DOLLY MOKGATLE: 1956 – 2021

A HUMBLE LAWYER OF THE ORANGE PICKERS

MATHATHA TSEDU

RETIRED Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, in his first book, “My Own Liberator”, writes on pages 242 and 243 about a 1989 strike by workers at Zebediela Citrus Estate outside Polokwane in Limpopo, whom he defended with two other advocates, instructed by the Black Lawyers Association (BLA)’s Legal Education Centre.

“The citrus produce was exported to Europe under the brand name Outspan. The working conditions on the citrus farms were horrendous and the wages were a pittance. The workers balloted for a strike and downed tools. Management, shocked by their impertinence and their ingratitude fired several hundred workers summarily. The workers would have none of that. Mathatha assured them that their dismissals were so egregious that even an apartheid court would set them aside as unlawful.

“Mojanku Gumbi and Dolly Mogatle of the BLA Legal Education Centre briefed me with Advocate Francis and McCaps Motimele to procure an urgent order from the high court for the reinstatement of the workers.”

The passage in Moseneke’s book came to mind when I heard of the shocking news of Dolly Mokgatle’s death on Saturday morning. She had apparently collapsed at home, was rushed to hospital and died there. Just like that.

The Zebediela workers had downed tools just after May 1, 1989 demanding amongst other things:

·        A R30 per month increase which would represent 50 percent to the R60 they were then earning, and 

·        Recognition of their union.

The law at the time did not recognise domestic workers and farmworkers as workers for purposes of organised labour. The Zebediela workers had downed tools several times in previous years and management would just call the police and threaten them and the strike would fizzle out.

When that police formula was implemented in 1989, management had not reckoned on the fact that the workers were by then unionised, and on Mokgatle’s support for those workers.

For, as soon as the workers were assaulted, bitten by dogs, and fired, one telephone call was made to the LEC and Mokgatle. These were orange growers, and pickers at the bottom of the food chain. They were slaves in every sense of the word and were standing up.

And, Mokgatle understood that, and dispatched the cream of the black legal fraternity of the time, to travel to the rural Zebediela and defend the rights of the orange pickers.

As a trade unionist at the time, who headed the regional office of the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) to which my own union, the Media Workers Association of South Africa (Mwasa) was affiliated, it fell on me to liaise with Mogatle about our needs.

There had been no need for a long story about the plight of the workers. She understood. She understood too that it was more than just raising the slave wage from R60 to R90 a month, it was about uniting them, bringing politics into their understanding of their condition, thus ensuring that they, with the aid of the BLA and the trade union, became their own liberators.

And to do that, the fear factor, born of scars and bruises of previous attempts that had aborted, had to be eradicated. Quick psychological victories were needed to boost their morale and see that the chink in the white management’s armour could be pierced.

Thus, when Moseneke and Co arrived, the first thing was to reverse the firing of the workers. And again, the lawyers understood the issues in their full context, the material conditions, the legal specs they needed to work within, and the political dynamics at play. We were one in understanding what we were up against and what needed to be done and achieved. 

Moss Mphahlele, who was the regional organiser, had his job cut out: mobilise workers and ensure they remained united. Mokgatle and the lawyers had to fight it out in the courts, and my role as a journalist was to ensure that the nation and the world knew about the struggle of these orange workers.

We were a team on a mission and the BLA, LEC and Mokgatle were pivotal in the success that we eventually attained. For, from the start where management would just dismiss both the union approaches and even my journalistic inquiries, they ended up sitting with Moseneke and his team and negotiating a settlement that ended the strike, signed by union reps they refused to negotiate with.

In the middle of the strike however, the Director General of Manpower, Mr J Fourie, had announced that the government was drafting legislation to cater for the unionisation of farm workers. He also said farmworkers were free to join unions even at that point.

 It was a major victory and it was difficult to not see this announcement as part of government’s response to this landmark strike and how the workers had forced a government entity to bend the existing rules to stave off losses as oranges were beginning to rot and threats of a resumption of the international Outspan orange boycott loomed.

The actual change in legislation came years later in October 1993, with the amendment of the LRA through the passing of Act 147 of that year known as 1993 Agricultural Labour Act.

But back in 1989, as the strike ended, the workers had realised and knew then, that they could make things happen through their combined strength and their union. They knew that their fate was in their hands and that the arrogance of the white managers had been checkmated by their resoluteness. It was freedom of the mind and the first step towards full freedom.

And all of that because Dolly Mokgatle, as part of a group of black women lawyers such as Pansy Tlakula and Mojanku Gumbi, were prepared to set their careers aside to build an institution such as the BLA and its LEC that could provide the kind of solace and support that the Zebediela workers needed and got.

And so, in many ways, the 1993 Agricultural Labour Act, which protects today’s farmworkers, is a testament to the work and commitment of Mokgatle and the BLA. May she rest in peace.