Fairytale road to the poorhouse

Saturday, 29 November 1997

Fairy tales are nice, but real life does not always have happy endings. Here's a bedtime story for Sam Shilowa and Tito Mboweni

THE primary school I attended three decades ago, St Anthony's in Durban, was staffed by nuns — seriously teutonic Sound of Music lookalikes.

And a diverse bunch they were. Sister Dominic who changed her train of thought in mid-sentence, Sister Isabella who almost gleefully wielded a cane, and tiny Sister Francis Paula with the warm mischievous twinkle in her eye, to whom most of us turned for comfort when Isabella decided to not spare the rod.

But they and the other teachers had something in common, a passion for those particularly tedious bedtime stories — you know the ones I'm talking about; they teach us all about people who struggle through difficult times and all have morals at the end.

This is one such story.

There was once a young Bavarian — (actually, there were many Bavarians and some of them went on to make BMWs, but this is not their story) — who set out on a great journey to seek his fortune.

"Follow the sun," a wise old woman had told him. (Perhaps she was his mother, but this is an old story, so we don't know.)

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So he followed the sun across the great ocean where the seas ran cold and the winds blew strong, and sometimes the sun shone and sometimes it did not, (for no one, as all of you know, tells the sun what to do).

And he came to the New World, and it was a cold unfriendly place, and he despaired until a wise old man appeared before him and said: "The New World is large."

So once more, he followed the sun, and travelled into night and in and out of days through the rolling plains with the mighty purple buffalo up the high mountains across mighty rivers over the lakes of salt until he came to the sea.

And he found many others who too had come to seek their fortune. "We are in search of gold!" said they. "Many of us have found it. Will you not join us?"

And the Bavarian looked upon the seats of their pants. And theirs, like his, were threadbare. And he said: "Perhaps the sun does shine out of there after all. I must follow the sun."

And so it was that in 1873, Bavarian Levi Strauss produced the first pair of Levi's Patent Riveted 501 Waist High Overalls.

In the years to come, Levi shared his good fortune with those who worked with him and came to be known for his generosity and philanthropy. As did his children. And their children. And everyone the world over wore the Waist High Overalls and called them jeans.

But there arose tigers in the east, and they were not generous. And their workers worked long and hard in sweatshops as indentured labourers for they had not the Basic Conditions of Employment law of Levi Strauss company. And their jeans were bought by many.

And Levi's children asked: "Why buy you jeans from these people? Know you not that they are slave drivers?"

And those that bought replied: "Their jeans cost but US $20 while those of Levi's cost US $30. We care not for your generous conditions of employment, only that your jeans be cheaper."

And Levi's workers said: "Our jobs are threatened!"

And their leader, Uncle Bill, said: "I can do naught. I serve the free trade agreement."

And Levi's children said: "But the tigers are exploitative scum!"

And their leader, Uncle Bill, said: "I can do naught. I serve the free trade agreement."

And so, this Christmas, one third of Levi's US factories will close, and 6 395 fired workers will set off into the world to seek their fortune ...