Memories of Khabisi Mosunkutu

By Lucky Montana

FORMER CEO of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA), Lucky Montana, remembers this humble, patient and highly knowledgeable man. A great organiser of the workers and leader of the trade union movement and a militant of the liberation movement.


Last week Thursday, South Africa bid farewell and laid to rest one of its beloved sons, Khabisi Mosunkutu, a stalwart of the ANC, a worker leader, former President of the Post and Telecommunications Workers Union (POTWA), community activist, former MEC of Roads and Transport, former MEC of Community Safety and Former MEC of Agriculture in Gauteng. I followed the Special Official Provincial Funeral and listened to the moving tribute by the Premier of Gauteng, David Makhura. It was a fitting farewell to this gentle giant of our liberation struggle.

I have fond memories of Cde Khabisi Mosunkulu. I first met him at the Devonshire Hotel in Braamfontein in the late 1980s. As a student and youth activist, I was attending several meetings of the UDF or structures of the Mass Democratic Movement where Khabisi Mosunkutu made valuable contributions. I remember one meeting I attended in preparation for the Anti-Apartheid Conference planned for Cape Town. I also remember the discussions about our response to the “Whites only” Elections of 1989. This was a difficult period in the struggle for freedom. It was at the height of repression following the popular uprisings of the mid 1980s. The regime had introduced the state of emergency in 1985 effective in some parts of the country, which was extended to cover the entire country in 1986. Many popular organisations were banned, many leaders and activists were in prison (detention without trial),  many were under harsh restrictions and most of us were on the run from the security branch.

It was the period of the Delmas Treason trial and there were many activities in support of the Delmas trialists (Terror Lekota, Popo Molefe, Moss Chikane, Tom Manthata, Cde Malindi and others) and their families, including the mass meeting at the Central Methodist Church. The “Anti-Apartheid Conference” planned for Cape Town was also banned. Despite seeing Bra Khabs in many of these meetings, I never had the opportunity to speak to him personally or directly. He was a leader I knew from afar.

The Special Official Provincial Funeral today and the tribute by Premier Makhura brought back some memories. Two important events reminded me of this humble and patient yet highly knowledgeable man, a great organizer of the workers and leader of the trade union movement and a militant of our liberation movement.

In 1993, I together with 11 postgraduate students from UCT, UWC, Natal and Wits were contracted by COSATU (during the tenure of Jay Naidoo) to conduct research in various sectors of the economy that were undergoing restructuring. If I remember well, the project was funded by the Australian trade union movement. The trade union movement was facing serious challenges, including the prospect of retrenchment when the apartheid government and the bosses implemented various restructuring initiatives that affected workers in key sectors where COSATU was the dominant player. The Apartheid State had faced serious fiscal crisis since the mid 1980s and was trying, among other interventions, to corporatise many of the public entities such as Telkom, the Post Office, SA Transport Services and others. There were attempts to change work organisation, grading and training arrangements in many of these sectors. COSATU was opposed to the unilateral restructuring and was looking at developing strategies to counter this offensive.

The postgraduate students were each allocated a sector to study these developments and to prepare reports on these restructuring initiatives with a focus on grading, training and wage arrangements in each sector. We would do qualitative research (interviews) as well as quantitative research (collection and analysis of data). The students would be paid for their participation in this important project and would be allowed to use the research information in furtherance of their postgraduate studies. Many of us needed the money to pay for our tuition fees during our honours and postgraduate studies. I was assigned to the post and telecommunication sector and had to work very closely with the COSATU affiliate in the sector, POTWA. Cde Khabisi Mosunkutu was the President of POTWA.

I travelled through the length and breadth of the country interviewing workers and shop stewards in the various depots of Telkom and the Post Office. I was supported by two capable and dedicated worker leaders based in the Western Cape, to guide me on the key strategic issues in the sector and to assist me in setting interviews with the management of both Telkom and SAPO. I remember Cde Nathan Bowers who was the Provincial Secretary of POTWA in the Western Cape and Thuli Ngozi, a shop steward in the sector. I gained valuable information from these comrades. With the passing of Cde Khabisi Mosunkutu, I listened to some of the recorded interviews I had conducted with the workers and shop stewards that I still have on tape recordings, just to restore my perspective of the times.

One of the interviews scheduled was with the President of the union, Cde Khabisi Mosunkutu in Johannesburg. I flew from Cape Town a week earlier to interview workers and shop stewards in Pretoria, where the Head Office of the Post Office and Telkom was based. I had successful interviews at various depots in Pretoria as well as in Johannesburg.

Then came the opportunity to interview the President. I was excited. This was my opportunity to meet Khabisi Mosunkutu  on a one-on-one basis. I stayed at my parents home in Mamelodi and took a taxi from the township early the next morning. I got off at Van Der Walt Street and walked to Bosman Station to catch the taxi from Pretoria to Johannesburg. I got into the taxi and within a short period it was full. The taxi driver did not leave the rank immediately. He kept on discussing soccer with the other drivers. I was getting restless and did not want to be late for the interview. This was the most important interview for the completion of the task and it was also vital for my honors dissertation.

I got off the taxi and went to ask the driver if we could  leave immediately. I told him I had an important interview and could not afford to be late. The taxi driver  never said a word, got into the vehicle and drove off. It was in the middle of Pretoria and Johanneburg that the driver came for me. He threatened to drop me off by the roadside and said to me that I will not even conduct the so-called important interview. The area at which he wanted to drop me off was bare – there was nothing there at the time. Midrand was not yet established as an area. There was an old lady who asked me not to respond. She criticised me and said that these educated youngsters do not have respect for their elders. I was burning inside but there was nothing I could do. I sat there quietly. I realised the game the old lady was playing. She was extremely “brutal” with me in the taxi but it was all in the name of saving my interview. The taxi driver listened to the old lady and I was spared his wrath. I made it for the interview, thanks to the wisdom of our mothers!

I arrived at the POTWA offices and found Cde Khabisi waiting for me. I explained to him the entire ordeal with the taxi driver. He was polite and very friendly. He got me to forget the entire episode. I will never forget the day I spent with Cde Khabisi Mosunkutu. It was “free education” on the Post and telecommunication sector as a whole. This was a knowledgeable man. His grasp of the detail was amazing and he knew what needed to be done. I got to meet the “taskmaster” himself.

Khabisi Mosunkutu understood the fears and hopes of his members. His loyalty was to the postal and telecommunication workers and was accountable to them. He was keen to use his knowledge learnt from his own experiences and that of the workers, to change the situation of workers. I was sitting there and listening to a true champion of the workers.

We could not miss the opportunity to discuss the political situation, the negotiations that were underway between the ANC and the regime, and the transition in the country. His loyalty to the ANC was strong but he remained militant. He was keen that the voice of workers was heard in the new dispensation. I learnt from this giant of the trade union movement.

He inspired me and I finally decided to focus my honours thesis on the union response to the restructuring initiatives that were underway. My honours thesis was on “Strategic Unionism” as it was an emerging theme at the time. It was about conflict and cooperation and how the trade union needed to engage in the changing conditions at the workplace and in the country.

The only copy of my thesis ended up with my friends and comrades, Karl and Elizabeth Cloete. They wanted to read it. When I tried to get the thesis back, Karl, the Deputy General Secretary of NUMSA, told me that the document is sitting somewhere among their stuff in a garage somewhere in Cape Town. I joked to a friend sometime back that I will be able to retrieve the thesis once NUMSA has delivered socialism in South Africa. I am convinced this will happen in our lifetime, on a lighter note. Irvin Jim and a Karl should not feel I am mocking their initiates.

I though I was done with Khabisi Mosunkutu after I submitted my Honours thesis. The story of the taxi industry brought us back together. Bra Khabs was no longer MEC when I became Deputy Director-General: Public Transport in the National Department of Transport In 2004. I was however able to learn a lot from his strategic approach and decisiveness about making transport the heartbeat of our economy and about the nature of the taxi industry itself.  Whenever we met within government events, Khabisi Mosunkutu would not stop being the teacher he was and sharing his knowledge of the transport sector.  Many remember him for his firmness in dealing with taxi violence, closing down taxi ranks where necessary. Some in the taxi industry thought he was trying to destroy the industry.

I must say that Khabisi Mosunkutu was never an enemy of the taxi industry. He never subscribed to the dominant yet misguided view that see taxis as a nuisance that needed to be “dealt with”. He was a true friend and supporter of the taxi industry in our country.

Khabisi Mosunkutu knew and understood the strategic role of the taxi Industry in our transport system and in the broader economy. He was committed to enhancing this role and ensuring that the industry consolidates its position in a growing and transforming economy.

Khabisi Mosunkutu knew that this was the only industry in black hands and appreciated the many struggles taxi operators had to endure under apartheid transport policies to reach where they are today. They had to fight against restrictions of apartheid laws and regulations including opening new routes the government never wanted them to operate.

Khabisi Mosunkutu understood that there could never be meaningful black economic empowerment in the transport sector without first and foremost empowering the taxi industry. He was inspired by the many innovations that black taxi operators had by themselves introduced to the transport sector.

Khabisi Mosunkutu understood that the transport system of the future required the integration of the taxi industry with the entire public transport system. He was clear that transport modes had to be deployed where they are most effective to contribute to the efficiency of the transport system as a whole. He was therefore unapologetic that the taxi industry will also need to be regulated.

Most of all, Khabisi Mosunkutu knew that in its current state, the taxi industry will never be profitable, will never be able to recapitaliae itself and will not be sustainable. The over-saturation in the taxi industry that gives rise to destructive competition and violence has to be curbed. He was firm and acted decisively when taxi violence affected commuters and took innocent lives.

Khabisi Mosunkutu inspired all of us in the transport sector. I followed in his footsteps and implemented some of his own initiatives in the taxi industry. Like Khabisi Mosunkutu, I was treated as an enemy by some in the taxi industry. They hounded me and threatened my life until I was forced to resign from the position of DDG in the Department of Transport.

I support the statement by the Premier David Makhura that the best tribute we could pay to the memory of Khabisi Mosunkutu is to build an integrated public transport for all in Gauteng. The Premier announced bold steps, including the establishment of the Gauteng Transport Authority, which will be responsible to plan and manage public transport modes. We proposed similar steps in our 2005 Gautrain Integration Report which we developed with the Province and tabled before Cabinet In 2005. Some of us will support the initiatives by the Province to transform public transport for the benefit of all our citizens.

It is important to remind the Premier, that integration is not only about the bringing together of different public transport modes under the proposed Gauteng Transport Authority. There is a need for an integrated public transport network which will have an impact on plans to expand the Gautrain, a single and affordable fare structure as the basis for a single ticketing solution. It is important that someone from Ga-Rankuwa in Pretoria working in Randburg does not have to travel all the way via Germiston into Park Station on Metrorail and take a taxi to Randburg simply because they cannot afford to transfer to the Gautrain at Pretoria Station. A single, integrated public transport network has serious implications and will require choices for greater access for the majority of poor households in Gauteng and environmentally-sustainable solutions. I will support the Province if this is the thinking behind the plan for the integration of public transport modes.

This we should do in memory of the selfless work and the many sacrifices that Khabisi Mosunkutu undertook.

May His Soul Rest In Eternal Peace!


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