It took me a while to gain the support of everyone at NACTU – being the first white guy ever to work for NACTU wasn’t as easy as what you might think. Back in the 80s NACTU specifically decided not to join COSATU because of the white leadership within the trade union movement that dominated COSATU unions. They decided to go on their own and keep NACTU a black only trade union federation – black consciousness needed this approach early on. So not everyone was celebrating when I was asked to head up NACTU’s negotiations at NEDLAC. But the fact that I was white soon became a secondary issue – and actually counted in our favour.
The majority of business and government people around the table were white – and from older stock. They believed that I had something in common with them at every level, including politics and social interests – just because we shared a skin colour and language. We used this often and effectively. Most negotiations took place during coffee or smoke breaks. And it was easy for me to become part of the group of white guys talking rugby, braaivleis (barbecue) and… well, positions at the negotiating table. They shared information with me that they wouldn’t do with any of my black colleagues. And I took this information back to strengthen our position and develop new tactics – we won more often than not.
This helped me develop a deeper trust within the union movement. How people viewed me changed from being an outsider to being a trusted Comrade. I even got my own nickname – umlungu. Umlungu is an offensive name for a white person. I was literally called white bastard. The reason? Well, in the eye of the white guys I became a white bastard for joining NACTU and not joining their side. And it was an endearing way for NACTU to say that I was their ‘white bastard’. I was on their side and got them info from the real umlungus.
Of course this didn’t work well when in public. Being called umlungu in the streets of Jo’burg didn’t always go down well. Imagine walking downtown in a rough area and where over 90% of the people are be black, and then someone shouting ‘hey, you white bastard!’ Needless to say, we had a few close calls where we had to explain to people what we meant – and that there was no reason to help beat up the white bastard.
It also had a bit of a novelty factor. People wanted to see the umlungu that works for NACTU. And the news travelled far. I was asked to do a short introductory speech to a group of trade unionist in the UK – they were donors so we jumped when they asked us to jump! I spotted a guy sitting at the back staring at me and smiling – I could also spot from a mile away that he was from South Africa. I went to speak to him afterwards and he told me he was on a training trip from COSATU. It was odd, we weren’t from the same federation – so why was he here? He smiled as I asked him and replied – ‘I just wanted to see who this Comrade umlungu was that joined NACTU’. We had a good laugh and shared a few beers.
The nickname stayed, but the colour of my skin became less and less of an issue. To such an extend that no one even noticed it anymore – not even myself. It came back every now and again when someone would be shocked to find out who I worked for – but we got to handle that in our own way. I’ll never forget the first time it happened.
I was having a beer with a good NACTU friend of mine when she noticed two guys from COSATU sitting next to her. She knew them. She leaned over and started chatting to them and asked if they wanted to join us. The standard introductions followed, and when they asked me what I did for a living I responded, without thinking, that I worked for NACTU. You should have seen their faces – clearly shocked that I was white. And without thinking they both responded immediately with ‘but you’re white!’ The response from my friend was priceless – without blinking she immediately reacted by swinging around to me and saying, ‘what, he’s white? An umlungu?’ Her face was one of mock shock – and then she burst out laughing and couldn’t stop laughing. You should have seen their faces. Bewildered doesn’t even start to explain.
I never felt so proud of being a white bastard.