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Harriet Bolton (1927 - )

The Order of Luthuli in

Harriet Bolton (1927 - ) Awarded for:
Dedicating her adult life to the struggle for liberation, campaigning for workers’ rights and for organising the Furniture Workers’ Industrial Union and the Garment Workers’ Industrial Union.

Profile of Harriet Bolton

Ms Harriet Bolton was born on 15 January 1927 in the then Transvaal (Gauteng) and passed away on 22 November 2009, at the age of 82. Ms Bolton settled with her parents in Durban when she was only six years old. 

In 1944, at the age of just 17, she began work as a bookkeeper at the South African Typographical Union, which shared offices with the Furniture Workers’ Industrial Union and the Garment Workers’ Industrial Union. These had been founded by James (Jimmy) Bolton, a furniture worker from the United Kingdom (UK) who arrived in South Africa and was horrified to find that workers were not unionised. They were later married. 

Ms Bolton was a fearless trade unionist who helped to ignite the workers’ movement, leading to the Durban strikes of 1973. She always fought for the right of African workers to unionise and she was a fierce proponent of the independence of labour. 

She mobilised political and student activists to help in her quest, spearheading the programme and eventually also taking up the post of general secretary of the Textile Workers’ Union. The Garment Workers’ Industrial Union eventually amalgamated with other unions to become the present-day SACTWU (South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union). She first became general secretary of the Garment Workers’ Industrial Union in 1964 and served in this capacity for the next 10 years. 

Not directing all of her energies in organising unions, she was also very influential in the establishment of the Institute of Industrial Education, whose main focus was to assist emerging unions with educational assistance. 

One of the initiatives that proved to be very influential in the formation of the Black Workers Union was a mass meeting that Ms Bolton had planned, and which was attended by 32 000 workers at the Durban Currie’s Fountain stadium. It was at this meeting that the idea for the protest against the slave wages in the garment industry was born. 

In the 1970s, she worked very closely with political activists like Rick Turner, and a group of radical university students and estab¬lished the General Factory Worker’s Benefit Fund. 

Ms Bolton also carried messages and information from those in exile, including Ray Simmons, Mark Shope, Eric Mtshali and Aaron Pembe. 

In 1974, when she felt the situation had worsened and that it had become too dangerous for her to continue to stay in South Africa she moved her family to the UK. She nevertheless continued to work clandestinely for the cause of liberation. 

She worked underground for the African National Congress (ANC) as a courier carrying messages and documents in and out of South Africa, working closely with the banned South African Congress of Trade Unions. 

One of the key activists that she worked with during that time was none other than Judson Khuzwayo who later became the ANC representative in Zimbabwe, whom she was responsible for driving across the border to Botswana after his release from Robben Island. 

In the UK she reinvented herself as an apple pruner and cook, but later returned to South Africa to help the union again until she met her death in 2009. 

Ms Bolton gave selflessly to everyone and acted on what she believed was right and not what was expected of her. This is a woman who placed her life and that of her family on the line and risked being disowned by her own people by defying the apartheid laws and establishing trade unions for black workers at a time when it was illegal for them to be part of a union. 

Ms Bolton had a fiery spirit and was instrumental in later laying the foundations for the formation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions later. Her work in the 1970s helped to revive the trade union movement that had been weakened by the apartheid crackdown of the 1960s. 

We are proud to honour Ms Harriet Bolton with the Order of Luthuli in Bronze for her dedication to workers’ rights, her instrumental role in building a strong trade union movement and her contribution to the creation of a non-racial, non-sexist democratic South Africa.