My meeting with Cunningham for the LRS (Labour Research Services) job went unbelievably well. We hit it off straight away. He was one sharp cookie – and piercing eyes that could see through anything. He asked me questions from every angle. It was like watching Ali hitting his victim from every angle. One-two, one-two. And I had to open up very quickly and admit that I knew nothing of NACTU or what the job entailed. Hell, I didn’t even know if he was a General Secretary or Secretary General. But that I had the commitment and passion to be part of the changing South Africa. I wanted this job more than anything. I wanted to be part of the best story ever to be told in the history of South Africa. The story of the rebirth of our country.
Well, he bought that hook, line and sinker. It was true, but I did pull out all my poetic skills to convince him that I was the right one for the job.
We sat around talking about the job and the kind of support they needed for a while. We had some crap coffee and a few cigarettes. He was an easy guy to be around and had great stories to tell. But I knew that he wasn’t telling me everything of his past and you could see in his eyes that he have been to places some people should never go to – I later learnt that he was a responsible for APLA Intelligence during the liberation struggle. APLA – the Azanian People’s Liberation Army – was the military wing of the Pan Africanist Congress in South Africa. APLA was one of the most vicious military wings in South Africa – especially between 1990 and 1994 when the ANC was already unbanned and everyone of note was negotiating for a new South Africa at CODESA. They killed 4 people at a golf club in 1992, 5 people at a hotel in 1993, 11 people in a church in 1993, and 4 people at a tavern I used to go to as a student in 1993. And he headed up their military intelligence.
We got up – wanted me to meet a few other people. First up was Mahlomola ‘Shloksh’ Skhosana – the Deputy General Secretary. He was fast asleep behind his desk. He sat straight up with his eyes closed. Cunningham just walked in and started talking – as if Mahlomola wasn’t asleep at all. Slowly he woke up and wiped his eyes, and started talking as if he was never asleep at all. Odd, but I got used to this later on – he can fall asleep anywhere and still know what is going on around him. What a nice guy though – one of the biggest and warmest smiles you can find anywhere. And not a bad bone in his body.
Two other guys walked in while we were talking to Mahlomola – Joseph Maqekeni and Manene Samela. You could see straight away that Joseph was one of the original good guys. Workers loved him because he was like a father – and that’s why he was elected President of NACTU. Always friendly and always listening – and happy to play a secondary role to strong, dominant power players like Cunningham.
Manene was another story. He was huge – from worker stock. In fact, the treatment his mother received from her employers was a major inspiration for his involvement in the trade union movement – fired after 23 years with no pension, just because she got old. And she only saw her kids once a year when she went home for the holidays. Manene had a look in his eyes that made it clear that he was not one to be crossed – ever. He was the General Secretary of the South African Chemical Workers Union (SACWU) – the largest NACTU trade union member. And SACWU was involved in a long running turf war with CEPPWAWU – their main competitor from the largest trade union federation in South Africa – the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). And it was an ugly battle – huge unions fighting for their members worker by worker – shop floor by shop floor.
At this stage Cunningham hasn’t introduced me to anyone yet -not even to Mahlomola. He just started talking to Mahlemola about the LRS and Gordon Young when Joseph and Manene walked in.
No one paid much attention to me – especially when Joseph and Manene walked in. They were now talking trade union talk – another clash with CEPPWAWU and Manene was clearly upset and ready for a fight. About 5 minutes into their chat Joseph looked at me with a slightly perplexed look on his face as if he only realized I am in the room now, but for the life of him couldn’t see why I would be there at all. I stood out amongst the men in the room – a young strange white guy not talking at all. Cunningham saw Joseph looking at me and turned around and said – ‘Sorry Comrades, this is Comrade H – he is going to work for us on NEDLAC. He’ll be our lead representative.’
Just like that. As if it meant nothing – just a matter-of-fact statement from him. And a life changing moment for me. I was shocked – I got the job! No real interview. No long list of questions. No checking of my referees. No multitude of people to interview me. Just a few words from Cunningham and I had it.
I think the surprise and utter ecstasy showed in my face as everyone looked at me and smiled. Joseph looked at me, gave me a big smile, slapped me on the back and said, ‘Welcome Comrade H’. Then he turned to Manene and started talking about the turf war again.
And now I was a Comrade. A real Comrade, named by real Comrades.
But I was starting to run late. I still had to catch a cab back to the airport and get home to tell my wife. Those were the days before cellphones and I was dying to tell her the good news. I got the dream job – the break we needed and the chance we wanted.
As I left I got my first ‘comrade’ handshake from people who had real credentials in the struggle against Apartheid – not just some leftie student who thought it was cool to be radical. It starts like a normal handshake, then shifts to a quick grip similar to someone doing arm wrestling, and then shifts back to a normal handshake – hands always touching and the movements quick, clear and to the point – just like my new comrades.