One year ago, on the 5th February, a man died in a lonely police cell at John Vorster Square. His name was Neil Aggett. In February this year thousands of people came together at meetings all over the country. They came together to remember this man.
After the meeting in Johannesburg, Learn and Teach spoke to Liz Floyd. She is the woman who loved Neil. She lived with him for seven years. She told Learn and Teach about the life and work of her friend – the doctor and trade unionist.
Learn and Teach: Can you please tell us about Neil’s childhood?
Liz Floyd: Yes. Neil was born in Kenya in 1953. In 1963 Neil’s family left Kenya and went to live in the Cape. Neil went to a school in Grahamstown. He was an ordinary schoolboy. He did well in his studies. He was good at cricket and tennis. He did not question anything in those days.
Learn and Teach: Can you tell us about Neil’s university days?
Liz Floyd: Neil went to study medicine at Cape Town university. After one year he began to ask himself many questions. He read many books. He tried to answer many questions about life.
Neil lived a very simple life. After two years at university he went to live in a small cottage on a farm. The cottage had no electricity or water. Neil put in a tap for cold water. He also made a shower outside.
I lived there with Neil for four and a half years. I can’t believe we spent those years having a cold shower every morning!
Neil was friends with a small group of medical students. They were older and wiser than him. They spoke about health in South Africa. Neil thought about working in a small hospital in the countryside. But Neil did not do any political work in his student days.
Learn and Teach: Why did Neil come to live in Johannesburg?
Liz Floyd: He finished his studies and got a job at a small hospital in Umtata in the Transkei. He worked there for six months. Then he got another job in a hospital in Tembisa near Johannesburg.
Learn and Teach: How did Neil start working in trade unions?
Liz Floyd: Neil worked for six months at Tembisa. Then his studies were over. He got a part time job at Baragwanath hospital. In his spare time he read a lot. He read a lot about South Africa and worker struggles.
He worked part time at the Industrial Aid Society (IAS). He helped workers who got sick or who had accidents at work. He learned a lot about Workmen’s Compensation. Neil learned much at IAS. The health problems of workers made Neil think about worker organization.
Learn and Teach: How did Neil begin working for the Food and Canning Workers Union?
Liz Floyd: I was working at a hospital in Cape Town. But I wanted to be with Neil. So I came up to Johannesburg and got a job at Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. I travelled to Johannesburg with some people from the Food and Canning Workers Union. They were coming to start a branch of the union in the Transvaal. They stayed with us at Neil’s house in Bertrams.
They started a branch here. But the branch was small and weak. The union had many problems. Oscar Mpetha came up to help organize the Transvaal branch. Oscar Mpetha is a wise and respected trade unionist. He stayed with Neil when he was in Johannesburg. Oscar asked Neil to give workers lifts. He also asked Neil to help with meetings.
That was at the end of 1978. Neil worked with the union more and more. But for a long time he had no official position in the union. In 1980 Neil became secretary of the Transvaal branch of the union. He never got paid by the union. He got money by working in the hospital one or two nights a week.
Learn and Teach: What problems did the union have at this time?
Liz Floyd: The union was small. It needed help from people who knew about trade unions. But the leaders of the union were far away at the head office in Cape Town.
The union began by organizing three factories in Johannesburg. But the unions made some mistakes in the beginning. For example, the union first spoke to management instead of the workers. Then the union held meetings with the workers. They did not give workers time to learn about the union and to believe in it. Strong worker leaders did not come out of these first factories.
The factories were also all over the Witwatersrand. Neil and the organizers had to collect membership fees from the factories every Friday. But the union did not even have a car. Workers had to come to union meetings from all over. Transport was always a problem.
Many workers in the food industry are women. Their husbands did not allow them to go to meetings. These problems were only some of the problems that the young union had.
Learn and Teach: What did Neil do about these problems?
Liz Floyd: At this time Neil did not know much about trade union organization. He got some help from the people in Cape Town. But mostly he learned from the day to day problems of the union.
Neil learnt how to make worker organizations strong. He believed that workers must have a say in their union. In this way they feel that the union belongs to them.
So when he organized workers at the Fattis and Monis factory, he worked slowly and carefully. Now the union did not go to management first. They had meetings with the workers outside the factory. Neil visited workers in their houses and at hostels in Tembisa. The workers only chose a workers committee when they had many members in the factory. In this way the union got strong. All the workers had a say in the union. And all the workers worked hard for the union.
The workers from Fattis and Monk then began to organize other workers. They told the workers at other factories about their union. They went to see other workers at lunch time and after work. The branch in Kempton Park grew very quickly. Food and Canning became one of the strongest unions in the Transvaal.
Learn and Teach: Did Neil work with other trade unions?
Liz Floyd: Many new unions were growing up in the Transvaal at the end of 1978. Neil worked closely with these unions. He helped to start a branch of SAAWU in the Transvaal.
But Neil was also worried. He didn’t want the new unions to fight for the same workers in the same factories. He knew that this would divide the workers and make the unions weak. Neil worked very hard to bring the unions together. He wanted the unions to work together – not against each other. He also wanted unions to organize workers in places where other unions had no members. In the months before the police came for him Neil was working very hard. He was trying to bring the unions together to talk about unity.
Learn and Teach: Today many people think Neil is a hero. How do you feel about this?
Liz Floyd: Neil was a special person, sure. But he was not a superhero. Neil was like anybody else. But he worked harder. When the union had problems, he did not lose heart. He gave up everything to make the union strong. And when the police came for him in November 1981, the Food and Canning Workers Union was a strong organization.