PIETERMARITZBURG in 1986: a city simmering with anti-apartheid protest action, under a State of Emergency and about to face a low-intensity civil war that would culminate in the tragedy of the political cleansing of March 1990. But for most African citizens, it was simply another year of struggling against pervasive racism and apartheid bureaucracy.

One of the few ways in which these ordinary lives of a quarter of a century ago can be traced is through the archived case files of the Pietermaritzburg Advice Office run by the Black Sash. Among mundane issues ranging from unemployment insurance fund (UIF) and worker’s compensation claims to hire-purchase problems, there emerges a picture of the abuse of labour by some employers and the bureaucratic callousness of apartheid.

Many small firms treated their workers with casual contempt. S.A.M. was employed by a garage for R113 per fortnight, dismissed and given R50 to cover two weeks’ wages without notice pay. His case was referred to the industrial council for investigation. Mandla K. was fired by the same firm with four days’ wages and no notice pay. There were allegations of theft, but no charge had been laid. The manager was abusive when phoned by the Advice Office, which passed this case on to Legal Aid. Elsewhere, D.T.M. was assaulted by his employer when he asked for his pay a day early.

Simphiwe D., who worked for a supermarket, had a promised bonus withheld because his girlfriend owed the business money. Bheka Z. received no UIF card from a security company on resignation. Thulasizwe N. was summarily fired by the same firm for lateness and told to return the uniform for which he had paid. There was no first warning, notice or notice pay. Security businesses and other firms with high labour turnover declined to give references on the revealing grounds that their records were incomplete.

Margaret D., a cleaner was dismissed by a timber company on suspicion of theft. When questioned about the legality of this action, the employer threatened to dismiss the entire staff. She was reinstated, but soon fired. Jabu M., who had worked for a butcher for two years was dismissed for no reason and without pay or a UIF card.

Alfred Z. complained that when his job ended, he did not receive a UIF card, but he worked on a farm that was not covered by labour legislation. John D. lived and worked on another farm at Mooi River. Dismissed by the new owner, he and his family were given notice of eviction, eventually allowed to stay on the farm but required to pay rent.

This was the insecure world of employment for Africans in Pietermaritzburg before progressive, post-liberation labour legislation was extended to everyone. But interactions with the state system could be equally demeaning. In April 1986, Lena M., a great grandmother, travelled from Table Mountain to Hammarsdale by bus to register for an old-age pension. She and other old people were sent by the Maphumulo Tribal Authority at Maqonqo and the trip cost R6 each, plus R5 for the induna. Her application was refused by the magistrate as, in his opinion, she was not 60 years old. He required her to remove her woollen hat for a head inspection and then decided her lack of grey hairs meant that she was not eligible. Her birth had never been registered and although her baptismal certificate recorded a date in July 1925, it was suggested this was probably an error as she had been baptised in middle age. The magistrate reckoned her to be about 55 and told her to return in five years’ time. She noted indignantly in her complaint to the Advice Office that her mother had received a pension even though she lacked white hairs.

Disputes about age were common. Isabel N., born in June 1923, applied for an old-age pension in July 1985 and was paid in January, March and May of 1986. But when payment stopped in July, she was informed she had to provide proof of her birth date. Fraud was widespread and much of it involved the pension pay out clerks. Elijah M. received his first payment at Vulindlela in January 1985. However, the second (back pay of R686) was missing as the cheque had been issued against a fraudulent signature. Beauty Z. was allegedly refused a pension until she paid for KwaZulu citizenship.

In the Richmond area, pension payments to Ida M. and Dudu N. stopped suddenly. This was a widespread problem and payments were reinstated only after letters were issued by attorneys acting pro deo for the Advice Office. Disputes around powers of attorney were sorted out in similar fashion, but arrear payments were persistently complicated by computer problems at Ulundi.

Mtutu M. applied in July 1987 for a disability grant and, having completed the medical forms, went to Chief Zondi at Sweetwaters for the necessary stamp. The clerk demanded R70 (at least R700 today). This was regarded as such an outrageous bribe that a complaint was made to the Vulindlela Magistrate’s Court. Thembelihle M. had her disability grant application turned down because she had no dompas (reference book). Her application for that did not carry the requisite distinct fingerprints because she had a paralysed left hand. Bizarrely, her disability prevented her from obtaining a disability grant.

Robert Z. tried to apply for a reference book and was told to being a guardian, an older male relative, but his 25-year-old brother was rejected as unsuitable by Vulindlela Magistrate’s Court and his father was untraceable. Sibusiso S’s father refused to help his 17-year-old son with his reference book application because he had come to the aid of his mother when his father was assaulting her. Sithembiso G. of Sinathing was denied a work-seeker’s permit as he did not appear on his landlord’s list and was unable to get his dompas stamped by the chief. Mandla H. from Hlobane Collieries had been born at Wesselsnek, yet his reference book categorised him as Xhosa and his birth date was given as 1941 instead of 1940.

The standard of apartheid administration was often poor. Theophilus M. was evicted from his Imbali house by the township superintendent. His mother had deserted his father and married again before her husband died. The son had proof of parentage that gave him a right to the house, but it had been sold to the mother.

And besides such incompetence, there was always the fear of violence and growing political intolerance. Esther M., born in 1918, and her older husband were attacked by youths and robbed of their pensions and belongings, with neither the local induna nor Camperdown police able to offer assistance. They were eventually admitted to Emuseni old-age home, but told to leave by other residents because they were not Inkatha members.

Ordinary lives in extraordinary circumstances, who would have remained silent witnesses to history of their times had they not sought assistance from the Advice Office.

  • Twenty-seven years later many of these Advice office clients may still be alive, so their surnames have been omitted. The office finally closed its doors on 2012. Its archives are held at the Alan Paton Centre, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.

This article was first published in The Witness on 29 July 2013 and entitled ‘In need of good advice’.