Read of the Week

Maverick Insider

Johnny Copelyn

Picador Africa

Review: Brian Joss

From ardent trade unionist to the billionaire boss of Hosken Consolidated Investments: that’s the story of Johnny Copelyn, who in Maverick Insider, sub-titled, A Struggle for Union Independence in a time of National Liberation, has written a personal memoir of the workers’ struggle and the role he (and others) played in reshaping the labour movement in South Africa, starting in 1973, after the famous strike in Durban.

Although Copelyn was served with a banning order for five years by the National Party government, it did not stop him from getting a law degree or merging the clothing and textile workers into a formidable union – the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (SACTWU), which is now part of Cosatu which also sent Copelyn to Parliament in 1994 until he quit as an MP in 1997 to lead HCI, the newly established union investment company.

Copelyn devotes a chapter about HCI, which he started 20 years ago. But he doesn’t give away too many details of his rise to riches or his fallout with Marcelle Golding. Perhaps that’s for a sequel.

Copelyn attributes his left wing ideals to Habonim, similar to Scouts except it is a socialist movement for Jewish youth. He also absorbed some left wing ideas when he was a student at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Copelyn has an easy style of writing, as if he is talking directly to you. The pages are peopled with well-known figures: Jay Naidoo; Halton Cheadle; Alec Erwin; Cyril Ramaphosa; Ebrahim Patel, who wrote the foreword, the Shaiks: Yunus, Moe and Chippy; and Virginia Engel, who started the Cape branch of Sactwu and later headed the foundation and was responsible for giving out bursaries.

“Ginny” worked as a PA to Nelson Mandela, while he was president. Copelyn visited Ginny at her request when she was dying . The next day on May 18 he got a call to say she had passed away. The chapter makes poignant reading.

During his time as trade unionist, Copelyn and his colleagues had to do battle with textile tycoon Philip Frame, and the picture he draws of the textile colossus is a perfect description of the man I interviewed many years ago. Incidentally, Frame, who was close to the government of the day, taught the unionists a “lesson in negotiating”.

Soon after his run-in with Frame, Copelyn was instrumental in starting Zenzeleni, the first union-owned clothing factory and where he honed his business skills.

There are lots of humorous anecdotes, not least about the dreaded security police who were very involved in Copelyn’s life.

Another story that will have you smiling, is one about Obed Zuma and organiser Junerose Nala, who through some subterfuge on Nala’s part, arranged to have a conversation with Copelyn while she was in Rossburgh police station, under the watchful eyes of the ever present security police.

On a more serious note, he tells how ANC members, among them Jay Naidoo and Yunus Shaik, infiltrated the union.

Maverick Insider is one man’s story about the transformation of the workers’ sector told by a maverick, who also gives credit to many of the people who travelled with him on the long road to the Rainbow Nation. It’s also a tribute to them.

It is a valuable addition to the country’s struggle history and is a must for anyone who wants to know what happened in the labour movement, such as it was, before 1994.