We are gathered here to day to mourn the passing of our dear friend and comrade Petrus Mashishi and to celebrate the life of one of South Africa’s greatest and most respected trade union leaders.
In front of us lies the immortal remains of the only person I know who received the highest award COSATU used to bestow on those who have served workers with distinction, the Elijah Barayi Award.
I visited comrade Mashishi’s house, I saw that he hanged the awards he received proudly on his walls. A longest serving NOBs, a longest serving shop steward and a recipient of the Oscar Mpetha award from FAWU National Congress and a golf shirt proudly signed by the leaders of SAMWU in its Northwest province.
Here lie the remains of a man with unquestionable integrity. A man with an overwhelming honesty, wearing a smile in his heart and face. A man who represents the best values of his people who he dedicated his entire life to their service. In front of us is a man who taught so many generations the real meaning of selflessness and sacrifice for the common good of men and women he knew he would never meet. A President for life in the hearts of so many municipal workers, the man who never sold them out once, a man who never once represented his own interests at the expense of others. A relatively soft speaking but firm and completely inflexible when it comes to important principles of the organisation. This is the hand collector of subscriptions but who could account for every cent. A giant whose life was about uniting workers and whose life epitomizes the best of what a good trade unionist should be.
A man whose principled leadership made SAMWU one of the most militant, left leaning and socialist oriented unions of his generation. A man who simply refused to let his union indulge in the post 1994 phenomenon of the investment companies and all they brought to the trade union movement. In SAMWU the seating allowance in the SETA and other boards did not belong to the individual but to the union. This and many other examples is what the SAMWU of Petrus Mashishi was regarded as a respected force throughout the world. Ask anyone from the PSI they will tell you of a giant from South Africa whom they wished they could have as a President of many other unions all over the world.
I am happy that we gave Petrus Mashishi flowers whilst he can still smell them. Today his remains are here with us as we gather to assure his family of our undying solidarity and love at this moment they are facing which must the worst nightmare to endure. On behalf of SAFTU members and all unionists across the board, we are sending our deepest condolences to each member of your family mama Judith Nhlanhla Mashishi your children and the entire family.
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 later merged with other unions to form SATAWU.
He then 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.
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.
Although a President of a union of over 170,000, he reported back to his own City Council workplace every single week to address members’ grievances and organise workers’ education. His door remained constantly open. He could not walk through Johannesburg without Council workers calling his name and raising issues. He never refused to talk to them.
He traveled across the country, visiting union structures, engaging workers, solving their problems and inspiring leaders through example.
A democrat to the core! Those who were honoured to serve with him in COSATU will never forget the occasion when SAMWU decided not to form part of the campaign in support of the ANC local government elections. He would not budge under pressure forcing the COSATU leaders to go negotiate a better deal for local government workers, even though that was undermined immediately after the elections.
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.
He also however warned his members of potential dangers, including corruption, in-fighting, nepotism, lack of service delivery, lack of accountability and 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 and reversed many of his achievements. The union is now riddled with corruption. His successors have brought it to the brink of bankruptcy and some are facing charges of stealing their members’ money.
He expressed his great sadness at the misuse of workers’ money in the union he had helped to build, but he never became negative or cynical. His belief in the working class and its unity was absolutely unshakeable.
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!
In the Johannesburg Metro, the workplace of Petrus Mashishi, what remains calling itself SAMWU is split down the middle. It has become the face of the tragedy that has fallen on South African workers, with divisions, fragmentation and even violent clashes that have led to the deaths of some workers belonging to contending factions. SALGA and 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.
He remained a community activist, and mentor to many of those still in the trade union movement. He never retired! Regrettably, however, he died broken in his spirit. 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.
It hurt him that he had built a union 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 allegations at VBS.
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.
“As a union and as a vital part of our federation COSATU,” he once said, “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.”
He was repeatedly asked to go to Parliament, but he wanted to stay with the working class, in the trenches, and understood that unions must be ready to campaign even against ‘friendly’ governments.
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.
Hamba Kahle Comrade Petrus Mashishi!
Hamba! Goduka! Xolile Nxu has called your name,
Go our walking President