Obituary of Mthuthuzeli Tom


Date of Birth: 07 September 1959

Date of Death: 26 August 2010

Place of Birth: Mpongo, Eastern Cape, South Africa

Place of Death: East London, Eastern Cape, South Africa

Gender: Male

In Summary: A leader of the Labour movement, and activist and a leader of the ANC and SACP

Early Life and Education:

Mthuthuzeli Tom was born in a village called Mpongo outside East London on 07 September 1959. He was one of eight children, his father was a factory worker at Chloride, a battery assembling plant in East London and his mother, a domestic worker. When Tom was just 7 years old, his family along with others, were removed from the old location to Mdantsane, as part of the apartheid plan of moving all black people into their homelands. Although their new 4-roomed brick and mortar house with running water was better, families could no longer walk to work.

From an early age, Tom, was exposed to trade unions as his father was an active member of the independent trade union, the South African Allied Workers Union (SAAWU). When he was at Khulani Commercial High School he would attend trade union meetings and take part in their strategizing meetings. He matriculated at Khulani Commercial High School in 1980, but because the family had no money for him to pursue his studies in tertiary he had to go and find a job.


Tom worked as a welder at Mercedes – Benz in 1983. It was here that he received baptism into the trade union and mass democratic movement politics. He found two trade unions in Mercedes Benz, National Automobile and Allied Workers Union (NAAWU), the recognised union at the time and South African Automobile Workers Union (SAAWU).

Tom became a member of SAAWU before he joined NAAWU in 1983. NAAWU was formed after a merger of Numarwosa, United Automobile Workers (UAW) and other auto unions in 1980, and was affiliated to the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu). As he was involved in factory floor structures, Tom was also a member in community youth organizations in East London.

He was an active member of the East London Youth Congress (ELYC), an affiliate of the United Democratic Front (UDF). When the ELYC began to look at conditions on the ground, they heard that NAAWU was part of the unity talks to form a giant trade union federation, so he and those from the youth movement decided to join the recognised NAAWU in November 1983.

As soon as Tom joined Mercedes Benz, he was elected as a shop steward and began to serve in regional and national structures of NAAWU. He was also part of the NAAWU leaders who represented the union in talks that led to the establishment of COSATU in December 1985.

As the resolution of COSATU dictated, Tom led NAAWU in talks with other metal unions to form NUMSA in May 1987. He served as COSATU East London Shop Steward Council Secretary in 1985. He also saw time as the Deputy Chairperson of COSATU in 1988.

In 1991 Tom was elected 1st Deputy President of NUMSA, and subsequently became its acting president in the same year, when other leaders opted to go into government, Tom as ever before agreed to be NUMSA’s president at NUMSA’s third national congress in 1992. He continued in this position until he stepped down in 2008 as a result of ill-health.

Throughout this period, Tom played a role in the building of the SACP and ANC structures in the Eastern Cape after the unbanning of the liberation Alliance formations by the masses in 1990.

Mthuthuzeli Tom, died on 27 August 2010 at the age of 51 at a St Dominic Hospital in the Eastern Cape after being admitted for lung cancer. He is survived by his wife Ntombikayise and two children, a boy Mkhonto weSizwe and daughter Amahle.

A very skillful negotiator and very humble leader, Tom was known for his political acumen as well as an ability to explain complex political concepts to ordinary workers.


Almost 127 years ago, Frederick Engels, paying tribute to his great friend and comrade, Karl Marx, he quipped “the greatest living thinker ceased to think”. It is by no coincidence that we repeat these words of Engels as we bid farewell to this great organic intellectual of the workers who has ceased to breathe and think.

COSATU said Tom would be remembered a true worker leader in the labour movement.

“Comrade Tom was a tireless fighter for the rights of the workers, and he will be sorely missed at a time when we need leaders of his stature more than ever. Thousands of workers, including his NUMSA comrades, are in the midst of titanic battles to defeat the attacks on workers’ living standards and democratic rights…..As we confront the evils of high unemployment, poverty and inequality, the casualisation of labour and the rampant corruption which is poisoning our society, let Comrade Tom inspire us to emulate his high standards of commitment to serve the workers of the world and the people of South Africa”, COSATU said.

In another tribute to Tom written by his organizations General Secretary Cde Irvin Jim says:

“In Cde Tom, we have lost a leader, organizer, negotiator, educator and above all an organic intellectual of the revolution. Cde Tom remains a symbol of dual membership of the ANC-led Alliance. An Alliance forged and nourished through the selfless blood of workers and the downtrodden.

Cde Tom belongs to a generation of the Cadres of the movement that knows that the ANC-led Alliance does not belong to the predatory elites and those obsessed with power and crass materialism. His death shall inject revolutionary morality and willingness amongst those who claim to be our leaders, to lead our movement with honesty and dignity’.

Compiled by Castro Ngobese, NUMSA National Spokesperson


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