While there seems to more politicking and less activism in many of today’s trade unions, there was a time in South Africa when the unions filled a very serious role in the fight for workers’ rights, which the government of the day were determined to squash.
Curries Fountain, which now forms part of the Durban Liberation Heritage Route, was a site of many a union meeting during the apartheid era, including a 30 000 strong mass meeting organised in 1971 to protest against poor wages in the garment industry. Union organiser, Harriet Bolton, was instrumental in the planning of the meeting.
Born in the Southern Transvaal in 1927, Harriet moved to Durban with her family at the age of six. She completed a secretarial course and began working as a bookkeeper in 1944 for the South African Typographical Union, which is where she met her husband, James Bolton. James was responsible for establishing the Furniture Workers Industrial Union and the Garment Workers Industrial Union, and when he passed away in 1964, Harriet took over the position of general secretary for both unions. She took the role on with great vigour, setting up new offices in Gale Street when the location of their previous offices was declared a ‘white’ area in terms of the Group Areas Act. In her time as general secretary Harriet grew the the Garment Workers Industrial Union from 3000 to 30 000 members. A headline in the Daily News in May 1973 read “Harriet Bolton, mother of six and 30 000 workers”.
A strike is not something you sit down and plan; it is an action taken by desperate people when they just can not stand any more” Harriet Bolton, 1972
Harriet also extended her work beyond that of secretary general, working with Rick Turner to help establish the Institute of Industrial Education (IIE), where Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi was employed as Chancellor. Unfortunately, because of the limitations placed on universities and schools by the Bantu Education Act, the IIE could only register as a correspondence college.
Through her work, Harriet soon attracted the attention of the Bureau of State Security, who harassed and threatened her and her family. While talking at a pro-Frelimo meeting (Mozambique Liberation Front) at Curries Fountain, Harriet’s children were arrested for contravening the Riotous Assemblies Act: “They left me talking and they quietly walked around and arrested my children. The devils that they were. I was furious”. On more than one occasion Harriet discovered that her breaks had been interfered with – what she believed to be attempts on her life.
After witnessing the deaths of close friends, including Rick Turner, who was killed at his home in Durban, and Jeanette Curtis, who died as the result of a letter bomb sent to her in Botswana, Harriet made the difficult decision to move her family to the UK. She never cut ties with her home though, and worked closely with the then banned South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU)*.
In 1994 Harriet returned to South Africa to vote in the country’s first democratic elections, eventually moving back home for good. In 2009 Harriet Bolton passed away at the age of 82, in Morningside, Durban. Speaking of his mother in an interview a few months before her death, Thomas Bolton recalled her life’s work:
Mom tried so hard …. to fight for good living prospects for the garment workers. And she did it very well. She is the mother of all mothers.”
* The Garment Workers Industrial Union amalgamated with other unions to form the South African Clothing and Textile Union (SACTU)