Trade unionist, early member of SACTU, member of the CPSA and was the chair of the Durban District Committee from 1940 to 1944 and was the Party’s full time Organiser, a member of the Central Committee until the CPSA was disbanded
Gangen George Ponnen was born on 1 June 1913 in the district of Rooikopjes near Durban, in the then Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal). His father Ponnen, born in Madras (now Chennai), India, in 1890 came as an indentured labourer on a five-year contract, to work on the sugar estates of Natal.
His mother Gangamma, was also born in Madras, India. Her parents, together with their four children, came to Natal in 1893 as indentured labourers on a five-year contract to work on the sugar estates as well. His parents married in Durban in 1896.
After their five-year contract was over, his parents and grandparents settled in Natal with their families. They had to carry passes issued by the Indian Immigration Department.
His father previously worked on the sugar estates and was then 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 White officials in his spare time with his wife assisting him in these tasks.
While on duty at Tramways, Ponnen’s father fell and broke his ribs and was hospitalised for a long period. He was not paid any compensation. He quit the job and acquired a few acres of land on lease from a White private landowner, in the district of Rooikopjes, inland from Durban, where he started farming on a small scale, until his death in 1921.
George’s father was quite a militant worker. He had many encounters with the sirdars (overseers) and charge hands on the estates, and also with some of the workers who were stooges of the sirdars, doing their dirty work of corruption, bribery etc. Though he was unable to read or write, he was able to narrate stories of exploitation, corruption and mismanagement in the sugar mills and in the plantations where most of the women worked.
His father took part in the 1913 Strike against the £3 tax imposed on adult Indians in Natal and also against the provincial barriers which barred Indians from Natal entering other provinces of South Africa, and prohibited them from visiting other provinces without permits from the Indian Immigration Department. His 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. George had seven brothers and one sister.
In the area where their farm was situated the houses were isolated with no proper roads and transportation facilities. Their neighbours were African people who lived in huts. Two of his brothers worked in Durban. 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 was made available by the Health and Town Boards. No Black people were allowed to stay near the White areas nor could they make use of the facilities there.
George started primary school in 1920, at the St. Thomas Government Aided Indian School, about five miles from his home. Education was neither free nor compulsory. They had to pay fees and buy their own books. The school building was old and had no proper playgrounds and other facilities.
After his father’s death in 1921, George’s mother took charge of the family and the farm. After a couple of years, his mother was unable to manage the farm and gave it up. In 1924, the family moved to a suburb of Durban called Manning Place, about five or six miles from the city. Here the family rented a small apartment owned by an Indian family. Two of his brothers found jobs in a sheet metal factory, at the meagre wage of 10 and 15 shillings per week for six days labour. To make ends meet, his mother obtained a hawker’s licence and sold vegetables door to door.
George was in Class 111 at the St Thomas School when they left the area. Thus his schooling ended and he was forced to help his mother at home. His mother was finding it extremely difficult to make ends meet. George went into the city looking for work. He was about ten years old and being small in stature, this made it more difficult to find a job. Eventually after days of searching he found a job at the Standard Cigar Company in Alice Street, Durban, for a wage of five shillings a month. His job was to strip tobacco and fill it in moulds for cigars and cheroots. He worked nine hours a day, for six days a week. There was no overtime pay for extra time. He worked here for six months.
From Manning Place, the family then moved to a larger apartment in Black Hill, another suburb of Durban. Life improved a bit at home and his family decided that George should go back to school. He then went to St. Theresa Government Aided School for Coloureds in Sydenham, where he started in Standard One.
In 1926, one of his brothers lost his job and again life became tough at home. It was difficult to buy books, pay fees and maintain him at school. He was compelled to leave school, and once more found himself among the young work seekers. After a long search, he found a job at South African Tinsmith in Bond Street, Durban, for a wage of five shillings per week. His job was to apply rosin on tin cans for soldering, bending wires for belly-can handles, and other incidental work such as sweeping, cleaning etc.
His mother then decided to move to the suburb of Mayville, as an apartment at a lower rent was available. By this time his unemployed brother found a job in another sheet metal factory and life was a little easier at home. It was decided that George should again go back to school. He left work to attend the Cato Manor Government Aided Indian School. Here, he started in Std. 11 and continued to complete Std IV in 1928. At this time, two of his brothers lost their jobs. This was the period of the great depression. His family was not in a position to buy new books and pay the higher fees for him to continue to Standard five, forcing him to leave school and look for work.
Ponnen then found work at J.C. Kinghorn Broom and Brush Manufacturers, in Prince Edward Street, Durban, at a wage of 15 shillings a month, cutting fibres for various sizes of brooms and brushes.
After a few months he left this job for better pay at the Fives Roses Tea and Coffee Works in Brickhill Road, Durban. Here he was paid the princely sum of seven shillings and six pence per week for six days work. His job was to weigh and pack tea in packets. The workers were not provided with overalls or masks. They had to use their own handkerchiefs to cover their nostrils and mouths to keep out the dust. After a few months the factory moved to Point Road, Durban. In this process of moving, George was one among many others who were retrenched.
Following this, he then got a job at Wrights Knitting Mills, Umbilo Road, Durban, for a wage of £3.3/- per week. Here he learnt to machine knit garments and was later transferred to the Cutting Department. This was the first time he worked with White women, Indian and African males. Although the Black workers were doing the same work as the White women, the latter were earning higher wages. Discontent began to brew among the Black workers. They discussed ways and means of taking action. George approached the White women in his department to get unity among all workers in any action they were going to take. The response from the women was good. The management learnt of their activities, and George was fired with three other Indian workers.
After being unemployed for a few months, he then got a job at the African Clothing Manufacturers Limited in Mayville. He was a learner under a qualified machinist who was on piece work making trousers. George’s wage was seven shillings and six pence per week. Here he became a great friend of a worker named H. A. Naidoo who was also a machinist. Incidentally, H. A. also left school after completing Standard Five at the Depot Road Government Indian School, Greyville, Durban, his family being unable to afford keeping him at school to continue further. After a few months at this factory, HA and Ponnen decided to look for jobs in the city. They found jobs at the Durban Clothing, in Sydney Road, Durban where they had to work as a team at piece work rates, making trousers. With hard work they were able to earn 30 shillings per week each. Workers were fired if they failed to work hard enough and produce the maximum set by management.
H A and George became inseparable friends. For days he would stay with his family and H. A. would do the same, staying with George’s family. 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, which later moved to the Carlisle Street Government Indian School and then on to Sastri College in Centenary Road, Durban - the first secondary college for Indians in Natal built by the Indian community through self-help.
HA and Ponnen then completed Std VI and Std VII public examination. The Natal Technical College (White) in Smith Street, Durban awarded him the Preliminary Technical Certificate. HA and George signed up for the next term to complete the Junior Certificate (then Standard eight – Grade 10). This did not materialise because they were deeply involved in political and trade union work.
HA and Ponnen took part in physical training, debates, lectures, public speaking. At the first public debate in 1933, at the M. K. Gandhi Library Hall, Queen Street, Durban; HA and Ponnen were in a team of four opposing a motion "That India is not fit for self-government". They won that debate.
In 1934, the Grey Shirts, an organisation sympathetic to Hitler’s Nazis, were 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 South Africa was formed and counter meetings were held wherever the Grey Shirts appeared. HA and Ponnen 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 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 (of the then Transvaal), Dr. Edward Roux, Communist Party of South Africa and Eva Green of The Left Book Club. The meetings often ended with the Grey Shirts routed and their swastikas being burnt on the City Hall steps.
HA and Ponnen became very interested in the movement against Fascism. They bought literature that was sold by the Anti Fascist League at these meetings. At one of the meetings held at the Durban City Hall steps, they bought a paper called Umzebenzi from a person called Ramoutla.
Joins the Communist Party of South Africa
Ramoutla told them that the paper was the organ of the Communist Party of South Africa. HA and Ponnen wanted to know more about the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). Ramoutla gave them an address to meet him for further discussion.
When they got to this address on the appointed day, they met Ramoutla and Dr. Edward Roux. Both explained the policy and programme of the CPSA and its constitution. They were handed some pamphlets and other literature and were invited to join the CPSA.
HA and Ponnen went through most of the literature and discussed the points raised by Ramoutla and Roux. The pair was very impressed with the policy and programme of the CPSA. They again met Ramoutla and Roux at 49 Beatrice Street, Durban - it was an office and night school. Here they met Mike Diamond, Errol Shanley, James Mbete, Bob Murray, Bob Brerra, Philemon Tsle, Mbele and Douglas, all members of the CPSA. After a general discussion HA and Ponnen joined the CPSA. Later they were told that they were the first South Africans of Indian origin to join the CPSA.
After a month the Durban District Committee of the Party held a meeting at which Mike Diamond was elected chairperson, H.A., the District Secretary and George was elected District Party Organiser. Philemon Tsele, Bob Murray, Mbele, James Mbete and Errol Shanley were elected District Committee members.
The Party had become very small after the shooting of CPSA member, Johannes Nkosi, in 1930, during the Anti Pass demonstrations at Cartwright’s Flat, Durban. Many were imprisoned, deported and banished. The CPSA had to be built up. HA and Ponnen became so involved in work that they had to forego their evening classes at the Technical Institute.
Working under semi - illegal conditions, the Party grew in Durban. It was during this period that HA and Ponnen met Edwin Mofutsanyana, J.B. Marks and Issy Wolfson from the CPSA’s head office in Johannesburg. By 1939 the Durban District Committee had a large membership of Indian and African workers, a fair number of Coloureds and a few whites. The membership increased tremendously during the war years.
Ponnen chaired the Durban District Committee from 1940 to 1944 and was the Party’s full time Organiser for the same period and a member of the Central Committee until the Party was disbanded in 1949. When the Party re-constituted itself as the South African Communist Party (SACP), operating underground, Ponnen was involved again.
Early trade union activities
In 1928, the Garment Workers Industrial Union was formed. The organiser was J.C. Bolton. Membership was open to White, Indian and Coloured workers. 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. Bolton became the secretary of the Union with David Ramcheran as 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 men and women, the Executive of the Garment Workers Union was entirely White. Bolton concentrated on organising White women and men working in the industry. Working closely and colluding with the White employers, Bolton was able to get an Industrial Council set up with only the White employers and workers represented.
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 was not in the best interest of the garment workers, HA and Ponnen organised opposition to this move. They began organising the Indian and Coloured workers in all factories in Natal to oppose the move being made by the Indian employers. In the process they got workers to join the Garment Workers Union (Natal) organised by J.C. Bolton. They managed to halt the divisive tactics of the Indian employers in the Garment Industry.
Their next move was to see that the Indian and Coloured workers attended the general meetings of the Union and to change the structure and composition of the Executive Committee. At the Annual General Meeting HA and Ponnen were voted on to the Executive. This was the beginning to get more Black members on the Executive. At the following Annual General Meeting they got in four more Black members on to the Executive. This created an opportunity to raise matters affecting the Indian, Coloured and African workers in the industry, and also to check on the general policy of the Union. Though the Black members on the Executive were still in a minority, issues were raised very strongly. The relationship between Bolton and his cronies on the one hand and HA and Ponnen, on the other, became quite bitter. At one general meeting HA and Ponnen 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 HA and Ponnen were very disruptive at the general meeting and suggested that they should be expelled from the Union.
After opposition from the Black members and further discussion, cronies of Bolton moved and seconded their expulsion. The resolution was carried by all the White members voting for, and all the Black members against. In terms of the constitution HA and Ponnen got a requisition signed by the required number of members asking for a special general meeting to consider their appeal against the expulsion. The meeting was held with the biggest turn out they ever had. The pair won their appeal. The Executive's decision was reversed by a huge majority.
In November 1935, HA and Ponnen were involved in a strike for the first time. It was at the Durban Clothing Company, Sydney Road, Durban, where they 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 in his pants. One of the workers 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 assaulted him and told him not to come to work anymore.
The next day when they went to work they discovered that each of the non-white toilet doors had holes drilled in them. Every time the Black male workers went to the toilet, the employer would follow and peep through the holes. The procedure was most humiliating and there was resentment and protest by all workers including the white women. That evening, after work, HA and Ponnen held a meeting of all the Indian, African and Coloured workers at a nearby park. After discussing the situation, it was resolved to go on strike the next morning. During the night a meeting of the CPSA Executive at which A.T. Wanless was invited, was held. They discussed the situation leading up to the decision and it was resolved to go ahead with the strike action.
A leaflet was drawn up explaining the events leading to the decision to strike and called 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. A strike committee of five - one White, one Coloured, one African, HA and Ponnen was elected.
H.A., George and Violet Rudman, were at the factory gates first thing in the morning. They distributed the leaflets prepared during the night explaining the situation 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 and George spoke to all the workers explaining to them as to why they were on strike. When the factory doors opened, not a single worker went in - the strike was a 100% success.
They phoned the Union and the Industrial Council and explained the position at the factory asking them to come down to the factory as all the workers were on strike. They did not come. It was a "Lightning Strike" as the newspapers called it.
By lunch time the employer came to George and told him that since he was the leader of the strike, he was informing him that the holes in the toilet doors were closed and that the workers could go back to work. A deputation of three White women, three Indian and three African male workers, HA and Ponnen went into the factory to check if the holes were closed. The deputation then met the employer and submitted a few more demands on behalf of the white women workers. The employer agreed to these demands and the deputation left. HA and Ponnen addressed the workers and they went back to work. This was the first time in the history of South Africa that White women workers and Black male workers struck together.
The next day a policeman, Mr. White, came to the factory. HA and Ponnen were called into the office and handed summonses to appear in Court. They were charged with organising and leading an illegal strike. They went to the Union office with the summonses and told Bolton that defence must be organised. He told them that the strike was illegal and the Union could not defend them.
The Party arranged with lawyer Nelson Schonowolf to defend them. They appeared in court and pleaded not guilty. Bolton and the Industrial Council got hold of two young white women from the factory and organised them to be witnesses against them. After hearing HA and Ponnen’s story, the magistrate severely reprimanded the employer for his actions. The magistrate took into account their young age and as it was a first offence, sentenced them to a fine of £ 2 each, with a warning that they do not commit such an offence again. The workers at the factory paid the fines and for the defence counsel with funds they collected from all their fellow workers.
In December 1935, the Anti-Fascist League of South Africa distributed leaflets calling on all factory workers to elect delegates to attend a National Conference against Fascism to be held in Johannesburg. The workers at the Durban Clothing Factory, where HA and Ponnen worked, elected them as delegates to attend this conference. A collection was made for their travelling expenses. The factory closed for two weeks just before Christmas and they attended the Conference held on the 16th and 17th December. They had to get special permits to cross the border and enter into Transvaalas they were Natal Indians and had to abide by the Provincial Barrier laws.
At the Conference they met veteran trade union and working class leaders such as Solly Sachs, the Secretary of the Garment Workers Union (Transvaal), Willie Kalk, the Secretary of the Leather and Allied Workers Union, A.T. Wanless, Secretary of the Anti-Fascist League, Harry Snitcher, Advocate Cape Town, Edwin Mafutosanyana. (CPSA), Issy Wolfson, Secretary Tailoring Workers Union, Ronnie H. Fleet, Secretary of the Hairdressers Union, A.G. Forsyth, South African Trades and Labour Council, Eva Green, Left Book Club, Advocate H. Basner, Eli Weinberg, members of the Garment Workers Union from the Cape and others.
When the factory reopened the two reported to work. HA and Ponnen were told by the employer that there was no more work for them as the department in which they worked was closed down. This was the end of their employment at the Durban Clothing Company in which they became well known to workers in other factories as a result of the strike.
They then held a meeting to report back from the Anti-Fascist Conference at the same park where the strike decision was taken. This time many workers from the industries around the park also attended. The meeting agreed to make a collection at the factory to support HA and Ponnen until they found jobs. They continued having occasional meetings at the park to keep in contact with the workers.
HA and Ponnen went around looking for jobs at other clothing factories but with no success. Later they had enough evidence to show that Bolton and the Industrial Council had them black listed. They continued to be members of the Union and attended all Executive and General Meetings and fought against reactionary moves made by Bolton. On many occasions they carried the day. After months of unemployment, George got a job at the Dunlop Rubber Company, at a wage of 25 shillings per week. His job was to check and keep stock of bicycle tyres. In 1935 he was called back to his old job at the Knitting Mills. It was now known as Rex Knitting Mills after a change in ownership. He gave up the job at Dunlop and took the old job at £3 per week. There were White women, Indian and African men working here. They were unorganised.
The first thing Ponnen did was to get them organised. The manager, a Mr. Carson was a Nazi sympathiser. Since they made knitted garments, he 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. George was elected as the shop steward.
The first encounter he had with Carson was when he went with a deputation to discuss problems of the workers. When he saw that the deputation was mixed, White women and Black workers, the manager was furious. He told George that if he wanted anything he must come alone and not to bring the women with him. He also told him that he must not have anything to do with the “European” women. George told him that the deputation comprised of the members of the Union and that there was nothing wrong and that if he refused to discuss the problems they would have the matter reported to the Union and it would 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. George’s wage jumped to £3 per week from £1-10shillings.
While he was working at the knitting mills, H.A. did part time work for a tailor making trousers. They met every evening at the Party office with other members, and discussed various problems of trade union work and Party organisation.
Towards the end of 1935, a group of workers from the Falkirk Iron Works in Jacobs, near Durban, came to see George for his assistance in forming a union. After a number of secret meetings, the Iron and Steel Workers Union was formed, at an inaugural general meeting of the Falkirk Indian, African, and Coloured workers. A date for a special General meeting to adopt the constitution was set. HA and Ponnen worked on the draft constitution in the evenings and week-ends.
The Special General meeting was held and the Constitution was adopted. The Executive Committee elected H.A. as Secretary and P.M. Harry, one of the workers, was elected Chairman and M.P. Thompson was elected as an organiser.
After a few weeks, the employers got wind of the formation of the Union. The Chair 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 victimisation of the Chair of the Union.
Ponnen recalls an instance when a mass meeting of strikers and other workers was held at the Indian Sports Ground in Clairwood, a suburb of Durban, when A.W.G. Champion came along with some of his cronies to address the meeting. Champion told the African workers to walk out of the meeting because they were 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, Ponnen got up from the platform and addressed the workers. He told the African workers that they knew why they were on strike. They knew why they formed the Union and that Champion wanted to break the unity they had built up. The irony was that the only person who owned a shop, present at the meeting, was Champion himself. George told the African workers that if they agreed with Champion then they could follow him.
The African workers marched towards Champion and his cronies. Champion saw there was trouble and made off with his henchmen. Champion then spoke to the striking African workers outside the factory gates. The workers listened for a while and then started singing. Champion then realising that he was not being heard, slowly retired.
For the first time an Indian political organisation, the old reactionary Natal Indian Congress was drawn into a 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 to end the strike.
HA and Ponnen were on the Strike Relief Committee with representatives of the Congress. The strike committee received contributions from workers from a large number of factories and some trade unions from other centres. 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.
In 1937, the huge task of organising the sugar workers in Natal was undertaken. The Sugar Workers Union (Natal) was formed, starting at Hulletts Sugar Mill, in Rossburgh, Durban. HA and Ponnen, together with P.M. Harry, chairman of the Iron and Steel Workers Union, Mike Diamond and other volunteers - Wilson Cele, A.P. Pillay, L. Ramsunder, P.T. Coopen and others went out to the sugar estates every weekend - southwards up to Port Shepstone and Umzimkulu and northwards up to Tugela and the Zululand border. Since they could not hold meetings on company property, they had to have meetings on river banks or on the sea shore. Many times they risked their lives because thugs organised by the employers waited for them with weapons at various cane fields. The whole operation was a great risk, but the task was accomplished. For the first time in the sugar industry of South Africa some wages and conditions of service 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.
When H.A. Naidoo left Durban to work in Cape Town, Errol Shanley was elected Secretary of the Sugar Workers Union. Shanley was Secretary of the Paint and Polish Workers Union, and Secretary of the Durban Local Committee of the Trades and Labour Council at the time. About this time, M.P. Naicker also assisted in the organisation of the Sugar Cane Field Workers.
From 1936 to 1945 the following Unions were formed. HA and Ponnen gave direct assistance in organising Indian, African and Coloured Workers:
1936 - Iron and Steel Workers Union (Natal)
1937 - South African Railway and Harbour Workers Union
1937 - Industrial Union (Natal)
1938 - Chemical and Allied Workers Union
1938 - Food, Canning and Allied Workers Union
1940 - South Africa Tin Workers Union
1941 - Laundry, Cleaning and Dyeing Employees Union
1941 - Broom, Brush and Allied Workers Union
1941 - Tea, Coffee and Chicory Workers Union
1941 - Paint and Polish Workers Union
1942 - Bakery Employees Union.
1942 - Dock Workers Union
1942 - Box Workers Union
1942 - Natal Coal Miners Union
1942 - Timber Workers Union
1942 - Brick, Tile and Allied Workers Union
1942 - Dundee Glass Workers Union
1943 - African Distributive Workers Union
1944 - African Engineering Workers Union
1944 - Hospital Workers Union.
1945 - African Municipal Workers Union.
1946 - Brewery and Mineral Water Workers Union
1945 - Non European Transport and Bus Drivers Union
The Textile Workers Union was formed in 1935. The Secretary, Harry Rochlin, was one of the employees at the Natal Cotton and Woollen Mills. Bolton was trying to capture this Union. H.A., Edward Roux and Ponnen assisted Rochlin and his Executive to carry out a campaign against Bolton's move. They held meetings at all the Textile Mills. It was during this period that Ponnen met Stephen Dlamimi who was working at Natal Cotton and Woollen Mills. They were successful in keeping Bolton out of this Union.
Except for a few, all the above Unions were able to bring about improvements in wages and working conditions through pressure - strikes, conciliation Boards, Wage Board investigation etc.
Ponnen was involved in organising strikes with Indian, Coloured and African workers with the following unions, serving on the strike committees:
1936 - Iron and Steel Workers Union
1941 - Tea, Coffee and Chicory Workers Union
1942 - Food and Canning Workers Union
1942 - Tobacco Workers Union
1944 - Laundry Workers Union
1945 - Rubber Workers Union
1945 - Tobacco Workers Union
World War Two
In 1939, after the outbreak of World War II, Ponnen was retrenched by Rex Knitting Mills as a result of the business changing hands, he was once more unemployed. Ponnen then became the full time, honorary secretary of the Tobacco Workers Union in 1940. Subsequently, he was elected secretary of the following Unions: -
Ponnen was elected honorary adviser to the following Unions-
Rope and Mat Workers Union.
Tea, Coffee and Chicory Workers Union
Twine and Bag Workers Union.
Brewery and Mineral Water Workers Union.
Box Workers Union.
South African Tin Workers Union.
Food and Canning Workers Union.
Broom, Brush and Allied Workers Union.
Hospital Workers Union.
South African Railway and Harbour Workers Union.
Chemical and Allied Workers Union.
African Distributive Workers Union.
African Municipal Workers Union.
In 1950, Ponnen was the first person in then Natal to be banned for five years. He was ordered to resign from all the unions and the Indian Congress and not belong to any organisation, enter any factory, or to leave the Magisterial District of Durban. All his union work was handed over to colleagues who were not banned.
As a result, he lost his livelihood. His wife, Vera, was not working and they had two children, Indira and Marsha. Ponnen then started dressmaking at home. Vera helped him in this project. Later the Tea and Coffee Workers Union vacated their office and they asked him to take it over. He transferred his dressmaking to the office. All his friends brought him work.
A friend suggested that the Ponnens open a small factory, which he was prepared to finance. The factory was started but after 12 months Ponnen withdrew from the partnership as he did not like the way the finances were handled. Soon after this two other friends suggested they open a factory. The two friends and the Ponnens started the factory, called "Equal Partnership" in 1956. Vera and George ran the factory. Though banned, he continued to keep in contact with the trade unions and the political organisations.
Many trade union and meetings were held at the factory and at the Ponnen’s flat, at 20 Wills Court. In 1962, the last National Conference of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), at the TEXANO Hall, was banned when it started. The meeting was then completed at their flat with Vera and George doing the cooking for the delegates.
In 1960, during the state of emergency when many trade unionists and all the SACTU leaders were detained, the unions were faced with many problems. Ponnen had secret meetings with each of the Executives of the Unions and guided them on what to do. Some of these meetings were held at the factory and others at their flat. All monies collected from the shop stewards were brought to him for safekeeping. There were some problems with regard to workers in different industries. He got all the enrolment forms and sorted them out along factory and industry basis, 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 from detention there was enough money to pay them wages for three months. The rent, telephone etc., was already paid. He handed to them all the cash, documents and his recommendations at the full meeting of SACTU Executive. When the South African Trades and Labour Council Conference decided to follow the racial policy of the Government and barred African workers from the Council, the Black Unions and some progressive mixed unions walked out. In 1955 the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) was constituted. There were discussions throughout the country on the method of future work in trade Unions. Poonen took part in many of these discussions in Durban.
While organising in the trade unions, H.A. and Ponnen were doing political work also. Together with Sooboo Rajah, they 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 a 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 Ponnen joined the Natal Indian Association. To carry out an effective fight against the reactionary policies of the Association, they formed the Nationalist Bloc of the Natal Indian Association in opposition to the leadership.
Their "first step was to bring about unity in the Indian National Organisation. To achieve this they carried out a campaign. The Liberal Study Group was started as an open forum for discussion. They started a paper "The Call", held mass meetings under the banner of the National First Bloc of the Natal Indian Association and under the banner of the Natal Indian Youth League. In this way their campaign became 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, addressing meetings throughout Natal.
Natal Indian Congress to start negotiations for unity. Ponnen was a member of the Unity Committee. The Association gave the Nationalist Bloc only one seat on the committee. After prolonged negotiations, unity was achieved. The name of the united national organisation was the Natal Indian Congress, founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1894.
Ponnen and his group, from the Nationalist Bloc, formed the Anti-Segregation Committee, which had tremendous support from the people. The committee carried out a massive campaign. Huge mass meetings were held in the centre of city and the affected areas, Riverside, Durban North and Clairwood. They called on the people to resist while the Congress leadership was talking about compromises. The Campaign carried out by the Anti-Segregation Council was effective and the City Council shelved its proposals.
Ponnen’s group started a campaign for membership, addressing meetings at factories and calling on Indian workers to join the NIC and the Coloured workers to join the African Peoples Organisation. Thousands joined the Congress. The Annual General Meeting was held at the Curries Fountain Football Ground; nearly 40,000 people 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 the elections, a new leadership with progressive policies was elected.. Dr. Monty Naicker was elected President of the Natal Indian Congress. Ponnen was one of the Vice Presidents until he 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. When the ANC and Congress of Democrats were banned, and many leading members of the Congress Alliance were under banning orders, the National Joint Executive continued to function underground and Ponnen together with Vera attended most of these meetings.
Ponnen was arrested and detained under the 90 Days Detention Law in 1964. He was released and re-arrested after the 90 days solitary confinement and held in solitary confinement for another 30 days. Thereafter he was summoned to court to give evidence, and was sentenced to 12 months -imprisonment for refusing to do so. He appealed and was granted bail.
The ANC advised Ponnen to leave the country. In May 1965, Vera and Ponnen fled South Africa. He spent 12 months in Botswana as a refugee, then went to Zambia and worked there for nearly ten years. Here Vera and he continued to carry out SACTU and ANC work.
Vera and George came to Canada towards the end of 1975 to join their two daughters, Indira and Marsha. Again they involved themselves in ANC and SACTU work.
The NEC of the ANC, in October 1980, requested Ponnen to go to Amsterdam to meet the Holland Committee on South Africa, to assist in the establishment of a textile and Clothing Factory in Tanzania. Ponnen’s memo gave a full outlay of the factory, structure of the plant and machinery. The purpose of the factory was to provide vocational training for ANC refugees and to raise support for the establishment of a textile factory.
After many difficulties, financial, technical and others, the factory was eventually built after 1983. The anti-apartheid committee in Holland was able to raise support for the project. By now Ponnen was now travelling from Canada to Amsterdam then to Tanzania, working on the project. He was able to acquire all the machines in Amsterdam, including the other requirements for starting the factory. Ponnen then proceeded to the German Democratic Republic at the request of the NEC of the ANC, and presented a report on the development of the project. He was able to get support for donations of material (cloth etc) to start the factory. After installation of the machinery was completed, the recruiting of employees was drawn from the refugees and training started.
In 1985 he was struck with malaria and was then hospitalised in Canada. He kept in contact with the committees of the factory to see what was going on and to make further suggestions. While in Canada, whenever he was able to, Ponnen spoke at meetings when required, making one or two national tours with Yusuf Saloojee. Ponnen also helped in the formation of the SACTU Solidarity Committee to mobilise support for trade unions in South Africa. His illness was getting worse and he was unable to attend important meetings on behalf of SACTU.
Though ill, he insisted on returning to South Africa in February 1994 to vote in the country’s first democratic election. George Ponnen passed away in January 1996.
• Desai, A. & Vahed,G.(2010). Monty Naicker - Between Reason and Treason. Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal: Shuter & Shooter.
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