The theme for heritage month in 2016 was “Celebrating Human Treasures by asserting our African Identity”. Now we need to be level headed about these things and not think our living heritage can only be renowned and celebrated during this month or when certain themes are set up. This is one of the reasons I have waited until the hype of celebrating heritage has died down because I refuse to be consumed by the idea that heritage is all about dress and song. My people think wearing traditional clothes, organising what they call heritage events, is all there is to heritage. The month has actually been hijacked by other programmes which I wouldn’t like to divulge in because I think they have received more than enough attention as is.
Nevertheless, in August I had the pleasure of sitting down with the one and only Bab’ Alfred Duma. I wasn’t aware that he lives in Tsakane, Steadville and when I learned of this, as a historian, I jumped to the occasion. I have been writing the history of Steadville through oral testimonies and it would have been an injustice not to get his story. I was so taken by how well he welcomed me to his home. From the moment we spoke on the phone organising our meeting, to the actual meeting. His granddaughter is also just the best. I often say “sit down with old people, you will get a lot from them”.
What was supposed to be a meet and greet ended up being a conversation for hours. We firstly spoke about where he was from. We spoke about how he didn’t receive formal education. He said “the only important thing at the time was getting education, it didn’t matter being the oldest person in the class”. He travelled KwaZulu Natal a lot with work and his work as a trade unionist.
He speaks about how difficult life was for him when his mother married another man. Due to this, he had to live with relatives and also struggled to complete his education. Around 1947 he started working “emajalidini” in Emnambithi.
The one question I asked him was why he decided to get into politics. He says “I was often reminded that I didn’t have a formal home and was just a visitor. I carried that with me until I was old and due to this struggle, when I got to work, I was reminded that I was nothing. The hardship I faced from my white employer was exactly the same as the one I had received growing up. So I was reminded that I didn’t belong and had no place I could call home”. He then started seeking a lawyer who would assist him when he got into trouble. By that time, he says he had already started thinking about politics. It was when he worked at KwaMavelempini (a big cotton company at the time), that he realised he had a burning desire within him to pursue politics. When they were all fired at the firm, kicked out like animals, he expresses how painful it was for him. He jokingly tells you that he wanted to burn the firm. He says, due to the seriousness of what he planned to do, he didn’t want to recruit anyone for this, he would do it alone. Arson was a serious case and it would be easy for him to get executed for it. “I collected sacks, I collected glasses (spectacles) thinking I’d prepare for the arson and hide myself in the process. Truth is, I did have friends but didn’t want to involve them in any of this. We were kicked out for protesting low wages. The only problem was that the firm was big with buildings scattered all over, so I wouldn’t have been able to burn it all”. Due to this, he did not proceed with this. He says he knew that he would get arrested and was ready for it as well. This was around 1949 because he left for Durban in 1950 to look for a job. Because he didn’t have documentation to be in Durban, he had to put himself under house arrest with some of his colleagues from eMnambithi. He only got documents in 1951 as from Eshowe as the Chiefs that side assisted him. They used to hold political meetings during the weekend and that is when he requested a lawyer. He was then advised to join the African National Congress. He also joined the South African Trade Union now known as COSATU. He soon belonged to the movement and would soon realise that he received all the assistance he needed. “I became a full member of these organisations in 1952”. He says the people he got introduced to at the organisation were Steven Dlamini and Moses Mabhida who were leaders at the time under President Chief Albert Luthuli.
In Durban he first did piece jobs and only got his formal work at Lion Matches factory where he became a unionist. He giggles when he learns that I have done some background research on his life. At this time, they used to stage peaceful marches (ama hamba kahle) and did not toyi toyi. Although these protests were peaceful, they still were treated brutally by the authorities. He says the challenges faced at this time were mostly working conditions, working hours, and payment. As a trade unionist, he had to speak on behalf of the workers who had faith in him. Their pay was in the fourth night and people presumed that they received a huge pay but only received 5 pounds per forth-night. They soon got arrested for being members and leaders of the trade union and staging peaceful marches. This firm had only black male workers, and their lawyer was RN Steyn who was well trusted at that time. They were found guilty of influencing people to take part in trade unions and they then took the case to the high court. Although they would not spend time, they had to pay bail. Mr Duma’s intent was to get formally acquitted which is why he took this case further for appeal to the high court. He unfortunately only pursued this with Mr Steyn as the rest of the members charged decided to stick with the fine they received.
He says they struggled with communication a lot because he was not fluent in English and his lawyer also could not speak IsiZulu. They did not win this case and lost both at the high court and appeals court. Trade unions weren’t popular at the time and the state wanted to ensure that they do not populate trade unions. He continued to be an active member of the ANC and the SATU.
His political work continues to be more active as the years progressed and Mr Duma shares even more interesting stories about his life and times.
You may tune in for more as I continue to publish…
(This article first appeared on the Ladysmith Herald)