Tribute to a Worker Leader – Petrus Mashishi
“The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence… but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organiser, “permanent persuader” and not just a simple orator…” Antonio Gramsci
The passing of Cde Petrus Mashishi on 3 July 2018 is another blow to the already weakened workers movement in South Africa, Southern Africa, and Africa. Cde Mashishi’s passing is another indication of the passing of a generation of worker leaders that were forged in the struggle for national liberation and socialism. Comrade Prez, as he was affectionately known to hundreds of thousands of workers and activists, was a founding member of the SA Municipal Workers Union and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. He was an indefatigable fighter and loved the working people, and this remained his first love to the end of this life. His love and dedication to the working class went beyond any narrow loyalty to political parties, unions and union federations.
Comrade Prez was born on the 28 June 1948 in Alexandra township, where he attended primary and high school. He qualified as a plumber in 1972 but the apartheid legislation prohibited him from being recognised as a skilled worker or artisan. He started to work for the City of Johannesburg and together with other workers became acutely aware of their low wages, poor living conditions and apartheid oppression. Together, they organised and engaged workers in the different depots. The 1970s saw the rise of the worker movement, and this led to a class consciousness that grew and informed his world view until his death.
Together with other workers Mashishi played a formative role in the formation of the labour movement– in particular the formation of the Transport and General Workers Union, and later the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU). The formation of SAMWU in 1987 followed the unification of various small local government worker initiatives in Johannesburg, and the Cape Town Municipal Workers Union. He was the first president of SAMWU and a founding member of the COSATU. This period marked the height of the labour movement in South Africa, a period defined by its significant contribution to the struggle for national liberation and democracy. In this way, the working class of which Comrade Prez was a key leader, was both a gravedigger of apartheid as well as a midwife to the birth of democracy in 1994.
Comrade Prez never forgot how the labour movement was built and the struggle to improve the lives of working people. He was of the generation who had organised workers in the 70s using public transport, slept in dormitories and collected union subscriptions by hand. These worker traditions shaped SAMWU under Comrade Prez’s leadership: the union was strategic and made decisions based on principle, there was a strong emphasis on the shopfloor and worker mandates; servicing workers on a daily basis in their various workplaces; promoting solidarity internationally with all working class struggles and opposition to all forms of privatization of basic services. In terms of their position on privatization, for many years SAMWU was often a lone-voice in COSATU. Similarly, SAMWU opposed the formation of union-investment companies as a conflict of worker interest, and it seems that this is one of the few traditions that remain in the union.
Comrade Prez believed that women should lead their struggle for emancipation, and he was open to being challenged about issues of patriarchy and culture. To this end he actively supported and ensured that representation, resources, and respect for women’s education and organising was taken seriously within SAMWU. In the mid 1990s SAMWU developed a code of conduct on sexual harassment and violence against women. Comrade Prez often urged workers to euphemistically have “only one friend” or partner, and while this always led to peels of laughter, it was Prez’s way of encouraging integrity within the organisation.
It is indeed testimony to the depth to which the current labour movement, and SAMWU have fallen, that the union and the movement he built has been engulfed in scandals; and that the large financial reserves he helped to build are practically wiped out.
Alas, Comrade Prez had to confront the demise of the labour movement – the political and organisational divisions, and corruption allegations in both COSATU and SAMWU. While this was painful for him to witness, he engaged in struggle against this and he tried to assist where he could. This uphill battle did not dampen his spirit or his belief in the historical role of the working class. Comrade Prez was always clear that only the workers can solve these problems and challenges.
This enduring commitment to the working class led Comrade Prez to continue his organising work right up to his last breath. He played an active organising and unifying role among a new generation of workers, including support for waste-pickers, self-employed workers, and so forth. Of the generation of leaders forged in the heat of the early 1970s, Comrade Prez was almost alone in recognising the need for the labour movement to organise the type of workers produced by neoliberalism in large numbers since the 1990s, and in particular since Gear and its policies took hold in the country. In the early 2000s, Comrade Prez was a key facilitator in attempts to form a national street vendors’ organisation, and he brought his vast experience and skills in unifying the working class to the service of this new generation of workers. This was in sharp contrast to many of the Cosatu leaders who abandoned the organisation of new sections of casualised and “self-employed” workers.
Comrade Prez’s stature in the labour movement and in the working class movement in general meant that only he could provide the bridge between the old organisations of working class struggle – summed up most visibly by the trade unions organised in Cosatu, and the organisations and movements of struggle of the post-apartheid period – summed up most visibly by the new social movements. Under his leadership as President of SAMWU, the union was instrumental in the formation of what later became known as the Anti-Privatisation Forum.
Throughout his active life Comrade Prez understood the importance of working class self-education in its struggle for freedom and socialism. Himself an organic intellectual and constructor in Gramsci’s meaning of the word, his commitment to the working class over and above specific organisations was expressed in his role in a range of other formations that promoted working class education. Comrade Prez was one of the founders of the Workers Library, based in Newtown, and he served on its Board until it merged with Khanya College in 1999. From 1999 he remained an active and loyal member of the Khanya College Board of Trustees until his death. Like all other trustees, he never received a penny for his services.
Comrade Prez has been instrumental in ensuring that Khanya College continued its orientation to the working class and not just to particular organisations within the working class. Throughout his membership of the Khanya College Board of Trustees, Comrade Prez was able to defend the organisation against attempts by union leaders who were uncomfortable with the College’s critique of neoliberalism, privatisation and its criticism of the ANC in power.
Notwithstanding his extremely busy schedule as President of one of the largest unions in the country, and his active leadership of the country’s largest trade union federation, Comrade Prez took an active role in the practical affairs of Khanya College. Ever so fond of walking the streets of Johannesburg – the city that he organised and loved – in the early 2000s Comrade Prez walked with staff from building to building in search of a new home for Khanya College and the new social movements then coming into being. The College found a new home in Pritchard Street, and Comrade Prez became a director of Bohlale ba Basebetsi (meaning ‘workers’ wisdom), the sister organisation to Khanya, formed with the mandate to build houses of movements for working class formations across Gauteng, and in the future across the country. As part of this work in Khanya, Comrade Prez was also instrumental in the preservation of the old municipal compound in Newtown, and its transformation into a Workers Museum.
Cde Mashishi provided much needed inspiration and support at a time when the working class has been defenceless. His was a life of example, he chose to live simply and to live within his means as a worker. Given his position Mashishi could so easily have positioned himself like so many others in this country have, to expropriate working people of their resources and engage in an orgy of self-enrichment.
Family (and friendship) was important to Comrade Prez even though his service to SAMWU and COSATU often took him away traveling throughout the country to support workers. This was a president who was known in small and big worker depots, in all the sectors of local government where SAMWU organised. But, it was important to him to spend quality time with family, to visit his ancestral village even though he remained an urban city worker. Comrade Prez also made a point of knowing his family tree, his ancestors: “We need to know where we come from”, he said; “it’s part of knowing our history and where we want to go.”
Comrade Prez was a socialist and until his death believed in the need to, and the possibilities of remaking the world, in a society free from class oppression and exploitation. He lived simply, with honesty and integrity. He loved life and enjoyed making jokes and telling funny stories, and his laughter would bring tears to his eyes. He was strong-willed and remained true to his convictions, cutting a lonely figure in relation to others. This has always set him apart from contemporaries in political parties, unions and federations; and it is this strong will and belief in the working class and its capacity to realise an alternative society, that young workers, emerging activists and organisations need to draw lessons from. Comrade Prez was a worker who defied the seduction and trappings of capitalism and corruption that has consumed the new SA, and he stands as a beacon to all working people. His life example shows that it is possible to live a life of struggle, a life of integrity and to be happy and contented.
No doubt, future generations will recognise and appreciate the self-less role Comrade Prez has played in paving the way for those who come after.
Our sincere condolences to Mam Judith, Kotopeditsho, Tshepo and his extended family.
Tsamaya ka Kgotso! Comrade Prez, we shall miss you, love you and never forget you.