Unionist and MK operative Sandra Nagfaal: a tribute by Mathatha Tsedu

Unionist and MK operative Sandra Nagfaal: a tribute by Mathatha Tsedu

Mathatha Tsedu

The national executive committee of the Media Workers Association of SA (Mwasa) was meeting in a make-or-break gathering in Port Elizabeth in 1987 to discuss a demand by the Western Cape region to affiliate to Cosatu and adopt the Freedom Charter.


The counter demand was to affiliate to Nactu, which was a non-aligned workers’ federation. The president, Sandra Nagfaal, came from the Western Cape but did not agree with the regional demand to go with Cosatu.

It was a tense meeting. Early on the morning of the first day, we were all woken and summoned to Sandra’s room, where we found her sitting on her bed, in her nightgowns. She then told us her baby daughter, Anthea, had died.

We all were stunned by this development. Many tears but not from her. She then spoke about why she had left home knowing her child was sick – the importance of the unity of the union.

“I don’t know what you are going to do after I leave, but whatever you decide, there is not going to be a split of this union again, not under my leadership. Now I am leaving you to bury my child.”

That day has remained indelibly ingrained in my mind. It indicated her commitment to the union and the unity of workers.

Mwasa was a union of black journalists and black media workers. The 1980s was a period of serious contestation between those who aligned themselves to the ANC and the Freedom Charter, and the Africanists and Black Consciousness members of both the PAC and Azapo respectively, who rejected the charter.


Following on the formation of the UDF in 1983, which espoused the charter, the demand was growing on trade unions to join Cosatu and thereby support the ANC. But Mwasa was a different kettle of fish. The union split between the two camps, which later came back together in a reunification.

Sandra was elected a joint president with Joe Thloloe, who represented the Africanists/BC axis. In 1986, at a conference in Ipelegeng, Soweto, Sandra was elected sole president.

And to sit at the helm of Mwasa at that time needed more than a cool head.

The PE meeting didn’t result in a split. We couldn’t. Not after what Sandra had gone through and said. Instead, we postponed the decision to workshop in
Maphumulo in KZN, where we voted to join Nactu.

Sandra wasn’t just a trade unionist. She was a senior underground operator of both Umkhonto we Sizwe and the ANC. When we had grown to be friends and she felt she could trust me, she told me about her escapades for the ANC.

Such as knocking off from work and going to Elsiesrivier, where they would spend the night sowing ANC flags for the marches. And how she escaped one night when the police raided the place.

Or when MK soldier and former Mwasa member, Aneez Sallie, on the security police priority list, wanted to meet with his then wife, Shirley Gunn, in Johannesburg. Shirley was an MK soldier. Sandra travelled with her to Joburg and back, risking her own safety for the struggle to free this country.

During the campaign for the 1994 elections, FW de Klerk went to Bishop Lavis in the Cape Flats.

I had wanted some colour of FW in action, and what better place than a so-called coloured community of the Cape Flats that had birthed the UDF.

FW was welcomed warmly, and one old woman shouted to him “Ons wil nie a kaffir president he nie”.

Sandra was standing near me. She cringed. “Mathatha, let’s go. These people are racist and make me sick.”

Five years ago, Sandra was diagnosed with breast cancer. She opted for a double mastectomy and went through painful chemotherapy. She lost almost all her hair. Pain in her hands made it difficult to hold a spoon to eat.

Further scans revealed Stage 4 cancer in her brain.

Three weeks ago, when I saw her in hospital in Tygerberg, her one side was limp. She was weak. Always the one to find the silver lining, she told me of a two-year old she saw getting radiation that day.

“I am almost 70, Mathatha, I have had my life, I have travelled the world representing workers, and have seen my children grow and give me 12 grand kids. What is the future of that child being radiated at two?

“I am in God’s hands and can go anytime and will have no worries about that,” she told me.

She died on Friday morning.

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