Learn and Teach went on a long trip. We went all the way to Zambia to talk to Ray Alexander, or Miss Ray, as many old workers in South Africa remember her.
Our heads were spinning when we left Miss Ray’s house. We had talked and talked, all afternoon. Miss Ray told us about her life in South Africa. She told us how she and others started the Food and Canning Workers Union. She told us how the Federation of Women started.
Would we remember everything Miss Ray told us, and — more important — could we tell her story as well as she told it to us?
As we opened the gates to leave, Miss Ray came hurrying out. She was very worried. We talked so much that she forgot to offer us anything to drink. She gave us a bottle of homemade lemonade to take with us. It was very good!
ON THE DOCKS
Miss Ray’s story starts in 1929. She had just arrived in Cape Town. She stood on the docks, a young girl with yellow hair. She had come by boat from Latvia, near Russia, to join her family.
Miss Ray was not happy. She was missing her friends and work back home. For a week all she wanted was to go home. But then she went to the shops.
She saw many workers sitting outside in the sun, during their lunch hour. She asked them if they had a union. They said no and Miss Ray felt better. There was lots of work to do here — the same kind of work that she did in Latvia.
MISS RAY STARTS WORK
Miss Ray started that very Sunday. There was a big meeting at the bottom of Adderley Street. She met a man called Johnny Gomas there — and she helped him to collect money for the striking textile workers in America.
From that time Miss Ray was never at home at weekends. On Sunday mornings Miss Ray went to the docks to help Johnny Gomas with union work.
But Miss Ray also had to earn money. She soon got a job sewing for a tailor. And she started to learn English — it was some time before she spoke English. When she gave her first speech in English at the docks, her knees were knocking from nerves.
The older people in the union soon saw that Miss Ray knew how to work. They asked her to work with them full-time, and not just at week-ends. Miss Ray was soon very busy, organising the tin workers, the oatmeal workers, chemical workers,sweet workers, everyone.
TEA IN BLOEM STREET
Miss Ray helped the sweet and food workers a lot. They believed that they needed a special union. So, in 1941, on the 6th of February, about 50 people met in a house in Bloem Street.
One person brought milk, one person brought tea, another person brought biscuits, another brought cake. By the time they finished their tea, the Food and Canning Workers Union was born.
There was lots of work to do. Everyone sat down and wrote letters to friends and relatives at the big canning factories in Paarl. They wrote to tell them about the union. Then they waited for answers to their letters.
BY THE LIGHTS OF A ROLLS
Months later a letter arrived from some Paarl workers. They asked the union to send people to them at Daljosophat. Ray went with two workers from Crosse and Blackwell in Cape Town.
They had no transport so Ray asked a friend to take them. When he arrived to pick them up, he was driving the biggest, smartest car in the whole world — a Rolls Royce.
The Rolls Royce was very useful. When they got to Daljosophat, the workers were angry. No one would give them a hall to meet. So they went down to the Berg River for their meeting. Many people were signed up that night, by the lights of the Rolls Royce.
Once people from the Paarl canning factories joined the union, the union spread like a big fire. Soon workers from Wellington, Worcester, Groot Drakenstein, Ashton, Roberston, Somerset West wanted to join the union.
One day Miss Ray got a letter from some workers in Port Nolloth, far away in the northern Cape. Today it takes three days to get there by train.
The police at Port Nolloth do not like strangers because of the many diamonds there. They think that every stranger wants to buy their diamonds “under the counter”. Miss Ray had to carry a letter saying that she was there on union business — and not for any other reason.
When Miss Ray got to Port Nolloth she was shocked. The workers lived in terrible houses, the factories were dangerous, and most of the workers had TB. Many were alcoholics.
The boss of the canning factory, Mr White, was very angry. He did not want anyone to ‘interfere’ with his workers. He tried to get Miss Ray out of Port Nolloth in every way — he even told the hotel owner not to let Miss Ray stay there. But in the end, the boss had to talk to the union.
MISS RAY LEAVES THE UNION
Miss Ray worked for the Food and Canning Workers Union for twelve years. During this time she travelled up and down the country, from the big cities to all the tiny little towns, in trains and buses.
Miss Ray slept in hotels, in workers’ homes, in beds and on floors. The name of Miss Ray was loved by the workers everywhere. Even some of the bosses came to respect Miss Ray.
But in 1953 the government banned Miss Ray. The government banned Miss Ray because she belonged to the Communist Party. The government said that she must not work in the union anymore.
Workers were very angry — there were strikes at many canning factories, from Paarl to Port Elizabeth.
PARLIAMENT AND THE WOMEN
Just before Miss Ray was banned , she went to a meeting in Port Elizabeth. The women got together. They spoke about starting a special organisation for women. Everyone agreed at the meeting to speak to other women.
After Miss Ray’s banning order, she decided to stand for parliament. In those days, four people went to parliament to talk for the ‘natives’.
Miss Ray travelled around the country, from Durban, to East London, to Cape Town — in a boat. She spoke to people and she told people to vote for her. At the same time she spoke to women about the new women’s organisation.
MISS RAY DOES NOT ARRIVE
Miss Ray was chosen to go to parliament. But when she went, the police would not let her in the doors. The government had quickly changed the laws — no-one who was a member of the Communist Party was allowed into parliament.
The new law also stopped Miss Ray from travelling. She could not go to Johannesburg for the first big meeting of the women’s organisation — the Federation of South African Women.
But the policeman who stopped Miss Ray at parliament made a big mistake. He grabbed her arm to stop her. So Miss Ray took him to court for hurting her. The police had to pay Miss Ray lots of money — enough to pay for all her travels when she was telling people to vote for her.
MISS RAY LEAVES
In 1965 Miss Ray and her husband, Jack left South Africa. Both of them were banned. Both of them were cut off from their work. Today they live far away in Lusaka.
But they have not forgotten South Africa and South Africa has not forgotten them. In the Food and Canning Workers Union any of the older workers will tell you about Miss Ray. One worker told us: “If Miss Ray could see us today, she would be so proud.”
When Miss Ray left the union, the union went on to make history. Many people from the Food and Canning Workers Union became leaders in other organisations like the ANC, the Women’s Federation and Sactu. The union itself was one of the strongest unions in Sactu. It is the only union that is still around from that time.
Even today, the Food and Canning Workers Union is part of Cosatu, the big new trade union federation. The Food and Caning Workers Union will soon join together with the Sweet, Food and Allied Workers Union. They will have 50 000 members — a lot more than the 50 workers who met with Miss Ray in Bloem Street back in 1949. Yes, Miss Ray surely has reason to feel very proud.