Women vow to pull each other up!When the time for elections at Numsa’s 2007 National Congress comes, will delegates vote in a woman national office bearer? If the women that took part in Numsa’s national political gender school have anything to do with it, the answer is a definite “YES!”

For once this was a Numsa meeting where instead of men outnumbering women, the tables were turned – women were in the majority and were dominating discussions and debates. Trade union activists from the past – June-Rose Nala, Rain Chiya and Maggie Magubane – told participants of Numsa’s roots. Nala joined the independent trade unions in the 1970s while she was a textile worker at the infamous Frame factory in Pinetown, KwaZulu Natal. She became one of the first shop stewards and later was the general secretary of the Metal and Allied Workers Union – one of the trade unions that came together to form Numsa in 1987. “Gender is all about building unity within the union,” Nala said. “If women feel unequal, repressed and are not enjoying the benefits of the organisation, your organisation cannot be united.””It’s like having a table with four legs but only two of them are working… you can’t be a strong union if women are left outside.” Nala stressed that it was up to women to stand up for themselves – “men are what they are because you let them be like that! We women, we laugh too much and let important things just pass us by!” Maggie Magubane, once a Numsa organiser and women’s coordinator and now a parliamentarian in the NCOP, bemoaned the fact that now there is a democratic parliament, “when we have laws in parliament that are open for public hearings, there is no word from workers.” But once the law is passed, then “we hear noise. Build up your gender forum in Numsa – say something about what is affecting you. This government is yours. How do we know on top what you want if we don’t hear from you?”Chiya told of the early trade unions efforts to build a strong industrial presence. “We built industrial committees to ensure strength around industries. This assisted other unions to become stronger. We would go and organise workers in other factories and pass them on to other trade unions in Fosatu/Cosatu.”

Ensure women are active Numsa members!Finding a gender balance in Numsa is difficult because there are more men than women working in its sectors. How then do you explain a union like Nehawu where “women form the bulk of workers”, asked Nehawu president, Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya, “but this is not reflected in the leadership? We must ensure that women are not just members but active members!” She urged the Numsa delegates to the gender workshop to take up the key aims of the progressive women’s movement. These are to:* get rid of ridicule* get rid of triple oppression – oppressed at work by the employer, oppressed by the capitalist system and at home by your husband/partner (ie overcome patriarchy). The strategy must begin by taking up issues that affect women workers directly. For example, take up child care facilities; make sure that there is equal pay for equal work.However, often in negotiations, gender issues tend to “fall by the wayside”, said Sibiya.She also challenged participants at the gender school to ask themselves: “What are we doing to assist farmworkers and even domestic workers in our own homes?”

Questions put to the Magubane, Nala and Chiya panel:

What strategy did you use to build unity within the leadership?”The devil has plans for idle hands!” Keep people busy. Infighting destroys even a person over there. How do you deal with the “pull her down syndrome”?Say instead “˜let’s build each other and pull each other up’. Act out petty jealousies, stop gossiping and that applies to men and women.

How did you deal with weekend meetings and family commitments as well as those who were active in trade union and community structures?The situation forced us to sacrifice. Leisure time didn’t exist. We knew it was a health hazard. The evil that can befall organisations is complacency. Always work together, discuss and debate issues.

What women participants said:

“We must stop complaining and get into our places. Gender is uniting men and women.” Moody Nel, Lear Corporation, East London local

“Women must speak out not withdraw so that they are not discriminated against because of their gender.” Ntombi Mgwadleka, Star Body, Tembisa local

“This is the first national workshop that I have attended. I have learnt a lot about Marxism and about the working class that I am going to share with others.” Pinkie Ramokoka, Kallies Panelbeaters, Rustenburg local

“We have to fight so that there is equality between men and women. We need to share everything as partners and do everything together.” Sbongile Mdlalose, Micro Finish, Pinetown local

“Women have low self-esteem. We must have self confidence to fight for our rights and address everything.” Velile Mei, Eskom, Vereeniging local

“Women workers have the pull-down syndrome. They believe in old cultures. Comrades must have self-esteem. Tell yourself that there is nothing that I can’t do. People should learn, read books to empower themselves.” Nthabiseng Mhlongo, Konplast, Johannesburg North