Stories and Traveltips

ID #5150

Philemon Rabitsela, Fedmis Phalaborwa, Phalaborwa, Lowveld, Limpopo Province, South Africa.

In the mid-80’s South Africa was in turmoil. Africans, who had for so long been denied political representation, used labour unions to express themselves politically. As a result, the shop-floor was the arena in which the drama of South Africa’s emergence from Apartheid unfolded.

At the time I worked at Fedmis Phalaborwa, a fertilizer company which was not spared from playing its small role in such momentous events. On both sides of the political landscape, realignment took place on a daily basis. As head of the security department, I was exposed to many of the changes taking place. To monitor the situation, I set up a simple information gathering network which, with one exception, worked very well. The way it worked was as follows:

o    I approached several colleagues and asked them to each set up links with two individuals in the community whom they felt they could trust.
o    I asked them to disclose any information regarding upcoming events they felt was relevant to conditions on the ground such as strikes, riots, union meetings, union membership, intimidation, etc
o    I noted that, under no circumstances would I demand that they disclose the source of their information
o    They should not go to extraordinary lengths to obtain information. Instead, they should go about their daily tasks so as not to arouse suspicion.
o    If they heard anything which they thought was important, they should notify me by 09h00 each morning.

I only acted on such information if I obtained information from at least 2 independent sources.

The system worked so well that, on several occasions, we stayed at home in bed while other companies and organizations in the town patrolled the streets armed with shotguns and other weapons. The one exception occurred when, one evening, a union meeting was held in Namagale, the township nearly, where it was decided to switch membership from one union to another. Consistent with our Recognition Agreement, every union member (712 if I remember correctly) signed the change of membership form by the time they arrived at work the following morning. I only heard about it at 09h00 – after the bird had flown the coop so to speak. And we had been led to believe they were unable to organize!

The first time I heard of Philemon Rabitsela was in connection with a murder which had taken place outside the factory gates. Apparently someone had his head cleaved in two with a machete, a crime Philemon was accused of committing. I attended the brief trial in the Tzaneen Magistrates Court, which was soon over because not one witness for the prosecution materialized and Philemon was released from custody.

On another occasion, someone decided that all senior line managers should hold meetings with each of the 4 shifts in turn to explain why it did not make sense to intimidate fellow employees. I held meetings with each of the shifts in turn at 07h00, 14h00 and 23h00 respectively.  

Since the latter meeting took place in the middle of the night, it was pitch dark when I arrived at the offices and there was not another white face in sight. Strangely, however, I felt no apprehension whatsoever. I walked into the conference room to be confronted by my laboratory employees arrayed in a semi-circle around a chair that was occupied by none other than Philemon.

Philemon is a huge, intimidating man. In addition, since he was the only one seated, it was clear that he was in charge. During my prepared speech, he sat on his chair looking straight at me with a look that clearly showed that he was in no mood for such nonsense. And it was nonsense – both he and I knew it. Having done my duty I drove back home frustrated with having to perform such meaningless tasks.

The following morning I asked the laboratory supervisor to ask Philemon to come and see me. At about 09h30 there was a knock on my office door and Philemon stuck his head around the corner. The conversation proceeded as follows:

“Hello Philemon, please come in and sit down”. The shock on his face had to be seen to be believed, because in Phalaborwa at the time it was not usual for a black person to sit down in a line manager’s office.

“Would you like some tea?”  Once again the shock because, as far as I am aware, no black person had ever enjoyed a cup of tea, drinking out of a white man’s cup, in a line manager’s office.

“Philemon, I think you hate me” – a charge he vigorously denied. “Oh come on Philemon, do you mean to tell me that the show you put on last night wasn’t designed to intimidate me?” Again the vigorous denial.

“Is it because of my white skin? I was born with this colour skin and had absolutely no choice in the matter” Again the vigorous denial.

“Is it because I am a manager and you are a worker? We may have different jobs but we are both employees you know – I do not own this factory”. Again the vigorous denial.

Now we were on my territory and I had him backtracking helter-skelter. After a few more verbal skirmishes he left my office and I went back to work. I subsequently heard however that this was not the end of it as far as he was concerned. Apparently he called the laboratory staff together and notified them, in no uncertain terms, that while industrial action in the factory would continue, labour disputes, coming to work late or drunk and other acts of indiscipline would cease immediately in the laboratory. And it did – we had no more disciplinary actions in spite of the fact that the laboratory staff were the most politically active of all employees on site. On the contrary, it was somehow decided that I was the only person on the site who was allowed to chair disciplinary hearings.

Another event occurred which was related to this incident. For several months I had attempted to address complaints about the lack of sporting facilities in Namagale, the neighbouring African township, without success. On one particular day events came to a head. After much effort, I had assembled a convoy of earthmoving equipment ready to travel to Namagale the following morning to level the football (soccer) field once and for all.

At about 16h00 that afternoon there was a knock on my office door. One of the Shop Stewards stuck his head around the door and said simply: “You are not going to Namagale tomorrow”.  I nearly blew my top. We have done all of this work and now you mess it up etc. Once again he said calmly: “You are not going to Namagale tomorrow”. “Why not” I shouted and again burst into a tirade. But he was unwilling to give me a reason. Eventually I backed down and agreed not to go to Namagale the following morning.

However a colleague from one of the neighbouring companies did go into Namagale that morning. He drove into the grounds of a school they had built. The schoolchildren locked the gates of the school behind him, trapping him inside. Then they proceeded to throw rocks and half-bricks at his car. He only managed to escape by driving his car through the locked gates, smashing them and his car in the process. Only then did I realize why “…I should not go to Namagale tomorrow” While nothing was said, it was clear that Philemon and his colleagues saved my life that day.

Eventually I came to realize that all people, black and white, rich and poor, educated or not, of different religions, languages, colour, creeds and levels of education all have much the same in common – i.e. hope for a better future. Philemon taught me some important lessons during that period, for which I am eternally grateful.

Alan McIver

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Last update: 2014-05-14 14:03
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.4

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