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The waking of Witbank

Everywhere you look in Witbank there are black mountains of coal and lots of men on street corners and at the pass office. The black mountains are the coal mines, the men are the unemployed.

The men are in town to look for work. At lunchtime, they begin go­ing back home. They have to tell their wives and children that tonight is just another bad night — there is no money for food.

But the men are not just waiting for work. In February this year, all the people in Witbank without work came together. They formed the Unemployed People’s Congress, or UPCO for short.

Learn and Teach drove all the way to Witbank. We wanted to find out about UPCO. We went to the pass-office to look for members of UPCO. At first people did not trust us. But when we showed them the magazine, everyone wanted to talk — they want the world to know how they suffer in Witbank.


“We are the people who called the meeting,” the men told us. “We thought all unemployed people must talk about their problems together. So we went to the pass office.

The unemployed people at the pass office chose people to go to the firms and mines around Witbank. We wanted to tell the bosses that they must employ people from Witbank — and not only people from bantustans.”


“When we went to the companies, the big bosses said we cannot talk to anyone during working hours. So we asked the personnel officers— the people who employ people— to come to a meeting on 9th February.

“The personnel officers came. We told them that we wanted them to employ people from Witbank. We said to them,” If you want 20 people, then take 10 people from Witbank and 10 people from the bantustans.

“The personnel officers said they must talk to their bosses. We agreed to have a meeting the next week to hear what the bosses said.”


“We held the meeting on Saturday in the stadium —1200 people came. The meeting started off very well. But just as the personnel officers started talking, the cops ar­rived. The cops said we were all under arrest. They said our meet­ing was against the law.

“We tried to tell the police why the meeting was so important. We said the personnel officers were going to tell us what their bosses said. But the police did not want to listen. They tried to arrest everyone in the stadium — even some young boys who were busy playing near the stadium.”


“People in Witbank were very an­gry when we were arrested. So they stayed away from work. They said they would only go back to work when everyone was free again. No one knows who called the stayaway. But very few people went to work.

“On Monday we were all taken to court. There were so many of us that we had to go to different courts. The magistrates had to work overtime.

“We had no money for bail. Some people had to pay R10, others had to pay as much as R50.

But people helped us, all sorts of people, workers on the mines, business­men, Descom in Jo’burg.

“When we got home, the police and soldiers were there — search­ing house-to-house. The policemen who came to my house said they wanted to arrest us again. They wanted to see if we had money for more bail.”


“Even after we came out of prison, people did not go back to work. They said they wanted the troops out of the township. We also want­ed the cops out of the township — many UPCO members were still hiding.

“We spoke to the unions. The unions were worried about people’s jobs. In the end we all agreed that the stay-away must last for seven days. The unions gave out a pamhlet and after a week everyone was back at work.”


Right now UPCO is also very busy at work — with the problems of the unemployed people. One of the men tells us what those problems are:

“The people at the pass office treat us like fools. They give you any dirty job in their offices. I had to work in their garden. My friend cleaned the offices — all for R4.

“They say that the R4 comes from the government — to help people with no work. But tell me, mfo, what can you do with four rand with a wife and child to feed? I know in Benoni unemployed people are being trained to weld and lay bricks. That is better”.


“There are many other things we want to do. We want to tell the ‘mayor’ that people who cannot work — old people and crippled people — must never pay rent. And while people are out of work they must not pay rent either. We also want to get bursaries for the children of the unemployed.

“We do not know if we can do these things, but we will try. One thing we do know is this. As long as children cry from hunger, and as long as their parents are arrested for trying to help themselves, there will be no peace in South Africa.


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