Will their hard work ever be enough?
Written by: Hlumela Dyantyi
Photographs: Gemma Middleton
I can hear my stomach growling. The dining hall is not open again but at least the university gave us R70 to purchase meals for the day. I never thought I would say this but I kind of miss the dining hall breakfast. It is okay though, I understand why the workers are protesting, or at least I think I do. Some of the rubbish bins have been tipped over and the windy weather is not helping to keep the rubbish in check. I can hear the workers singing, “On your marks, get set, we are ready for 7%”, they cry in frustration. I look around and I am one of the very few students present. I feel ashamed as I think back to how oomama notata proudly supported us during the #FeesMustFall protests. As we await to hear the Strike Management Committee, I speak to mama Mavis Mkhathali, one of the workers protesting.
“Sometimes I work up to 45 hours a week. It hurts me that I do not get to see my children enough. On some days I leave for work before my children wake up and I get back from work tired, I cannot even cook for them, I just take a bath and go to sleep.” The more I speak to Mama Mavis, the more I realise that I truly do not understand what this increase really means for the workers. Mama Mavis is the breadwinner of her family, like many of the powerful black women at this protest. Her husband passed away and she has 9 dependents to take care of, including her children, grandchildren and brother. Mama Mavis’ eldest daughter is employed as a permanent casual at the university. She is extremely frustrated with the university’s failure to employ her daughter full time even though she has been working for them since 2006. “All we do for this university is give our all, but they do not appreciate us,” she says.
Tensions rise when Regional Organizer of NEHAWU Lusindiso Mbutsi addresses the crowd. He warns the workers of the possibility of police officers arriving within a few minutes as the university deems the protest to be unlawful. The workers might be asked to vacate the premises, and if they do not, I fear what could happen next. The workers quarrel amongst themselves uncertain about what comes next. An old man speaks up from the crowd, pleading with the protesters that they should go back to work and let their leaders negotiate for them. He says, “Makungasetyenziswa amandla qha, makusetyenziswe nengqondo.” (Let us not rely only on our physical strength, let us use our minds as well.) On the other hand, a younger man encourages the protesters to not be intimidated by what the police could do. He argues that the police are here to do their job just as the workers are. He asks the crowd to remember that their mission is victory and that this university belongs to them and their children.
After much debate, the group decides to trust their leaders to negotiate with management while they continue with work, go-slow mode still in full effect. Police vans begin to arrive just as some of the protesters are leaving. I approach a younger worker, she seems very frustrated, a bit more than others. Her name is Portia Jafta and she tells me her story. “I had to find my own accommodation when I came here because the university said sorry, we can’t provide it. I came all the way from Port Elizabeth thinking that Rhodes University is the best place to work at but was very disappointed. My housing allowance is only R900. Where am I going to find a place to stay for R900? Wardens stay in residence for free and get meals for free, yet the same does not apply for support staff. Even the administrators who are not supporting this protest are going to benefit from this increase but they are still delivering toilet papers to the residences, everything is hunky dory at the residences. At this university, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. We just want to be treated as a human being and not be undermined because we are of the working class.”
As I leave the crowd, one of the songs that the protesters were singing earlier on rings over and over again in my head. “Sizwe awuyazi oyifunayo, sakunika Amandla, sakunika ingqondo, sakunika nexesha awuyazi oyifunayo.” (Sizwe you don’t know what you want. We gave you our hard work, our minds and our time but that is still not enough.) What is management going to do?
“Sizwe awuyazi oyifunayo, sakunika Amandla, sakunika ingqondo, sakunika nexesha awuyazi oyifunayo.”
(Sizwe you don’t know what you want. We gave you our hard work, our minds and our time but that is still not enough.)