Petrus Mashishi: union leader of humour, honour 1948-2018
‘Teddy bear’ who backed trashing of streets by striking city workers
● Petrus Mashishi, who has died at the age of 70, played a leading role in the formation of the South African Municipal Workers Union in 1987.
Under his 20-year leadership it became one of the country’s most militant unions. Its members established a reputation for trashing and intimidation while on strike and their lawless rampages became a feared annual ritual.
He blamed the intimidation on “criminals” who infiltrated the strikes, but owned up to and endorsed as a legitimate bargaining tactic the trashing of cities and towns.
“Though some may disagree with trashing as a tactic, it is bound to happen as long as our members are trashed by the employers,” he told a Cosatu congress in 2009.
He responded angrily when Cosatu denounced the behaviour of his members, which it said had “no place in our struggles”.
“What we expected from Cosatu was to sit down with us to find out why we were using these tactics,” he said.
However, the reason Samwu regularly achieved double-digit increases for its members probably had less to do with the havoc they wreaked on the streets than with, ironically, Mashishi’s engaging personality and considerable skills as a negotiator.
Although he led such a militant union, he was a teddy bear of a man, easy-going, friendly, mild-mannered, courteous, never aggressive or rude.
Employers respected and trusted him because he was open and nonconspiratorial. He didn’t believe in grandstanding. If he said he would go back to the workers and mobilise them in the absence of an agreement, they knew he was not bluffing.
He used humour to break the tension and was masterful at getting the other side to expose their differences, which he would then exploit. “We want to be talking to the organ grinder and not his pet monkey,” he’d say.
Mashishi was born in Alexandra on June 28 1948. He matriculated at Madibane High School in Diepkloof, Soweto, and got a diploma in plumbing at the George Tabor vocational college.
In 1977 he started working as a plumber’s assistant for the Johannesburg City Council. White artisans saw black artisans like him as a threat because they didn’t have to be paid so much. Under pressure from their union the council decided that “Bantu” artisans could work only in rural areas.
It was this that got him involved in the labour movement. He went to the Industrial Aid Society for help and a media campaign supported by the South African Council of Churches and the Black Sash exposed racism in the municipality.
He joined the recently launched Transport and General Workers Union. It participated in the 1980 strike of the Black Municipal Workers Union that was crushed by the police and army, which forced strikers into buses and dumped them in rural areas.
Mashishi became a shop steward and part of the negotiating team that formed Samwu out of five different unions. He was elected as its first president.
He ran a tight ship. Under his leadership the union was never in debt and never had to call off a meeting for lack of a quorum. He insisted on regular report-backs. He would call each provincial secretary to ensure they reported back to their members on the outcome of negotiations.
Although he believed in socialism, he was never a member of the SACP, and although a member of the ANC, his union allegiance always came first.
When the ANC appealed to him to postpone industrial action until after a local government election because it feared it would harm the party at the polls, he refused. That was their problem, he said, which they’d created by not fulfilling their election promises. He was not going to sacrifice his members’ interests to satisfy the needs of the politicians.
His personal behaviour was impeccable. He refused to exploit his position for personal gain. He never claimed allowances or owned a car, using public transport like the members he led.
Under him, Samwu spent more on worker education than any other union.
There was never a hint of sexual impropriety, which alone made him exceptional among union leaders.
In 2008 he was voted out of office by a thrusting new generation of leaders who were part of a growing acquisitive culture he deplored.
The people who had been with him from the start were ousted, and the pillaging he had warned about began tearing the union apart. The union he had left with reserves of R170-million and assets of more than R200-million was taken to the brink of bankruptcy.
He said he couldn’t believe how quickly the culture of accountability he had built had been destroyed, and along with it his legacy.
There was further crushing disappointment for him in 2014 when his efforts to mediate between warring factions in Cosatu failed and it split.
Mashishi, who had been ill with diabetes and high blood pressure, is survived by his wife Judith and two children. — Chris Barron
We want to be talking to the organ grinder and not his pet monkey
Petrus Mashishi, first president of Samwu.