Labour activist, first women leader of SACWU and vice-president of SACTU
Viola Hashe was born in 1926, in Gabashane in the Orange Free State. Hashe was a teacher by profession.
Hashe became involved in the labour movement early on in her life. In the early 1950s she was elected Assistant Secretary of the Chemical Workers Union and the Dairy Workers Union. Hashe also joined the African National Congress (ANC) in the early 1950s. In 1953 and 1954, Hashe served on the Transvaal Provincial Executive of the ANC, and became the first woman regional chairperson of the West Rand region of Congress. In 1956, she was the first woman to be threatened with deportation under Section 29 of the Urban Areas Act. No reasons were given for the notice except a vague reference to Hashe 'not being good' for the township in which she lived. However, with the help of anti-apartheid lawyer, Shulamith Muller, the Town Council was forced to back down barely seven hours before the order was to take effect.
From 1956 on, she began working with South African Clothing Workers Union (SACWU). This union is one of the oldest African trade unions in the country, founded in 1928 by Gana Makabeni. When large numbers of African women began to enter the garment industry, 'Solly' Sachs of the Garment Workers Union organised them into a separate union for African women only, the GWU of African Women. This was done because in terms of the Industrial Conciliation Act, 'pass-bearing natives' could not be registered as 'employees' and African women were not yet obliged to carry passes. Hashe began as a typist in the SACWU office and then became private secretary to Makabeni. After his death in 1955 she succeeded him as Secretary General. When Hashe was elected Secretary General of the SACWU in March 1956 she became the first women leader of an all male union in South Africa. In her capacity as Secretary General of the SACWU, 'she displayed exceptional qualities as a leader and served the union very well'.
In the mid-1950's SACWU became a member of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). An equally well-respected leader in SACTU, Hashe became a member of the Management Committee from 1956 onwards, and in 1960 became Vice-President of SACTU. Unlike Lucy Mvubelo, who was elected as the first women Vice-President of SACTU in 1955 but co-opted into the SATUC-ATUSA camp, Hashe resisted co-optation by the reformist elements and became one of SACTU's most dynamic leaders. Hashe was elected to represent SACTU at various Wage Board Hearings, public meetings and in 1959 to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conference in Geneva. At SACTU's important 1959 Conference in Durban, she was a main speaker on 'Passes for Women'.
Presiding over the SACTU Annual Conference in October 1960 after the State of Emergency had been lifted, Hashe summed up SACTU's attitude to the increasing attacks on the organisation and its members when she stated 'We will not budge an inch. We will not be divided. The interests of the workers are one.' Hashe continued to carry out her work in the interests of all workers until the inevitable retribution of the state was directed against her. In 1963, along with Frances Baard and Mary Moodley, she was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act and restricted to Roodepoort where she lived until her death in 1977.
• Orr, L. 2006. Labour Pains: Women’s leadership and gender strategies in Cosatu. South Africa: Naledi Books
• Sactwu 2012. “Brief History of SACTWU” in Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union [online]. Available at www.sactwu.org.za[Accessed on 23 November]
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