I sped along Route 75 to Uitenhage. It was exciting to be back in the Eastern Cape. So much resistance-history lay here, the very landscape seemed to exude it. The sky has widened to accommodate every ideal shouted up. Bare stones lay on offer at roadsides, unthrown for a decade. These stories will probably never be written up as today's pampered political elite gobble up the heroics of liberation for their own personal CV's.
Into Uitenhage, then quickly out to the township of Kwanaboutle. Up Matanzi ma Street, into the Babs Madlakane Community Hall parking lot. The hall is full. Overflowing. These are the 1300 workers fired from Volkswagen SA.
What happened here? The fight, according to the workers, started as a confl ict between local union officials sitting in the Uitenhage offices and shop stewards elected by grassroots membership. The shop stewards were elected in March 1999. Workers were happy with them. Local officials were not. The y wanted the shopstewards out. A two and a half day strike settled the matt er in the shopstewards' favour.
NUMSA officials required fresh elections to be held. This was rejected. On 14 December, after days of obscure constitutional debate shopstewards recei ved letters to appear before a disciplinary committee three days hence. Amo ng the allegations were "inciting and misleading workers". Incitement, of course, has long been the blue-eyed charge of employers and the apartheid state. But "misleading"? Ah, yes, workers are idiots easily swayed. While we knock down the monuments of apartheid, at least the language is still with us, used not-so-creatively by the bosses of the institutions that undergird this new regime - be they in the boardrooms of companies, parliaments or tra de unions.
The errant shopstewards were tried in absentia. Their reason for boycotting proceedings will only make sense in a trade union environment. They claim they ought to have been given 7 days notice and not simply one day, since 1620 December was a public holiday. You don't mess with that.
And so, on the day after the Day of Reconciliation between oppressor and opp ressed, the Numsa shopstewards were suspended.
At the time, VW bosses seemed to take a neutral stance. Neutrality helped profits. Workers stayed on until 23 December, churning out motor vehicles. But in the new year, things changed. On 10 January , shopstewards received a court order on behalf of their own union to vacate their own offices on th eir own plant. Management accepted the suspension.
By way of an out of court settlement, shopstewards agreed to step down. The y returned to the line on 20 January. However, workers were incensed. They rose up in spontaneous defence of both their comrades and their own mandates. Protest action ensued, which could, de facto, only take the form of a st rike, against their own union - NUMSA.
I asked about 50 workers at random in the crowd all over the Hall, what the strike was about. They, to a person, replied that it was to preserve the de mocratic right to elect their own representatives. But was this not then ag ainst Numsa, I asked one chap, gullibly?
"Com, it is exactly for Numsa that we strike!" was his hearty reply.
Mbulelo Makuleni of Jabavu Street showed me two pieces of paper. One was his termination letter. With 25 years of service, his pay slip seemed even worse. He took home R320 a week. World class cars, Third World working conditions! Others told me how the hard-fought-for Training Centre had closed and how even the tool and die shop had been outsourced.
Workers bemoaned the attitude of John Gomono. Former VW worker, Cosatu head , now MP, he arrived and left in his imported A6 Audi - taking time to denou nce worker control of the union as being anti-social, anarchic and undemocratic.
In a propaganda stunt of truly Orwellian proportions this strike is being portrayed as having something to do with stopping an export order. Having been there, I can say that it is my considered opinion that this is a load of t ripe!
The next day I'm back. This time it is in the town hall at an official meeting of Numsa. The line of provincial chair, Ivan Jim, is that we must do "whatever we can to reduce numbers" by making sure some get back. He is stoic in facing down worker accusations of selling out. He mentions Minister Alec Erwin and Premier Arnold Stofile will intervene. Unlike the previous day, there are no songs, no comradeliness. The meeting ends in bitter pandemonium.
Isn't forcing people to act against their own will through the force of an institution much more profound an act of intimidation than any insult hurled at a scab?
There is a story here. Management using every opportunity to roll back the gains of the 1980s. Politicians with power steering.
Union bureaucratisation. Janus-faced officials appearing concerned in the presence of ordinary workers while rather enjoying the hard macro-language they can talk in caucuses with politicians and bosses. Shopstewards, resisting the yank of their officials to anti-worker economic imperatives, being crushed. But there's al so a story of workers pioneering new ways and forms of struggle, dimly recalling traditions of militance. It is ultimately at VW in the Eastern Cape where workers are trying to reverse Gear. Where else?
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