If moments of historical significance were marked by the blowing of horns and the tolling of bells, South Africa would be standing still to observe the death of comrade Eric Mtshali.
His death and those of his generation mark the end of an era of a rare breed of freedom fighters who were groomed to be highly political, to be trade unionists, to be Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) combatants, to be organic intellectuals and, above all, to be patriotic. All these Mtshali grew to be.
Mtshali was born in Durban in the early 1930s. After matriculating he was absorbed into the politics of the country. The ground was fertile for him to grow fast politically. He was surrounded by powerful leaders in the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP, then underground) and in the trade unions. These were leaders like Chief Albert Luthuli, president general of the ANC, and veteran trade unionists Stephen Dlamini, MP Naicker, Harry Gwala, George Poonen, Moses Mabhida, Dorothy Nyembe and others.
He became active mainly in the trade union movement in the 1950s, marked by the Defiance Campaign; the creation of the first nonracial trade union federation, the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu); the adoption of the Freedom Charter; the Women’s March to the Union Buildings; and the Treason Trial.
As a young trade unionist he would carry the membership forms and collect the people’s demands for inclusion in the Freedom Charter.
Mtshali’s trade union activities started with organising dockworkers, a time when industrial unions were almost nonexistent. The National General Workers Unions was the easier route, yet this was a direct challenge to the principle of organising workers according to the industry in which they work. When Sactu was formed in 1955, it embraced the industrial principle, but at its fifth conference it passed a resolution endorsing the formation of General Workers Unions as a temporary home while the industrial unions were being formed. Sactu local committees were tasked to lead the transition to the industrial unions and Mtshali played a role in this.
Mtshali was one of the founding members of Sactu.
When MK was formed in 1961, Mtshali became part of the command structure in Natal. He did his work with distinction until circumstances forced him to go into exile in 1962. It was then that he went for military training in the Soviet Union and Cuba. He received intelligence training as well. On his return he went to Kongwa, the first ANC base in Tanzania. It was here that he rubbed shoulders with great leaders such as JB Marks, Moses Kotane, Archie Sibeko (Zola Zembe), Mark Shope, Aaron Pemba (BB), Chris Hani and many others under the leadership of OR Tambo.
When the Wankie and Sepolilo 1967 campaign was conceived, Mtshali’s intelligence training was put into full use.
In 1971 he was elected to the central committee of the SACP. His theoretical grounding was used to develop young comrades, especially after 1976 when oqiniselani flooded the ranks of the ANC in exile. Mtshali became known as a person who would not jump to conclusions but consider all angles of the problem before he aired his views.
The ANC assigned him the responsibility of being the chief representative (ambassador equivalent) in Tanzania until 1976. Sactu deployed him to the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) in Prague to relieve Moses Mabhida, who was needed for other responsibilities in Africa. Before him, the office was serviced by Wilton Mkwayi, Mark Shope, Moses Mabhida, then Eric Mtshali, who was followed by Joe Molokeng
Ray Alexander, arguably the mother of progressive trade unionism in South Africa, working with the International Labour Organisation, linked up with the WFTU Prague comrades to reignite the trade union movement after the banning of the political organisations in 1960. Mtshali used the broad international network of friends and supporters to mobilise resources necessary to pursue the struggle for freedom.
On his return from Prague to Lusaka in 1982, Mtshali, who was a national executive committee member of Sactu, was charged with the responsibility of heading up Sactu’s propaganda, information and publicity department. This responsibility meant that he would be the editor of Workers Unity. Sactu offices in Western Europe and in Africa flooded South Africa with literature on progressive trade unionism. Similarly Radio Freedom, broadcasting from the frontline states, had a slot, Workers Front, which was dedicated to trade union mobilisation and education.
At this stage Sactu was under the leadership of John Nkadimeng, Mark Shope, Aaron Pemba/BB, Mhleli Mgwayi/Gazi, Kay Moonsamy and Stephen Dlamini. These are the luminaries of trade unionism in South Africa. They built the next generation of leaders.
In the 1988 Sactu conference they handed over leadership to the younger comrades and remained as mentors until Sactu resolved to phase out in favour of Cosatu in 1990, after the unbanning of political organisations and the return of the exiles.
The movement can pride itself on having produced a refined intellectuals in the person of Mtshali, whose ideas found expression in the development of dynamic trade union leaders of the late 1970s and 1980s, who are the current leaders of South Africa.
Vanguard Mkosana is a former national executive committee member of Sactu