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The voice of Oscar Mpetha

One day in June this year an old man walked out of the old prison in Cape Town. His feet hurt and he needed crutches to walk.

Outside the old man’s family and friends were waiting. After three long years their father and their leader was coming home.

As the old man left the old brown building, he saw the crowd of people. A smile of joy lit up his face.

His daughter Esther ran to him. She held her father tightly – so that they could not take him away again. The old man began to cry.

The tears ran freely down his cheeks. For three lonely years he lived in a prison cell. And now he knew that for all that time he was not alone. The people were with him.

The old man’s name is Oscar Mpetha ­ a fighter for his people and a leader of the workers. Today he is 74 years old.

Three years ago the police came for him. They took him from his home in Nyanga, Cape Town.

This was not a new thing for Oscar. He has seen the inside of a kwela kwela many times before. A man with his kind of job knows all about jail.

This time it was trouble in the town­ ships of Cape Town. The people were angry about high bus fares. So they said ”’Azikhwelwa’ – We won’t ride!” They threw stones at the buses. And they set fire to cars. In all this anger two men were killed.

The police blamed Oscar and 17 other men. They took the old man to court. After three years the court case ended. And for all that time Oscar stayed in jail.

The judge said Oscar helped to start the fighting in the township. So he sent the old man to jail for another five vears. But he said Oscar can appeal. He can go to a higher court and argue against the five years.

The judge said Oscar can go home until the next court case. After three years in jail and after getting a five year prison sentence, the old man was free. But first he had to pay bail – the amount was R 1.

Today Oscar Mpetha is very sick. Doctors say they may cut off his leg. The old man is tired. But he loves to see people. Every day visitors come to his house. They come to shake hands and speak to the old man. And Oscar tells them of his life as a fighter for the workers and for the people.

Now you can read the story of Oscar’s life. The story is in his own words.


“I was born in Mount Fletcher – a small town in the Transkei in 1909. While I was at school I helped in the ICU office. (The ICU was the first trade union for black people in South Africa). The ICU made me think a lot about the workers’ struggle.

After passing standard six, I had no money. I got a job in Matatiele and earned some money. Then I went on to Amanzimtoti. And from there I came to Cape Town. After a while I signed a contract to work at Simonstown Docks. From there I went to Groote Schuur Hospital.

I worked at Groote Schuur Hospital for four years. Remembering my days in the ICU office, I looked for people who also wanted to learn about the workers’ struggle. And while I was working there, I joined a group called the October Club.

In the October Club we spoke about all kinds of things as well as the workers’ struggle. When I left Groote Schuur I decided I must get a job organizing workers.

I married in 1936. Then I went to Malmesbury for three years and organized the road workers around there.

In the 1940’s the Italian prisoners of war came to South Africa. We worked together with the prisoners of war building roads in the Western Cape. We found out the prisoners were getting three shillings and sixpence a day. And we were getting two shillings and six pence a day.

So I started organizing. I asked the workers, “How can these workers who are prisoners get more than us in our country? Surely we need higher wages.” There was a strike and I was dismissed.


I then went to Laaiplek near Saldanha Bay and worked at a fishing factory for five years. Conditions were very bad. I wrote to Molteno who in those days was the representative of the African people in Parliament. He gave my letter to Ray Alexander, the founder of the Food and Canning Workers Union.

Ray wrote to me and she sent appli­cation forms for workers to join the union. I started to organize for the union in Laaiplek. From there I eventually became General Secretary of the African Food and Canning Workers Union.

In 1947 there was a strike at the canning factory in Ashton. This was the first strike I was involved in as an official of the union. We won the strike and after that we wanted to organize in Wolsely. But the bosses were set against us.

So Amie Adams, the union secretary in Wellington, and myself went to work in the factory. We pretended we were ordinary workers. The workers knew who we were but the bosses did not. So we began to organize the factory from the inside. It was hard for me because I had to spend the whole week in Wolsely and go into Cape Town only on Sundays.

At that time I was the most expe­rienced leader at the union head office because Ray and others had been banned. So I had other duties on top of being in Wolsely. Eventually I was caught holding meetings at lunch time and I was fired. This was on a Friday. On Monday the workers came out on strike.


After the defiance campaign in the 1950’s the ANC spread widely. I was secretary of the Western Cape ANC. Then I became treasurer. I had to train the local officials in everything, even keeping a cashbook. In about 1959 I became President of the ANC in the Western Cape region and I held that post until the ANC was banned.

At the Langeberg canning factory in Port Elizabeth the bosses kept on dismissing our union executive members. We asked the ANC to start a national boycott of Langeberg goods. Langeberg gave in very quickly after that.

At a certain stage in the early 50’s I was accused of being a communist and told to leave the ANC. At that time some people in the ANC did not want to work with whites. These people wanted nothing to do with the whites.

People from the union thought other­ wise. There is nothing wrong with the whites. The problem was with the government and the bosses. But I fought back because I thought I was dismissed unfairly. With the backing of the workers I went back to the ANC. At a general meeting of the ANC, African Food and Canning members supported me and they were the majority.


In 1954 I was banned for 2 years. With my first banning order I kept on working for the union. Both Becky Lan and myself were banned but we kept on going out and organizing people. (Becky Lan became the general secretary of the union after Ray Alexander was banned).

One day we went to St Helena Bay. We spoke to the manager of the factory saying we wanted to speak to the workers about an unemployment fund. The manager was very taken with this idea and he called the workers together and said we could address them. When we got to the workers I forgot completely that I was banned. I started explaining to the workers about the struggle and what was happening in other areas.

When we left, I thought oh – oh, now I am in trouble. I could not say that I had not spoken to them. But nothing happened until the next weekend when we met with all the workers of the area. We were meeting in some­ one’s backyard. The police arrived and broke up the meeting. Some of us were charged. Becky and I were charged with breaking our banning orders. I was sentenced to six months in jail but I won the case on appeal.

After my banning was finished I travelled all over the country with the then General Secretary Liz Abrahams organizing new branches in Durban, Cape Town, Johannesburg. Then I was banned in 1959 for 5 years.

After 1964 I worked as a laundry agent. Then I became a watchman at a company called SAPPI. In 1978 I returned to the Food and Canning Workers Union as National Organizer. I helped with the Fattis and Monis strike.


Now the unions are coming together again. This brings hope that there will always be a future for the unions. The 60’s were a dark time. Many of our people were jailed, banned or left the country. We have seen how strong people slowly became weak and frightened.

In 1960 when we came out of detention nobody in the townships would speak to us. They were scared to speak to us.

But today people are more determined. People are not afraid to stand up now. The struggle is stronger than in those years. For example, when I was sentenced under the Terrorism Act last month, as soon as the judge stood up, the people started singing Nkosi Sikelela. This would never have happened in the old days.

So I believe there is hope for the future. The students and youth are joining hands, often with the workers in the workers’ struggles. This is a sign to me that in not very long – we shall overcome. “


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