The fruit-canning industry in South Africa can be traced to the late nineteenth century, when the first jam factories opened in Paarl and Stellenbosch in the Western Cape. Fruit canning began in the early twentieth century, when the demand for canned food led to an increase in production by 400 per cent (Cameron, 1986: 90). Women were prominently involved in the food and canning industry during World War II and the post-war era. Black men and women from the Eastern Cape and Western Cape were driven off  farms, during the lull in agricultural production before the War, into factory work. This resulted in a greater number of women working in factories as well as participating in political activity. As the working class, the men and women of the Cape generally experienced stable family lives, albeit in extremely impoverished conditions. According to the Commission on the Cape Coloured Population 1937, the absence of feelings of “difference or superiority” in the Cape that normally divided racial groups in other areas was notable. The number of employees in the industry also rose, more than doubling between 1938 and 1941. By this time, 75 to 80 per cent of the production of canned fruit occurred in the Western Cape.

The seasonally dictated working day ran from 6:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. the following morning. Workers then had to walk home as no transport ran between Paarl and Huguenot, a township several kilometres away (Berger, 1992). Working conditions were appalling and wages were extremely low in the food and canning industry. In 1940 workers had no protective clothing, no lunch breaks, and no benefits. Another issue was that the work was seasonal for most workers. The seasonal nature of work meant that workers were laid off between the different fruit seasons, rendering them ineligible for support under the Unemployment Benefit Act (No. 25 of 1937). Operating machinery in the industry required a great deal of skill and was also very dangerous. Women who lost their fingers operating these machines were not even compensated.

Elizabeth Abrahams worked in the fruit-canning industry seasonally according to what fruit was available; the peak season lasted from December until April. During these months, workers were usually required to do two shifts, often working late into the night. Abrahams was promoted through a number of departments during the 18 years she worked in the factory. She noted:

I started by cutting fruit and canning fruit and then packing fruits in the tins… in the factory there’s a canning department, the cutting department, there’s a jam department, there’s a store… I worked in the cutting department, but it is very tiring you must stand the whole day. At that time, we didn’t have lunch hours, we didn’t have breaks. Because you start in the morning at seven o’clock and you work right through to ten o’clock, even eleven o’clock in the evening. There was no transport at that time to take you home. You have to walk to your home and the next morning you must walk from the house to the factory again.

Ray Alexander, a prominent member of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA – subsequently renamed South African Communist Party (SACP)) and various political organizations, helped to form the Food and Canning Workers’ Union (FCWU) in 1941 to combat many of these issues that workers were enduring. The policies of the FCWU towards race, gender and community allowed black, white, and Coloured men and women to participate fully in union affairs. Alexander was elected as the first general secretary of the FCWU in the 1940s. In 1941, the recently formed FCWU organized a three-week strike at H. Jones & Co, in which Elizabeth Mafeking participated in. The success of the strike inspired her to join the union. Over the next few years, she became increasingly active in the FCWU, and was elected a shop steward in 1946.

In 1943, Rahima Moosa became the shop steward for the Cape Town Food and Canning Workers’ Union. She later became the branch secretary for the union and more active in labour politics. Frances Baard, a black South African woman who was a trade unionist, political activist and a women's leader both in the Eastern Cape and in national campaigns. In 1948 when Alexander came to Port Elizabeth to expand the membership of the Food and Canning Worker's Union, she was recruited and was later employed as the union's local secretary.

The FCWU had already attracted some 4 000 members by 1946 and had opened 23 branches in the region. Workers were organized through “traditional Marxist concepts of class struggle in the work place” with emphasis placed on increased wages and better working conditions (Berger, 1992). It also proved to be an important training ground for African and Coloured women, who held a disproportionate number of leadership positions in the Cape unions.

The sexual division of labour in the industry was striking. By the 1950s, Coloured women constituted over 30 per cent of the work force, and Black women a further 20 per cent. Women were in the least stable positions, as men held the majority of permanent and professional positions. Women were also paid less than their male counterparts. In 1947, women labourers received only 80 per cent of men’s pay, women supervisors earned just 67 per cent of men’s pay, and forewomen received a mere 56 per cent of wages paid to foremen (Berger, 1992: 197). Abrahams maintains, “The men, for instance, there was a machine that had to have lids puts on, an easy job. Women could do it and some women did do that job, but the wages were different.”

Furthermore, Abrahams felt that the long hours they worked and the problems of childcare were of particular significance to the women who worked in the factories:

“The thing that affected the women working in the factories was the long periods they must stand. And the long hours were difficult for women who had children because there was no place for the kids to stay at the factory…and of course the discrimination of employers against women”

Ayesha Bibi Dawood went to the offices of the FCWU and offered her services. Through the Union, she established a close working relationship with Alexander in Cape Town. According to Bibi (1999), “Ray Alexander was a mother to all of us.” In 1951 she helped organise a local strike against the separate Representation of Voters Act No. 46 of 1951 which removed Coloured people from the voters’ roll. Throughout the 1960s Bibi maintained some level of political work, mainly through the FCWU: “We were all lying low but we carried on slowly… they always came to me and they knew they could depend on me. I was the contact… I would give information on the situation here in Worcester because I was on top of it.”

Between 1941 and 1964 all of the union’s general secretaries as well as over 50 per cent of the management committee were women, the only union at that time to achieve this type of representation. This was a direct result of the FCWU’s creation of “union schools” in the early 1950s, with the support of a number of political activists such as Amy Thornton. In 1976, Thornton started working for the Food and Canning Workers’ Union part-time. The schools set out to “educate all committee members and leading workers in the factories. Committee members were instructed to attend without fail because it was believed that this was the only way to train reliable leaders in the factories” (Cape Town FCWU Branch National Executive Committee Minutes, 1954). Union members such as Ray Alexander were largely responsible for such initiatives and placed great emphasis on the organisation of female workers. Alexander stated:

In factories you had the men as foremen and you had the White women as forewomen but not Coloured women and not African women. Our union struggled, and we got Coloured women and African women to become forewomen and the men who obeyed the White women didn’t want to obey their own women… I really forced the women to take on leadership. If women workers didn’t want to become the branch secretary or any other position, I would say to them, ‘Look I do it, you can do it.’ We were outstanding in the development of women workers. Our union branches, most of them were women branch secretaries.”

According to Berger (1992), the FCWU became a “model radical union”, combining action on economic and political issues with campaigns on community-based concerns such as housing and living conditions. It also led campaigns over domestic issues, such as the price of bread. Abrahams believes that the union’s success at grassroots level was the result of its championing community needs, which led factory workers to approach committee member over local issues.

The Cape factories became an integral part not only of local political networks, but also cultural ones. In her analysis of the FCWU, Jenny Schreiner claims that meetings of the FCWU simply added the business of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) at the end as an adjunct to union concerns. Although Abrahams contests this, pointing out that FEDSAW established its own independent structure in Paarl, there was undoubtedly significant overlap between those involved in various oppositional organisations. Consequently, the FCWU also became active in Congress-led campaigns, such as the anti-pass demonstrations and protests against the Group Areas Act.

Abrahams’ initial and primary motivation for working in the union, arose from her experiences as a worker:

I was fifteen when I joined the Union. My mother also joined the Union. Ray spoke convincingly, and we were suffering in the factory. The employers were nasty, and we had no say, or we would be dismissed. Life was just impossible in the factory, but what could you do? We had to earn a living.

Despite its rhetoric supporting childcare and maternity leave, the union did not pay much attention to women’s problems per se, and the sexual division of labour remained entrenched in the factories. Nevertheless, the conditions endured by the large female labour force in the canning industry undoubtedly fuelled discontent. The women came to see “their economic grievances as central to fulfilling their roles as women” (Berger, 1984: 220). As Abrahams explained it, “The women feel the hardship more because they have to keep the family together. Even if their wages are low, she’ll have to see how to share this wage to cover everything”. Thus Berger (1984: 49-66) contends that while some of the issues taken up by the union could be depicted as class issues, “it seems consciousness of themselves as women and as workers was very close related”.

When Alexander was banned in 1953, Abrahams became more active in the union as her involvement in the Paarl branch deepened. She was elected sub-steward of the FCWU, and then onto a committee on the factory floor, where she was responsible for negotiating with employers. After Alexander’s banning, Rebecca Lan was appointed as acting-General Secretary of the union. The FCWU had a membership of 12 600 at this stage.

Lan acted as General Secretary until her own banning the following year, at which point she was forbidden to attend meetings; only listed communists were banned from membership of organisations at this stage. Nevertheless, she tried to continue the administrative work of the union, particularly the Medical Benefit Fund. After Lan’s banning, Alexander decided that the secretary role should be in the hands of one of the workers, and Abrahams, already a shop steward, was chosen for the position. Abrahams noted her advantage over Lan and Alexander, both English speakers, in negotiations, given that majority of factory-owners in the Boland region were Afrikaans-speaking. Alexander observed in her autobiography that Abrahams offered “fine leadership to workers’ and was accomplished at ‘pressing employers for improvements’” (Alexander, 2004: 281).

Like the FEDSAW, the FCWU became vulnerable to government harassment during the 1950s and 1960s as a result of the high political profile of many of its leaders. The combination of low wages and poor living conditions, together with the general atmosphere of unrest, had led to an unprecedented wave of industrial protest in the Western Cape. In 1953, the government tried to curb the growth of unions through the Native Labour (Settlement of Dispute) Act (No. 48 of 1953), which excluded African women from the definition of employee. Until then, the Industrial Conciliation Act included only “pass-bearing natives” (who, by classification, were male, until the extension of passes to women) in its definition of employee, and this had meant African women had been able to join unions and thus participate in wage negotiation.

The new Act led to the demise of the non-racial FCWU, and the launch of the segregated African Food and Canning Workers Union (A-FCWU). Nevertheless, even after this, solidarity between the racial groups manifested on occasions. When the segregated A-FCWU was formally launched in 1952, Elizabeth Mafekeng was on the executive committee. In 1953 Mafekeng was dismissed from her job at the factory she was working at the time for refusing to carry a pass.  She then became the full-time secretary of the Paarl branch of the A-FCWU. In this capacity, she campaigned against wage cuts and job reservation in the canning industry, and against passes for women. Mafekeng was the General Secretary of the A-FCWU from 1952 until 1959.

In October 1959, the A-FCWU president Mafekeng was banished to the remote area of Vryburg in the Northern Cape under Section 5 (1) (b) of the Native Administration Act No. 38 of 1927. Although she was able to escape to Lesotho with her one-month-old baby the night before she was due to be removed, workers in Paarl rioted against her banishment, and two were shot dead by the police (Malherbe, 1987). Arrangements were made by the FCWU and Abrahams, who admits that she “carefully planned” Mafekeng’s escape. In 1962, Mabel Balfour became the General Secretary of the African A-FCWU in Transvaal.

In 1964, Abrahams was banned for five years. During this period, she was restricted to Paarl and prevented from attending gatherings, from working in a factory or from taking part in union activity. In 1969, after her ban had expired, Abrahams returned to the FCWU on a part-time basis. Although the union was largely inactive during this period, she managed to continue a working relationship with Alexander, who had gone into exile to Zambia in 1967. When Alexander left Cape Town in 1965, she had arranged postal addresses in Sweden with an importer and his accountant and gave these to Abrahams. This this allowed them to correspond about the union.

The period from 1973 onwards was marked by a steadily heightening level of industrial protests throughout South Africa. After strikes in Namibia and Durban in 1972 and 1973, the 1979 Cape Fatti’s and Moni’s factory was the scene of the first major strike in the Western Cape since the 1950s. The factory’s dismissal of six women precipitated a seven-month-long consumer boycott, and this propelled Abrahams back into a more open role in politics:

Then I was still working undercover… we called a meeting and then the workers went on strike. Everybody, men, women, everybody. And you know the funniest part is that the men stood up and told the employers, African men stood up and said that we want those women back.

She subsequently was elected Paarl branch secretary of the FCWU until her injuries sustained in a serious car accident forced her to resign in 1985.

Set up in 1941 to support the rights of workers in the fruit-canning industry and the West Coast fishing communities, the FCWU became one of the most effective unions of the era. Within it, women held a significant number of leadership positions, and were often far more involved than men in strikes and political action. Between 1941 and 1964, all of the union’s general secretaries and over half the management committee were women, the only union of that time to achieve this level of gender equity in representation. This was a direct result of the emphasis placed on the organisation of female workers.

  • Alexander Simons, R. 2004. “All My Life and All My Strength”. Johannesburg: STE Publishers.
  • Berger, I. 1992. “Threads of Solidarity: Women in South African Industry 1900-80”.          Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Berger, I. 1984. “Sources of Class Consciousness, South African Women in Recent Labour            Struggles”. International Journal of African Historical Studies Vol. 16, No. 1.
  • Cameron, M. 1986. “The Introduction of Bantu Education and the Question of Resistance:
  • Co-operation, Non-Collaboration of Defiance? The Struggle for African Schooling with     Special Reference to Cape Town”. Med thesis, University of Cape Town.
  • Malherbe, V. C. 1987. “Paarl: The Hidden Story”. Mowbray: Black Sash Western Cape.
  • Scanlon, H. 2007. “Representation and reality: Portraits of Women’s Lives in the Western            Cape 1948-1976”. HSRC Press: Cape Town.

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