​Humanitarian and union leader Phiroshaw Camay dies aged 69

Camay is remembered as being warm, approachable and dignified. (Commonwealth Foundation)

Camay is remembered as being warm, approachable and dignified. (Commonwealth Foundation)

Phiroshaw Camay (1947 – 2016)

Phiroshaw Camay, who died last week, was probably my closest friend and comrade for more than three decades. We first met in 1982, during trade union unity talks that ultimately led to the formation of labour union federation Cosatu in 1985.

He was then the general secretary of the Council of Unions of South Africa (Cusa) and I an organiser for the Orange-Vaal General Workers Union, based in Vereeniging.

PC, as he was affectionately known, became interested in trade unions while he was working as a librarian in the Johannesburg City Council. He rose through the ranks to become the leader of Cusa and thereafter the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), and a major figure in the wider trade union movement.
He played a leading role in the trade union unity talks but Cusa, influenced more by the thinking of the Pan Africanist Congress and the Black Consciousness Movement, did not join the largely ANC and Freedom Charter-aligned unions that constituted Cosatu at its birth in 1985.

But in 1989, PC resigned from Nactu after failing to get the federation to support the Harare Declaration, in which the ANC set the terms for negotiations with the then Nationalist Party that ultimately culminated in the 1993 settlement and the 1994 first nonracial and democratic elections in South Africa. His view was that the federation he led could not ignore major political developments that were going to affect the future of the country.

Deeply disappointed, he decided with a few others to form the Co-operative for Research and Education (Core) in 1990, a nongovernmental organisation he led since then, through thick and thin. Even when the funding environment became tough after 1994, and especially in the past decade, he managed to hold Core together.

Many were unaware that part of the reason Core stayed afloat was the fact that he took a big cut in salary so as not to have to lay off staff, a measure undoubtedly influenced by his days in the union movement and the resultant sympathy for workers.

To his credit, PC never showed any interest in getting into government or the corporate sector after 1994. With his experience and skills he could have earned a big salary, enjoyed great perks and led a comfortable life, as did so many other former trade unionists. No, he consistently stuck to trying to build a strong civil society, especially in light of the evident neglect of it by the ANC government after 1994.

Somebody on Facebook said she had never in all the years heard him talk ill of people. She was right. Try to drag him into slandering somebody, no matter who it was, and you would fail. But in a discussion of ideas and organisations and the important issues of the day, you would hear a lot from him. And though he never suffered fools gladly, he also never once that I can recall attacked or insulted people.

At a personal level he was always warm, approachable and dignified. There was a discernible equanimity he seemed to possess, which benefited him immensely. I never saw him really angry. We have lost a great man who passed away far too soon at the age of 69, the result of complications following heart surgery. – Ebrahim Harvey

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