On the 12 June the government brought back the State of Emergency. The police detained thousands of people and thousands of others went into hiding. Many organizations closed down or stopped working. Many people lost their nerve and their hope.
But not everybody hid under their beds. Some organizations decided to fight back. One of these organizations was the Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU). They decided to take the government to court.
MAWU asked the court to end the state of emergency. The union also asked the court to throw out the government’s new laws for newspapers and magazines. After the court case, Learn and Teach went to talk to MAWU.
Learn and Teach: Please tell us a bit about the Metal and Allied Workers Union.
MAWU: Mawu is a trade union that organises all metal workers in South Africa. The union started after the big Durban strikes of 1973. Today we have over 50 000 members and we are a member of Cosatu — the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
Learn and Teach: Why did MAWU decide to take the government to court?
MAWU: We need a lot of freedom to build a strong trade union. We need the right to organise all workers in strong trade unions. We need to have the right to say or think what we want. People must not think that we had many of these rights before the state of emergency. Far from it!
But the state of emergency took away the little we had left. That is why we asked the court to scrap the emergency. Also people were losing hope in the struggle. Many people and organisations became afraid of doing anything for their members. They were afraid to talk politics. So we took the government to court to give the people back their voice and strength. We wanted people to have hope again.
Also we had about 40 people in jail. This makes us one of the unions hurt the most by the State of Emergency. Many of our leaders in Natal like Jeffrey Vilani (vice President), Willies Mchunu, Vincent Mkhonza, Joseph Miya, Michael Mabuyakhulu and Blackie Mtshali are all in jail. We asked the court to release them so that they can do their trade union work. Mawu never forgets about its members when they are in jail.
Learn and Teach: Why did MAWU and not Cosatu take the government to court?
MAWU : Cosatu is still a very young organisation of many trade unions. If Cosatu wanted to take the government to court, it would first have to talk to all its member trade unions. This can take a very long time. It was easier for Mawu to meet. We had many people in jail and this made our case stronger. But we knew that if we won the case it will not be for Mawu alone — but for all trade unions and other organizations.
Learn and Teach: How did the court case help Mawu and other organisations?
MAWU: As I said, many people now feel stronger and no longer scared. The court did not end the state of emergency but we won an important victory. We won the right for lawyers to visit detainees. If detainees are not treated the right way, the lawyers will know. After the court case many people were let out of jail. The court also scrapped some of the emergency newspaper laws. The judge called some of these laws “non- sense”. The whole world heard what the judge said.
• Since MAWU took the government to court, other organisations, like the UDF and the Catholic Church are also fighting the government in court. Everytime people win a case against the government, people get more of their rights — and more hope for the future.