Tur­bu­lent life of work­ers’ heroine

A tire­less labourer for hu­man rights and pi­o­neer of the trade union move­ment now lives qui­etly in Dur­ban, writes

Daily News - - VIEWS&ANALYSIS - Lyse Comins

‘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.

New home

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...

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