Last week, SACTWU (South African Clothing and Textile Worker’s Union) sent Justin and I to Durban to conduct oral histories for our main project while in South Africa, the Worker History Project (WHP). The main goal of the WHP is to compile the life stories of the different members of the union to be able to weave together their life stories and the story of the union. According to the Project Coordinator (and one of our bosses), the WHP “builds respect for workers by exploring their most intimate self-reflections and giving their own voices and stories a wider audience.” By transcribing and sharing the stories, workers realize “the roles they played, and continue playing, in bringing about positive societal change.” The oral histories we are transcribing will hopefully make it into a book that is being complied for the 25th anniversary of the union.
Even though we had conducted two interviews in Cape Town beforehand, our Durban interviews were the first ones we did on our own. We were both excited to travel to Durban on what was our first business trip (feeling very old). We couldn’t wait to get to the beach, but we quickly realized that business trips are not vacations…
On our last day in Durban, we were scheduled to interview Rani Naidoo. Rani is a shop steward at the Playtex factory, which produces undergarments such as bras and panties. I was immediately drawn to this as I worked for a lingerie company last summer and was curious to hear her story. I soon as we arrived, she greeted us with excitement. As a shop steward, Rani is the representative of her fellow workers within the union, and it was very easy to see why she had been elected.
Within minutes, Rani began opening up to us and describing her personal experiences in the factory. She is an exceptional woman that is an example of how stable employment can literally save women. I found myself scribbling furiously and constantly making sure the recorder was working properly because her experiences and thoughts were so insightful I needed to make sure I never forgot them.
Rani had been interested in garment-making from a young age. When she was in primary school, she used her mother’s old Singer machine to make herself clothing. When she left high school, she naturally gravitated towards the industry, first modeling for a clothing store and then taking a job in a clothing factory. She has been making clothing for thirty years now. Rani ended up at Playtex because in 1976 she was forced to move. When she was eighteen, she was thrown into an arranged marriage with a man she barely knew. He ended up being abusive towards her and her children. After ten years, she couldn’t tolerate it any more, and with the support of her family, she moved to a different area.
Rani attributes her strength to her job. She explained to us how working made her strong again. She said, “If I was still in that marriage, still in that abusive life, I don’t think I would have been able to work so long in the industry. I would be a dead woman.” She told us how she was able to become a woman of her own, “releasing [herself] and moving on with her work.” She described her transition and the role working in the factory played :
We had this thing, if you are married you stick with your husband. We had to be respectful. Wear long hair, long clothes… Not like now you wear jeans and a short skirt. And I cut my hair! In those days that never happened, we were restricted. You can say I learned a lot working in the clothing industry. The clothing industry is my home.
Rani also believes that becoming a shop steward has shaped who she is today. She said that “from the weak woman that [she] was, SACTWU made [her] strong.” She described how her marriage had restricted her, but that “becoming a shop steward taught [her] to be a woman with power and to have courage.” She also described how her new strength allows her to be an example for other women in the factory:
You become a mentor to another woman, a woman who is discouraged in the world. I encourage her, I tell her she can be like me. I am an inspiration to people that never see the world. You get abused women, who don’t know how to help themselves. I was like them. With SACTWU, we receive lots of training. That motivates us and makes us who we are. We have more and more women in the industry, and more female shop stewards. If you go around, you can see.
I loved hearing her describe her love for the clothing industry because I share the same love. I have often been told that this interest is superficial or materialistic, and I often struggle with justifying my interest in the industry. I am torn by my feeling that it goes against my feminist values. I am obsessed with vanity? Do I care too much about appearance? But Rani proved to me that my interests are not superficial. She spoke about her love of the industry, about the different types of bras and the skill involved in making one bra. She explained how making one bra requires 26 machines and very precise machinists’ work. Rani showed us how her work and her passion for the industry changed her, empowered her to assert herself and enabled her to escape. Listening to Rani made me even more passionate about an industry that I had always been fascinated by. She showed me a different side of it. She essentially validated a passion I have always had, and showed me how it aligned with (and does not stand against) my strong beliefs about the importance of women’s empowerment.