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A union born in prison

You could say that organising people is in Jerry Nxgjola’s blood. Even when trade union organiser Nxgjola was sentenced to six years in prison, he carried on organising from his prison cell.

But this time it was not workers that he organised. It was the prisoners.

Ngxjola was an organiser for the South African Allied Workers’ Union (SAAWU) in Natal. He says he was sent to prison for holding illegal meetings and trying to run away from the police. He did his “stretch” at the Utrecht prison in Natal.

In prison Ngxjola, who is a friendly fellow, made a lot of new friends. He spent a lot of time talking — and listening.

He listened to the other prisoners talking about what they will do when they leave prison. He listened to their dreams — and their worries. Will they find jobs? Will their friends and family still care for them? Will anybody help them?

Ngxjola decided that the prisoners needed an organisation to help them after they leave prison. He spoke to his fellow prisoners about the need for unity.

And so in the dark prison cells of Utrecht Prison the seeds of a new and different kind of union were planted in 1984.

When Ngxjola was released in 1986, he didn’t waste any time. Together with other ex-prisoners, he worked hard to get the union off the ground. And in September this year, ex prisoners, both criminal and political, came together to start their very own organisation. They called it the National Union of Ex-Prisoners for Crime Prevention and Readjustment (Nuepfocar).


The union has already got more than 2000 members in Natal. Ngxjola says that the union is growing by leaps and bounds. They have branches in Kwa Mashu, Umlazi, Cleremont, Dundee, Kwa Ndengezi, Lindelani, Inanda, Newcastle, Imbali, Edendale, Ashdown and Sobantu.

We were joined by two other men as we sat talking in Ngxjola’s office. One of them turned out to be Michael Nzimande the treasurer of the union. He had come to sign up a new member who had been with him at the Bethal prison.

The soft speaking Nzimande told us how he wishes to see his organisation having members all over the country. “We have already started organising other ex-prisoners in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

“We need many more members. This will help us to fight for recognition by the Prisons Department. They must allow us into the prisons to tell prisoners about our union. Prisoners must know that they can come to us with their problems when they leave prison.


The problems of ex-prisoners is something both Ngxjola and Nzimande have a lot to say about. “Ex-prisoners face many problems when they come out of prison,” says Jerry Ngxjola. “People do not accept them just because they have been to prison. One of the biggest problems is finding jobs because most bosses will not take them.

Ngxjola says that ex-prisoners do not get enough help from government organisations. “The State Welfare organisations say they are helping but they are not doing enough. That is why ex-prisoners need an organisation that will help them to help themselves.”

He says the prison system does not prepare prisoners for life outside — and that is why many prisoners end up back in jail. “The South African prison system does not help people to forget their old ways. I saw this when I was in prison. For example, the Prison officials made it difficult for me to study through correspondence. Prisoners must be allowed to study freely so that they can prepare themselves for life outside prison.”

Ngxjola says that the bosses, the government and the prison system are not the only problems. Ex-prisoners also need help and understanding from the people in the community. “The community must try to understand why an ordinary person decides to steal or fight the laws of the government. Prisoners can only win back their dignity if people in the community give them a chance.”

Ngxjola and Nzimande spoke about other problems of ex-prisoners — like those who come out after a long time and have nowhere to go. Sometimes they cannot find their families, or family members have died. The union hopes to build a home for such prisoners.

Some prisoners come out of prison with mental illnesses and other health problems. It is the union’s duty to find help for them, says Nzimande.


The union has started trade lessons and self help groups for its members who cannot find jobs. These projects will help the the ex-prisoners become useful members of the community. The union has started lessons in bricklaying, plumbing, woodwork, leatherwork, watch repairing, plastering and tailoring.

“Our members work side by side and learn skills that can help them to make a living,” says Ngxjola. “We had our first market in October where we sold shoes, belts, cupboards, wardrobes, baskets and desks to the public. All these things were made by the ex-prisoners themselves. Bricklayers are already fixing people’s houses in the townships around Durban.”

The union also runs literacy classes for members who have got little education. Ex-prisoners learn how to read and write in their mother tongue and in English. the union also plans to have workshops where its members can learn about what is happening in the country. “Our members must learn and grow so they can take their rightful place in the struggle of the people in South Africa,” says Ngxjola.

“Things that are happening in the country show us how important it is to educate our members. Some people are using ex-prisoners as vigilantes to fight or kill the people who are in the struggle against apartheid. Vigilante groups like the A-team in Chesterville and the Witdoeke in the Cape have used ex-prisoners.


The prisoners union is still a young organisation and there is much work to be done. The biggest job is getting more members. Finding new members is not only the job of union officials like Ngxjola and Nzimande. Every member in the union is an organiser. The slogan is “Each one, Organise one.”

“We try to talk to all prisoners, male and female, who have just come out of prison. We tell them what our union stands for and invite them to join us,” says Nzimande. “We go around city parks and township streets telling ex-prisoners about our organisation. Political prisoners are easy to organise because most of them were, at one time or another, members of a democratic organisation. They understand how an organisation works.”

“Ex-criminal prisoners are much more difficult to organise because most of them have never been to school. Many do not understand why it is important for us to stand together. We have to explain everything and tell them how our organisation will help them.”

The people in the union have a long and hard road ahead of them. But they will get there. After all, they have people like Jerry Ngxjola working with them. If he can organise from a prison cell, thing what he can do outside one!


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