The sight of black workers marching through the street lit the flame of resistance in Durban’s industrial areas.

The angel of death has been sweeping across our country, taking precious leaders, colleagues, cultural icons and friends. No sooner have we absorbed the news of one death than we are confronted by another. We hardly have time to reflect on the meaning of each life and to learn its lessons.

So it is with the death of Amon Ntuli, who died a few weeks ago. A quiet giant, his life tells us much about our history.

Ntuli was president of the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union from its formation in 1989 to 2003. By 1989 he was already a veteran of the democratic trade union movement. The 15th child of Mpopoli Ntuli, Amon was born in rural KwaZulu-Natal. His middle name — Malencane, which means “little money” — told of his father’s financial struggles, struggles Amon would take up his entire life.

In the late 1970s, a young Ntuli found work at Frame Textiles in Durban. He stayed for more than 40 years, transforming the company and the industry in the process. He rose to prominence during a protracted recognition battle with the founder of the group, Philip Frame, which was ultimately won only after Frame’s death in 1979. The Frame Group featured prominently in the Durban strikes of 1973. At that time, black workers were barred from participation in the labour relations process and black unions were not recognised.

Pent-up demand for a voice — and desperation over wages — led to an illegal, spontaneous strike at Coronation Brick and Tile in January 1973. The sight of black workers marching through the street outside the factory — holding aloft a flag made from a red T-shirt — lit the flame of resistance in Durban’s industrial areas. Within days there were strikes at the docks, the factories and the municipality. The Rand Daily Mail reported: “Beneath the confidence of their striped shirts, Natal employers are petrified”.

The Durban strikes and their aftermath changed the economic landscape of SA. In 1979, following the Wiehahn Commission, the government finally allowed black trade unions to register. This led to intense debates within the unions. Some argued that registration would blunt their militancy. Others, such as Ntuli, argued that they could seize control of the formal labour relations process and make gains for their members.

The argument was won in practice. Those who stayed outside the system soon saw the victories of registered unions and rushed to follow them.

Ntuli was a strong proponent of non-racialism and of the importance of organising workers despite political differences. In their KwaZulu-Natal branches, the clothing union included members of both the United Democratic Front and IFP, despite the conflict between them. They also managed to unite Indian, African and coloured workers, building one of the most racially diverse unions in the country, and one of the most powerful.

Trade, industry and competition minister Ebrahim Patel, a close comrade of Ntuli in the 1980s and 1990s, made the following remark at his memorial service: “Amon was the tree that was rooted firmly in the soil of Swayimane. From there he spread his branches to offer protection to workers far beyond his home. He united the descendants of King Shaka who spoke isiZulu, and the descendants of Indian indentured labourers who now speak English, and the descendants of the slaves on the Cape Flats who spoke Afrikaans.”

Ntuli’s longest running collaboration was with Johnny Copelyn, Jabu Ngcobo and Elias Mphande. Close comrades and friends for 45 years, they shared a vision of a union that could unite workers and empower them on the shop floor and beyond. They were among the pioneers of industrial unions and of the principle of “one industry, one union”.

Over a period of 10 years they unified previously separate and mostly regional (or racially based) clothing unions into a single, national entity.

In the 1990s, as negotiations to establish a democratic constitution developed in earnest, they were the first to form a union investment company, the Sactwu Investment Group, which later became Hosken Consolidated Investments (HCI). Ntuli served on the board of HCI for many years.

Unlike other unions, this one was committed to establishing a listed company, which forced public scrutiny and commercial discipline on the investment work they pioneered. While many newcomers to political and economic power have been plagued by corruption, Ntuli and his team led Sactwu’s investment efforts without blemish for the whole of his career.

Ntuli was a gentle man, firm and powerful but calm and courteous. By the end of his life, he was not only an executive director of Deneb (the owner of Frame), but also a director of the HCI Foundation and one of Sactwu’s key educational projects, Edufundi. He was also a passionate farmer. His life and quiet, powerful contribution remind us that ordinary people can transform society. Often it is the most humble who have the greatest impact.

Source: Financial Mail – Lael Bethlehem

• Bethlehem is an investment executive at HCI, where she focuses on renewable energy, inner city housing and commercial property. She writes in her personal capacity.