16th April 2018, The Haven, Tynemouth England from former NEC members of the South African Congress of Trade Union (SACTU)
Today we bid farewell to one of only four remaining founder members of the South African Congress of Trade Unions, who on the 5 and 6th of March 1955, joined 65 other worker delegates, representing 33 unions and over 41,000 workers at the Johannesburg City Hall to launch the first non-racial Trade Union Federation in South Africa.
As the Regional Secretary from the Western Cape, Comrade Zola was to become a stalwart of the international anti-apartheid solidarity movement, a soldier of Umkhonto we Sizwe, trained in the Soviet Union and fully engaged in some of the most historic events that were to shape the course of the liberation struggle for the African National Congress and remains lodged in our history.
The former NEC members of SACTU, and staff who worked with Comrade Zola extend our sincere condolences to his wife Dr Joyce Leeson, the children, grandchildren and great grand-children. It is indeed the closing of an era of those who were the first volunteers to sacrifice themselves in the 1960’s for the greater good of the majority of South Africans to bring about a more just and equitable country and region.
We deeply regret that we are unable to be practically present at this funeral to honour our stalwart, Comrade and teacher. We shall await the return of the human remains to South Africa on Thursday morning.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, President of the Republic of South African has declared a special provincial funeral in recognition of the contribution of Comrade Zola to the liberation of the people of South African and the international contribution to the broader struggle by the working people globally for a more just and equitable world order.
In saying an era is closing Comrade Zola has been joined by a number of stalwarts who have passed on during March and April. This includes mama-Winnie Mandela as well as the former High Commissioner to UK, Comrade Zola Skweyiya. Both the Zola’s were in the first Umkhonto we Sizwe campaign in Wankie and Sipolilo in the then Rhodesia.
They belonged to a generation of freedom fighters, who were selfless and brave who were prepared to sacrifice and die for the cause they believed in so passionately. As a camp commander in our first military camps at Kongwa in Tanzania, Comrade Zola applied the skills he had acquired during his training in the Soviet Union. It was of little surprise therefore that he was amongst the first to be sent to the front to do battle with both the Rhodesian government and the Apartheid military. He like other cadres and for decades thereafter sacrificed his family and family life. He worked with Comrade Chris Hani, who regarded Zola as his mentor and in the difficult times Comrade Chris would confer with Zola.
It was during the 1970’s that Comrade Zola was called back to work for SACTU by the late Comrade John Gaetsewe the last General Secretary of SACTU before, under pressure of the Apartheid regime it was driven underground and into exile. Unique to the character of Zola, the Communists who at that time had great influence in the Engineering industry, through the Amalgamated Engineering Union, took him to work in an engineering factory in Stockport.
Zola returned to work in SACTU in the London Office and had to travel the world mobilising finances for the trade union movement in South Africa and the underground structures of SACTU in the Front Line States of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique,
Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho. He developed a vast network of solidarity and support stretching from North America to Australasia.
It was his contribution that saw funds being channeled inside South Africa to specific unions to support their work, to support the SACTU underground structures and provide training in the front lines states and London.
In the 1990’s he resuscitated his old union the South African Railways and Harbours Workers Union and played a huge part in bringing it together with other transport unions to form the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union. At the time of his passing on he was the Honorary President of SATAWU.
His concerns with what was happening to the South African Trade Union movement in the past decade were well known. He argued for a principled approach to dealing with matters and not where vested interests were influencing decision making. His anger and sadness at the splits in the trade union movement went back to his plea, “that the organised working class should not be split – that unity was the key and strongest weapon.”
Working with Zola was for us a unique experience. He brought with him all the experience and training that he had been through since the 1950’s. He drove us through his commitment to the cause. He was very focused and insisted on detailed planning for every event. He insisted on a structured approach to everything. In the morning there had to be an office meeting to discuss the tasks for the day. Only after full agreement on what had to be done and by when would you be released to get on with the tasks.
Within two hours he would come to you and ask “how far are you – what are you waiting for – we don’t have time”. This would go on during the whole week.
He was intolerant of ill-discipline, and of those who did not display seriousness about the tasks at hand. He would remind those of what we were fighting for and who we were fighting for and that the people in South Africa and their needs came first.
Whether there was any ill-discipline or lack of planning he would move to that point and in the most forthright manner confront those who were “messing up” as he would put.
His vocabulary whilst never vulgar was unique, combining his training at the Agriculture College at Fort Cox with his military training, the application of a strategist who would think things through and then articulate in the most direct manner what he thought of the situation and those involved. His views were known by any meeting and there was never any doubt of where he stood on a suggestion or a position.
He hated dishonesty because of the damage that it had caused. He never sought to be popular or seek the easy way out of a debate. For him it was not what the majority felt but why they felt in a particular way and how this would help or not help, as the case may be. Comrade Zola was willing to be unpopular if he believed that it was in the interests of the struggle.
In his passing we have lost a unique human being. It is rare that one finds such all roundedness in an individual whose experiential learning put him on par with the academic fraternity around the world when it came to debating. It is indeed a sad loss and our collective hope is that his teachings will inspire those who are tasked with taking forward the struggle for a more equitable and just world order and a South African that deals with inequality, poverty and unemployment led by the working class and in particular the organised working class.
To the British Trade Union Movement who gave both SACTU and Comrade Zola so much solidarity and support we extend our sincere gratitude and thanks. We were stronger because of you and when the time came for us to go home, you were there to provide the final training.
John K Nkadimeng (former General Secretary)
Eric Mtshali (former NEC)
Humphrey Maxegwana (former Treasurer)
Ilva Mackay Langa (former NEC)
Thobile Mhlahlo (former NEC)
Vanguard Mkosana (former NEC)
Mark Sweet (former NEC)
Bangumzi Stix Sifingo (former NEC)
Yvonne Dineo Mokhatla
Promise Sibongile Khumalo
Xolile Skumbuzo Majeke