A life's work : Harriet Bolton and Durban's trade unions, 1944-1974.
This thesis seeks to document the life and work of veteran Durban trade unionist Harriet Bolton, with a particular focus on the years from 1944 to 1974. Harriet Bolton lived and worked through many of the crucial developments in South Africa’s labour history, and her personal history is closely entwined with this broader history. Her recorded memories of her years as a trade unionist offer a unique ‘way in’ to revisiting South Africa’s labour history and particularly the critical period of Durban’s early 1970s. Harriet’s testimony, gathered through a series of interviews, forms a core narrative throughout the thesis. However, archive and newspaper material provide detailed contextualisation for the interviews and opportunity to gain some perspective on questions of memory and of Harriet’s own relationship with history. Her recorded memories of these years substantially concern her experience as a trade unionist, but also as a working woman who was a wife and mother, later a widow as well as an engaged citizen of Durban society through her involvement in community organisations and welfare groups. As such, deeper insight into what it meant to be a working woman of her generation is gained. An important component of the thesis is a consideration of the history and politics of the Garment Workers Industrial Union (Natal) and its workers. The union was founded by Harriet’s husband Jimmy Bolton, and was for forty years closely associated with the name and legacy of the Boltons. I examine Harriet’s leadership of this union in the context of the shifting demographics of the union, and a changed political and economic landscape in South Africa. This thesis is also concerned with the role that the Trade Union Council of South Africa played during the period under consideration. Harriet’s relationship with TUCSA and her experience as a white woman trade unionist organising black trade unions ‘within’ the structures of this organisation provide the historian with a unique perspective on TUCSA’s somewhat under-researched history. Harriet’s role as a trade unionist during the tumultuous and critical period of the early 1970s, and a consideration of her contribution to the emerging non-racial trade union movement, is an important component of the thesis. The years both pre and post the 1973 strike wave are revisited through Harriet’s lens. Insights in to the question of women’s roles and contribution to South Africa’s labour movement are generated through gaining an understanding of Harriet’s perspectives.