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The rich history of struggle

Thirty years ago, Jack Mantzaris lived in the slumyards of Denver on the east side of Johannesburg. He remembers how he used to sing and dance with his friends in the dusty roads that ran between the tin shacks. He also remembers that his best friend was a young boy called Poona Poon.

Poona was black, had nine toes and played the piano like a songbird in his mother’s shebeen. Jack was White and lived with his Greek parents in a shack around the corner.

Jack was pleased to have a friend like Poona. He was a popular guy in the ghetto. Jack remembers how they stood guard while Poona’s mother brewed skomfaan in her shack and how they shouted “Araraai!” when they saw the cops coming.

Jack and Poona played together – and they fought together. They often came home sore and bruised after fighting gangs from the other slum­ yards in Jo’burg.

Then the bulldozers came and flattened the neighbourhood. The Mantzaris family moved to a house in the white suburb of Malvern. Jack doesn’t remember where Poona’s family were dumped.

Jack saw Poona only once again after that. It was about twenty years later. Jack was standing outside a movie house in the centre of Jo’burg.

“Poona Poon, it’s so beautiful to see you. What are you doing? Whats hap­pened to you?” asked Jack as he threw his arms around his old friend.

Poona was as stiff as a pole. “Baas,” he said. “Can you give me a job?”


Luli Callinicos has written a book about the lives of thousands of people like Poona and Jack who lived on the Wit­watersrand. in the years before 1940. The book is called “Working Life ­ Factories, Townships and Popular Culture on the Rand 1886 -1940.”

In the book, Luli tells the story of how people were forced off their land and how they had to corns to the Witwater­srand to work for low wages. She tells what it was like to work inside the factories – and what it was like to live outside the factories, in the ghettoes and the townships.


The book shows how workers, fought back. Luli looks at the rich history of the’ workers struggle in those difficult years.

Luli writes about the big black miners’ strike that made the mine owners shake in their boots in 1920. She writes about the mighty ICU that organised thousands of black workers in the 1920’s.

There is the story of the first industrial unions for black workers that joined together in a federation in 1941. The fed­eration was called CNETU (The Coun­cil for Non – European Trade Unions). CNETU was not as strong as COSATU is today, but it showed the way.


Luli Callinicos does not only write about organisa­tions and big po­litical struggles. She also writes about the everyday struggles of ordinary men and women­ and in the book we hear about these struggles through their own voices.

The book shows how women brewed beer in the slums and townships so they could feed their children. It fells of the men who played the loud music in the shebeens and how this music was the begin­ning of South Africa’s very own jazz.

Luli writes about the way people danced, the sport they played, and even how they prayed in the first “peoples” churches on the Witwatersrand.


Luli writes about the young Afrikaner women in the clothing factories who were often as badly treated as the black workers. She tells how their union, the Garment Workers Union, often fought for the rights of black workers.

The book also explains how the government and bosses worked together to break this unity between black and white workers. They gave the vote to white workers – but not to the black workers. They built nice houses for white workers – but forced thousands of black families to live in townships far away from the white towns. They gave white workers jobs on the railways and in the post office while thousands of blacks searched for work.


Luli does not only use the voices of ordinary men and women to tell the history of the workers’ struggle in the early years of the Witwatersrand. The book is also full of old pictures.

There are pictures that show the terrible working conditions in the mines and factories. Other pictures that show how people suffered when they were moved to townships like Alexandra, Pimville and Western Township. There is a picture of hungry children in Pimville where “one in every five died before their fifth birthday.”

There is a sad picture of a barefoot mi­grant worker taking his child back to the countryside on the back of his bicy­cle in 1936. When the picture was tak­en, the worker had already cycled 150 kilometres. It is a picture of one man and his child – but it tells a much big­ger story.


“Working Life” is published by Ravan Press. It costs R22.50 in the shops. There is a special price for workers and the readers of Learn and Teach magazine. If you want the book, send R 15.30 to Ravan Press. ( R 12.50 plus R1.50 GST plus R1.30 for postage.) The address is : Ravan Press, P.O. Box 31134, Braamfontein, 2017.


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