Cape Town - The declaration of the Rex Trueform building in Salt River as a provincial heritage site has been described as a “monument for the workers”.
The building once housed a vibrant factory with more than a 1000 workers before the operation was shutdown in 2005.
Greg Hoedemaker, from Delft, remembers his time as a presser and shop steward. He welcomed its heritage status, saying it is a “monument for the workers” who toiled there.
“It’s going to keep the memory of the workers alive. People gave it their all. They worked hard. It’s a monument for the workers and worker history must be told through that,” he said.
Now based at the South African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (Sactwu) Worker Health Programme, around the corner, Hoedemaker cut his teeth in the union movement as a shop steward.
He started at the Wynberg plant as a 20 year-old. “I remember because I got married two years later,” he said.
At the time, Rex Trueform had factories in Wynberg, Atlantis and Salt River, owned by the Shub family.
“First it was the father, then it was the son. I worked for the son.”
Hoedemaker remembers going to Waverley in Woodstock to look for work. It was January and factories were opening after the holidays. At Waverley, he was told they would let him know in two weeks. But on his way home to Ottery by train, he saw Rex Trueform and decided to give it a try.
“My friend Victor worked there as a presser. He told me he wasn’t going to stay there long. So I told the woman, ‘You know my friend, Victor, he said he is not coming back to work here’. She said well then we have to take you.
“In the end, Victor never left and I stayed 24 years,” he said.
When the Wynberg factory closed, Hoedemaker moved to Salt River. He remembers the first time workers were retrenched, around 1990/91, before the closing in 2005.
“Rex Trueform was a family. We were so many working there, but we were close-knit. Coming to work on a Monday, you would look forward to work.
“We did not earn a lot of money. So by Sunday, that money is gone. But there was a support structure at Rex Trueform. Someone would lend money, people would help out.”
He remembers “all the steam” from pressing garments and playing “klawerjas” with his colleagues.
And the many good times, such as the annual Spring Queen competition. First Rex Trueform would have its in-house competition. If its queen made it through to the Good Hope Centre, to compete against other factories, workers would gather in their numbers to support her.
“We would fill a big block, with our sweaters on. It was very vibrant.”
Hoedemaker said the workers were united and aware of issues, thanks to a strong union presence.
“We always took a mandate from the workers. We didn’t subtract or add to it. One year, we went to a union meeting. The workers had said they don’t want to strike. Other factories were shocked. At meetings, other factories would wait and see what the Rex Trueform view is and then follow. That year, we did not strike.”
The work was hard, but they had good times. Such as the annual “breaking up” in December when workers would collect their pay and a box of biscuits.
“We would bring our children with. Mr O’Brien, the HR manager would say something over the intercom”.
Hoedemaker and union colleagues were adult basic education and training trainers in the factory. He ended up studying adult basic education through Unisa, followed by a human resource management course funded by Rex Trueform, an achievement for a man who never went to high school.
He was born in Grassy Park and finished Standard 5 at EC Primary School. His life nearly took a wrong turn as he fell in with a gang. It’s when he became friends with the Ruiters brothers that his life changed and his political activism grew.
Dr Alistair Ruiters later became director general of the Department of Trade and Industry.
Looking back at his time at Rex Trueform, he said the factory was “an institution”.
“Even now, people ask when is Rex Trueform opening again. But that is like a pipe dream. People were sad when it closed,” he said.
For architect Ilze Wolff, the declaration was a proud moment. She said she started “obsessively researching” the Rex Trueform buildings and its large presence in Main Road, Salt River, 10 years ago, culminating in a book, Unstitching Rex Trueform.
She said its heritage status is “based on its significance as a site of multiple imaginaries and particularly the black feminine labour history of Cape Town”.
“My hope now is that the symbolism and meaning of the site will point to restorative economic practices and a progressive participation into ideas of land and property in South Africa.
“Yes, Rex Trueform, and in the words of Spike Lee, now is your chance to ‘do the right thing’.”
MEC for Cultural Affairs and Sport Anroux Marais called on the heritage community and agencies to consider the factory as an important asset “that warrants serious and focused conservation attention”.
“This provincial heritage site is of outstanding significance for the memorialisation and acknowledgement of the textile industry and its role and contribution to society as experienced today,” she said.