John Taolo Gaetsewe

Names: Gaetsewe, John Taolo

Died: December 1988, Botswana

In summary: Trade unionist, member of the ANC and General Secretary of SACTU, Robben Island prisoner, banned person

John Taolo Gaetsewe was born at Maruping village in Ga-Segonyana, Northern Cape. He was a long-standing and respected member of the African National Congress (ANC), and a dedicated trade unionist.

Gaetsewe was very active in the African National Union of Laundry and Dry Cleaning Workers and the Management Committee of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). Gaetsewe never sought easy compromises. At a time when white workers in South Africa,organisedas they were in the Trade Union Council of South Africa (TUCSA) and in other all-white enclaves, ignoring the problems of their black fellow-workers, he attacked them.

At a mass rally to inaugurate SACTU’s “one pound a day” campaign in the 1950s, Gaetsewe stated that it was not only black workers who earned starvation wages, but also that many white women workers in the tobacco, distributive, sweet, laundry and textile industries were also grossly underpaid.  He stressed, as he always did, the need for the unity and collective strength of all workers. It was his belief that unity was the only way forward. At a Special Conference called by SACTU on job reservation, Gaetsewe spoke at length about having confidence in workers and not underestimating their strength. This confidence inspired those who worked with him. His commitment was total, and he was not deterred by the hostility of employers or by harassment from the security police who were carrying out the policy of the regime, of “bleeding the black trade unions to death.”

In December 1956, at the time of the mass arrests of all the leading members of the Congress Alliance, including the President and the General Secretary of SACTU and 31 other officials, Gaetsewe helped to keep the SACTU together throughout the four and a half years of the Treason Trial that followed.  

With members of the SACTU Local and Management Committees, Gaetsewe participated in many attempts to organise mineworkers at a time when anyone who set foot on mining ground was subject to instant arrest. Gaetsewe secretly left South Africa to meet trade unionists in Africa and Europe and on his return was sentenced to two years` imprisonment which he served on Robben Island. Later, on appeal, his sentence was reduced to nine months for leaving the country without travel documents. By 1963, the “smash SACTU” campaign of the regime was well under way, with the majority of leading officials imprisoned, detained or banned. Subsequently, Gaetsewe was banned and placed under 24-hour house arrest, later reduced to 12 hours, and his effectiveness in the trade union movement was reduced.

Most of the SACTU Local Committees were demolished by the actions of the government, and SACTU, though never subjected to a legal ban, had to go underground. Once again, Gaetsewe left the country without travel documents, and spent a brief period studying in the German Democratic Republic. A group of SACTU exiles had formed a committee in London, and Gaetsewe joined in his capacityas General Secretary of SACTU. He re-established links with the international trade union movement, and made it clear that SACTU still existed and was a force to be reckoned with.  

He traveled extensively in Africa, Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland, in France (where the Mayor of Le Havre gave him a reception), in Italy, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Although Gaetsewe was a full-time SACTU official based in London, he earned a minimal wage, and his rented flat served as the SACTU office for many years. As SACTU was re-establishing itself in Tanzania and Zambia, he played a vital role as the London office was able to contribute to the setting up of offices in those countries. During his time in London, he attended the tripartite Conference held by the International Labour Organisation every June in Geneva, and he always made it clear to the representatives of governments, employers and workers present there that apartheid could not be justified, reformed or diluted but had to be overthrown. He became an accomplished speaker, and his fellow trade unionists abroad probably did not know how limited his formal education had been. He read copiously, and was well aware of the early struggles of workers both in South Africa and abroad.

While in London Gaetsewe set up an editorial board to re-issue the SACTU journal, Workers` Unity, copies of which were sent into South Africa and played an important role in re-establishing links with SACTU members. This also gave birth to a new and militant generation of young workers.

Together they formed Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in 1985, which has based many of its principles on the constitution of SACTU. Chief of these is the declaration that trade union rights cannot be won in a vacuum, and that the trade union and political struggles are linked.

He died after a long battle with illness in Botswana in December 1988 and was buried in Francistown on 31 December.

In recognition for his contribution in the struggle against Apartheid, the Kgalagadi District Municipality was renamed the JohnTaolo GaetseweDistrict Municipality in 2008

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