top of page

Who gets rich in Bophuthatswana?

For many companies Bophuthatswana is like a pot of honey. They fly there for the easy money.

But for the workers in Bophuthatswana, life is not sweet. They have long been stung by the greedy bees.

Bophuthatswana, like other homelands, is a fertile ground for companies to get rich fast. This is because the homelands have passed laws that protect only the companies — and not the workers.

Workers in Bophuthatswana can only join ‘Ja Baas’ trade unions. These unions fall under the Bophuthatswana Workers’ Association (BWA). It was formed by the Bop Ministry of Manpower in 1984.


Since the BWA was formed, Bop workers have not been allowed to join ‘foreign’ trade unions. This is what the Bop government calls trade unions from the Republic of South Africa (RSA), under Cosatu and Nactu.

Bop’s labour law says a trade union can only organise in the homeland if:

  1. All office bearers are Bop citizens

  2. The head office of the trade union is in the homeland

  3. The trade union is registered with Bop’s minister of manpower

This law was passed after bus drivers in Bophuthatswana went on strike in 1983. The homeland government said the bus drivers were told to go on strike by a ‘foreign’ trade union. This trade union was the Transport and Allied Workers Union (TAWU).

But the Bophuthatswana government does not only use the law to crush the unwanted ‘foreign’ trade unions. They detain members of these unions — and they work hand in hand with the bosses in firing workers who belong to these unions.


When Bophuthatswana became independent in 1977, Mangope’s government boasted about the homeland’s ‘Bill of Rights. This Bill of Rights promised the people of Bop all kinds of things — like the right to join whatever organisation they want.

But the Bill of Rights is like a sick joke. Nick de Villiers, a lawyer at the Legal Resources Centre in Johannesburg, says the Bop Minister of Manpower is acting against Bop’s Bill of Rights. The Minister does not allow workers to join trade unions of their choice.

George Moeketsi from the Worker’s Aid Centre in Pretoria says companies have too much power over workers in Bop. There are no wage boards and industrial councils in Bophuthatswana. So companies can pay workers whatever they like. There is no minimum wage in Bophuthatswana.


But while the Bop government starves the workers of their rights, it gives the companies food to grow. The government helps companies in many ways. It pays much of the workers’ wages. It gives the companies cheap land and factories. And it helps the bosses to make bigger profits than they can in the RSA.

But these big profits do not go to the workers. They may have jobs — but their pay and working conditions are poor.

Babelegi is Bop’s industrial area in Hammanskraal, north of Pretoria. Workers in Babelegi come from villages in the nearby Moretele and Moretele-Moutse regions.

Thousands of workers in Babelegi are victims of company and state attacks. The workers fear the homeland’s police. Some agreed to speak to Learn and Teach only if their names were not used. Many of them asked us not to take photographs of them.


A woman worker from Springbok Clothing in Babelegi says: “I’m the only breadwinner at home. I earn R21 per week. Only those with long experience, for example 11 years, earn R49 per week.”

As well as earning low wages, working hours are long too. Another woman worker from Springbok says: “We work 10 hours per day. This is unfair because we can’t have enough time to look after our children.”

A worker from Tswana Steel also has problems with his company. He says: “Tswana Steel treats us like donkeys. Many workers left the company because they could not face the bad conditions. Some worked only for a day.”

Tswana Steel workers say the company only gives them overalls. It does not give them gloves to protect their hands when they carry the heavy iron bars the company makes. Some of the workers now have swollen hands. Workers from the African Gate Company also have problems. Their problems are like those of workers in other Babelegi companies. If workers get hurt while working, the company will only give them one week’s wage. If they have to go off work, they will not be paid anything more.


‘Central City’ is a shopping centre in Mabopane, 30km north-west of Pretoria. As in Babelegi, many companies in ‘Central City’ are from the RSA. These are companies such as BJ’s Pantry Chicken, Werbers and OK.

The working conditions in ‘Central City’ are as bad as in Babelegi. An OK worker says: “These beautiful buildings house the oppression of workers. This centre is a living hell on earth.

“OK does not treat us the same as its workers in the RSA. It does not give us maternity and paternity leave.”

Another worker from OK says the company dismissed 11 pregnant women workers. The bosses said the women had not worked a full year with the company. This is why they were dismissed when they fell pregnant. But the workers fought against the dismissals — and they won. The Mabopane OK had only been running for nine months. So the women could not have worked for a full year anyway!


The OK workers are not the only ones who have stood up to the bosses in Bophuthatswana. A new chapter in the labour history of Bop has opened. The days when companies in Bophuthatswana could freely oppress workers are over.

On 3rd May this year, workers at Martillon Textured Yarns in Babelegi went on strike. This was the first strike in Bophuthatswana since the bus drivers strike in 1983.

A Martillon’s worker says: “The company treated us like animals. We heard of a trade union that would help us. Membership forms were sent to us, and we all joined the National and Allied Workers’ Union of South Africa (Nawusa).”

Solly Theledi, Nawusa’s organiser, says: “Martillon workers told management to improve working conditions. Among other demands, the workers also wanted an increase of R25. The company makes big profits — but some workers earn only R22 per week.”

Theledi says the company refused to talk to Nawusa. The company said Nawusa was one of the ‘unwanted’ trade unions in Bop. The workers were angry and decided to go on strike.

Another Martillon worker, Junior Kgwebane, says the workers were then fired. The company called the Bop police, who detained four workers for four hours. Officials of the Bop ministry of manpower came to talk to the workers. The workers said they should talk to Nawusa.


The company has started employing new workers. Now when people apply for jobs, Martillon sends them to the Bop Labour Office in Babelegi. The Labour Office decides which workers can be employed.

The striking workers are bitter with the company for hiring “scab labour”. They are suffering great hardships — they have not worked for three months. But they are standing firm. One of the Martillon workers says: “We are not going back as long as our demands are not met.”

The union will fight the Martillon case in the Bop Supreme court. There are three reasons why the union thinks it must be allowed to organise at Martillon:

1) Martillon Textured Yarns is a South African company. The head office of this company is in Pretoria. 2) Some of the Martillon workers are South African citizens. 3) Workers’ wages are set by the company’s head office in the RSA.

Time will tell if the workers at Martillon will win their case. But whatever happens, the signal is clear. For the companies, the holiday is over! The workers have had enough of being stung!

NEW WORDS fertile ground — a place where things grow well formed — started foreign — from another place or country photographs — “snaps” maternity leave — time off work for mothers when they have a baby paternity leave — time off work for fathers when their baby is born a new chapter — a new beginning, a fresh start scab labour — workers who take the jobs of striking workers


If you would like to print or save this article as a PDF, press ctrl + p on your keyboard (cmd + p on mac).

bottom of page