Turbulent life of workers’ heroine
A tireless labourer for human rights and pioneer of the trade union movement now lives quietly in Durban, writes
‘ASTRIKE is not something you sit down and plan; it is an action taken by desperate people when they just cannot stand any more. The only way to end strikes is to have satisfied workers, and I don’t mean workers living in paradise – just a roof over their heads, transport to work and enough to eat.”
These words from Durban’s feisty trade unionist Harriet Bolton to a journalist in 1972, as secretary of both the Garment Workers’ and Furniture Workers’ unions, ring as true today for striking clothing and textile workers as they did 37 years ago.
Bolton worked for 42 years in the sector before she finally left the shop floor in 1987, after attending the first mass meeting to announce the unity of South African Clothing and Textile unions.
The mother of six had stepped seamlessly into the shoes of her husband, James – or Jimmy, as he was known – who was general secretary of the Garment Workers’ Industrial Union when he died in 1964.
What followed in the life of this determined unionist was an ongoing struggle to raise the voice of workers at a time when the apartheid regime ruled and any white man or woman who publicly identified with black consciousness was spied on, intimidated and banned.
She was loved by the 50 000 workers she represented, and hated and harassed by the Bureau of State Security, to the point that she felt her life was threatened. Her children were arrested for contravening the Riotous Assemblies Act.
A headline in the Daily News in May 1973 read “Harriet Bolton, mother of six and 30 000 workers”. She was also known as “Mrs Perseverance” and viewed her most important work as representing workers at industrial council meetings.
A Post headline in 1971 read: “How Harriet sewed up the rag trade” and went on to describe how “Mrs Bolton has more than ever become a heroine of the workers”.
Now, at the age of 82 and speaking from her neatly made bed in the frail-care section of Bill Buchanan Park in Morningside, Bolton says she has absolutely no regrets.
“I helped a lot of people who wouldn’t have been able to stand up to their employers,” she says.
Frail and sickly on many days, initially Bolton did not feel up to being interviewed, but she was gracious and, with a twinkle in her eyes, feistily expressed outrage as she recalled the past – just as she must have done at countless workers’ meetings in years gone by.
Bolton has always believed in workers’ rights to unionise and that they should have negotiating and voting rights. She gave her life to the struggle for workers’ rights, especially black workers, constantly clashing with the then Trades and Labour Council.
“I believed in what I was doing because it was for the good of all people. My father encouraged that and he was always good to his servants and looked after them. He housed them in a hut that he built for them on the property at a time when no one did that. He talked to me. He said God made all people equal. My mother was more interested that I should learn how to cook,” Bolton said.
What frustrated Bolton was the “constant violation” of workers’ rights, such as poor working conditions, long hours and meagre wages.
“We weren’t allowed to speak out vociferously to the public,” Bolton said. “They tried their best to push the men in. I just stood my ground and the workers agreed with me because I was doing good for them. Some of them (employers) were good human beings and they agreed, but they did not say so. I could see it just by looking at their faces and by them nodding their heads at me when no one was looking,” Bolton said.
Bolton once told a journalist in the 1970s that, rather than being hindered by being a woman in what was then a male domain, her gender had been an asset.
“It was an advantage. Women are more resilient, more persistent and longer lasting. After all, negotiating is really a kind of nagging, and aren’t we women good at that?”
Under the Boltons, the Garment Workers Industrial Union grew from 3 000 to 30 000 members who fondly referred to Harriet as “mother”.
In 1949 her husband began a concerted effort to draw African unions into the fold. He also served on the city council for 12 years. But James became ill and died in England in 1964 where he was attending a conference.
His dying wish to Harriet was to “find a new home for the union”, which then had offices in Albert Street. The zone had been declared a white area by the Group Areas Act and the only way she could secure new premises was to form a company to buy a building in Gale Street.
The union’s new premises, Bolton Hall, which was often the centre of strike activity, still stands there.
In the 10 years from 1964 Bolton represented the labour movement locally and at international conferences.
However, while she is happy to have witnessed the advent of democracy in South Africa, she is not surprised that political change has also brought enrichment of a black elite.
“I am very pleased, because we should be a democracy (but) in any country there should not be the rich in charge and the poor begging for food. I always prayed for that. I am not surprised at that (the black elite), but it happens to be true. Human beings are very strange – if they can grab power they do,” Bolton said.
And of her relationship with the then ruling party and it’s Bureau of State Security?
“I was not impressed by them. They were always trying to interfere with everything I did,” Bolton said.
Once, such interference was the arrest of her children, Pat and Peter, who had spotted a police presence outside Curries Fountain during a pro-Frelimo meeting, and which prompted them to attend out of curiosity.
“They left me talking and they quietly walked around and arrested my children. The devils that they were. I was furious,” Bolton said.
But there was a price to pay for her activism. Her children were teased at school and she often heard the taunts of “Harriet Bolton is a communist” shouted outside her house. And, she said, on several occasions her car’s brakes were “interfered with” in what she believes were attempts to kill her.
Several of her friends died violently during the years of apartheid conflict, among them a dear friend, university lecturer Rick Turner, who was slain at his home in Durban, and Jeanette Curtis, who died in a parcel bomb blast in Botswana.
She recalls an evening at home, cooking for friends in her flat in Moore Road and discussing a film about Mao Tse-Tung and the workers’ revolution. Speaking about the film at the top of her voice, she peered over the balcony to see a man with a tape recorder who was lying on the stairs of the flats.
Bolton and her friends shouted for their neighbours and chased the man to a waiting car, into which he jumped before driving off with a colleague.
Bolton’s son, Peter, remembers a “fantastic childhood” amid those turbulent times.
“The house was always filled with interesting people,” he said. Among them were activists like Halton Cheadle – later to become the principal architect of the new Labour Relations Act that was formulated after democracy – and David Hemson.
Bolton also counts Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Fatima Meer among her friends.
Peter recalls the days when he and his sister, Pat, were arrested “on a few occasions”.
“The police were always coming to the house and all we would be doing was having tea and playing cricket. Dave (Hemson) would run out of the house wearing a balaclava, and we would take him to the drive-in.
“Mom was a real troublemaker!” he laughs. “We didn’t have a normal life at all and were always getting into trouble.
“I was working at Poynton House as a junior clerk for the South African Railways and Harbours (SAR&H) and a Special Branch guy – mom’s kind of guy – came in, arrested me and took me to Fisher Street where I was interrogated before they let me go,” said Peter.
“Some of our friends were visited by the Special Branch and were told we were bad people. We lost friends because they were frightened (they would) get a visit from the Special Branch.”
Harriet’s eldest son, Thomas, said: “My mom tried so hard, when we were little, to step into my dad’s shoes and fight for good living prospects for the garment workers. And she did it very well.
“She is the mother of all mothers.”
COURAGEOUS: Harriet Bolton and Barney Dladla, KwaZulu’s executive councillor of community affairs, arrive at a 1974 protest meeting at Curries Fountain. About 2 000 workers rallied to protest against the banning of four trade union officials. Bolton’s...
HARASSED: Trade union activist Harriet Bolton struck this cheeky pose outside the Durban City Hall for a Special Branch member during the apartheid era in the mid-70s. She asked him what on earth he thought he was doing taking pictures of her.
WORKERS’ CHAMPION: Harriet Bolton pictured this week in Morningside. As a widowed mother of six and an anti-apartheid activist who vociferously championed workers’ rights for 42 years, she served as the secretary for several unions, not least the...