During the 1980s, when exploitation of workers was rife, strikes and mass worker meetings were frequent, Alfred Themba Qabula, a fork-lift driver, Metal and Allied Workers Union (Mawu – now Numsa) member and shop steward from Dunlop became a famous face at these meetings, not for his face but for the words and images that poured from his mouth.
His skill was in copying the 'imbongi' style of poetry. But he used it to speak of workers' experiences and their struggles to unionise their workplaces infusing it with strong imagery from his roots in rural Transkei.
Just a month ago, "his body gave up to the strokes that came to paralyse him, that took most of his sight away, that slurred his speech and that brought with them an unbearable burden on his struggling family," describes Ari Sitas, professor of sociology at University of Natal, and a fellow cultural activist from the 1980s.
"As Qabula has passed on for the "lands of the high winds" we must not forget that he died in poverty and that his last words on paper, one finished poem and four unfinished ones, were words marked with bitterness. He was deeply disappointed that "his" revolution was taken over by a world of cellphones and briefcases. As he also discovered that his talents as an oral person were lost in the winds of change, these disturbing poems preceded his self-imposed exile.
Truly, none of us was spared in these poems – "The Long Road" is a criticism of all of us on our road to wealth and power, climbing over his back with spiked shoes. His "Of Land, Bones and Money" is one of the most profound expressions of our negotiated settlement – reminding us of the "restless dead". And that "seasons of drought have no rainbows"."
He was bitter too at Numsa, for like thousands of other workers who have lost their jobs, he also found that once you are out of work, the gaping holes in the social security net drop you onto hard ground and Numsa is not there to cushion you.
His death will not have been in vain if it can help to spark new debate in Numsa over how to relate to workers once they become unemployed. And while this slow process takes place and Numsa through Cosatu attempts to pressurise government to fashion a new social security net, memories of him will live on in his poetry.
Hamba kahle maqabane!
Extract from "Praise poem to Fosatu" (now Cosatu)
You are the metal locomotive that moves on topOf other metalsThe metal that doesn't bend that was sent to theEngineers but they couldn't bend it.
Teach us Fosatu about the past organisationsBefore we came.Tell us about their mistakes so that we may not Fall foul of such mistakes.Our hopes lie with you, the Sambane that digsHoles and sleeps in them, whereas others digHoles and leave them.I say this because you teach a worker to knowWhat his duties are in his organisation,And what he is in the communityLead us Fosatu to where we are eager to go.
Even in parliament you shall be our representativeGo and represent us because you are our Moses -Through your leadership we shall reach our Canaan.They call you the disruptionist because youDisrupted the employers at their own meeting.Because you man of old, asked a question:"Did you consider the workers?"