Commemorating 158 Years
IN THEIR NAME... a 158 year commemoration of hard work and sacrifice. A tribute to the shoe, clothing & textile factory workers of our lived experience. May their soul’s journey be complete.
A raconteur I know calls Chatsworth his ancestral home. I share his claim having been raised in Unit 10 Woodhurst, a stone throw from his beloved Bangladesh (Unit 3 Westcliff). Unit 10 is my universe; my soul resides there no matter where life’s journey may take me.
Growing up in a township gives one many fond memories to recall when reflecting on life’s journey. One such tale of remembrance was a time when I was in primary school, arriving home from school with my twin brother to be fed our mid afternoon ‘snack treat’ by my neighbour’s mother. In those years, neighbours were an extended part of the family so it was not unusual to call my neighbour’s mother Ma. Ma gave us freshly baked bread, not that apartheid state fed bread that that denied us ciabatta, rye and crusty sourdough now found at Woolies. Her crusty white bread was smothered with butter and washed down with tea, sweetened with condensed milk served in a clear glass cup and saucer. My neighbour’s son (now a famous divorce lawyer) had a habit of dipping his sliced bread into his cup of tea. It’s a habit that I still cringe at, notwithstanding my simple upbringing!
Years later I figured out why we had gone to my neighbour’s house for that snack. The last remaining sister of our household had been married off with no one to treat us when we got home after learning how ‘Jan het die bal geskop’! My beloved mother was at that time working in AM Lockhart Clothing factory in Denis Hurley St(Queen St) as a seamstress. She was one of thousands of workers, all doing their bit to enhance the lives of their children. They worked tirelessly in providing life’s little luxuries like that Friday treat of queen cake that we couldn’t wait to wolf down.
This year, 158 years since our indentured ancestry stepped off the Truro at Port Natal, I would like to give thanks to the heroes and heroines of our lived experience from a not too distant past. While much has been written and still to be written on our indentured past, much too must be commemorated to champion what I refer to as the golden age of minority advancement in a place we call home.
In a hundred years from1860 to 1960, life’s journey for the majority of South African Indians was a wretched existence. In a journal article, The 'Culture of Poverty' and the South African poor by Geoffrey H. Waters in 1978, it was estimated that 64% of Indians living in South Africa, lived below the poverty datum line. Hopes to break that endless cycle of poverty was often dashed, as conditions to accelerate advancement was not conducive. Limited employment opportunities, job reservation (yes pre 1994), successive world wars, colonial and apartheid era depredations together with depressed economies, all contrived to keep advancement at bay. The apartheid state expropriated prime urban land that ripped the heart away from people who lived in the Magazine & Railway Barracks, Mayville, Cato Manor, Greyville, etc. These people were forcibly removed to places like Chatsworth and Phoenix, 30 to 40 km from their places of work.
To account for the high cost of living, ladies in the new townships were now forced to work to make life bearable. The number of Indian women working in factories, especially in the garment industry, grew dramatically during the 1960s. While in 1951 only 1518 Indian women were employed in industry, by 1970 this grew to 13 530. Their wages were vital to survival in the new townships, where the demands of rent, electricity and the vast amount of modern consumer goods put pressure on the family’s income.
By the 1980’s some Indian women were able break that cycle of poverty that trapped our ancestry for more than 100 years. In addition to providing for amenities and better living conditions, by far their finest hour was seen through the access of tertiary education they gifted to their children. Most of these women were most resourceful by creating a system of lotteries to pay for costs that would not normally be covered instantly. In some instances, these lotteries were collected for paying most university graduates registration fees. My Mother-in-law who worked for Twin Clothing in Umgeni Rd was able to provide for my wife’s registration fees through the generosity of other factory workers in making sure that she collects her lump sum lottery in February that year. Fortunately my wife’s school results were much better than mine, so she secured a bursary from the Textile & Garment workers union that paid for her studies at my beloved UDW. I am eternally grateful for that bursary as I met my wife at university. In this journey of our life, a set of fortunate events, together with the hard work of factory workers conspired to change our future.
Over time, and by the mid-1990s, our country threw open the doors of international trade by acceding to the World Trade Organisation. We were lauded for lowering trade barriers. Perversely, this action also marked the start of the steep decline, if not the death, of industries such as the clothing, textile and footwear sectors that our parents had so tirelessly worked in. The chilly wind of globalization was only then beginning to show its teeth.
Saftu’s general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi once wrote, “Optimism is an important ingredient to a strategy to eliminate poverty and unemployment. But it isn’t a strategy. We need to overcome a few hurdles. Key among these is tackling the education crisis that sees dropout rates, in the poverty-stricken areas of our country such as Manenberg, as high as 80 percent. We need to align training to suit the needs of the workplace; and the government needs to strengthen the enforcement of trade laws if we are to rescue our manufacturing sector.” Added to this, I do hope we could also enjoy our sardines on a much regular basis…
Ironically the attempt to destabilize the lives of our ancestry to move them to places like Chatsworth, Phoenix and other areas provided measured success for the colonialist and apartheid administration. Success in breaking the poverty cycle that plagued our ancestry was overcome in some quarters. Life’s journey for the children of the working class residents post the 1960’s changed significantly. These children have since moved on, now living a bourgeois existence in suburbs that stock ciabatta and rye bread. Perhaps as we unpack the true dawn of ‘Thuma Mina’, we ought to take heed of Vavi’s advice and draw on the spirit of our factory working parents to rebuild this great country of ours. Hopefully this approach too could also change the life’s journey of so many people that are stuck in the tenements of many townships across South Africa as well as those from my beloved ancestral village!
Written By Selvan Naidoo
1860 Heritage Centre.