in Madras, India. He was brought to Natal, South Africa, in 1890 as an indentured labourer on a 5-year contract, to work in the sugar estates on the coastal belts of Natal. My mother Gangamma, was born in Madras, India. Her parents came to Natal in 1893 as indentured labourers on a 5-year contract, to work in the sugar estates. They brought with them my mother and 3 other children. My parents were married in Durban in 1896.
After the 5-year contract was over, the Indians from India were given the option - to return to India or settle in Natal as free Indian settlers. My parents and grandparents decided to settle in Natal with their families, Now, they had to carry Passes issued by the Indian Immigration Department.
My father left work at the sugar estates and was employed by the Tramways Department, laying rails on the various routes in Durban. To supplement his meagre income, he did gardening for some of the high White officials in his spare time, my mother helped him in these tasks.
While on duty in the Tramways, he fell and broke some of his ribs and was hospitalised for a long period. He was not paid any compensation. He quit the job and aquired a few acres of land on lease from White private landowner, in the district of Rooikopjes, inland from Durban, where he started farming on a small scale, until his death in 1921.
My father was quite a militant worker, he had many encounters with the sirdars, overseers and charge hands, and also with some of the workers who were stooges of the sirdars, doing their dirty work of corruption, bribery etc., Though he was not able to read or write, he was able to narrate glaring stories of exploitation, corruption and mismanagement in the Mills and in the plantation where most of the women worked.
............... My father took part in the 1913 Gandhi Strike against the £3 "tax imposed on adult Indians in Natal and also against the Provincial Barriers which barred Indians from Natal entering into other Provinces of South Africa, and prohibited them from visiting other Provinces without permits from the Indian Immigration Department. My eldest brother, who was about 16 years old at the time, also took part in the strike and the long march against the provincial barriers.
I am the seventh child in the family. We were seven brothers and one sister. Two brothers died at early ages. The sister died in 1923 leaving behind her husband and two children.
In the area where our farm was situated there were isolated houses, here and there and African huts. No proper roads and transportation facilities. The nearest hospital was about 15 - 20 miles away. Two of my brothers worked in the city of Durban arid they had to walk about 7 - 9 miles to and from work daily. On the other hand, a few miles away in Westville, where a few Whites lived, special roads were built, recreation facilities provided and transport made available by the Authorities, i.e. Health and Town Boards. No black people were allowed to stay near the white areas and make use of the facilities there.
When we went into the city once in a while, we were not allowed to go into restaurants to have cold drinks or tea; we were not allowed to go into cinemas, as these were reserved for Whites. We were not allowed to swim in the best and safe parts of the Durban beaches these were reserved for Whites.
I started primary school in 1920, at the ST. THOMAS GOVT. AIDED INDIAN SCHOOL, about 5 miles from our home. Education was not free nor compulsory, as it was for the Whites. We had to pay fees and buy our books. The school building was old and had no proper playgrounds and other facilities.
My father died in 1921 and my mother took charge of the family and the farm. My eldest brother got married and moved nearer the city, After a couple of years, my mother was not able to manage the farm and gave it up. In 1924 we moved to a suburb of Durban called Manning Place, about 5 or 6 miles from the city. Here we rented a small apartment owned by an Indian family. Two of my brothers found jobs in a Sheet Metal Factory, for megre wages of 10/- - 15/- per week of 6 days. To make ends meet my mother got a Hawkers Licence - bought vegetables from the market and sold them house to house in the black area.
I was in Class 111 at the St Thomas School. When we left the area my schooling ended and I helped my mother at home.
............Things were getting tough at home and my mother was finding it extremely difficult to make ends meet. I went into the city looking for work. I was about ten years old and looked very small and this made it more difficult in finding a job. Eventually after days of searching I found a job at the Standard Cigar Co. Ltd., in Alice Street, Durban, for a wage of 5/- a month. My job was to strip tobacco and fill in moulds for cigars and cheroots. Working hours were 9 hours a day and 6 days a week. If I was asked to work extra time there was no overtime pay. I worked here for 6 months.
My mother found a larger and lower rent apartment in the area of Black Hill another suburb of Durban, and we moved from Manning Place. Things improved a bit at home and my family decided that I should go back to school. I went to ST. THERESA GOVT. AIDED SCHOOL for COLOREDS in Sydenham, and started in Standard 1 after the test.
In 1926 one of my brothers lost his job and things got tough at home. It was found difficult to buy books, pay fees and maintain me at school. I was compelled to leave school, and once more among the young work seekers. After a long search, I found a job at the S. A. Tinsmith in Bond Street, Durban, for a wage of 5/- per week. My job was to apply rozen on tin cans for soldering, bending wires for belly-can handles, and other incidental works - sweeping, cleaning etc.
My mother decided to move to another suburb, Mayville as an apartment for lower rent was available. By this time my unemployed brother found a job in another sheet metal factory and things were made a bit easier at home and it was decided that I should go back to school. I left work and found space at the CATO MANOR GOVT AIDED INDIAN SCHOOL. Here, I started in Std. 11 and continued to complete Std IV in 1928.
Two of my brothers lost their jobs. This was the period of the great depression. The Black workers were the first to lose their jobs. My family was not in the position to buy the new books which were very costly and pay the higher fees for me to continue in Std. V I was forced to leave school and look for work. I found a job at J.C. Kinghorn Broom and Brush Manufacturers Ltd. in Prince Edward Street, Durban, for a wage of 15/- per month. My job was to cut fibres for various sizes of brooms and brushes.
After a few months I left this job to take on a job for better pay at the Fives Roses Tea and Coffee Works, Brickhill Road, Durban. Here ............. I was paid the princely sum of 7 shillings and six pence per week of six days. My job was to scale and pack tea in packets. The workers were not provided with overalls or masks. We had to use our own handkerchiefs to cover our nostrils and mouths to keep off the dust. After a few months the factory moved to point road, Durban. In this process of moving, I was one among many others who lost jobs. This time I was not unemployed for long.
I got a job at Wrights Knitting Mills, Umbilo Road, Durban, for a wage of 3.3/- per week. The job was interesting. I learnt to machine knitted garments and later was transferred to the Cutting Department. This was the first time I worked with White women, Indian and African males. Although the Black workers were doing the same operations as the white girls, the white girls were earning higher wages. Discontent began to brew among the Black Workers. We discussed ways and means of taking some action. I approached the white girls in my department to get unity of all workers in any action we may take. The response from the girls was good. The management learnt of our activities, and I was fired with three; other Indian Workers.
After being unemployed for a few months, I got a job as a learner machinist at the African Clothing Manufacturers Ltd. in Mayville. I was a learner machinist under a qualified machinist who was on piece work making trousers. My wage was 7/6 per week. Here I became a great friend of a worker named H. A. NAIDOO who was a machinist. Incidentally, H. A. also left school after completing Std V at the Depot Road Govt. Indian School, Greyville, Durban, his family being unable to afford keeping him at school to continue further.
After working for a few months in this factory, H. A. and I decided to look for jobs in the city. We found jobs at the Durban Clothing, in Sydney Road, Durban. We had to work as a team on piece work rates, making trousers. With hard work we were able to earn 30/- per week each. Workers were fired if they failed to work hard enough and produce the maximum set by the management.
My friend H A. and I became inseparable friends. For days I would stay with his family and H. A. would do the same, staying with my family. We both went to evening classes at the first Indian Technical Institute that was organised by a group of Indian teachers at the Hindu Tamil Institute Building in Cross Street, Durban, later moved to Carlisle Street Govt. Indian School and then on to Sastri College Building in Centenary Road, Durban - the first secondary colleges for Indians in Natal. Today the little technical institute has become a large Technical College for Blacks, M. L. SULTAN Tech. College ................ built by Indians through self-help. H. A. and I completed Std VI and passed the Std V II public examination (PTC). Preliminary Technical Certificate awarded by the Natal Technical College (White) in Smith Street, Durban. We both signed up for the next term to complete J.C. and move forward. This did not materialise because we got deeply in political and Trade Union Work.
Besides, the evening classes at the Tech.. physical training, debates, lectures, public speaking etc., were organised. H. A. and I took part in all these activities. At the first public debate in 1933, at the M. K. Gandhi Library Hall, Queen Street, Durban; H. A. and I were in the team of 4 opposing a motion "That India is not fit for self-government". We gave everything we had, and won the debate, "That India is fit for Self Government".
In 1934 the Grey Shirts, Hitlers Nazi Organisation in South Africa were busy holding meetings in various parts of the country. In Durban, the Grey Shirts held their meetings at the Durban City Hall Steps. In opposition, the Anti-Fascist League of S. A. was formed and counter meetings were held wherever Grey Shirts appeared. H. A. and I got very interested and attended most of these meetings, organised by the anti Fascist League. Some of the speakers of the Anti Fascist League were: - A. T. WANLESS, a Labour Party member and trade Unionist who gave a lot of assistance to black workers when on strike. HARRY ROCHLIN, the first secretary of the Textile Workers Union in Natal. JIMMY RINTOUL, a Trade Unionist. RONNIE H. FLEET, Secretary of the Hairdressers Union (Tvl) DR. EDWARD ROUX, Communist Party of S. A. EVA GREEN, left book Club......... The meetings were terrific and often ended by making the Grey Shirts run and their swastikas being burnt on the City Hall steps. The speakers from the Anti Fascist League followed chasing the Fascists in many towns - north and south coasts from Durban and many inland towns of Natal. Similar challenges to the fascist intrusion took place in many other centres of the country. H.A. and I became very interested in the movement against Fascism. We bought various literatures that were sold by the Anti Fascist League at these meetings. At one of the meetings held at the Durban City Hall steps, we bought a paper called UMZEBENZ"from an African person whose name was RAMOUTLA. We asked him what the paper was about, Ramoutla told us that it was the organ of the Communist Party of S. A., and this led to a discussion as to what was the Communist Party of S.A.H.A. and I wanted to know more and Ramoutla gave us an address to meet him for further discussion. When........... we went to this address on the appointed day, we met RAMOUTLA and DR. EDWARD ROUX. Both, explained the policy and programme of the Communist Party and its Constitution. They handed some pamphlets and other literature and told us that if we are interested in joining the C.P.S.A. we should call at an address they gave us on Monday the following week.
H.A. and I went through most of the literature and discussed the points raised by RAMOUTLA and ROUX and were very impressed with the policy and programme of the C.P.S.A. We decided to meet RAMOUTLA and ROUX at the address they gave us. We went to the address given to us - 49 Beatrice Street, Durban - it was an office and night school-Here we met, DR. E. ROUX, RAMOUTLA, MIKE DIAMOND, ERROL SHANLEY, JAMES MBETE, BOB MURRAY, BOB BRERRA, PHILEMON TSLE, MBELE and DOUGLAS, all members of the C.P. of S.A. After a general discussion H.A. and I joined the C.P.S.A. Later we told that H.A. and I were the first South Africans of Indian origin to join the CPSA.
After a month the Durban District Committee of the Party held its aggregate meeting at which MIKE DIAMOND was elected chairman, H.A. District Secretary and I was elected District Party Organiser. PHILEMON TSELE, BOB MURRAY, MBELE, JAMES MBETE, ERROL SHANLEY -District Committee members.
The Party had become very small after the shooting of JOHANNES NKOSI, in 1930, during the Anti Pass demonstrations at Cart-wrights Flat, Durban. Many were imprisoned, deported and banished. The Party had to be built up. H.A. and I got so much involved in work that we had to forego the evening classes at the Technical Inst.
Though working under semi - illegal conditions, the Party did grow in Durban. It was during this period that H.A. and I met EDWIN, J.B. MARKS and ISSI from the head office in J' Burg. By 1939 the Durban District Committee had a large membership of Indian and African workers. Fair numbed of Coloreds and a few whites H.A. and I continued to be on the District Committee. The membership increased tremendously during the war years. I was Chairman of the Durban D.C. from 1940 to 1944 and Party full time Organiser for the same period, was a member of the Central Committee until the Party was disbanded in 1949. When the Party re-constituted itself the S.A.C.P. (underground) I got into work again.
In 1928 the Garment Workers Industrial Union was formed. The organiser was MR.. J.C. BOLTON, membership was open to ............. White, Indian and Coloured workers. MR. BOLTON was an immigrant furniture worker who in 1928 campaigned for "White Labour Policy" in the furniture industry. There were a large number of Indian workers in the furniture industry. DAVID RAMCHERAN, an Indian worker organised the Furniture Workers Union and Bolton worked himself in and became the secretary of the Union making DAVID RAMCHERAN the Chairman. Bolton took control and carried out a reactionary policy.
Though the majority of the Workers in the garment industry were Indian and Coloured (male and female) Workers, the Executive of the Garment Workers Union was entirely White. Bolton concentrated on organising the White women and men working in the industry. Working closely and conniving with the White employers, Bolton was able to get an Industrial Council set up with only the White employers and workers represented.. H.A. and I joined the Union.
The fairly large number of Indian employers in the Industry to protect themselves, embarked on organising a separate Union forthe Indian and Coloured Workers. Realising that this splitting tactics were not in the best interest of the Garment Workers, H.A. and I organised opposition to this move. We started organising the Indian and Coloured workers in all factories in Natal to oppose the move being made by the Indian Employers. In the process we got the workers to join The Garment Workers Union (Natal) organised by J.C. BOLTON. We managed to halt the splitting tactics of the Indian Employers in the Garment Industry.
Our next move was to see that the Indian and Coloured workers attended the general meetings of the Union and change the structure and composition of the Executive Committee ... At the Annual General Meeting H.A. and I were voted on to the Executive. This was the beginning to get more non-white members on the Executive. At the following Annual General Meeting we got in 4 more non-white members on to the Executive. This created an opportunity to raise the matters affecting the Indian, Colored and African Workers in the industry, and also to check on the general policy of the Union. Though the non-white members on the Executive were still in a minority, issues were raised very strongly. The relationship between BOLT and his cronies on the one hand and H.A. and I on the other became quite bitter. At one general meeting H.A. and I raised the question of unity with the Transvaal Garment Workers Union. BOLTON opposed Unity. The meeting became very heated and the meeting was abruptly closed by the Chairman, on the instructions of BOLTON. At the next Executive Meeting Bolton made a case that H.A. and I were very disruptive at the general meeting and .............. suggested that we should be expelled from the Union.
After opposition from the non-white members and further discussion, cronies of Bolton moved and seconded for our expulsion. The resolution was carried by all the White members voting for, and all the non-white members against. In terms of the constitution H.A. and I got a requisition signed by the required number of members asking for a special general meeting to consider our appeal against the expulsion. The meeting was held - the biggest turn out we have ever had. We won our appeal. The Executive's decision was reversed by a huge majority.
In November 1935 H.A. and I were involved in a strike for the first time. It was at the Durban Clothing Co., Sydney Road, Durban, where we worked. One day an Indian worker was caught stealing a pair of unmade pants. This worker took the parts of the pants to the toilet and hid them under his pants - very cleverly concealed. One of the workers who saw this must have informed the employer. The employer stopped this worker at finishing time and made him undo his pants. He found the parts of the unmade pants. The employer pushed him a few times, punched him and told him not to cone to work any more.
The next day when we went to work we discovered that each of the non-white toilet doors were drilled with five and three quarter holes. Every time the non-white male workers went to the toilet, the employer would follow and peep through the holes, by lunchtime the whole procedure became most humiliating and there was resentment and protest by all workers including the white women. After work in the evening H.A. and I held a meeting of all the Indian, African and Colored workers at a nearby park. After discussing the whole position it was resolved to go on strike the next morning. During the night a meeting of the Party Executive at which A.T. WANLESS was invited, was held. We discussed the whole situation leading up to the strike decision and it was resolved to go ahead with the strike action.
A leaflet was drawn up explaining the events leading up to the strike decision and calling on all the workers to stand united. It was agreed to ask VIOLET RUDMAN a garment worker from the Garment Workers Union (Transvaal) to assist in speaking to the white women workers. A special leaflet for the white women was prepared. Agreed to form a strike committee of 5 - 1 White - 1 Colored - 1 African - K. A. and I. First thing in the morning at the factory H.A. and I with garment ……. worker VIOLET RUDMAN, were at the factory gates. We distributed leaflets we prepared during the night explaining the whole position and calling on all workers in the factory to stand united until the holes in the toilet doors were closed by the employers. VIOLET RUDMAN spoke to the White women. I spoke to all the workers explaining to them as to why we were on strike. When the factory doors opened, not a single worker went in the strike was a 100%.
We phoned the Union and the Industrial Council and explained the position at the factory. We asked them to come down to the factory as all the workers were on strike. They did not come. What happened behind doors on phone between them and the employer, no one knew. It was a "Lightening Strike" as the newspapers called it.
By lunch time the employer came to me and told me that since I am the leader of the strike, he is informing me that the holes in the toilet doors are closed and the workers can go back to work. I told him that a deputation will come to see him in a few minutes.. A deputation of 3 White women, 3 Indian and 3 African male workers, H. A. and I went into the factory to examine if the holes were closed. The deputation then met the employer and submitted e few more demands on behalf of the white women workers. The employer agreed to these and the deputation left. H.A. and I addressed the workers and after cheers for victory and some slogan chanting, the workers went into work. This was the first time in the history of S.A. that White women workers and Black Male Workers struck together a hundred percent united.
The next day a MR. WHITE from C.I.D. came to the factory H.A. and I were called into the office and were handed summonses to appear in Court. The charges were - organising and leading an illegal strike. We went to the Union office with the summonses and told BOLTON that defence must be organised. He told us that the strike was illegal and the Union cannot defend us.
The Party arranged with lawyer NELSON SCHONOWOLF to defend us. We appeared in court and pleaded not guilty. Bolton and the Industrial Council got hold of two young white girls from the factory and organised them to be witnesses against us. After hearing our story the magistrate severely reprimanded the employer for his actions. Though the penalty is high for this offence, the magistrate took into account our young age and first offence and sentenced us to a fine of £ 2 each, with a warning that we do not commit such an offence again. The workers at the factory who had collected amongst themselves, paid the fines and the defence council.
H.A. and I had a meeting with the workers at the factory............... at the same park where the strike decision was taken, and reported to them of what had happened at court. There were "boos"for the Industrial Council, Bolton and the two young white girls who were witnesses. Maybe it was intimidation that a few White women did not attend the meeting.
In December 1935 there were leaflets distributed from the Anti-Fascist League of S.A. calling on all factory workers to elect delegates to attend a National Conference against Fascism to be held in Johannesburg. The Nazi Grey Shirts were busy with their dirty work in many parts of S.A. during this period.
The workers at the Durban Clothing Factory where we worked elected H.A. and I as delegates to attend this conference. A collection was made for our travelling expenses. The factory closed for two weeks just before Christmas and we attended the Conference held on the 16th and 17th December. We had to get special permits to cross the border and enter into Transvaal because we were Natal Indians and had to abide by the Provincial Barriar Laws.
The Conference was inspiring and educative to us. We met some veteran Trade Union and Working Class leaders. To name a few - SOLLY SACHS, Secretary Garment Workers Union Transvaal, WILLIE KALK, Secretary Leather and Allied Workers Union, A.T. WANLESS, Secretary Anti-Fascist League, HARRY SNITCHER, Advocate Cape Town, EDWIN MAFUTOANYANA. C.P.S.A. ISSY WOLFSON, Secretary Tailoring Workers Union, RONNIE H. FLEET, Sec. Hairdressers Union, A.G. FORSYTH, S.A. Trades and Labour Council, EVA GREEN, Left Book Club, H. BASNER, advocate, ELI WEINBERG, G.W.U. Cape and others.
What is Nazism and Fascism..... we learnt at this conference. We also learnt that the workers must be strongly organised into trade unions to keep Fascism at bay. We came back with a lot of literature, pamphlets and leaflets against Fascim on Trade Union organisation and the working Class Struggle.
When the factory reopened we reported to work. H.A. and I were told by the employer that there was no more work for us as the Bespoke Department in which we worked was closed down, When we had a look the portions of the room was actually demolished and all machines removed. This was the end of our employment at the Dbn., Clothing Co., in which we became well known to workers in other factories as a result of the strike.
We had a meeting to report back from the Anti-Fascist Conference at the same Park where the strike decision was taken.
..........This time a lot of workers from the industries around the Park also attended. It was a very good meeting. We distributed leaflets and some pamphlets to go round. The meeting agreed to make a collection at the factory for H.A. and I to keep us going until we found jobs. We continued having occasional meetings at the Park "to keep in contact with the workers.
H.A. and I went around looking for jobs in all other clothing factories. We just could not get jobs. We felt that we were Black Listed. Later we had enough evidence to show that Bolton and the Industrial Council had us Black Listed. We continued to be members of the Union and attended all Executive and General meetings and fought against all reactionary moves made by Bolton. On many occasions we carried the day.
After months of unemployment, I got a job at the Dunlop Rubber Co., for a wage of 25/- per week. My job was to check and keep factory stock of bicycle tires.
In 1935 I was called to take my old job at the Knitting Mills. It was now known as Rex Knitting Mills after the change over in ownership. I gave up the job at Dunlop and took the old job for £3 per week. There were White women, Indian and African men working here. They were UNORGANISED. The first thing I did was to get them organised. I had to go easy because the manager MR. CARSON was a real German Nazi. Since we made knitted garments, I raised the matter at the Executive of the Garment Workers Union to get the knitwear industry included in the scope of registration to the Union. This was done. After a few meetings with the workers, they all joined the Union and I was elected shopsteward.
The first encounter I had with the Nazi manager was when I went with a deputation to discuss certain problems of the workers. When he saw that the deputation was mixed. White women and Black Workers he was furious. He told me that if I wanted anything I must come alone and see him and not to bring girls with me. He also told me that I must not have anything to do with the European girls. I told him that the deputation comprises of the members of the Union and that there is nothing wrong. I told him that if he refuses to discuss the problems we will have the matter reported to the Union and it will be taken -up at a higher level. Eventually he agreed to talk and the problems were discussed. Wages were adjusted to comply with the gazetted agreement. My wage jumped to -£3 per week from 1- 10-0
.............. While I was working at the knitting mills H.A. was doing partime work for a tailor making trousers. We met every evening at the Party office with other members, and discussed various problems of Trade Union work and Party Organization.
Towards the end of 1935, a group of workers from the -FALKIRK IRON WORKS in Jacobs near Durban, came to see me. They said that the workers there are keen to form a Union and they would like to get my assistance. I told them to see me the next day. In the evening H.A. and I discussed the matter with some Party members, and we agreed to get on with the job. The following day the group of workers came to see me as arranged. I told them that H.A. and I will give them all the assistance'. The machinery was set.... After a number of secret meetings the Union was formed at an inaugural general meeting of the Falkirk workers - Indian, African, and Colored. The name of the Union – Iron and Steel Worker's Union (Natal). A date from a special General meeting to adopt the constitution was set. H.A. and I worked on the draft constitution in the evenings and weekends. Enrolment forms were prepared. H.A. and I got some work done on the constitution during lunch breaks.
The Special General meeting was held and the Constitution was adopted. Officials and Executive Committee elected. H.A. was elected Secretary and P.M. HARRY, one of the workers elected Chairman. M.P. THOMPSON was the organiser.
After a few weeks, the employers got the information on the formation of the Union. The Chairman of the Union was fired. The Workers were up in arms...... At a special general meeting it was resolved to go on strike against the victimization of the Chairman of the Union.
The Indian, African and Colored Workers in the 1st. 2nd. and 3rd shifts came out solidly. Pickets were organised for each shift. The employers, the Industrial Council for the Engineering Industry, the A.E.U., the Boiler Makers Society of S.A. and the Government were against the strike. All attempts were made to divide the Africans workers from the Indian and Colored. The Native Commissioner, A.W.G. CHAMPION the old I.C.U. man serving on the Native Advisory Board, the Labour Department and the police, all joined forces........ the Workers stood firm.
I remember an instance when a mass meeting of strikers and other workers was held at the Indian Sports Ground in Clairwood, a suburb of Durban, A.W.G. Champion came along with some of his cronies to address the meeting.
............ the African Workers at our meeting. Champion told the African Workers to walk out of the meeting because they are making a big mistake by joining the Indians. There are special Laws, he said to protect the Africans and that they will get nothing but trouble by joining the Indians who are shopkeepers and exploiters.
Immediately I got up from the platform and addressed the workers. I told the African workers that they know why they are on strike. They know why the African, Indian and Colored Workers who work together in the factory are united. They know why they formed the Union. Champion wants you to break the Unity you have built up. Champion says that the African Workers must not join the Indian Workers because they are shopkeepers and exploiters. As far as we know none of us here as workers own shops. The only one who owns shops is CHAMPION. He is the shopkeeper and he is the exploiter. I told the African workers that if — they agreed with Champion then they can follow him.
The African workers with some war cry started-marching towards Champion and his cronies. Champion saw there was trouble and made quickly to the gate with his henchmen - half running.
The Native Commissioner spoke to the striking African workers outside the factory gates. The workers listened for a while and then started singing. The Commissioner noting that he was not being heard slowly retired.
The strike was prolonged. It lasted 13 weeks. The workers stood firm.
For the first time the Indian political organisation, the old reactionary Natal Indian Congress was drawn into the purely workers' struggle. They contributed food rations and money for the strikers. They made representations to the Industrial Council to meet the demands of the workers and end the strike.
H. A. and I were on the Strike Relief Committee with representatives of the Congress.
The strike committee received contributions from Workers in a large number of factories and some trade Unions from other centres.
It was a long drawn strike, A great strike by newly organised workers. The strike ended after 13 weeks. All the workers went back to work and the demands put forward by the Union - for shorter hours in the shifts and wage increases were met.
Events that followed indicated that this was a great strike. An eye opener and the beginning of an upsurge of trade union organisation, especially in Natal.
In 1937 the huge task of organising the sugar workers in Natal was undertaken. Sugar Workers Union (Natal) was formed, starting at Hulletts Ltd., in Rossburgh, Durban. H.A. and I, together with P.M. Harry, chairman of the Iron and Steel Workers Union and Mike Diamond and other volunteers - WILSON CELE, A.P. PILLAY, L. RAMSUNDER, P.T. COOPEN and others were out to the Sugar Estate every week-end. Southwards up to Port Shepstone and Umzimkulu and northwards up to Tugela and Zululand border. If there was trouble some of us use to rush during the nights and weekdays. Every bit is a company property, so we had to have our meetings at riverbanks or at sea shores. Many times we risked our necks because the thugs organised by the employers waited for us with cane-knives at various cane fields. The whole operation was a great risk, but the job was done. For the first time in the Sugar Industry of South Africa some wages and conditions regulating measures were introduced as a result of a Conciliation Board Agreement brought about by the pressure of the Union. Hours of work, sick leave, holidays with pay, overtime pay, unemployment insurance coverage, supply of overalls etc., were laid down in the Agreement in 1944.
For the first time a Wage Board investigation was carried out as a result of the application made by the Union. The investigation lasted for months. The Union gave evidence on every aspect wages, hours of work, sick leave, housing, water supply, lighting, recreation facilities etc.
The Wage Board determination was published in 1943 bringing about substantial improvements for the start.
Side by side with the Mill Workers we carried out the tremendous task of organising the sugar cane field workers. These workers came under agricultural workers and therefore cannot join the same union as the Mill Workers. Because many of the employers got in migrant labour, it added further difficulty to the tremendous task of organisation.
When H.A. NAIDOO left Durban to work in Cape Town, ERROL SHANLEY was elected Secty. of the Sugar Workers Union. Shanley was Secty. of the Paint and Polish Workers Union, and Secty. of the Durban Local Committee of the Trades and Labour Council at the time. About this same period M.P. NAICKER also assisted in the organisation of the Sugar Cane Field workers.
From 1936 to 1945 the following Unions were formed. H.A. and I gave direct assistance.
1936 Iron & Steel Workers' Union (Natal) Ind. Afr. Col.
1937 Sugar Workers' Union ‘’ ‘’ ‘’
1937 S.A. Railway & Harbour W. Union ‘’ ‘’ ‘’
1937 Rope & Mat W. Ind. Union (Natal) ‘’ ‘’ ‘’
1938 Chemical & Allied W. Union ‘’ ‘’ ‘’
1938 Food, Canning & Allied W. Union " " "
1938 Twine & Bag W. Union " " ‘’
1939 Cigarette & Tobacco W. Union " ‘’ ‘’
1940 S.A. Tin W. Union ‘’ ‘’ ‘’
1941 Laundry, Cleaning & Dyeing Emp. Union ‘’ " ‘’
1941 Broom, Brush & Allied W. Union ‘’ ‘’ ‘’
1941 Tea, Coffee & Chicory W. Union. ‘’ ‘’ ‘’
1941 Sweet Workers Union. ‘’ " "
1941 Paint & Polish W. Union. ‘’ ‘’ ‘’
1942 Bakery Employees Union. " "
1942 Dock Workers' Union. ‘’
1942 Box Workers Union. ‘’ ‘’
1942 Natal Coal Miners Union. ‘’ ‘’
1942 Timber Workers Union. ‘’ ‘’
1942 Briuk, Tile & Allied W. Union. ‘’ ‘’
1942 Dundee Glass W. Union. ‘’ ‘’
1943 African Distributive W. Union. ‘’
1944 African Engineering W. Union- ‘’
1944 Hospital Workers' Union. "
1945 African Municipal W. Union. ‘’
1946 Brewery & Mineral Water W. Union. ‘’ ‘’
1945 Non European Transport & Bus
Drivers Union “
The Textile Workers' Union was formed in 1935 - secretary HARRY ROCHLIN one of the employees at the Natal Cotton & Woolen Mills. Bolton was trying to capture this Union. H.A., EDWARD ROUX and I assisted ROCHLIN and his Executive to carry out a campaign against Bolton's move. We held meetings at all the Textile Mills. It was during this period I met STEPHEN DLAMIMI who was working at the Natal Cotton and Woolen Mills. We were successful in keeping Bolton out of this Union.
Except for a few, all the above Unions by their strength were able to bring about improvements in wages and working conditions through pressure - strikes, conciliation Boards, Wage Board investigation etc.
1936 Iron & Steel Workers' Union Ind. Col. Afr. Won.
1941 Tea, Coffee & Chicory W. Union
1942 food & Canning W. Union " " " "
1942 Tobacco W. Union. " " "
1944 Laundry W. Union. " " " Lost
1945 Rubber W. Union, " " "
1945 Tobacco W. Union. " " Won
In all these strikes I took full part - was on strike committees.
In 1939 after the out break of world war 11., I was retrenched by the Rex Knitting Mills as a result of business changing hands. I was once more unemployed. I became full time, honorary secretary of the Tobacco Workers Union in 1940. Subsequently, I was elected secretary of the following Unions: -
Rope & Mat W. Union.
Tea, Coffee & Chicory W. Union
Twine & Eag W. Union.
Brewery & Mineral Water W. Union.
Box W. Union.
I was elected honary adviser to the following Unions S.A. Tin Workers Union.
Food & Canning Workers Union.
Broom, Brush & Allied Workers Union.
Hospital Workers Union.
S.A. Railway & Harbour Workers Union.
Chemical & Allied Workers Union.
African Distributive Workers Union.
African Municipal Workers Union.
In the process of organising and forming trade Unions many workers were drawn in and trained to carry out trade Union work.
P.M. HARRY: from the Iron and Steel Workers Union, who became the secretary of the non-European Transport & Bus Drivers Union.
A.P. Pillay: from the Iron & Steel Workers Union who became one of the organisers of the Sugar Workers Union.
PHILLIP THOMPSON: from the Iron & Steel Workers Union, who became organiser of the Union. He dropped off in later years.
L. RAMSUNDER: from the Sugar Workers Union, who became the secretary of the laundry, Cleaning & Dyeing Workers Union.
P.T. COOPEN: from the Sugar Workers Union, who became one of the organisers of the Sugar Workers Union.
S.V. REDDY; from the Box Workers Union, who became the secretary of the S.A. Tin Workers Union.
N.K. PERCY: from the Rubber Workers Union, who became the secretary of the Paint & Polish Workers Union.
P.P. Manza: from the Rubber Workers Union, who became the first secretary of the Hospital Workers Union.
GREENFORD MFEKE: from the Rubber Workers Union, who became the organiser of the Rubber Workers Union.
EDWARD NTALI; from the Rubber Workers Union, who became the organiser of the Rope and Mat Workers Industry Union.
M. RAMCHERAN: from the Tabacco Workers Union, who became the secretary of the Union after I was banned in 1950 and also secretary of the Rope and Mat Workers Union.
K. JOHNNIE NAIKER: form the Laundry, Cleaning & Dyeing Workers Union, who became the organiser of this Union.
SAM PILLAY: from the food & Canning Workers Union, who became the secretary of this Union and also secretary of the Broom & Brush Workers Union.
GEORGE POOLE form the S.A. Railways & Harbour Workers Union, who became secretary of this Union. Later he joined the Watch Tower and dropped off; PHILEMON, TSELE took over. There were others who were interested in doing trade Union work who were trained: -N.G. MOODLEY: (lecturer) who became secretary of the Brick, Tile & Allied Workers Union.
M.D. NAIDOO: (law student) who became the first secretary of the Tea, Coffee & Chicory Workers Union and the Food & Canning Workers Union.
R.R. PILLAY: (factory worker) who became organiser of the Natal Coal Miners' Union.
E. I.MOOLA: (Sastri College student) who became secretary of the chemical Workers Union.
WILSON CELE: (freelance journalist) who became one of the organisers of the Sugar Workers Union.
PAULINE PODBREY: (office worker) who became secretary of the Sweet Workers Union.
CHRISTOPHER MBONAMBI; (distributive worker) who became secretary of the African Distributive Workers Union.
VERA PONNEN: (ex- Guardian Rep.) who became secretary of the Mineral Water Workers Union before amalgamation with Brewery Workers. GLADMAN NXUMALO: (factory worker) who became the organiser of the African Engineering Workers Union.
MANNIE PELTZ: (book - keeper) who became the secretary of the Rubber Workers Union.
STEPHEN DLAMINI: (textile worker) who became the organiser of the Textile Workers Union. Who today is the President of S.A.C.T.I
ALBERT MKIZE: (factory worker) who became the organiser of the Brick, Tile & Allied Workers Union.
DANTON MGADI: (factory worker) who became the organiser of the Twine & Bag Workers Union. Also a first class interpreter.
HARRY GWALA: (Law Student) who became one of the organisers of the Textile Workers Union. Later secretary of the Municipal Workers in Maritzburg. He is now serving life imprisonment on Robben Island.(He has now been released)
R. D. NAIDOO: (factory worker) who became the secretary of the Bakery Workers Union.
MANNIE PILLAY: (Biscuit Worker) who became the secretary of the Biscuit & Confectionery Workers Union (Durban Branch). All the above unions fuctioned well and were building up their strength.
While carrying out the struggle for higher wages and better working conditions, the workers were being educated politically. They were drawn into the struggle against unjust laws - campaigns for the amendment of the I.C. Act to include African Workers under the term employee, against the Pass Laws, against the Group Areas Act, etc. The workers were called upon to join their respective national organisations - the Indian Congress and the A.N.C. and A.P.O.(Coloured U. Organisation), and to see that these organisations take up the issues of the people in the political front.
As a result of these methods of work, the Campaigns that followed received mass support from the workers - the Passive Resistance Campaign led by the Indian Congress against the Group Areas Act, the Defiance Campaign against unjust Laws led by the Congress Alliance, the Anti - Pass Campaign etc. The first Stay At Home on June 26th was a huge success. The workers responded in thousands throughout the country to the call made by the Congress Alliance. The 2nd call for Stay At Home on June 26th made by the Congress Alliance was a success but the employers took action in dismissing large numbers of workers at various factories in many industries. This created a problem for the Unions to fight for the workers re-instatement. Many became unemployed.
The 1949 Indian-African riot engineered by the racists was also another factor that created problems for the trade Unions. Now it was a matter of time to re-educate the workers.
The severe blow came when the Nationalist Government started banning trade union leaders and activists. The Unions were weakened and thus a period of lull set in to the trade Union work that progressed during the past ten years. Many Unions still fuctioned and carried on with work though confronted with various difficulties and continued harassment by the Security Police.
In 1950 I wasbanned for 5 years, being the first one in Natal. I was ordered to resign from all the Unions and the Indian Congress. I was ordered not to belong to any organisation and enter any factory, or to leave the Magisterial District of Durban. All my Unions were handed over to Comrades who were not banned.
I lost my livelihood. My wife, Vera, was not working. We had two children, Indira and Masha. I had to do something to make a living. I started dressmaking at home with one hand machine. Vera helped me in this unusual project. Later the Tea & Coffee Workers Union vacated the office and they asked me to take it over to do something. I transferred my dressmaking to the office. All our Comrades and Friends were wonderful. They brought me work. A friend of Vera and I suggested that we open a small factory, he will finance it and I will run the factory. The factory was started. After 12 months I broke the partnership as I did not like the way the finances were handled. Soon after this another two friends came to us with the suggestion of opening up a factory. So the two friends, Vera and I started the factory, this time "Equal Partnership" and the company will borrow the money. The factory started in 1956 and ran smoothly. Vera and I ran the factory. Our two friends had their own business.
Though banned, I continued to keep in contact with the Trade Union Comrades and the political Organisations.
Many meetings of the Trade Union Comrades and the meetings of A.N.C. were held in our factory and at our flat, 20 Wills Court. As a matter of fact the last National Conference of S.A.C.T.U. in 1962 which was banned when it started at the TEXANO Hall, was completed at our flat with Vera and I doing the cooking for the delegates.
During the state of emergency when many trade Union Comrades and all SACTU leaders were detained in 1960, the unions were faced with a lot of problems. I had secret meetings with each of the Executive of the Unions and guided them on what to do. Some these meetings were held at the factory and some at our flat. BANJWA was in the office of SACTU. All monies collected from the shop stewards were brought to me for safekeeping. There were some problems with regard to workers in different industries. I got all the enrollment forms and sorted them out on factory and industrial bases, so as to formulate a plan to tackle the problems and complaints of workers in each factory or industry.
When BILLY NAIR and STEVEN DLAMINI were released there was enough money to pay them wages for 3 months.; The rent, telephone etc., was already paid. I handed to them all the cash, documents and my recommendations at the full meeting of SACTU Executive.
When the S.A. Trades & Labour Council Conference decided to follow the racial policy of the Government and debarred African Workers from the Council, the Black Unions and some progressive mixed unions walked out: In 1955 SACTU was constituted. There were discussions throughout the country on the future method of work in trade Unions. I took part in many of these discussions in Durban.
While carrying on the organisation in the trade Union field, H.A. and I were doing political work also. We together with SOOBOO RAJAH organised and formed the Natal Indian Youth League, which was the forerunner of the NATIONALIST BLOC of the NATAL INDIAN ASSOCIATION. The political organisation of the Indian people was divided. There was the Natal Indian Association which was supposed to be the United political-National Organisation of the Indian people, but the Indian Congress which was under the leadership of A.I. KAJEE still continued to exist after the Congress and the Colonial Born and Settlers Indian Association came together under the banner of the Natal Indian Association.
The Natal Indian Youth League attracted a large number of youth. With political education the members began to take interest in the Indian National Organisation. Most of the members including H.A. and I joined the Natal Indian Association. To carry out an effective fight against the reactionary policies of the Association, we formed the Nationalist Bloc of the Natal Indian Association. We were the opposition to the leadership. Our "first step was to bring about unity in the Indian National Organisation. To bring this about we carried out a campaign. The Liberal Study Group was started as an open forum for discussion. We started the paper "The Call", mass meetings under the Banner of the National 1st Bloc of the Natal Indian Association. Mass meetings under the Banner of the Natal Indian Youth League. In this way our campaign was getting very effective. About this time a movement was started in Cape Town - The Non-European United Front, to fight against unjust laws. A committee was formed in 'Durban - and the members of the Nationalist Bloc joined this Committee and addressed meetings throughout Natal. From the platform we called for unity in the National organisations of the Non-White people.
Finally we were able to get the Natal Indian Association and the Natal Indian Congress to start negotiations for unity. I was a member of the Unity-Committee. The Association gave the Nationalist Bloc only one seat on "this committee. After prolonged negotiations Unity was achieved. The name of the united national organisation - THE NATAL INDIAN CONGRESS - (founded by MAHATMA GANDHI in 1894 -)
We in the Nationalist Bloc went all out to get the masses of the Indian workers to join the Congress. A few of us were elected to the working committee and were able to oppose all reactionary and compromising moves made by the leadership. As the leadership was not moving to take appropriate action in mobilising the people to fight the segregation policies of the City Council, we started to fight against the leadership. We from the Nationalist Bloc formed the Anti-Segregation Committee, which had tremendous support from the people. The council carried out a huge campaign. Huge mass meetings were held in the centre of city and the affected areas. Riverside, Durban North and Clairwood. We called on the people to resist while the Congress leadership was talking about compromises. The people in leadership with business interests did not mind if the workers lost their homes in the affected areas as long as their businesses were protected. The Campaign carried out by the Anti-Segregation Council was effective and the City Council shelved its proposals.
In the days of the Anil-Segregation Campaign the younger people such as DR. NAICKER, GEORGE SINGH, CASSIM AMRA, D.A. SEEDAT E.I. MOOLA, P.M. HARRY, M.P. NAICKER, PS.D. NAIDOO, H.A. and I, and many others, were determined to see that the leadership and police of the Natal Indian Congress was changed so that the issues of the mass of the people were taken up effectively.
In the Youth League, the Liberal Study Group and the Nationalist Bloc we were discussing the oppressive measures of the ruling class on a national plane. How the oppressive measures affect the various sections of the people the Indians, Africans and Coloured. We were discussing the necessity of the National Organisations of the non-white people working together to fight the oppressive measures.
When we presented these points of view to the Working Committee of the Congress, the real fight started - the leadership will not budge from its old policies. The situation was created to fight the leadership. We now called for the Annual General Meeting. After a long struggle, the leadership decided to hold the meeting. We now started a' campaign for membership. We addressed meetings at all factories and called on the Indian Workers to join the A.N.C., and the Coloured Workers to join the A.P.O. We explained that the National Organisations must be strengthened to carry out effective opposition to all oppressive laws. We got the Trade Unions to carry out similar campaigns among their members. Thousands joined the Congress. The Annual General Meeting was held at the Curries Fountain Football ground, nearly 40,000 attended.
Various amendments to the constitution were carried. One of the new clauses adopted was that the Natal Indian Congress shall co-operate and work in unity with other National organisations, such as ANC and APO, in the fight against oppressive measures of the Government.
When it came to elections the old leadership was toppled. A new leadership with progressive policies got into power. Dr. NAICKER was elected President. I was one of the Vice Presidents until I was banned in 1950.
During this same period a similar campaign against the leadership of the Transvaal Indian Congress was carried out by the National Bloc of the Transvaal Indian Congress. The old leadership was toppled and a new progressive leadership under DR. Y.M. DADOO was installed.
In terms of the new constitution adopted, the new Indian Congress formed branches throughout Natal in every area and the Branches set to work taking up local issues. At Provincial Conferences delegates from all the branches were represented. The plan to building up a real mass movement was put into operation.
About this same period the youth League of the African National Congress was carrying out a campaign for a new progressive leadership. Some of the leading Youth League members were such as, DUMA NOKWE, BOPAPE, NELSON MANDELA, OLIVER TAMBO, YENGWA, DAN TLOOME, JOHN MAKATINI and many others. This campaign was successful. CHIEF LUTHULI was elected President with a large number of youth leaguers on the committee. The ANC also started forming branches in all areas and set itself to task of building up a mass movement.
The changes in the leadership and policies brought about the close alliance of the Congress movement. I remember a meeting at our flat one evening when CHIEF LUTHULI, YENGWA and others from the ANC, DR. NAICKER, MP. NAICKER from the N.I. Congress, BUCKO DOMINGO, SWALES and others from the Coloured Peoples Organisation, ROWLEY ARENSTEIN, VERA PONNEN and others from C.O.D. and STEPHEN DLAMINI, BILLY NAIR and myself from SACTU, discussing joint action against the oppressive measures of the government. Such meetings throughout the various centres led up to the formation of the National Joint Executive of the Congress Alliance.
When the A.N.C. and C.O.D. were banned, and many leading members of all the organisations of the Congress Alliance were under banning orders, the National Joint Executive continued to function underground and I together with Vera attended most of these meetings.
I was arrested and detained under the 90 Days Detention Law in 1964. I was released and re-arrested after the 90 days solitary confinement. I was in solitary confinement for another 30 days. I was summoned to court to give evidence, and was sentenced to 12 months -imprisonment for refusing to give evidence. I appealed and I was on bail. I fled the country in May 1965 on advice given by the organisation. I was 12 months in Botswana as a refugee. Then went to Zambia and worked there for nearly 10 years, here Vera and I continued to carry out SACTU and ANC work.
Vera and I came to Canada towards the end of 1975. Wherever possible we involved ourselves in ANC and SACTU work. Vera died on 1st March.
.......... This segment was dictated to me (Masha Domingo) by my father who is presently in hospital (May, 1991) His spirit and inner strength is a lesson to us all!!!
"In October 1980 a request was made by the NEC of the ANC for me to draw up a memo to go to Amsterdam to meet the Holland Committee on S.A., for the establishment of a textile and Clothing Factory in MZIMBU, MOROGORO, TANZANIA., on the grounds granted but the Tanzanian Government, for ANC refugees. The memo gave a full outlay of the factory, structure, etc., of the plant and machinery.
The purpose of the factory was to afford for vocational training for the refugees (ANC) and to raise support for the establishment of the Textile factory.
The Committee was very impressed by the memo submitted and they promised to raise support for the project. I then proceeded to Lusaka, Zambia and presented the report on the outcome of the meeting in Amsterdam. From here after a few weeks I proceeded to Tanzania, and met the committee there - I once again presented my report to the committee there. The committee was pleased to receive the report and would do everything in their power to see that the project was started. The site and pains were determined by the rough sketches I had drawn up. After many difficulties, financial, technical and others, the factory was eventually built after 1983. The committee in Holland was able to raise support for the project - from the Committee of Europe, and gave support for the whole project. I was now travelling from Canada to Amsterdam via the committee then to Tanzania, working on the project. We were able to acquire all the machines in Amsterdam, including all the other technical requirements for starting the factory. I proceeded to the GDR on the decision of the NEC of the ANC, and presented a report on the present state of development of the project and was able to get full support for donations of material (cloth etc) for the starting of the factory. After installation was completed, the recruiting of employees was drawn from the refugees and training started.
In spite of tremendous difficulties, training on the job started and we were able to manufacture some of the needy garments required by the refugees. Nurses uniforms, blouses, shirts, maternity clothes, etc. Side by side large numbers of the garments were cut together for the purpose of getting the workers into a mode of mass production.
In 1985 I was struck with malaria and had to return to Canada I was hospitalised in Canada with attacks of asthma. I kept in contact with the committees of the factory to see what was going on and make further suggestions. I also kept in contact with the Holland Committee of S.A.
While in Canada, whenever I was able, I spoke at meetings when required, making one or two National Tours with comrade YUSUF SALOOJEE, also helped in the formation of the SACTU Solidarity Committee to mobilise support for the Trade Union in S.A. My illness was getting worse and I was unable to attend important meetings to which I was asked to attend, by SACTU.