The South African Federation mourns the passing of Comrade Petrus Mashishi and lowers its banners in honour of one of South Africa’s greatest and most respected trade union leaders ever produced by workers’ struggles.
For nearly all of his working life Petrus Mashishi organised municipal workers.
Before he led the integration of the unions that formed the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) he was a leader of the Transport and General Workers Union, which itself merged with other unions to form SATAWU.
He played a leading role in bringing five separate unions and parts thereof to form SAMWU, and went on to become its longest serving shop steward and its president for more than 20 years.
For generations to come he will be regarded as a role model of what a workers’ leader should be – a selfless servant of the workers who elected him.
He devoted his whole life to fighting for workers’ rights and improving their lives, and he refused to look for, or accept, material rewards for his work. He did not even claim allowances and decried how allowances such as traveling claims for union work became the source of divisions in the unions.
He travelled by public transport, remained a teetotaler, and took his responsibilities seriously. This is not to suggest he was always serious and pious; on the contrary, he loved to laugh and make jokes, often at his own expense, and he was kind and sympathetic to those in the union who fell on hard times.
His life of service is one that all union leaders should aspire to – he would work until 11 or 12 o’clock at night in his office when required; he had no transport and he sometimes walked back to Soweto. When he came back in the morning he did not claim “I am making sacrifices”. He simply carried on. That was how he believed workers’ leaders should serve their members.
As President of a union of over 170,000 he reported back to his own City Council workplace every single week to address workers’ grievances and organise workers’ education. His door remained constantly open. It was impossible for him to walk through Johannesburg without City Council workers calling his name, greeting him and also raising issues. He never refused.
He traveled across the length and breath of the country, visiting union structures, engaging workers, solving their problems and inspiring leaders through example.
He and the other comrades who established SAMWU had a clear vision — to lift the living standards and quality of working life of working people in local government. Under his leadership, SAMWU made great strides towards this goal and had a proud record of achievements. At SAMWU’s 9th National Congress, on 3 November 2009 at Bela Bela, Comrade Petrus could proudly and rightly claim that:
· SAMWU is respected nationally and internationally for its militancy and its willingness to take up issues on behalf of its members.
· For example our recent strike improved the lowest salary by 20%. Though some may disagree with trashing as a tactic, it is bound to happen as long as our members are trashed by the employers.
· Since 1987 the Union has not been in debt, we have managed our finances well
· Since 1987 we have never had a national meeting that has had to be called off because it did not reach a quorum.
· We have never lost membership and have in fact continued to increase our membership.
· We have established a bargaining council for the Water Boards.
In the same speech however Comrade Mashishi prophetically warned the delegates that there were a number of dangers that threatened to weaken the Alliance and these were :
· Politicians with business interests and divided loyalties.
· In-fighting at the local level
· Tendering and outsourcing
· Lack of Service delivery in some areas.
· Lack of accountability to the voters
· The absence of public participation at all levels.
His warnings were tragically ignored by his successors and nearly all these dangers are now realities. Soon after his retirement, union leaders began to do everything he fought against in the union and reversed and betrayed many of the achievements he listed.
The union is now riddled with corruption and division. His successors have brought SAMWU to the brink of bankruptcy and some are facing charges of stealing their members’ money. Two unions emerged protesting against this – DEMAWUSA and MATUSA.
As if this was not a loud enough warning, the union is now split into at least two warring factions. Both sent delegations to the recent COSATU Eastern Cape Provincial Congress, and both were thrown out of the meeting. So much for representing workers!
The Eastern Cape SAMWU crisis is not an exception but a norm. In cities like Johannesburg Metro, tragically the workplace of Petrus Mashishi, what remains calling itself SAMWU is split down the middle, making it impossible for it to take up workers’ issues in their dealings with a DA Mayor.
Today the municipality has become the face of the tragedy that has fallen on South African workers, where there are divisions, splits, fragmentation and even violent clashes that have led to the deaths of some workers belonging to the contending factions. SALGA and other unscrupulous employers in various municipalities have taken full advantage of this situation.
Municipal workers who are now struggling to rebuild the kind of militant, well-managed and democratic union that Comrade Petrus Mashishi spent his life building will need to remember what he stood for and strive to follow his example.
In addition to his work for SAMWU, Comrade Petrus was for many years the chairperson of the board of the Workers Library and Museum in a former municipal workers’ hostel in Newtown. The Museum is still attracting visitors to this important monument to the grim lives of the workers who built Johannesburg.
Comrade Petrus had the memory of an elephant, and understood the importance of remembering our history. He was also passionate about workers education, and served on the board of Khanya College for years, and the Job Creation Trust.
Under his leadership, the Education Department of SAMWU was well resourced and union educators were given every encouragement to implement effective programmes.
He personally supported the development of women and younger comrades, and was an irreconcilable internationalist. On his rare international assignments, he never failed to impress with his grasp of global politics, and the state of the movement internationally.
After his retirement, he worked hard, with lawyer Charles Nupen, to try to resolve divisions which were splitting COSATU. He worked tirelessly to get COSATU leaders to cooperate with their attempts to find a solution, but eventually he and Charles Nupen had to write a letter explaining why this initiative failed, as the people who were accusing the COSATU General Secretary were not interested to test their allegations against him but only to get rid of him.
Sadly they were unable to succeed, despite providing opportunities for reconciliation. He watched with great sadness the expulsion of NUMSA and its 340 000 members and the dismissal of COSATU’s general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi.
He also expressed his great sadness at the misuse of workers’ money in the Union he had helped build, but he never became negative or cynical. His belief in the working class and its unity was absolutely unshakeable.
These developments led to the creation of SAFTU, which included many former members of SAMWU, who had been expelled by the leadership for exposing the looting of workers’ money.
He remained a community activist, and mentor to many of those still in the trade union movement. He never retired!
Finally we must remember that Comrade Petrus was not only a brilliant union organiser but a political visionary, who understood the underlying cause of the problems workers face and the way to transform workers’ lives in the long run. He was repeatedly asked to go to Parliament, but he never wavered. He wanted to stay with the working class, in the trenches, and understood that unions must be ready to campaign even against ‘friendly’ governments.
In the same address to the 9th SAMWU Congress he urged delegates to remember that:
“As a union, and as a vital part of our federation COSATU, we are engaged in a struggle to build a socialist South Africa, and we must not be afraid of admitting so. Capitalism has failed us, and is continuing to fail us. We can decide to go backwards and let it fail us again and again, or we can seize the opportunity and say, now it is our turn to build a new society. A new society free of exploitation, free of environmental catastrophe, and free of oppression.”
Comrade Petrus Mashishi belongs to the entire working class, nationally and internationally. His passing serves as a stark reminder of the type of leadership required to bring about a lasting transformation of our world.
Regrettably, Petrus Mashishi died a broken man. Nothing pained him more than to see his work and legacy being destroyed in front of his own eyes. He called in person and on the phone every time he read stories of corruption involving his own union SAMWU and others.
Nothing was more painful to him that he had built a unions with R170 million in reserves just in one account and assets worth over R200 million, yet had to see headlines about his union closing offices, telephones being cut off and not even escaping the latest mass looting at VBS.
His health took a turn to the worse over the past six months.
SAFTU sends its condolences to the Mashishi family, his friends, and all his comrades throughout the trade union movement.
Let us honour his memory by reviving the principles by which he lived and by building that new socialist society which he fought for.