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“Proud to be black like Mandela”

Worker Ishmael Ramothibe paid tribute to Nelson Mandela… and got fired! But his union, the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) fought back

Everyday — well, almost, every day — for six years, Ishmael Ramothibe went to work, skaftin (lunchbox) in one hand and the Sowetan newspaper in the other. Before he got down to work, he used to talk to his friends or sometimes just think. Nothing serious. A little bit about politics, about his favourite soccer team, about his child and so on …

One day, his thoughts took him far away, about a thousand kilometres away to the Victor Verster Prison in ‘ Paarl, to a man who may one day be president of this country, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Africa’s most famous son of the soil.

“My thoughts moved very fast,” says Ishmael, “and in five seconds flat, I had my overall down to my waist. I turned it around and on the back, on the right hand shoulder, I wrote these words: I AM PROUD TO BE BLACK LIKE MANDELA.”

A few days later, on 3 October 1989, Ishmael was called to the offices of his bosses at Amalgamated Plastics Industries in Springs. He had no idea why he had been called. But he soon discovered that he was going to be disciplined at a disciplinary hearing.


At the hearing, Ishmael was represented by Johannes Mosamo, a National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) shopsteward. “The factory manager laid a complaint against Ishmael. He accused Ishmael of ‘malicious damage to company property’ because he wrote on his overall. He also said that Ishmael had a bad work record. Ishmael had received warnings before for ‘smelling strongly of liquor’ and for “being absent without leave.”

The factory manager told the hearing that on 29 September 1989, he saw the words I AM PROUD TO BE BLACK LIKE MANDELA written on Ishmael’s overall. He said writing on company overalls was against the company rules.

The chairman of the hearing said that the words on the overall were “political”. He asked Ishmael how he would feel if one of the whites wrote the words: ‘I am proud to be white like Barend Strydom?'”

Ishmael told the hearing that he did not mean to hurt anybody. He did not know of the rule that you are not allowed to write on overalls.

“I also told them that many people had written UP THE SPURS on their overalls in praise of the company soccer club,” says Ishmael. “Others had written the names of singers or their clock numbers. We write our clock numbers on our overalls so that when they come back from the dry-cleaners, we know which is ours.”

Ishmael showed the hearing his own overall. On the pocket, a little bit faded but still there, was written his clock-number, 751. And above it were the words I AM WHAT I AM.


At the disciplinary meeting, Ishmael was found guilty and dismissed. NUMSA appealed against the dismissal, but again the outcome was the same: guilty of “malicious damage to company property”.

“NUMSA then decided to take the matter for independent arbitration at the Independent Mediation Services of South Africa (IMSSA),” says Sello Peege, NUMSA Springs organiser. If a matter cannot be settled by the company and the union, they can ask IMSSA to solve the problem for them.

Sello explained that in arbitration, the union and the company have to agree on who the arbitrator will be. They both agreed on an experienced lawyer by the name of Raymond Tucker, who is known to be very fair.


The case was heard at the offices of IMSSA on 14 February 1990. “After a few days, we got the good news,” says Peege. “Ishmael won the case. He was given his job back and all the wages he did not get while he was dismissed.”

In his judgement, Tucker told the company: “The only reason why you took this action was because the writing on the back of his overall was ‘political’.” He also said that it was not fair to use Ishmael’s bad record because it was not too bad for a long period of service like six years.

Victory is always sweet for the winners …. and bitter for the losers.

Peege smiles happily: “The company must be feeling very stupid now. You see, they dismissed someone for praising a people’s leader. And now Mandela is on TV every night. That is why today when we judge whether a company is good or bad, we do not look at what they say and do for national politics — but what they do for their workers.”

Today, Ishmael is back on the job, working hard. Sometimes he talks to his friends, and sometimes he just thinks about his child, his friends, his holiday and his own Rivonia Trial. He was out of work for four and a half months, but he is still proud to be black and he loves Mandela more than ever.

Wasn’t it Mandela who said these famous words: “There is no easy walk to freedom…”?

NEW WORDS malicious damage — if you damage something on purpose arbitrator — if an argument between two people or organisations cannot be solved, an arbitrator may be asked to judge the facts.


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