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The fight at the docks

Ethekwini -the city of the sea. This is Durban, a place of holidays and sun. For some. But for many others, it’s not that much fun.

Take the stevedores -the guys who work down at the docks. These are the guys they call “Inyathi” or the “Buffalo”. Like the buffalo, they are strong and proud. And like the buffalo, they fight all their battles together.

They start work at six in the morning. They work deep down in the ships ­- ships bigger than factories. And there they sweat – packing and unpacking sugar, mealie meal, coal, asbestos and heavy rolls of paper.

” It’s very, very hard work,” says Mr Zulu. He came to work at the docks 12 years ago. And Mr Zulu knows all about hard work.

Before he came to the docks, he cut cane in the sugar fields. “The work hurts your body,” says Mr Zulu. “And on top of that, you feel the salt on your body from the sweat. If you work with rolls of paper in the day, you feel the pain in your body at night.”

The stevedores work in groups. Some­times four work together, sometimes six. After eight hours, they are tired and hungry.

But they can’t go home to their wives and families. Their families live far away in the countryside. So the stevedores go back to the compounds. The compounds are not like home. There are no babies crying. There are no women. And the beds are hard.

But the stevedores do not feel sorry for themselves. Instead they are fighting together to make life better for themselves and their families. They are fighting together in the GWU ­the General Workers Union.

Right now, they are busy fighting one big problem together. Many stevedores are losing their jobs. In the past two years, the bosses have fired many workers. The reason for the problem is – the containers and the new machines. Containers are those big steel boxes.

“When the containers come here, they are already full of goods. The workers hook the containers onto the crane. Then the crane loads it onto a lorry. The work that 10 workers used to do, is now done by much less,” says Mr Khanye, another stevedore.

Many workers who were fired got no money. They only got one week’s notice. Some of the stevedores have worked on the job for 20 years.

The stevedores are fighting for their jobs and their rights. But this is not their first fight. The stevedores have fought many times for the things all workers want – more money, shorter hours and a little bit of freedom.


One of the bravest stevedores of them all was Zulu Phungula. He came from a farm in lxopo. When he went to work at the docks in the 1940’s, he was a young man. And he was as strong as any buffalo.

Phungula didn’t like what he saw at the docks. And he wasn’t scared to say so. “He wasn’t afraid to speak even when the police came from Johannesburg,” says Mr Sithole. He knew Phungula well.

At first, nobody knew Phungula: They didn’t know who he was – or where he came from. But they were soon with him.

“People tell me Phungula and the workers had many strikes here – mostly next to the beer hall. And Phungula spoke to the bosses for the workers. He was an angry man,” says Mr Gumbi.

And Mr Nzuza says. ” I heard people say Phungula was the kind of person who asked you for your pass. And when you showed him your pass, he took it and burned it. Then he said ‘Go tell the police I have done this’.”

”The Europeans taught us what to eat,” Phungula once said. “We like to eat the same things as the white man ­things like eggs and tea in the morning. We want to fly in aeroplanes and drive around in motor cars. But we cannot buy these things because we have no money.”

The dockworkers soon lost their leader. In 1949 the government sent PhunguIa back to lxopo.

Phungula was gone. But the workers at the docks did not forget him. His spirit was still with them. They fought on – together.


One man remembers the big strike of 1959. He has a hole in his head to remind him -where the police hit him.

“Over 15 hundred of us stevedores stopped working,” says the man with a hole in his head. “We wanted more money. We were very, very angry. A white commissioner came to stop the strike. We said to him: ‘You have come to tell us nonsense here, Suka!’ He ran away. And he left all his papers behind.”

Then the police came. They charged the workers. They hit them with batons. Four workers were badly hurt. Hundreds of workers lost their jobs. The bosses went to get new workers from the countryside. They thought these workers would not strike.

But the foreman still swore at the workers. The work was still hard. And the wages were still low. The bosses were wrong. The new workers did strike -and the fight went on.


One morning in October 1972, the workers woke up – and they saw papers and pamphlets on the wall.

Mr Zulu was there: “These papers asked us to join a strike,” says Mr Zulu. ” When the time came, we just heard a voice and a whistle. Somebody was shouting and whistling in the com­pound. And somebody answered on the other side. All the compounds were shouting like that. They were saying, ‘Asiyi emsebenzini sifuna imali’.

The dockworkers were strong fighters. But their struggle was weak in one way. They did not build up an organization to speak for them. When there was a strike, the spirit was strong. They were united. But after the strike, there was no organization to keep up the fight.

A few months later, workers all over Durban went on strike. The strike started in one factory. The next day the factory next door was on strike. Then the next. And the next. Thousands of workers marched in the streets.

After the 1973 strikes, many workers joined trade unions. Many new trade unions started. The General Workers Union (GWU) was one of these new unions.

Since then, the trade unions have grown quickly. They have their problems -but they are now stronger than ever. \


One day in 1978, the workers saw strange faces at the docks. These people were giving out pamphlets. They talked about low wages and trade unions. These people said they were from the General Workers Union in Cape Town.

Mr Ntshangase smiles when he thinks of that day. He fought with these strangers. He didn’t trust them. He told them to go away. Then he went back to the compound to sleep.

“I had a dream that night’ says Mr Ntshangase. “I saw my grandmother in my dreams -my father’s mother. She said to me, ‘my child, my child, go and join this union. It will help you in the future’. I said: ‘Sure granny, don’t worry. I’ll join the union’.” The next day Mr Ntshangase joined the union.

But other workers were still scared. Then some workers were fired. The General Workers Union fought hard for these people. The other workers saw this. And they started believing in the union. Many workers went to the union and said: ” Bhala -write my member­ship card.”

Soon the union was strong at the Durban docks. The workers chose their own leaders. And these leaders now talk to the bosses for all the workers.

Since the workers joined the trade union, they have won many things. They got more money. The foreman does not swear at them anymore. And the compounds are a bit better.

”The General Workers Union has pulled us out of the mud,” says Mr Ntshangase. The workers and their union know they still have much to do.

Workers are still losing their jobs – and the union is looking for ways to stop this. But they are on the right road. The ” buffalo” are proud -and they never give up.


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