There is nothing special about Brits — a hot and dusty little town near Pretoria. It is like most other towns in the Transvaal.
When you drive to Brits, you first come to the factories. Most of the workers in these factories come from Bophuthatswana. They come to Brits to find work. There is no work where they live.
After you drive through Brits, you pass some empty fields. The fields are full of thorn trees and rusty, old motor car parts. Just after you pass these fields, you come to the township. When you drive into the township, you will soon come to a mission school. Further down the road, you will come to a low building in an open field. That is where we stopped.
Inside the building we found the people we came to see.
The people were hard at work. They were knitting and sewing. But there are people everywhere who knit and sew. What is so special about these people in Brits?
These people are different because they work for themselves. They work together and everyone is equal. There is no boss.
“At this place, the workers control everything,” says Leah Thage. “We do not need any bosses. We decide how we must work. We all learn and work together.”
The sewers and knitters are not the only people who work in this way. Another group of people make bricks. These people also have no boss. They too work for themselves.
WE LOSE OUR JOBS
Last year most of these workers worked in the factories in Brits. Many workers lost their jobs because there was no work. And many others were fired after a strike at a company called B and S.
Five hundred workers at this factory went on strike after some of their fellow workers were fired. All of the workers were members of the same union. They were all fired.
Leah was one of the workers who lost her job. And like most of other workers, she could not find another job. “There are thousands of workers without jobs in Brits,” says Leah. “At the labour office, you don’t find jobs. You only find long queues of men and women. They all wait there for jobs.”
The people waited and waited. They got no jobs. And they also got nothing from the UIF. The workers in Brits, like so many other workers, had problems with the UIF.
Then people got tired of waiting. They came together and spoke about their problems. They started an Unemployed Workers Council.
“We met everyday to talk about our problems,” says Ellen Xhosa. “We spoke about our suffering. We spoke about all our problems — like the drought. Most of the people had lost everything at their homes. They had no more cattle and no more crops.
“We also spoke to the other workers in the union — the workers who still had their jobs. They agreed to give us a little money every week. But we knew they could not help us forever. They have problems of their own. We knew we had to help ourselves.
“Forty five of us decided to make work for ourselves. We decided to make and sell things. We spoke about knitting, sewing and brick—making. We knew there were many problems. But we had to start somewhere.”
STARTING TO WORK
The workers needed a bit of money to start. For example, the sewers needed money to buy some machines and material. The workers spoke to the people at the church. The church agreed to lend the workers some money.
Then they needed a place to work. Again the church helped. The church gave then a room. The brick—makers decided to move away from Brits. They went back to Bophuthatswana. They hired some land from a chief. They called themselves ‘Agang Quality Bricks’. The sewers and knitters are still thinking of a name for themselves.
Then the people had to learn about their new jobs. When the sewers started, most of the workers did not know how to sew properly. “One of our members taught us how to sew. And a woman from the location showed us how to use a knitting machine,” says Rebecca Ledwaba.
The brick—makers also had to learn about their new jobs. “We watched other people making bricks. Some of these people gave us advice. Then we started to make bricks ourselves,” says Jonas Mokgotho, one of the brick—makers.
The sewing group first made Seshoeshoe dresses and Jikisas. Three months later, the sewers got their first orders. They began to make clothes for weddings. And they also got an order from a choir.
The brick—makers also started off slowly. “We needed water and sand for the bricks,” says Jonas. “The nearest water was two kilometres away. We waited a long time before we got a truck. Now we also use the truck for deliveries.
“We want to make cheap bricks. After a while we want to start building houses — cheap houses that people can afford. But we can’t do this yet. We need to make some money first. But the time will come.”
WORKING WITHOUT A BOSS
“Working without a boss was difficult at first,” says Rebecca. “We made many mistakes because we had no rules. So we sat down and spoke about rules.
“Now we have some rules — like working hours. We start work at 8 o’clock and we finish at 3 o’clock. If we want to leave work early we must first ask the others. And if you can’t come to work, you must send a message.
“We have rules and rules are important. But we are much happier working for ourselves. It’s better than the factories. At the factory we often worked for more than nine hours. Now we have time to see the children. We have time to rest our bones.”
The brick—makers also had a bumpy start because they had no boss. “One of our biggest problems was keeping records,” says Jonas. “In the first month we didn’t know where we were. We didn’t know how many bricks we sold. Now we have learned how to keep records.
“Now if we have a problem, we have a meeting. If we cannot agree we call for a vote. But it’s always better if we don’t vote. It’s best when everybody agrees.”
POOR BUT PROUD
The workers in Brits don’t make much money yet. For the first three months they made nothing at all. When they make a little money, they share it equally amongst themselves.
The workers in Brits may not be rich. But they are very proud. They are getting it together. They are helping themselves. We wish them luck.