Liz Abrahams (19 September 1925 – 17 December 2009) was a trade unionist and activist involved in the struggle against Apartheid. She was born to a working-class coloured family in Paarl. At 14 her father died and she left school to go to work. She became involved in the Food and Canning Workers Union, eventually becoming its General Secretary in 1956. She was later banned by the Apartheid government, and was forced to live under house arrest. When South Africa became a democracy she served as a Member of the first representative Parliament. She died in 2008.
The extract that follows is from Abrahams’ memoir, Married to the Struggle. It describes her youth and political awakening in trade unions in the years before Apartheid. She started out as a seasonal worker on fruit farms for the canning factories; the conditions were harsh and there were no protections for vulnerable workers. As a poor, coloured, farm and factory labourer, Abrahams’ story captures an important part of the way South Africa’s economy and society has been made.
During the World War Two years (1939–1945) the union grew and won some victories for workers. These gains were rolled back under Apartheid as the government cracked down on black and multiracial trade unions.
Author: Liz Abrahams
I was born in 1925 and grew up near Hermitage Street, on the hill in Paarl. We were four brothers and four sisters. My father, Henry Josephs, worked at a butcher. When he became ill, the doctor said the climate climate Weather conditions. in Paarl was not good for his health so we moved to Cape Town where he worked as a gravedigger in the Observatory cemetery. We stayed there for a short while and then came back to Paarl where we settled down.
My father was interested in politics and had to have a newspaper every day because he wanted to know what was going on in the country. He would tell my mother about it but she was just occupied with raising the children and cleaning the house. She would just listen to what he had to say and just agreed with everything, but I always questioned him.
However, I was always interested in what he read in the newspaper. I was in primary school and in those days children were not allowed to sit in the company of adults. But whenever I told my father that we wanted to go and play, he would say we must stay so that they can know what we are doing. Then I would sit and listen, until he indicated indicated Showed, or made something clear; made known. to me that he wanted me to leave.
Bryma Moerat’s father used to visit him a lot, and then they talked about these matters. Bryma’s father noticed that I watched and listened while my father talked. He used to look at the gap between my front teeth and said, ‘She’s going to travel a lot, and she’s going to travel very far.’ I don’t know if that was a warning.
My father was strict, but he was a good man. He never told us what to do, but he was very unhappy when my two brothers went into the army. He did not want them to go to War, and he always gave their letters to my mother. He was a sportsman, and Saturday was their sports day. He was a pleasant man, especially when he was a bit tipsy.
I loved being in the veld, almost as a tomboy, climbing trees. I had very few female friends. I really liked to spend time with my parents and my sisters. We were a knitted family and I wasn’t interested in dancing and bioscope. bioscope Movies. I was very interested in other people’s lives and their problems. Where we lived was mixed and next to us were two African families and I really liked to go play there. If I didn’t want to stay at home or someone made me angry I ran next door and ate a little – I really liked their stamp-mealies stamp-mealies Samp; ground corn. and beans.
I went to school at the age of nine, because you were considered too young to go to school at the age of six. We attended Bethanie Congregational School, opposite the therapist and near to Du Plessis’ garage, but they now use it as a kindergarten. Our teachers, like Mr. Matthews, were very strict and you had to do your schoolwork. At that time the lessons were mostly oral, oral Spoken. we did not write a lot. So, we had to concentrate and pay attention. You got the lesson and then they asked questions. Because of that it felt like a place of learning to me. I found the way in which they were teaching us very interesting. We could understand and process it, because you will get a lesson today and you had to remember it and tomorrow you are questioned about it.
I was a very shy person and didn’t want to get a hiding or be ‘uitskel’ uitskel Afrikaans word meaning embarrassed, or found out. in front of the children so I always tried to study hard. I enjoyed school but I did not enjoy reading very much, but whenever I went for training I got things to read at home. To this day, I read the newspaper a lot. Otherwise, I am not someone for reading; I only read when I have to.
In Paarl life was very difficult because there was very little work, and most of the work was in the factories and people were only hired when the fruit arrived. It was very difficult if a father had to work alone. If a husband worked and his wife did not help him, or the child did not help the father, you could not make ends meet. You had to make do without some things and people had to get by on very little clothes, food, and other household things. You had to take in two or three other families if you could not afford to pay the rent.
Many of the children came to school without having something to eat. They were hungry, and it is not really a nice thing to beg. One day a child in my class was listless listless Lethargic or lacking energy. but she was not really sick. She told the teacher that she did not feel well because she did not eat. The teachers were very concerned and whenever they noticed that something was wrong with one of the children in class, they were there to investigate.
I passed standard six but left school before high school, which started at standard seven. My father was never a healthy man and he struggled to support us. We experienced financial problems because my father fell ill and could no longer work. My father had injured himself playing football, and was never the same person. The butchery where he worked was cold inside and he developed TB and died shortly afterwards.
My mother never worked regularly but when my father became ill she had to. At that time two of my brothers were in the army, so my mother had to go to work to support the family, because all the other children were still in school. She started working at the same factory where I subsequently worked.
My brothers were in the army so my eldest sister and I had to do the housekeeping. I really felt for my mother because I saw that she couldn’t cope financially. So I left school to go and help my mother. I went to work at the factory with my mother to put the other children through school. At a later stage I felt the need to continue my schooling but it was impossible at the time.
We experienced a lot of difficulties and there were times when we had to go without food, although our parents did not want it that way. There were times when you wanted more. You felt that you were working alone, and there were eight children to take care of. That was a difficult period for us.
Everyone tried to make the best of their lives. When you had problems you could always go to the church because they were very supportive. There were no other formal formal Official. sympathetic Understanding, caring and concerned. support structures but the community itself was very sympathetic towards one another because we lived in a row of ‘barrack houses’. The toilets were at the back, and there was one toilet that was blocked for some time and the drains were overflowing. It was dirty and miserable but the municipality was not very co-operative. Dirt would lie around. Things would happen to your dwelling. We complained but they did not take any notice. Nothing was done about it. So the people decided to send a delegation delegation A group of people chosen to represent a large community or organisation. to the municipality. They were not prepared to meet with us so we got together again and elected another delegation. We went and explained the dangers to them and asked how they could expect anyone to live in a place like that. They finally came to fix the toilets.
I was 14 years old when I started working as a seasonal worker. There was no mention of child labour at that time. You could start working at the age of ten. In those days the factory’s name was Premium, and it finally changed to Langeberg.
My mother had been working there for a while when I started in 1940. At the time that my mother started to work in the factory, the conditions were very, very bad because there was no union yet. My mother was just an ordinary worker and did not bother about things that were happening around her. When my mother came home, she would always tell us how bad the conditions in the factory were, the long hours, she’s tired, and she’s hungry. I always listened to her saying that there’s no sitting place, no cloakrooms cloakrooms Bathrooms or changing rooms. and that they must eat their lunch out in the fields.
I worked at first in the cutting department but it was very tiring, because you had to stand the whole day. At that time, we didn’t have lunch hours, we didn’t have breaks, and there were no benefits. If they wanted to they could give you lunch-time; they could give you tea-time – but there was no law and no agreement with the workers. When it came to lunch-time you were at their mercy at their mercy Under the control of someone. compulsory Required. but nowadays lunch-time is compulsory. There were no cloakrooms. There was a big shed where they stored the fruit which workers had to use as a cloakroom. You did not get protective clothing either. There was no transport to take you to work or home. You had to walk home from work and the next morning you must walk from the house to the factory.
laid off Retrenched, fired; to lose work. continuously Without a break.
As a seasonal worker we worked with apricots and when they were finished we would be laid off for two to three weeks. Then; when the peaches came in they hired you again and laid you off again; the same for pears. So, food and canning workers were not covered by the Unemployment Insurance Act because you had to work continuously for thirteen weeks to be covered.
If you had a baby, or even if they saw you were pregnant then you’d get dismissed and they would not employ you again. Later we negotiated a confinement allowance but it was very little. You could stay at home two months before the baby and afterwards you could also confinement allowance Money paid to women workers when they gave birth and were unable to work. stay two months. There was also no creche in the factory. Parents with small babies had to leave them in the shed until they could breastfeed them at lunchtime. People complained about the injustice and few benefits but they accepted it because they didn’t know how to deal with it and had no option because they had to earn wages.
The employers could pay you whatever they wanted to. There was day-work and piecework. When I started I earned 75c for day-work. When you did day-work, you normally started at 7.30 and finished at 5.45. Sometimes you started in the morning at 7 o’clock and worked right through to 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock in the evening. For piecework you got paid per box. To cut apricots you earned nine pence per box, and you know how many apricots can go into a box. But you gained more by doing piecework than day-work as a cutter, canner or in the label-room.
I worked in the factory for six years in all the different departments. Then they asked me to work as a supervisor in the canning department. If you were a canner you could pack trays (there were 12 cans on a tray) and you got paid a certain amount per tray. In the jam-room, where they boiled the can or jam, there were these big round rings that you had to take out and put on a tray. If there was no work in the canning department they put me in other departments, like the jam room to put syrup on the tins, or to the store, to label the tins, or to put tins in the cartons or transport.
The Food and Canning Workers’ Union was established in 1941 and was open to all races. We had African members, we had Indian members, and we had European members. We had one committee representing ALL the workers. When I first started working in the factory the union had just started. I did not really show an interest in anything, including the union. I didn’t get involved with the union from the beginning, because at first I didn’t understand why I must join the union and what a union is. I just knew that I had to pay my subs, and even when there were meetings sometimes I did not want to go.
In those days the employers and the government were very tough on anyone who tried to organize workers. One day a woman came to the factory gate to see someone she knew – Daphne. She asked her about the conditions in the factory and told Daphne that she wanted to do something for the workers and asked her to get a group of people together so that she could speak to them. This woman was Ray Alexander. Ray went about it very tactfully tactfully Delicately and thoughtfully. by not calling large numbers of workers together. She met with some people at their homes and asked them to spread the message to the other workers. She explained how we could set up a union to fight for better conditions.
Those were difficult times because you could not get the workers to register, because the employer and the government were watching you. It was very difficult to get halls for meetings, because they really didn’t like the union because the union is fighting for the workers’ rights. One night Ray came out but she couldn’t get a place for a meeting so she asked this comrade to drive her and she said that she will wait for us on the bank of the Berg River. She put on the lights in the car and she enrolled the workers. That is how we started our branch in Daljosophat in 1941.
From there the union started to organize factories in Paarl like H. Jones. The union grew from area to area. If we organized Ashton or Montagu we’ll take sub-stewards from Paarl, sub-stewards from Wellington. Paarl had a strong trade union in the community. The community of Paarl was very active, even the trade union. If you were a factory worker, you were a member of the trade union, and at home you were a member of the community. That really worked. The community also went to the trade union for help and for advice. You could always go and ask them to explain something.
Things improved a little once the union got recognition. Employers could not refuse to meet us to discuss worker issues once we were registered. From there the union came in and negotiated agreements with improvements every three years. I can’t say there was complete improvement but there was some improvement. After the union started we fought for unemployment insurance, we fought for sick pay, for protective clothing, for a confinement allowance. We didn’t get them all at the same time but the fight went on. We didn’t get everything we wanted but at least we went forward.
When I started to work I was shy and never participated in union meetings, but later on I realised that something was wrong but I could not put my finger on it. Working in the factory and seeing injustices by employers against workers – long hours, little pay, no facilities, mothers having to sit and breastfeed babies in the field, and bad treatment, shouting at the workers. Why is it so difficult to find work? Why do we get up so early and work till late without being shown any appreciation? What is the problem, and how can we overcome the problem? All this made me realize that things are not right and workers are not getting a fair share. Something needed to be done to give workers a better chance.
I was always elected on deputations deputations A group of people appointed to take part in a formal process on behalf of a larger group. to the employers. One day when we had a wages discussion I was very cross because the employers didn’t want to give an increase. I was fighting the bosses very hard and Ray spoke to me and said that I must become a ‘subs’ steward and must take more part in the negotiations. Afterwards I was elected as ‘subs’ steward and on a shop-floor committee that took worker problems to management. I was 21. The duty of the ‘subs’ steward was to collect the subscriptions from the workers every Friday after they’re paid. You had to sit in the cloakroom and wait until the last worker had paid their subs before you could go home. From that time, Ray and I worked together. We still had a working relationship after she was banned.
The white supervisors were very harsh. If you had a problem with a worker for the first time, they watched you. And once it happened a second time – you must know there will not be a third time – the third time they show you the door. Most of the supervisors could not speak English but most of the people from the union who came to meetings or discussed complaints with them were English speaking. Whenever Ray or Becky [Lan] Becky [Lan] Another trade unionist. went to talk to them and spoke to them in English, they would just say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and then run to fetch someone who can speak a little bit of English.
Because of their attitudes you could not really talk to the supervisors. Whenever they saw a shop-steward they knew it was a complaint. They were not prepared to sit down and talk to you. You had to stand and talk to them. They would walk from one side to the other and you had to run after them like a dog to get them to listen to your case. That really bothered me.
One day an executive member and I took a complaint to management and the manager said, ‘Here you must work.’ He had this attitude that you are a slave and you just have to work. I told him, ‘Do you think one must work yourself to death and after three weeks you must stay at home for six months?’ So, there was never a good relationship between management and us. Things were very bad then.
I always said we must unite and act so that these problems could be solved. It is better if there is a union that there is an agreement, because then you act in accordance accordance In line with. with the agreement. There is a clause in the agreement that states that if you, as workers, do not adhere adhere Keep to. to the agreement then the employers have the right to take you to court; and you (as workers) have the same right to take the employers to court if they don’t adhere to the agreement.
There was a strike at the H. Jones factory in Paarl because one of the committee members was dismissed. During the strike Ray had to come out many times to negotiate. The owner threw her out a few times but she persisted persisted Continued firmly despite opposition. and persisted. The employers hired white workers as scabs scabs Cheap workers used to break a strike. but the fruit made their hands black and the work was too much for them. After one day they told the employers they were not prepared to work again. Some then came to speak to the coloured workers and discussed how difficult it was for coloured workers in the factory. The owner then realized he was losing a lot so they negotiated a settlement.
- What was Liz Abrahams’ childhood like?
- How did social issues affect her education?
- This extract is set during the time of segregation, before Apartheid. Can you find clues in the text that show us this?
- What were some of the ways in which workers’ rights were abused? How were women especially vulnerable to exploitation?
- In the extract ordinary people – community members and workers – challenge authority and manage to make some change. Try to find as many examples of this as possible. How do they manage to succeed?
- Liz Abrahams describes how she became conscious of the injustice around her and how she became determined to work for change. Has something similar happened to you? Write your story.