Mama Zora Mehlomakulu, A Forgotten African Icon Who Inspired A Generation
By Thandisizwe Mgudlwa
Zora Mehlomakulu will live forever.Her likes don’t die. Instead they multiply. She counseled those bothered either by personal issues, family matters, work injustices or just the ups and downs that we all encounter in this wonderful but imperfect world.She traveled all around the length and breath of the country to organize and meet the downtrodden in villages, hostels, townships, community halls and open spaces and engaged industry bosses pleading for the plight of the workers to be improved to acceptable global working standards. She worked and shared ideas with religious leaders, traditional leadership, industry leaders and working class, and community activists, members & representatives to found workable solutions to the challenges confronting humanity. She sacrificed her youth and family life and marriage for the workers and the oppressed majority of South Africa, with numerous incarceration and ill-treatment at the hands of the apartheid regime. But she never complained about her experiences as a true soldier of liberation, she stood her ground until the colonial apartheid regime fell. Her story like that of her many compatriots who fought against the Apartheid regime must never be silenced and forgotten. In the building of a totally liberated and prosperous nation, we have to refer back to the wisdom of people like Zora Mehlomakulu if we stand any chance of advancing the Struggle for a truly free and thriving society. Zora Mehlomakulu is one of the many forgotten heroines of the freedom struggle in South Africa. At a time when South Africa appears to be directionless with never ending political squabbles, corruption, poor service delivery, perhaps the time to pause and reflect to unearth the visionary leadership of the past is long overdue. Affectionately known as Mama Zora, and also called by her clan name of Marhadebe by many workers, Mama Zora’s contribution and positive impact on society is what is needed to be shared to build a better world. Learn and Teach magazine ensured Zora remained vivid in the memories of those who knew Zora and her contribution as one of the life-lines of the unions that commenced their tireless efforts to fight for workers’ rights from the 1950’s onwards. This magazine’s 1986’s article opening line came as no surprise to a significant number of workers whose lives Zora had touched during the era when she was an active unionist, it read: Many workers in Cape Town think of Zora as a mother… Mama Zora was not only a mother to the workers, she has two children of her own she nurtured and adored, Nosizwe and Thandisizwe, speak volumes about her social activism, philanthropist ideologies and deep-rooted love for her country and its working force. Mama Zora’s life as a unionist started at a tender age of 20 in 1960. At the time, she was hardly ready for the expected office conventions she had to be accustomed to, such as formal attire and the prestigious location of the office – Queen Victoria Street, in Cape Town. The General Workers Union (GWU) later became the General Workers and Transport Union (GWTU) while she was its active member and thus an integral part of the activities of the larger union. Additionally, the workers were of the view that she was rather young for the position she was holding. These sentiments exerted a lot of pressure on the young Zora. However, she was determined to gain their trust through hard work and acquiring the requisite leadership skills, even if these attributes were at the expense of a different demeanor than her peers. Zora Nomathamsanqa Mehlomakulu was born on the 11th of April 1940 in Langa, Cape Town. Mama Zora joined SACTU in 1963. In the same year, she received banning orders for her activism and efforts. As a member of the United Women’s Democratic Organization she was a committed activist. Consequently, Mama Zora was detained for the first time in 1963. Her task was exacerbated by the difficult times the unions were facing at the time.
In 1964, the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) opted to work more discreetly. A substantial number of SACTU members left the country and many were jailed. Mama Zora and her contemporaries were detained for several months during the spreading of the Soweto Uprising which broke out on June 16, 1976.Zora Mehlomakulu-Mgudlwa was an organizer for the General Workers Union from 1976 until ill health in 1987 did not allow her to perform her responsibilities as effortlessly as she used to. In 1976, she was part of a group that formed the General Workers Union, this stemmed from the government’s suppression of SACTU from the early 1960s. The latter’s members were frequently arrested and this reduced office manpower considerably. As a result of the discreet modus operandi a substantial number of SACTU members left the country while many were jailed. Mama Zora and her contemporaries were detained for several months during the spreading of the Soweto Uprising which broke out on June 16, 1976. 1976 also saw the rise and dominance of the Black Power movement in South Africa, inspired by Black Freedom Struggle in the United States of America.
Mama Zora played a prominent role in growing the Black Power movement in South Africa. Phandulwazi started as a support structure for former members and pensioners of the trade unions as well as unemployed citizens. This initiative was established in 1988. The supportive concept on which it is based was conceived and pioneered by Mrs Zora Mehlomakulu-Mgudlwa assisted by her husband Fuyizizwe ‘Frank’ Mgudlwa in Langa, where they resided with their family.This visionary and pioneer whose legacy still exists passed away in 2001, and followed by her husband in early 2019. The former Premier of the Western Cape Province and former Ambassador of South Africa in the US, Abrahim Rassol, in a reminiscing about Mama Zora’s life had the following to say: “She will be remembered for her warmth, generosity and above all, her commitment to the freedom and betterment of others.” In the Editorial Notebook issue; Points of light in South Africa that was published in 1993 in The New York Times, a point was made of Mrs Zora Mehlomakulu’s key oversight responsibility of the community development center at Langa. This center catered for job training, taught sewing, pattern design and brick making. Mama Zora had lost her position as organizer for the Transport Workers Union when the economy slumped down. Mama Zora’s words were echoed by a myriad of Langa residents and in Cape Town and South Africa that things are changing, but not anywhere near the level to help the majority of people. In a book review that was written by Desiree Lewis on Post-apartheid her stories: Zubeida Jaffer’s Our Generation Cape Town: Kwela, 2003 and Pregs Govender’s Love and Courage: A Story of Insubordination Johannesburg: Jacana, 2007, Zora and Mildred were grounded as black women who advocated for women’s rights. The subtext of the story of male-led Struggle is therefore a record of how black women have always struggled for justice and rights; accounts and photographs of women such as Zora Mehlomakhulu, detained as a young woman in the 1970s and Mildred Ramakaba-Lesiea, one of the main organizers of women activists in the Western Cape, locate the author’s personal experience in a proud and independent history of Struggle. A question that is often asked by those who were close to Mama Zora is: How many people remember the work of Zora Mehlomakulu? Learn and Teach compiled a story on Zora Mehlomakulu called: A Mother for Many. The gist of the story is centered on how workers in 1971 decided to form an advisory office instead of a union, due to pressures of the apartheid system at the time, The ANC, PAC and the trade union body, SACTU were suppressed and subsequently outlawed. In the workers’ own words: “We decided to start an advice office and not a union. The Minister of Labor was hard on unions at that time because the workers were still weak. The government wanted committees for the workers – not unions. That is how the Western Province Advice Office was started…Learn and Teach number 1, 1986. A Cape Argus, August 1998 report read: To commemorate the 50th anniversary of its country’s independence, the Indian High Commissioner in South Africa last week honoured 16 women who contributed to the struggle against apartheid. A substantial number of these heroines spent many years in jail. Many of them were also denied their freedom through house arrests and bannings. They also suffered the perpetual inequality that is common among South African women. Yet most of them remain unsung heroines. Last week was one of the few public tributes of their work. It was refreshing that the icons formed part of those who were honored in Cape Town by High Commissioner Lakshmi Jain and Mrs Devaki Jain on behalf of their government. Mama Zora was one of the honored women at this event in 1998. In 1996, Zora graduated in the Adult Community Education Programme from the University of Cape Town. Mama Zora also received more awards and honors from the Trade Union Movement while she was still alive. Since its inception in 1988, her community based organization, Phandulwazi, has trained more than 1000 people in various artisan skills, business and entrepreneurship programmes among others. A well-deserving prestigious award: Officer of the Order of the Disa was awarded to Zora Mehlomakulu. And as the South African History Archive (SAHA) notes, the influence of Natal University politics lecturer Rick Turner on a small circle of concerned students in the early 1970s led to the formation of a Wages and Economics Commission, a group which facilitated student involvement in labour issues.iii NUSAS then set up Wages Commissions on other white campuses: members in Durban set up the General Factory Workers’ Benefit Fund; in Johannesburg, the Industrial Aid Society; and in Cape Town, the Western Province Workers’ Advice Bureau. “Well, the political organizations were crushed and they went underground, but all the same there were things like the trade unions, and that sort of remained a voice of the people. SACTU collapsed as a result of a lot of pressure from the government, but it only collapsed for a period of about three years – from 1969 to ’72. In 1972 things started towards forming something for the workers, and in ’73 the new union was born out of ex-trade unionists that were banned and house arrested and who actually felt that workers were defenseless. Something had to take place in the line of helping workers organize, and how that was going to take place, nobody actually had the right pattern. So our beginning was starting it as a small advice bureau, that was our springboard. And at that time as well, there was a project at University of Cape Town called the Wages Commission. Now the Wages Commission was also doing a survey on conditions of workers, and we needed a base which was actually getting workers organized and seeing to their day-to-day complaints. So we actually started the project with a lot of help from the Wages Commission, which actually had white students. And ever since then the workers I am dealing with knew nothing else but that appreciation of a white skin working and sacrificing for a black trade union struggle. Did you ever get the feeling that the authorities thought whites were ‘agitating’ behind the scenes? Yes, from the interrogations, the questioning that I used to get when I was detained. They didn’t think of the people who actually said the union must be formed – they all thought it was a university move, a band of communists that were wanting to take over, and that they were using me for this. Because we were working together, black and white – we started the union together, you know.”