Virgile Joseph Bonhomme

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Biographical information

Synopsis:

Trade unionist, political activist, political prisoner, founder member and Chair of the Coloured Labour Party in Natal, Vice-Chair of the Durban Housing Action Committee, Vice-Chair of the United Democratic Front, was instrumental in establishing the C

First name: 
Virgile
Middle name: 
Joseph
Last name: 
Bonhomme
Location of birth: 
Durban

Virgile Joseph Bonhomme was born in Durban on 15 March 1944 to Patricia and Francoise Virgile Bonhomme.

Bonhomme attended St Augustine’s Junior School, Durban and then attended Bechet College where he completed Standard Six (Grade Eight). At the age of 15 he became an apprentice upholsterer at a furniture manufacturing business, where he remained for 14 years.

Whilst employed at the furniture factory, Bonhomme became involved in politics. He joined the Furniture and Allied Workers Trade Union, an affiliate of the Trades Union Council of South Africa (TUCSA). In 1972 he mobilised workers at all furniture manufacturing companies in the then Natal to attend meetings to demand higher wages. Appalled at the miserably low wages, Bonhomme and his brother, Trevor, led a Natal-wide furniture workers strike ”” the first in the trade in the country.

Initially, management refused to consider the workers’ proposals but following a no-overtime strike and then a go-slow, management eventually agreed to substantial increases, the highest ever received by workers.

Following this, Bonhomme was elected Vice-President of the Furniture and Allied Workers Trade Union in 1973.

Bonhomme’s first protest as an adult was against the American singer Eartha Kitt’s visit to South Africa in 1973.

In March 1974, Bonhomme’s brother, Trevor and he were moved to a smaller company by their employer. As a result they were cut off from the larger work force. The company would not re-instate them in their previous positions, so both brothers resigned.

He remained unemployed for a long period and then worked in Vryheid, Natal (now kwaZulu-Natal). He returned to Durban, found employment at a fibreglass company which subsequently closed down. Since he was unemployed, he lost his trade union membership. From then on he undertook private upholstery work.

In 1969, Bonhomme became one of the founder members of the Coloured Labour Party in Natal. He became the Chair of the Greenwood Park branch in 1972 and in 1974 the Natal Chairman of the Party.

Finally, in 1979 he resigned from the Party as he was disenchanted with the leadership of the Party under Sonny Leon and Allan Hendrickse.

Following his resignation, three of the four active branches withdrew and the Labour Party was weakened in Natal.

Bonhomme, in the political vacuum, helped form community organisations to work outside the system. Bonhomme became the Vice-Chair of the Durban Housing Action Committee (DHAC) following its formation in 1980.

In 1980, Bonhomme played a vital role in winning support of parents during the Coloured and Indian students’ schools boycott.

In 1981, he became involved in rent issues in Coloured and Indian areas. He served on the Working Committee set up by the Durban City Council and presented the findings of a study undertaken by DHAC which showed the high percentage of people residing in Newlands East ( a Coloured group area) and Phoenix (an Indian group area) were actually living below subsistence level.

He became an ad-hoc member of the Natal United Democratic Front (UDF) together with Jerry Coovadia and Archie Gumede. He was later elected one of the Vice – Chairmen of the UDF at its launch in August 1983.

In 1983, he was instrumental in establishing the Committees of Concern in Sydenham, Wentworth and Newlands East, (Coloured group areas) which were all affiliated to the UDF. In November 1983, Bonhomme was elected the Chair of the United Committees of Concern.

Days before 10 000 protesters were to gather at a Durban whites-only beach for a protest swim in 1989, he was arrested. This was despite his wife’s attempts to hide him in a basket full of laundry when the police came knocking on his door.

He spent two months in prison and was released under restriction. When the ANC was unbanned, it asked him to join the organisation formally and become part of the local government.

In 1996 a court challenge led to the first democratic government providing a cheap basic water supply to the destitute. The person behind the challenge was African National Congress (ANC) councillor Bonhomme.

Since then, the idea of free or cheap basic water has spread across South Africa, and the state has accepted its responsibility in this regard. But Bonhomme’s role has never been acknowledged by the government. The Durban Metro Council became the first government structure to provide a “lifeline” supply of water to all its residents who were unable to pay their water accounts. The policy, now revised as the mandatory provision of 6 000 litres of free water to all destitute families, was pushed into the ANC’s 2000 local government election manifesto by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). Since then, various structures and ANC leaders have claimed ownership of the policy.


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Last updated : 04-Feb-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 25-May-2015