Harold Bhekisisa Nxasana was born on 26 September 1936 at Ixopo in southern Natal. His father, a teacher who later worked as a mine clerk, was killed in the Zulu-Indian riots of 1946. Nxasana attended the local mission school until grade 11 when he left to look for work in Durban.
Nxasana worked in the textiles industry for 12 years where he became a trade union organiser for the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). In 1967 he was arrested and convicted of furthering the aims of a banned organisation – the African National Congress (ANC). He served one year in prison and upon his release in 1968 he was banned for two years.
With labour discontent mounting in the early 1970s, Nxasana became involved in promoting the revival of SACTU. At the same time he worked briefly for the General Factory Workers Benefit Fund located at the Bolton Hall Labour Centre in Durban. In 1973 the Institute for Industrial Education (IIE) employed Nxasana as an organiser. He was later made assistant principal for the IIE. Along with Halton Cheadle and others, Nxasana helped form the Metal and Allied Workers’ Union and the National Union of Textile Workers. In 1973, these unions came together to form the Trade Union and Advisory and Coordinating Council.
During the 1970s Nxasana was instrumental in producing literature in Zulu for workers and he spoke to student groups at the University of Natal. For a year he was employed by Mewa Ramgobin, providing an informal link to the banned ANC. Thus, while continuing his trade union work, Nxasana was regularly in touch with underground ANC members such as Joseph Mdluli, Jacob Zuma, Harry Gwala and Griffiths Mxenge who were responsible for ferrying ANC recruits and arms between Swaziland and Natal.
Nxasana was detained in 1975 during which he was regularly assaulted. He was held in isolation for 19 months until he agreed to become a witness for the state in the trial of Harry Gwala and other underground ANC and SACTU members who had been arrested in the Pietermaritzburg trial. After providing damaging evidence against the trialists, he appeared once again on the stand as a witness for the defence to refute his own testimony and to explain the torture he had sustained which had forced him to give evidence. Nxasana was released at the end of the trial in August 1977. Five of the accused against whom he testified – Gwala, Matthews Meyiwa, John Nene, Alpheus Mdlalose and Anton Xaba – were sentenced to life in prison. A few months after his release, he was once again placed under a banning order and restricted to the Umlazi township for five years.
After his banning order expired, Nxasana continued his work with the trade unions, helping to produce the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) News, Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU) News and the South African Labour Bulletin. He also worked as a translator.
Sithole, J. and Ndlovu, S., 2006. “The Revival of the Labour Movement, 1970-1980” in South African Democracy Education Trust The Road to Democracy in South Africa, Volume 2: 1970-1980. Pretoria: Unisa Press|
G. Gerhart, T. Barnes, et al, n.d. From Protest to Challenge: Political Profiles, 1964-1990, volume 7. UNISA Press and Indiana University Press, forthcoming