/ 27 November 2009

So long to a fiery spirit

A generation that straddled the turbulent 1950s, the oppressive 1960s and the new openings of the 1970s is passing on. It included Harriet Bolton, who searched for new opportunities and strategies in a bleak period.

Bolton, a garment industry unionist and guardian of the rising union movement of the 1970s, died this week. A fiery spirit, she helped lay the foundations for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). She attracted some of the best minds and the most energetic organisers to the task of rebuilding the union movement after its decimation by the security police in the 1960s. She did this by opening a centre for those prepared to organise African workers.

Bolton showed what she could do at the phenomenal mass meeting in 1971 to protest against slave wages in the garment industry at Durban’s Currie’s Fountain. About 32 000 workers attended — the entire industry, except for those locked in by employers.

She was fearless: when Bureau of State Security (Boss) agents came to her office she promptly threw them out. Bolton drew her ideas from international labour history. The benefit fund based in Bolton Hall, which drew in thousands of workers in the early 1970s, was inspired by her. She understood that mass unionisation had to rest on a bedrock of benefits and concrete achievements.

When the 1973 strikes roared through Durban and beyond, the nuclear structures she had encouraged flourished into large formations and eventually mass unions. At this time and for some time beyond, union regrowth was synonymous with Bolton Hall.

It gathered stalwarts from the South African Congress of Trade Unions, young university radicals, seasoned factory-floor leaders, lawyers and academics. Bhekisisa Nxa-sana, Rick Turner, Ela Gandhi, Halton Cheadle, June-Rose Nala, Eddie Webster, Barney Dladla, Chris Nicholson and Alec Erwin were present then, as were members of the Umkhonto weSizwe underground.

It was an extraordinarily productive time. Non-racial unions were launched in the metal, textile, clothing, furniture, chemical and transport sectors. The South African Labour Bulletin was started and the Institute for Industrial Education (now the Workers’ College) was formed.

Although the inevitable repression followed in the bannings of February 1974, most of these unions blossomed into the Federation of Trade Unions (Fosatu) and are still part of the movement.

Bolton saw that unions could be centres for mass resistance, prompting her sustained opposition to the conservative leadership of the Trade Union Council of South Africa (Tucsa).

She accurately predicted Tucsa’s demise and fought its compromises, to the point of proposing that the Natal garment union should withdraw.

Bolton was a fierce proponent of the independence of labour from even the best of friends. Organisers had to avoid becoming a bureaucracy and links with other groups had to bolster union strength.

For her, work was life. Her life represented a spirited defence of the oppressed.

David Hemson is research director of Durban’s Centre for Service Delivery