Thobile Maso: Journey Of My Soul
On our investigation in Post and Telecom we found out that, that in 1981 in Johannesburg there were Technicians who had attempted to establish an Association for the black workers. Their motives leaked out and they were suppressed by security and some were detained. However, in 1986 when workers started complaining about the liason committee which was useless in representing their interests, whilst whites, coloureds and Indians workers had associations. But liason committee appointed by management failed to defend and advance the interests of the workers. We started thinking of re - establishing an association operating only in Eastern Cape as a starting point. The colleague and I, We started drafting structures and the aims and objectives of the Association we envisaging. We called the meetings in various Telecom yards, depots, Post Offices and others workplaces to present our vision on the Association which we thought would present the interests of the workers, we called it Post and telecom Black Workers’ Association (POTBWA ).
We started organising and establishing the interim structures in East London, Queenstown and Port Elizabeth areas. Ironically soon after we started, the problems of wages, racism and bad working conditions intensified and the workers started coming to us to seek advices. We had to respond to the issues that they laid before us. Also at around the same time the people who were suppressed and detained in 1981 got themselves revived and started again. When they heard that we were doing something in Eastern Cape they invited us to a meeting in Johannesburg. In our first meeting they presented their national draft operating plan which covered the whole South Africa, we welcomed this broad initiative and together we agreed to take this plan forward. This is how Post and Workers’ Association (POTWA) was established and was official adopted in the first congress at Regina Mondi in Soweto.
After the meetings we usually drove back during the night and arrived at around 7:30am just in time to start work. Then I was given a combi and assistant worker to carry out my duties. My supervisor was afraid to go into Mdantsane township so I was working without supervision, therefore it was my duty to work in the townships as the black technician. Therefore what I used to do was to pick up the combi from my workplace and drive to my family first to let them know that I was back. After that I would drive to a place where I could just park and sleep. By this time the workers were convinced that our plans were advancing and that they could rely on POTWA to sort out their work related problems. Therefore, they started collecting money monthly so they could support our trips to Johannesburg meetings after they found out that we are using our moneys and my colleague was also offering his car (‘The Colt’ - if that car was a human being it would live to tell the history of POTWA, unfortunately it was stolen in Johannesburg when we were attending the meeting) to travel to Johannesburg and other areas of Eastern and Western Cape.
Towards the end of 1986, the post office wanted 51% in order for POTWA to be recognised. By this time I was the Provincial Organising Secretary in the Eastern Cape while my colleague was the Chairperson of POTWA. In 1987 there was a strike for wage increase and against racism and bad working conditions. It was the same year NUM and SARHWU also had strikes. Post Office applied a court interdict to stop POTWA strike, but they lost the application and after a month so they gave workers ultimatum letters to go back to work or be dismissed but workers did not go back to work and there was a mass dismissals particularly in Eastern Cape. Ironically this lent leverage to our efforts and the recognition on POTWA in that we were able to get increase of wages and better conditions. some workers were re - employed.
Due to the victory of the union in fighting for the increments, the workers were willingly to subscribe. We remained unemployed and were only compesated by the organisation from members’s subscriptions. In 1989 the union was ready to employ us full time rather than doing work when need arose and being compesated haphazardly as voluntary organisers. I was an Organiser and was posted in Kimberly and my friend was a national Researcher
In 1987 after the dismissal, the Post Telecommunication Telegram International (PTTI) which POTWA was affiliated to sent the relief funds to the dismissed workers. We had compiled a list of the people who had been dismissed and had their geographical addresses. We were assigned to deliver the monies to the dismissed. This was a highly risky endeavor as there were roadblocks and security was tight on the side of the government. These deliveries also provided an opportunity to have a meeting with the workers in their respective areas and discussed about co - operatives. One day I went to Cradock a town in little karoo area where I delivered relief and also had a meeting. When I left the place at around midnight but to my surprise I came across a roadblock an unexpected thing given time and the remoteness of the place. The police did not have a problem identifying me. And to my surprise they even had a tape recorder playing my voice in the very meeting I had just had. Someone had taped me and given them the information so they were just waiting to catch me on my way back. I was scared out of my wits and they also did their best to frighten me more. One of them made a comment that when activists are being arrested they are no longer imprisoned and they told me that I am walking on thin slice of ice if I was not stopping this politicking game in the pretext of POTWA. That was quite a loaded statement because I knew exactly that some people have been silenced eternally without trials.
I was faced with yet another challenge, whether to continue in the struggle or withdraw to save my life and to protect my family from being hurt. A committed activist I was I did make a choice – to continue in the struggle. I knew I could not live with the gap I will leave behind if I quit and also I did not only sympathise with the course of the struggle but I was committed to it. We used to attend workshops in Lesotho of Post and Telecom telegraph International (PTTI) we were learning more about labour issues and Zimbabwe trainings organized by International Labour Organisation (ILO). At nights we were taking political economic sessions and more on socio economic formations.
The union strikes, one way or another reached the ears of South African and Ciskei security police, My wife and the children were being harassed daily, others appeared sometimes as if they were my friends trying to find my where abouts and if my wife negatively responded than they were expected they would kicked everything in the house and told her that it is not wise to keep a terrorist in the house. She would be threatened with detention and even given an advice to divorce in the guise that I will be in the detention for a long time.
We were determined to fight against the forces of the apartheid regime in our small ways and even went quietly for about nine months. During this time with others from affiliates of COSATU we underwent training out of the country and touched the airports of few countries en route. First we went to Lusaka where our journey to East Germany started – from Johannesburg - Lusaka - Angola – Malta – Moscow then to Berlin in German democratic Republic (GDR) as our destination and from Berlin we were drove to a union college in a small town called Bernau. The expenses were solidarity funds coming mostly from socialist, Scandinavian countries and the progressive organisations. We started a socialist course with other people mostly coming from African countries.
I came back to continue my post as POTWA organizer, I was involved in youth and students mobilisation. I left Kimberly and soon in 1991 I resumed work in Johannesburg coordinating the education in the national office of POTWA.
There are experiences which mark our service time in the union. Some are good some are bad. I remember vividly the accident we got involved in with my colleague, it was after a week we were detained in Legrange police station in Port Elizabeth and we were picked in one of our comrades’ house. On our way to Johannesburg after we had meeting with other dismissed workers in Port Elizabeth. I was on the wheel when suddenly the brakes failed and I lost control of the vehicle. Down the slope the car rolled. Instinct told me to let go and I squeezed myself under the steering and loosened my body so as to break the fall. As the car rolled down the slope I did not bump the sides of the car much hence did not sustain serious injuries as compared to my colleague. He unfortunately got it so bad that he even passed out. I did pass out for a brief moment of time but when I came noticed that he was unconscious and not breathing, I quickly made resuscitation exercise and he started to breath and become conscious again. Lucky for us a passing car stopped and the occupants phoned the ambulance. The ambulance took us to the near hospital in Hofmyer.
By this time the union was striving to affiliate to COSATU and in the congress we were faced with a challenge of POTWA in Kwa – Zulu Natal which was militant but rejecting to affiliate to COSATU because of political affiliation, most of POTWA members politically were Inkatha members. but we were able to convince the congress particular as Eastern Cape delegates that we cannot affiliate to international trade union and not affiliate here at home and there is no federation then excerpt COSATU and we proposed that the congress must adopt the resolution and then as leaders it is our obligation to go to Natal to put forward the reasons of importance in affiliating to COSATU.
We had a meeting with members in Natal and they were very angry they even threatened to kill us. The leaders tried to show the reasons of affiliating to COSATU, but we found out later that one of the problems besides political ideology, was misinterpretation of this term (affiliation ) to the members meant that POTWA would be no longer in existence they would be just members of COSATU. We succeed to convince the members and our next challenge was to build unity to all workers in Post and Telecommunication, but the first phase was to unite workers in particularly from POTWA – Africans, Post Employee Association of South Africa (PEASA ) for Coloureds and South African Post and Telecom Employees Association (SAPTEA ) for Indian workers. We had several meetings with the leaders of these two associations and even went with them to Lusaka and had a meeting with the ANC and SACTU.
During the dismissal phase, it had been agreed that any future opportunities in the Post Office that may arise, we will be given first priority. At around this time, such a chance presented itself. There were openings. Collogue of mine was re – employed back in Post Office and the vacant was in Cape Town but I did not go since I knew I had been blacklisted. The other reason was the job was going to take me away from the family again and I was now not willing to stay apart from my family. I had since joined ANC in Kimberly and being an executive member in Johannesburg SACP Central Branch. In the library I got engaged in the political discussions with other political activists from defferent schools of thoughts and we launched a party school. In 1991, I went back to join my family in Mdantsane and started to be active again in the ANC and SACP.
However there were serious changes that took place within the office and I was posted to Germiston as an organiser. It was during these time that I resigned my post due to problems caused by these changes. My resignation was not accepted but any way I left POTWA. It was not easy to leave POTWA because I was a co – founder of this union.
I came back to Mdantsane in the middle of 1991 and I started looking for work and in November I got employed in Transport and General Workers’ Union in East London Branch and for two months I was no getting any salary and at the end of December I tried to inquire about my salary but I found out that the Head Office of the union knew nothing about employment of me and the shopstewards and the workers were very angry and were even threatening to withdrew their subscriptions from the union because I was able in short space of time to address their problems of dismissals and negotiating their wage increases. I discouraged them with the suggestion of subscriptions withdrawal from the union because the political conscious was not allowing me to agree with that and then workers opted to collect some money so that at list my family can have something for Christmas day.
March 1992 I was employed as an organiser in South African Municipal Workers’ Union (SAMWU). I was organising in the former transkei and I received my salary cheque from T&GWU whilst I was already working for SAMWU, Shopstewards put pressure to the head office and they were persuasions that I should come back but I could not. Before becoming an Educator in SAMWU I was in Queenstown still as an organizer and also establish a cultural group called Mashishi Cultural Group (MCG) named after the president of SAMWU Petrus Mashishi. As a family we had to leave Mdantsane to Port Elizabeth because as A Provincial Educator I have to operate from SAMWU’s Provincial office in Port Elizabeth.
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Autobiography of Thobile Maso©Tobile Maso 2007
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Poems of Thobile Maso..........a selection