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A warm spirit in a cold basement

Right in the centre of Johannesburg stands the Carlton Centre. It is a grey, tall building with more than 50 floors. The building is always clean and shiny.

Under the Carlton there are dark and long passages. At lunch time you can hear loud voices and sounds of laughter coming from a change room in one of the cold passages. These voices belong to the women who clean the Carlton Centre.

Learn and Teach magazine went to visit them. They told us about their work, their lives, their union. They also told us about a book they have just written together.


“Twelve of us share this change room,” said Elizabeth Mkasibe. “There is always happiness in this room. We make jokes and most of the time we are laughing.

“We are like sisters. If one of us has a problem, we share it with the other women in the room. If one of us has no money, we do not go hungry. We always try to help each other.”

“Most of us work day-shift. There are only about eight people who work night-shift. The women who work at night have a harder life than us. They do not have enough time with their children and husbands.”


“Some of us learn English with the help from people at Learn and Teach,” says Gladys Molefe. “We meet twice a week. We are learning English so that we can speak to our bosses and read newspapers. We want to know what is happening around us.

“In our learning groups, we decide what we want to learn. The teacher is not in charge – she is part of the group. We make decisions with her. She does not make decisions for us.

“And now we have written this book together. The book is called ‘We are the cleaners’.”


“Learn and Teach gave us the idea to write the book,” says Elizabeth Malaza. “We all talked about it and we decided that it was a good idea. We each wrote a section about our work and our friends at work.

“We learned a lot from writing the book. We read each other’s stories ­ and corrected each other’s mistakes.”

“Writing the book was very difficult and tiring,” says Monica Ndlovu. “It took us about six months to write the book with the help of Learn and Teach.

“We wrote the book because we want something to use for learning English. We also want people to know about our work here at the Carlton Centre. And we want other cleaners to learn about trade unions. They too can be strong if they are or­ganised.”


Life is not just learning to read and writing books for them. There is also work and problems at work. Each of the women does a different. job. Leonora Dzaga and Gladys Molefe sweep the shopping centre – they spend all day going up and down.

Some women, like Monica Ndlovu, clean the toilets. They start at the 49th floor and finish on the fourth floor. They carry all sorts of things ­ toilet paper, buckets, brooms and mops. “By the time we get to the fourth floor, the carrying gets very heavy,” said Monica.

Some, like Mollie Mbatha, sweep the centre. Her job is not fun, especially when it is cold and raining. Others, like Melta Shabalala, clean the dustbins. She uses plastic bags to cover her hands because she is not given gloves. She is also not given an apron – so she gets dirty very quickly.


The women at the Carlton did not al­ways stand together and help each other. They became like sisters only after they joined a union – the Transport and General Workers Union.

“Before we joined a union, we had no say in management. We did not get bonuses and everybody was sad. We did not know what to do about our problems,” says Elizabeth Mkasibe.

“We wanted to join a union but most of us were very afraid. We thought that our bosses, Anglo American, will fire us or we will be detained. One of the organisers from the union came to talk to us. And then we ‘ decided to join the union.

“At first, we were not united and so the union was not strong. But one of our leaders said: ‘You can never break a bunch of sticks, but you can break one by one very easily’.

“In our trade union we make decisions for ourselves. We, the workers, are the trade union and we make sure that our union is strong by supporting it.”


Since then the cleaners at the Carlton have fought a very brave struggle. They told the bosses that their change rooms were filthy and dirty. There were no chairs and no proper table. There were no tiles on the floor and the change room was very cold.

“At first we asked the manager to fix all these things. But the manager refused. So we took our problems to the monthly union meeting.”

The bosses soon knew that the ‘sisters’ were angry – and that they were united. So they came to fix the change room. The bosses were so scared they even gave them free tea, sugar and milk. They did not have to bring these from home anymore.

The bosses also gave the workers more time to drink their tea. They now have a longer lunch break and tea time – and more time to talk and share each other’s problems .

So now you know how the Carlton Centre is kept clean – and you know something about the people who keep it clean. You also know about the dark passages under the beauti­ful building. But most important of all, you now know about the warm spirit in a cold basement.

* If you want to read more about the workers at Carlton Centre, you can read their book called ‘We are the cleaners’. You can get this book from Learn and Teach. Send a postal order for 70 cents (SOc plus 20c postage) to: Learn and Teach, English Training Department, P.O. Box 11074, Johannesburg, 2000 .


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