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A working life, cruel beyond belief

“This book is dedicated to the working people of South Africa, especially the migrant workers.” So begins the book “A Working Life, Cruel Beyond Belief”, written by COSATU cultural worker Alfred Qabula. It is the story of Alfred’s own life as a South African worker, union member, oral poet, cultural activist, husband and father.

It was as a father that Alfred first started to write his book. He wanted to leave something behind for his children so that if he died on one of his many migrant journeys, he would not remain a stranger to them. His children would be able to read the story of their father’s life and learn who he was and what he believed in.

Later, a friend suggested that Alfred write this book for other people as well, for everybody. And this is what he has done.


Alfred Temba Qabula’s story begins in the small town of Flagstaff in Pondoland where he was born on 12 December 1942. Alfred grew up in the green hills, the valleys and the thick forest in the area.

His childhood was a happy one, even though the family was poor and he never really knew his father. Like most of the men in the area, he had left long before to seek work as a migrant labourer on the mines in Egoli. He died of poisoned drink when Alfred was just a boy of seven.

When his father died, Alfred’s mother, Nonkululeko, sold one of their cows and the family started again from scratch. Nonkululeko worked hard so that her family never really felt their poverty. After his mother died, Alfred wrote this poem of love for her:

When I am away, out on the road Hungry, thirsty and full of tears I think about you Mother and I regain my strength My hunger, thirst and exhaustion disappear The road’s sorrows and worries disappear as I reach out For you My mother

Soon after Nonkululeko’s death, Alfred was taken in by a kind family by the surname of O’Reilly. Mr Tommy O’Reilly had been Alfred’s father’s best friend. The O’Reilly’s sent Alfred to train as a plumber after the boy completed his Standard Six. Today, Alfred praises this family. He says that it is only because of the little education they gave him, that he is able to write this book.


It was while Alfred was still living happily with his adopted family, that he began to realise how hard and cruel it was to be an adult. 1960 was the year of the Pondoland rebellion when the apartheid government of South Africa wanted to make Transkei a Bantustan.

The people resisted — and Alfred was among them. He describes how the people deserted their homes and slept in the forest and the veld. The soldiers hunted them down with guns and helicopters. The people fought back with sticks and stones. Houses were burnt down and cattle was stolen or killed. Some of the women reported that they had been raped.

Chiefs and headmen who resisted the government were killed or forced into exile. The chief of the Mpondos, who refused to sell out, was given a slow killing poison. The government declared a State of Emergency in Pondoland and banned “the people’s movement, the ANC.”

It was some years before the bitter people could return to their fields. Of this time Alfred writes: “I became an adult in these years of hardship, my soul awakening to a world cruel beyond belief.”


It was now time to set out for the wide world and look for a job. On 3 February 1964, the young Alfred took the train to Carletonville where he had been promised a job as a plumber.

On his first day at work, the foreman gave him a new name. “You!”, said the foreman. “You look like a Boesman. Are you a Boesman? Anyway, I’m giving you a new name: Mooi Klein Boesman. Do you hear?”

Working conditions at the job were terrible. Sweat poured off people’s bodies as they worked in the hot sun. Men fainted and had to be brought round by pouring water over their bodies. At night, in the compound, things were not much better. It was not long before Alfred decided to leave Carletonville and seek employment in Durban. He was not sorry to leave “that place of suffering, with its compounds, its violence, its homosexuality, a place crawling with the spirits of… dead miners and workers.”

He wrote this poem about the hostels:

Tall brown walls crowned with barbed wire fences Walls that hide what lives inside from all outsiders. And inside them, the inmates never see the world outside they hear sounds Rumours of lives they hear stories.


In Durban, Alfred suffered his first bitter disappointment in love. The girl he was to marry left him with his child. The young man felt that he would never, ever fall in love again.

But one night he had a dream. It was Good Friday of 1969 when Alfred saw the woman he was going to marry in his dream. She was Nellie Nqunqa, a young woman he had known as a child. But he had never taken much notice of Nellie because, at the time, he was in love with Nellie’s sister!

It was not long before Alfred was packing his bags and getting ready to go home to Flagstaff and find Nellie. When he arrived, the first thing he did was to ask people: “Is Nellie still not married?” When he heard that she wasn’t married, he slept well.

Six months later, Alfred decided that Nellie was the one and only woman for him. He asked her to marry him. Even though Nellie loved Alfred too, she refused to marry him, saying that she did not want to leave her sick mother.

But in the end, love won out! Nellie and Alfred were married in church on 2 January 1972. Their marriage has been blessed with three lovely children.


Two years later, Alfred left his job as a plumber and joined Dunlop. He said he was tired of feeling cheated, exploited and angry. Little did Alfred know that at Dunlop he was crossing the gates into what he calls “hell”.

Alfred’s job was to work on the fork lift, driving from the stores to the mill and back. The job was boring and slow, and so to pass the time, Alfred would remember the games he played as a boy in the forest near his home. He would also remember the resistance of the people against the government.

Alfred writes that when MAWU got entry at Dunlop, Alfred writes, he knew that the march through the forests had started again. He knew that from then on, the Dunlop officials would have to respect the workers, that they would have to pay a decent wage and that the voice of the workers would not be silenced.

The fork-lift truck drivers were the first to join the union and soon they were organising other workers to join. Alfred was elected a shop-steward.

At the same time, Alfred started composing poems — izibongo — in his head, long poems about the hard and cruel life of the workers. He took part in the play that the workers performed telling of their experiences at Dunlop.

“We performed this play to make our wives aware of the conditions of the workplace and the disrespectful way in which we were treated,” writes Alfred. “The play also helped to show other workers the pain and misery we faced at Dunlop.”


All the while, the workers were organising on the factory floor. They were preparing for the big test — a strike for better working conditions and pay. The test finally came in 1984. The workers were demanding an increase of 31 cents, but management was only offering six cents. A dispute was declared and management fired 1 500 workers.

The striking workers held out for seven weeks, demanding that the company meet their demands. Finally, the workers won. Victorious, they marched through the streets of Durban, toyi-toying and singing.

Trouble did not end there. The next year there were more stoppages and in 1986, another strike that was successful. Alfred asked the workers not to elect him as shop-steward, because he was very busy reciting poems and encouraging other workers to write about their lives.

Soon after, Alfred resigned from Dunlop. He has this to say about the workers at this factory: “I am proud of Dunlop workers. They are an example to the militant workers of South Africa.”

And he is not short of words of admiration for COSATU either: “I still praise COSATU today and I will praise it until my bones are in the ground because it is an organisation and a half. It educated the workers from both sides, about the community and the work place.”

Today, Alfred is a cultural organiser. Together with other imbongi (oral poets) like Nise Malange and Mi Hlatshwayo, he has worked to launch a cultural movement all over Natal. For Alfred, the future is bright:

“.. the wheel is turning darkness — ending daytime — beginning the light has come Come freedom truth is unchanging its colours are stark the end of your nights of lying is here Surely you can see for yourselves… Return what is not yours the rightful owners are demanding it back.”


“A Working Life, Cruel Beyond Belief” is a truly beautiful book. Alfred writes with a gentleness and lightness. He tells his story in a simple and humble way.

There is only one thing we were sorry about — there is only one photograph in the book. It would have been nice to see a photograph of Flagstaff where he grew up, of the forests where he played and first became politically aware. We would have liked a photograph of his wife Nellie and their three children, of the play that the Dunlop workers performed, and of the victorious march of the striking workers back to the factory gates.

But this is only a small thing. ‘A Working Life, Cruei beyond Belief” is a great book. Like many other great books that tell the story of our people, it has been restricted — only libraries can keep it. The publishers, the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) are busy appealing against the restriction. In the meantime, if you live near a library, try to get hold of it.

But the last word must surely be left to the poem that closes the story of the life of one South African worker. It is from Alfred’s poem called “Africa’s Black Buffalo” and it says:

“Be prepared black buffalo the weight of suffering is teetering upon your shoulders. to end a cruel life beyond belief.

NEW WORDS start from scratch — to begin your life again with nothing adopted family — not your real family, but a family you think of as your own inmates — people in prison are called inmates disrespectful — without respect


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