The ANC Veterans league is deeply saddened by the untimely death of Comrade Eric Mtshali.
Dr Vanguard Mkosana, former NEC member of South African Congress of Trade Unions reflects on the life and times of the late Eric Mtshali.
If moments of historical significance were marked by the blowing of horns and the jingling of bells SA would be standing still to observe the moment, for it has now come. The death of comrade Eric Mtshali and those of his generation mark the end of an era of a rare breed of freedom fighters who were groomed to be highly political, to be trade unionists, to be Umkhonto we Sizwe combatants, be organic intellectuals and above all to be patriotic. All these Comrade Mtshali grew to be.
Comrade Eric Mtshali was born and bred in Durban. He went to school and after Matric he was absorbed into the politics of the country. The ground was very fertile for him to grow fast politically. He was surrounded by powerful leaders both in the African National Congress, South African Communist Party (underground) and in the trade unions. These were leaders, like Chief Albert Luthuli, the then President General
of the ANC, veteran trade unionists like Stephen Dlamini, MP Naicker, Harry Gwala, George Poonen, Moses Mabhida, Dorothy Nyembe and many others. He became active mainly in the trade union movement in the roaring 1950s of the Defiance Campaign 1952, the creation of the first non-racial trade union federation, South African Congress Trade Unions 1955, the adoption of the Freedom Charter 1955, the historic women’s march to the Union Buildings 1956 and the Treason Trial 1956. As a young trade unionist he would carry the membership forms from the unorganized workers while on the other hand he collected the people’s demands for inclusion in the making of the Freedom Charter. Mtshali’s trade union activities started with organizing the dockworkers in the early fifties. When organizing the unorganized workers he encountered a practical challenge of workers who were ready to join the union of their industry while the industrial unions were mostly non-existent. The General Workers Unions were the easy route to solve the problem yet this was a direct challenge to the long established principle of organizing workers according to the industry in which they work. When SACTU was formed in 1955 it embraced the industrial principle but in its fifth Conference it passed a resolution endorsing the formation of General Workers Unions as a temporary home while the industrial unions were in the making. SACTU Local Committees were tasked to give leadership to transition the GWUs to industrial unions and Cde Mtshali played no small role in this.
Comrade Mtshali’s trade union work earned him the honour of being one of the founding members of the SACTU, the first non-racial trade union federation in SA. He attended as the leader of the delegation of African Milling WU.
When Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) was formed in 1961 Cde Eric was tasked with the delicate work of being part of those in charge of the Command structure of MK in Natal. He did his work with distinction until circumstances forced him to go into exile in 1962. It was then that he went for military training in the then Soviet Union and Cuba. He received intelligence training as well. On his return he went to Kongwa the first ANC base in Tanzania. It was here that he rubbed shoulders with the great leaders of our Movement like uncle JB Marks, Moses Kotane, Archie Sibeko (Cde Zola Zembe), Mark Shope, Aaron Pemba (Cde BB), Chris Hani and many others under the able leadership of OR Tambo.
When Wankie and Sepolilo 1967 campaign was conceived to return as trained cadres to confront the enemy, Cde Eric’s intelligence training was put into full use.
In exile Cde Eric’s leadership skills allowed him to be given sensitive assignments without fear of failure. It was in 1971 that he was elected to the Central Committee of the SACP. His theoretical grounding was used to develop young comrades especially after 1976 when oqiniselani flooded the ranks of the ANC in exile. Cde Eric used his training in dialectics to tackle any challenge he encountered. This made him renown as one who would not jump to conclusions but consider all angles of the problem before he aired his views.
The ANC assigned him the responsibility to be the Chief Representative (Ambassador equivalent) in Tanzania where he served until 1976. SACTU deployed him to the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) in Prague to relieve Cde Moses Mabhida who was needed for other responsibilities back in Africa. Before him the same office was serviced by comrades Wilton Mkwayi, Mark Shope, Moses Mabhida then Eric Mtshali who was followed by Joe Molokeng the last SACTU representative at WFTU.
Ray Alexander arguably the mother of progressive trade unionism in SA, working with ILO, linked up with the WFTU Prague based comrades listed above to reignite the trade union movement after the so-called political lull, which followed repression and the banning of the political organisations in 1960. Cde Eric used the broad international network of friends and supporters to mobilise resources necessary to pursue the SA struggle for freedom.
On his return from Prague to Lusaka in 1982, Cde Eric who was a National Executive Committee member of SACTU was charged with the responsibility of Head of Propaganda, Information & Publicity Department of SACTU. This responsibility also meant that he would be the editor of Workers Unity –the SACTU journal. SACTU offices in Western Europe and in Africa flooded SA with literature on progressive trade unionism. Similarly Radio Freedom broadcasting from different Frontline States had a slot, Workers Front which was dedicated to trade union mobilization and education.
At this stage SACTU was under the leadership of comrades John Nkadimeng as General Secretary, Mark Shope as Head of Education, Aaron Pemba/BB as Head of International, Mhleli Mgwayi/Cde Gazi as Head of Internal Department of SACTU, Cde Kay Moonsamy as Treasurer and Cde Stephen Dlamini as President. These are luminaries of trade unionism in South Africa. They consciously built the next generation of leaders. They would say give young people space to work, to explore and commit mistakes so that they could learn from them.
In the 1988 SACTU conference they handed over leadership to the younger comrades and remained as mentors until SACTU resolved to phase out in favour of COSATU in 1990 after the unbanning of political organisations and return of the exiles.
The Movement can pride itself for having produced one of the refined organic intellectuals in the person of Cde Eric whose ideas found expression in the development of dynamic young trade union leaders of the late 1970s and 1980s who are the current leaders of SA.
President of the ANC Veterans League