Petrus Mashishi: union leader of hu­mour, hon­our 1948-2018

‘Teddy bear’ who backed trash­ing of streets by strik­ing city work­ers

Sunday Times - - Obituaries Classified -

● 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.

No grand­stand­ing

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.

Ed­u­ca­tion spend­ing

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.

Ac­quis­i­tive cul­ture

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

Pic­ture: TBG Ar­chive

Petrus Mashishi, first pres­i­dent of Samwu.


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