A BLACK CHRISTMAS
At about 12 o’clock on the morning of the 6th November, a trade union got a phone call. The phone call did not last very long. It does not take much to fire six and a half thousand workers. Just a phone call.
The six and a half thousand all worked at the huge Sasol petrol factory in Secunda. Most of these workers belonged to a trade union called the Chemical Workers’ Industrial Union. They were fired because they joined the big worker stayaway in the Transvaal.
The next day, the police surrounded the hostels. The workers were told to pack their belongings into plastic bags and to leave.
Outside the workers found the money vans. They were being paid off. And next to the money vans, the buses were waiting. The buses had signs on them – Qwaqwa, Bushbuckridge, KwaZulu and Transkei. In the words of the union, the workers “were bussed back to the human dumping grounds in the bantustans.”
”This is very sad. This is something bigger than Sasol,” said Manene Yoliswa as he climbed into the bus that was taking him back to the Transkei. “Maybe this is the beginning of something, but I can’t say what. There is no time for us to feel sorry or afraid. We must show Sasol that we are brave.”
And Mary-Jane Mahlangu got into the bus that was taking her back to Vrede in the Orange Free State. She got into the bus with a heavy heart. She was the only breadwinner in the family. She knew that this Christmas will not be a happy one.
But Mary-Jane was not the only one. Most of the other workers are also the only breadwinners in their families. How many people will now go hungry? Thirty thousand? Forty thousand?
A man in a suit and a tie also said he felt sad. Mr Robin Hugo, one of the managers at Sasol, said: “We are greatly saddened by the hardship caused to the workers because instigators forced workers to stay away from work.”
But six and a half thousand workers tell another story.
Nobody forced the workers to stay away from work. The workers in a trade union decide things for themselves. In fact, the trade union told their members that workers from government factories did not have to join the stayaway.
But the workers at Sasol wanted to stand together with all the other workers in the Transvaal. They too wanted to tell the world of the anger of the workers in South Africa. Nobody forced the workers to do anything.
On the first day of the stayaway, at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, helicopters flew over the hostels. The helicopters dropped thousands of pamphlets. The pamphlets told the workers to be back at work by 10 o’clock the next morning -or they would lose their jobs.
The workers leaders had an all night meeting. They decided to call a meeting of the workers early in the morning. The leaders wanted to tell the workers to think about going back to work.
They told the bosses about the meeting. The bosses agreed to let the workers have a meeting in the hostel grounds. They also agreed not to call the police or the army.
The meeting started at 6 o’clock that morning. But soon after, two “hippos” drove into the hostel’s ground and straight into the workers’ meeting. The workers got very angry. They decided to carry on with the stayaway.
A few days later, the police arrested two of the workers’ leaders, Chris Dlamini and Moses Mayekiso. Mr Dlamini is the president of Fosatu. Many trade unions, like the Sasol workers’ union, belong to Fosatu.
The workers from Sasol were now sitting in the bantustans without jobs. And some of their leaders were sitting in jail. At a meeting a few days later, the other leaders spoke for them.
The leaders said that this year it will be a black Christmas. “As a trade union movement, we feel we have nothing to celebrate,” said Mr Jay Naidoo. He is the general secretary of the Sweet Food and Allied Workers Union. He asked other trade unions and all other workers not to celebrate Christmas this year. Workers must please not buy presents or anything special this year – but only things they really need.
He said that Fosatu has already asked a big trade union organisation with members all over the world for help. They have also spoken to a trade union in Germany. They want workers in Germany to ask their government to speak to the South African Government.
He said that Fosatu may also ask people not to buy anything that is made at Sasol. And Fosatu will also talk to other trade unions at the next big meeting in the middle of November. These are just some of the things that they will do. At Fosatu’s next meeting, they will decide on other kinds of action.
At the same meeting, Mr Rod Crompton spoke. He is the general secretary of the Chemical Workers Industrial Union – the Sasol workers union. He said that many people in the government have shares in Sasol. He said these people, who are high up in the government, decided to fire the Sasol workers.
He said that these powerful people, together with the police and the army, decided that the workers must be punished. And they also used the stayaway for another reason. If they fired the workers, they would have no union in their factory. And that is something they wanted very much.
He said that most white people were very proud of SasoI. For them, Sasol was the hope for the future. But the workers at Sasol felt very differently about Sasol. To black workers, Sasol meant dangerous working conditions, hostels like prisons, and stories of men killed or disappearing in the night.
Mr Tshidiso Mothupi also spoke at the meeting. He worked at Sasol for four years. Now he is an organiser for the union. “Sasol is one of the biggest factories in South Africa,” he said. “But they pay very low wages. Many smaller factories pay much better.”
He said that many workers get injured at Sasol – and many don’t get compensation money. And when workers work for a long time, they don’t get a long service bonus. They only get a watch.
He also agreed with the other leaders at the meeting.
“The bosses saw that the union was getting stronger in the factory. They wanted to get rid of us,” he said.
After the meeting, Learn and Teach spoke to Tshidiso and another organiser, Jacob Mabena. They told us how the union grew at Sasol.
They spoke of the very first meetings they had with small groups of workers last year. The workers met in hostel rooms and in private homes in the township late at night.
Together the workers spoke about the best weapon they had – the weapon of unity. And slowly the workers built their union.
“Because Sasol is such a big factory, we worked slowly,” says Jacob. “In a small factory the workers can sign an agreement with the bosses quickly. But a big factory is different.
We wanted to win rights by making small agreements – one at a time. We wanted to make a big agreement only later. We didn’t want to make mistakes at the beginning.”
And so the union slowly won rights for the workers. At first the bosses agreed to let workers pay membership fees to their union by stop order. Then the bosses agreed to let the union talk to the workers in the hostels and the hall.
When the bus fares went up, the union spoke for the workers. The bosses agreed to pay for part of the bus fares. And when the workers said they didn’t want to get their wages sent straight to their bank accounts, the union spoke again. The bosses agreed to pay workers in cash.
“Every time we won more rights for the workers, we won more members,” says Tshidiso. “The workers saw the need for unity. The union was growing stronger everyday. Just a few weeks ago, the workers elected shop stewards.
“And then the stayaway was called and the factory fired all the workers. The bosses were very hard on the workers. They think we want to destroy everything. But they are wrong – we only want to work towards understanding each other.
”Now the workers and their families will go hungry. And our union is much weaker. But that does not mean we are finished. We all know that in the struggle there are ups and downs. We will now work even harder. The struggle does not end here.”