Anna Sophia Swanepoel
(Told in 1950)
I was born on 2nd April 1893, on Tapfontein Farm, Edenvale district, Orange Free State. My father was a small farmer. My mother brought up to be a farmer's wife, but my father was not a farmer by inclination and became a mounted policeman at Thaba Nchu, on the border of Basutoland. When I was three years old, the family went to live in Thaba 'Nchu.
During the Boer War, my father joined the Free State forces under the late General Hertzog. My mother was left with four children, two boys and two girls. My eldest brother, John Albert, who was sixteen, went with my father to fight for the Republic. The family was left stranded and my mother had to fend for herself and her children.
There were some well-to-do farmers near Thaba 'Nchu. These men had gone to war and had sent their women and children to the Cape, and my mother was called in to take charge during their absence. There were troop movements and some fighting in the district. The soldiers of both sides helped themselves freely to whatever they could lay their hands on. The British troops seized everything they could. On the approach of the British forces, we ran away from the farm, as we had been told that these soldiers would mishandle the women.
When the British arrived in Thaba Nchu, they seized the house where we were living and turned it into a hospital, allowing the family the use of the back portion. There was an enteric epidemic at the time and the hospital portion of the house was crowded with sick men. The British soldiers behaved very decently towards us. They supplied us with food from the army kitchen and later helped to put up a cafe, where my mother served tea and home-made cakes and thus eked out a living. My mother nursed one of the soldiers, who were seriously ill, back to health and afterwards he helped her a great deal, even serving in the cafe. The neighbours were angry with my mother for nursing a "rooinek", but she replied she had helped him because he was a sick human being.
I remember, on one occasion, my mother baked nine pans of "bread-eighteen loaves-in an outside Dutch oven. The British soldiers had just marched into town and, as they passed and saw the freshly baked bread, they rushed and took away every loaf and paid in cash. We were left without bread, but mother got £3 7s. 6d. for the eighteen loaves. She baked some more bread and, while she was away, the soldiers again rushed to the oven and took away the bread, this time without paying. Next morning, soldiers again waited for the bread my mother baked, but now she made it a business proposition. She would bake bread and sell it. This was accepted.
At first, there was no news from my father and brother. Later, we heard that both had been caught by the British and sent to Ceylon as prisoners of war.
Things became unpleasant. Neighbours did not like my mother selling bread to the enemy. The first British regiment which had been stationed in the town moved out. Canvan, the British soldier who had served in the cafe, also had to go and she was left without any help. My mother asked the British officer to send her and her family to the Bloemfontein concentration camp. This he did and we lived there for nine months.
We had to stand in queues for hours to obtain meat, bread, water and other necessities. There were hundreds, perhaps thouÂsands, of women, children and very old men. Some had come voluntarily to the camp, but the majority had been forced to go there. They did not starve, but neither did they live in a paradise. Emily Hobhouse, an Englishwoman, gave a great deal of help to the inmates of the camp. The medical services were very bad and, in a place where so many people were congregated, epidemics broke out. My mother was sent to the "Draadkamp" (prison camp) to do hard work for a month because she had infringed a regulation- she had done some washing outside the tent where she lived-and the whole household went with her. At the end of the month, my mother decided to stay in the prison camp because it was much easier to get food there and the children got clothes and boots. We in the prison camp for six months until the war ended. We were then free to leave and my mother decided to go to Bloemfontein with children. There she obtained a job doing laundry work for the Imperial Club for which she received £ 15 a month.
Two years later, my father and brother returned from Ceylon. Both were very bitter against the British.
My father started working as a labourer on the railways, and sister and I went to the railway school, later called the Brebner School, until 1909. We were taught High Dutch and English.
At the beginning of 1911, I arrived in Johannesburg and led employment through, a school friend of mine, Julia Makonik, whom I had known in Bloemfontein. She found me a job in a small workshop where she was a tailoress. I started at a week. The hours were from seven a.m. to six p.m. daily, in hour for lunch, and seven a.m. to twelve noon on Saturdays. The workshop was terribly overcrowded and hot, with primus stoves all day and the smell of paraffin filling the air.
For about three months, I lived with my brother and sister in -law and did not have to pay board. Then I went to Julia's people where I also had nothing to pay. A month later my parents arrived in Johannesburg and my father got a job as a ganger on the railways. My family rented a house and I went to live with them.
Very often, we had to take work home and sit up late at night finishing it. For this, we received no extra pay. The boss of the workshop was Mr. Schiller, a highly qualified tradesman, friendly, but fond of using bad language. There was no union in existence, as I know, and workers were entirely at the mercy of their employers. I worked for Schiller for one year and, during that I received a rise of 2s. 6d. and, a few weeks before I left, one of 5s., making my wage 17s. 6d.
I then went to work in another tailoring workshop, where I received 25s. a week to start with and, after six months, was earning £2 a week; this was considered a particularly high wage at the time. At the end of 1912, I was married to Pieter Swanepoel, a labourer-fitter on the railways. His wages were about £6 a month, but we got a free railway house and he also earned about £6 a month, in his spare time from boot making. We moved to Germiston, and my husband changed his work several times in order to better our income. In November 1927, he died, leaving me with two children aged eleven and fourteen. We were practically penniless and my total income was 17s. 6d. a week, which I earned as an usherette at the Apollo Theatre, Germiston. One evening, Mr. Schiller, my employer of sixteen years ago, came to a show at the Apollo. He told me that, if I wanted work, I should get in touch with him at the African Clothing Factory, Germiston, where he was now employed as a foreman. I did so and, on the 23rd January 1928, I started work there at 25s. a week, which in those days was the highest wage paid to any factory worker. We worked from 7.30 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a lunch break of one hour, and on Saturdays from 7.30 to noon. The African Clothing was the largest factory in the Transvaal and one of the largest in South Africa. There was a piecework system in existence and we had to turn out a certain amount every day. Many workers would start work before time and work through their lunch hour to make up their quota. There were no rest intervals.
I found it impossible to live with two children on my wages of approximately £5'a month. I therefore continued working as an usherette at the cinema and also took in two young girls of the factory as boarders at 10s. a week each.
When I started working for the African Clothing there was a union of garment workers in Johannesburg and I believe they had a wages agreement, but the workers of Germiston were not organised. One day, about three months after I had started work, Mr. Dan Colraine, who was then secretary of the Johannesburg union, visited our factory and spoke to us during lunch hour. The majority of the workers readily agreed to organise a union and Mr. Colraine handed me several membership forms. Immediately he had left, one of the girls said to me: "Don't take the forms round. You will get the sack. A union has been started once before in the factory and the workers who helped to organise it were all sacked".
I took no notice of the warning and, with the help of three others, got over a hundred and sixty workers to sign the forms and enrol as members of the union. At the end of the week I found a week's notice in my pay envelope, and so did the three other girls who had helped. I at once got in touch with Mr. Colraine and told him about it. He came the following Monday and wanted to address the workers, but only a few gathered to bear him. All the others were afraid. He called another meeting outside the factory for the following day and this time all the workers who had enrolled as members turned up. The workers there and then decided to strike for the right to belong to a union and for the reinstatement of the four of us who had been dismissed.
The following day, all the workers turned up at the factory, but only about twenty went in to work. I automatically became the strike leader and the workers looked to me for guidance. At first the employers were bitterly hostile and said that they would sack all the strikers, but after four days an agreement was reached to reinstate all the workers, including myself. Everybody got a full week's pay, including the four days we were away, and we were brought under the Johannesburg agreement, which fixed wages for women workers at £1 to start and £2 10s. after two-and-a-half rears. Many of the workers received increases in wages; my own were raised to £2 a week. We also succeeded in getting a ten-minute interval in the morning and the lunch hour was properly observed. All the factory workers now joined the union and I was elected shop steward. The workers used to come to me with their complaints, which I had to take to the employer, and naturally were not very popular with him. Most of the complaints were settled to the satisfaction of the workers, as the employers did not want to have any trouble. On one occasion, there was an argument 'out singing in the factory. The workers found the work monotonous and strenuous and, to break the monotony, they would start singing popular songs, Mr. Sam Kalmek, one of our employers, apparently did not like music and tried to stop it. He told me that, if I wanted to sing, I should go on the stage, where I would earn more money, and lodged a complaint against me with the industrial council for leading the singing. The Chairman of the Council told Kalmek that there was no ground for complaint and that, in own factory, he encouraged the workers to sing as it meant more production.
Trade unionism spread quickly among the workers of Germiston within a short time; all the garment workers were members 'is union. The workers gained more and more confidence in the union when they saw that it was successful in getting them higher wages.
In 1931 the union called a general strike of all workers in Johannesburg and Germiston against the attempt by the bosses to our wages by twenty-five per cent. The workers loyally responded and there were no scabs.
After about three weeks, the strike was settled, neither side winning a victory. But the employers started organising immediately to break the union and to reduce wages. They did not openly attack the union, but used all sorts of tricks to get the workers away from it.
I did not return to the factory as I had been appointed organiser of the union for the Germiston branch. There were about a thousand workers in Germiston at that time and the town had become an important clothing centre.
In 1932 the employers once again tried to cut the workers' wages and the union called a general strike for the second time in August 1932. This time, the workers were not as united as in 1931 and there were a number of strike-breakers in some of the Germiston factories. We organised pickets and did everything possible to prevent scabs from entering the factories. The pickets had to be outside the factories early in the morning, even before five a.m., as the employers were doing their utmost to bring in scabs. The pickets did not use violence against them, but resorted to booing and singing uncomplimentary songs or pelting them with tomatoes and eggs. Later on, the bosses called in scores of police to break the strike. The police must have had instructions from Mr. Pirow, who was then Minister of Justice, to handle the strikers without kid gloves and many workers were beaten up and arrested. On one occasion, one of the girl strikers standing outside one of the factories had her pockets filled with rotten eggs. One of the policemen came up to her and slapped her on the pockets, with disastrous conseÂquences to her clothes. He then arrested her. I went up, got hold of the girl and tried to pull her away from the policeman, but suddenly I "saw stars". The policeman had slapped me violently across the face and, for a whole week, I proudly bore my badge of honour-a black eye.
One day, when there was a crowd of pickets standing outside one of the factories, about five or six mounted policemen rode up and told the workers to disperse. Before the workers had time to make up their minds what to do, one of the mounted policemen rode into the crowd and several of the girls were knocked down. There was a general commotion and some of the girls were severely injured. A few had to be taken to hospital and one of them suffered from an injured ankle for some years. The general treatment by the police of the girl strikers was shameful.
In the end the workers had to give in, and after about two months they returned to work with a cut of ten per cent. in their wages. Many of them had lost their faith in the union, and the employers, taking advantage of the situation, did everything in their power to discourage union activities. Many workers were paid off and there was a great deal of unemployment.
In 1934, I gave up the position of union organiser and went to work for a factory in Johannesburg. After about a year, I returned to work in Germiston. In 1936, I started to work for New York Clothing, where I was employed until 1951.
By 1936, the workers had forgotten their earlier defeat and the union once again began to make progress. For a year or two, I was quiet, and then I started taking an active interest in union affairs again. For the last ten years, I have served on the Germiston branch committee, on the industrial council, the medical aid society and as a member of the central executive committee of the union.
In the last twenty years there has been a complete change for the better in our wages and conditions of work. My wages now are £5 4s. a week and I work a five-day week of forty hours. I get three weeks and six days paid holidays, as well as free medical attention and sick pay in case of illness. The small, overcrowded tin shanties of the earlier years have disappeared and today Germiston has a dozen large, modern factories, with cloakrooms and other amenities. But what is more important, perhaps, than any material improvement in our conditions, is the fact that we no longer feel like slaves, but like free men and women, and know that we have a strong union to depend on in time of need.