By: Thandisizwe Mgudlwa Zora Mehlomakulu is one of the many forgotten heroines of the freedom struggle in South Africa. At a time when South...
By: Thandisizwe Mgudlwa
Zora Mehlomakulu is one of the many forgotten heroines of the freedom struggle in South Africa.
At a time when South Africa appears to be directionless with never ending political squabbles, corruption, poor service delivery, perhaps the time to pause and reflect to unearth the visionary leadership of the past is long overdue.
Affectionately known as Mama Zora, and also called by her clan name of Marhadebe by many workers, Mama Zora’s contribution and positive
impact on society is what is needed to be shared to build a better world.
Learn and Teach magazine ensured Zora remained vivid in the memories of those who knew Zora and her contribution as one of the life-lines of the unions that commenced their tireless efforts to fight for workers’ rights from the 1950’s onwards.
This magazine’s 1986’s article opening line came as no surprise to a significant number of workers whose lives Zora had touched during the era when she was an active unionist, it read: Many workers in Cape Town think of Zora as a mother.
Mama Zora was not only a mother to the workers, she has two children of her own she nurtured and adored, Nosizwe and Thandisizwe, speak volumes about her social activism, philanthropist ideologies and deep-rooted love for her country and its working force.
Mama Zora’s life as a unionist started at a tender age of 20 in 1960. At the time, she was hardly ready for the expected office conventions she had to be accustomed to, such as formal attire and the prestigious location of the office – Queen Victoria Street, in Cape Town.
The General Workers Union (GWU) later became the General Workers and Transport Union (GWTU) while she was its active member and thus an integral part of the activities of the larger union.
Additionally, the workers were of the view that she was rather young
for the position she was holding.These sentiments exerted a lot of
pressure on the young Zora. However, she was determined to gain their
trust through hard work and acquiring the requisite leadership skills,
even if these attributes were at the expense of a different demeanour
than her peers.
Mama Zora joined SACTU in 1963. In the same year, she received banning
orders for her activism and efforts.
As a member of the United Women’s Democratic Organisation she was a
Consequently, Mama Zora was detained for the first time in 1963.
Her task was exacerbated by the difficult times the unions were facing
at the time.
In 1964, the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) opted to
work more discreetly. A substantial number of SACTU members left the
country and many were jailed. Mama Zora and her contemporaries were
detained for several months during the spreading of the Soweto
Uprising which broke out on June 16, 1976.
Zora Mehlomakulu-Mgudlwa was an organiser for the General Workers
Union from 1976 until ill health in 1987 did not allow her to perform
her responsibilities as effortlessly as she used to.
In 1976, she was part of a group that formed the General Workers
Union, this stemmed from the government’s suppression of SACTU from
The latter’s members were frequently arrested and this reduced office
manpower considerably. As a result of the discreet modus operandi a
substantial number of SACTU members left the country while many were
Zora and her contemporaries were detained for several months during
the spreading of the Soweto Uprising which broke out on June 16, 1976.
1976 also saw the rise and dominance of the Black Power movement in
South Africa, inspired by Black Freedom Struggle in the United States
Zora played a prominent role in growing the Black Power movement in
Phandulwazi started as a support structure for former members and
pensioners of the trade unions as well as unemployed citizens. This
initiative was established in 1988. The supportive concept on which it
is based was conceived and pioneered by Mrs Zora Mehlomakulu-Mgudlwa
assisted by her husband Fuyizizwe ‘Frank’ Mgudlwa in Langa, where they
resided with their family.
This visionary and pioneer whose legacy still exists passed away in
2001, and followed by her husband in early 2019.
The former Premier of the Western Cape Province and former Ambassador
of South Africa in the US, Abrahim Rassol, in a reminiscing about Mama
Zora’s life had the following to say: “She will be remembered for her
warmth, generosity and above all, her commitment to the freedom and
betterment of others.”
In the Editorial Notebook issue; Points of light in South Africa that
was published in 1993 in The New York Times, a point was made of Mrs
Zora Mehlomakulu’s key oversight responsibility of the community
development centre at Langa. This centre catered for job training,
taught sewing, pattern design and brick making.
Mama Zora had lost her position as organizer for the Transport Workers
Union when the economy slumped down. Mama Zora’s words were echoed by
a myriad of Langa residents and in Cape Town and South Africa that
things are changing, but not anywhere near the level to help the
majority of people.
In a book review that was written by Desiree Lewis on Post-apartheid
her stories: Zubeida Jaffer’s Our Generation Cape Town: Kwela, 2003
and Pregs Govender’s Love and Courage: A Story of Insubordination
Johannesburg: Jacana, 2007, Zora and Mildred were grounded as black
women who advocated
for women’s rights.
The subtext of the story of male-led Struggle is therefore a record of
how black women have always struggled for justice and rights; accounts
and photographs of women such as Zora Mehlomakhulu, detained as a
young woman in the 1970s and Mildred Ramakaba-Lesiea, one of the main
organisers of women activists in the Western Cape, locate the author’s
personal experience in a proud and independent history of Struggle.
A question that is often asked by those who were close to Mama Zora
is: How many people remember the work of Zora Mehlomakulu?
Learn and Teach compiled a story on Zora Mehlomakulu called: A Mother
for Many. The gist of the story is centred on how workers in 1971
decided to form an advisory office instead of a union, due to
pressures of the apartheid system at the time, The ANC, PAC and the
trade union body, SACTU were suppressed and subsequently outlawed. In
the workers’ own words: “We decided to start an advice office and not
a union. The Minister of Labour was hard on unions at that time
because the workers were still weak. The government wanted committees
for the workers – not unions. That is how the Western Province Advice
Office was started…Learn and Teach number 1, 1986.
A Cape Argus, August 1998 report read: To commemorate the 50th
anniversary of its country’s independence, the Indian High
Commissioner in South Africa last week honoured 16 women who
contributed to the struggle against apartheid. A substantial number of
these heroines spent many years in jail. Many of them were also
denied their freedom through house arrests and bannings. They also
suffered the perpetual inequality that is common among South African
women. Yet most of them remain unsung heroines. Last week was one of
the few public tributes of their work. It was refreshing that the
icons formed part of those who were honoured in Cape Town by High
Commissioner Lakshmi Jain and Mrs Devaki Jain
on behalf of their government.
Mama Zora was one of the honoured women at this event in 1998.
In 1996, Zora graduated in the Adult Community Education Programme
from the University of Cape Town.
Mama Zora also received more awards and honours from the Trade Union
Movement while she was still alive.
Since its inception in 1988, her community based organisation,
Phandulwazi, has trained more than 1000 people in various artisan
skills, business and entrepreneurship programmes among others.
A well-deserving prestigious award: Officer of the Order of the Disa
was awarded to Zora Mehlomakulu.