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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

19 Jul 1985: Magwaza

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M     I am working for the National Federation of Workers Unions of South Africa. We see the labour movement in SA as a major force that perhaps can help in bringing about radical changes in this country. Of course it cannot bring about the changes on its own without having an alliance with other progressive forces in this country. But again, if one looks at the economic situation and the position of the SA government in relation to the international community we find that the SA government perhaps is so much intransigent because of the foreign investment in this country which we believe is as a result of the said governments, foreign governments, depriving their own people their right to live.

     If one can take an example of America, we learn that a high percentage of people in America are unemployed yet American corporations or international, multi-national corporations are busy pouring money into SA. Now we wonder, why are they not interested in looking after the people of America and the like. Britain, we have learned that coal miners have gone on strike time and again. We believe that it is because they want the right to live, they want a meaningful wage to live on. So really we would believe that the trade unions in the said countries should fight against their governments allowing the capitalists to take the money away from their own country and bring it into SA. Fine, we are starving here but we do not want to live and enjoy the right to live at the expense of other people.

     So this is what we say, if they can continue and support our campaign, that is disinvestment, we say the multi-national corporations should stop pouring money into SA because this is what causes the contract exchange in SA, the conflicts in SA. We are paid very low wages here. When we fight against this thing we are taken into jail, we are banned, we are banished, we are harassed and all that type of thing. Our unions aren't strong enough because we are always threatened that when we fight in support of our demands the multi-national corporations will withdraw and so forth and so on. So we feel the international trade unions should fully support the struggle of the workers in SA, not only support in terms of papers and resolutions but support in actions, fight for the right to employment of all people in their own countries, fight against their own corporations investing their moneys in SA. That is what we expect them to do.

POM     What particular problems do SA trade unions face in organising here?

M     We face problems of once the management realised that we are organising, the one who is organising from within the company is victimised, retrenched, dismissed and harassed by police. We do not have the meaningful right to enter the premises of the company to organise.

POM     You can't organise from within the premises?

M     We can't organise from within the premises, we can always organise from outside by means of meeting workers at the bus stop, railway stations, at their homes and so forth and so on. We have got to go through strings and strings of channels in order to obtain the access to get inside the premises and organise there.

POM     Do you have difficulty in organising workers from the homelands because if they joined your union they could be dismissed from their jobs and sent back to their homelands?

M     Definitely, definitely. That is one of the major problems that hinders workers from associating themselves with unions. They hear that they will lose their jobs. Once one loses his job he automatically loses the right to remain in that particular area or city and he goes back to the homeland where there is no job opportunity, there is nothing. He can't even get his unemployment benefit. One has got to go time and again applying for unemployment benefit. Eventually one can't get anything and gets fed up. So these are the type of things. There is a lot of intimidation on people from associating themselves with trade unions. You can see what is happening in the so-called Ciskei, Transkei, Bophuthatswana where trade union activities are completely banned. Same applies with the KwaZulu government to date where it is said not to be an independent state but the KwaZulu government is so strong headed.

POM     So within the Transkei, so-called independent state, trade unions are actually banned within the Transkei?

M     Within the Transkei trade unions are banned. Ciskei trade unions are banned; Bophuthatswana trade unions are banned. Taking, for example, SAWU recently was banned in the Ciskei, SAWU was banned in Bophuthatswana. So this is the type of situation we are operating under.

POM     Again I come back to the question, if you had to send a message to the leaders of unions in America, particularly the leaders of the AFLCIO, what would you say to them, what they should be doing in order to help you and what are they not doing?

M     Well really first and foremost they need to organise themselves in order to be able to help us. Whilst this investment is going on definitely that shows that American workers aren't yet organised because they aren't able to protect their own interests. So I see very little of them being able to assist us but much as they can fight and organise themselves we see a need of workers internationally working hand in hand to fight against this type of system where workers are considered as machinery. Capitalists think of their profits first and then, secondly, think of machinery. Thirdly, they think of labour. So we've got to fight against this type of thing.

     So I will say to American workers, in fact not only American workers, workers throughout the world, they should organise themselves strongly in their own respective region, in their own country and then try to have an association with workers from other countries to understand each other, one another, as to what our problems are. We need to understand the problems of American workers. We need to understand the problem of British workers. We need to understand problems of Australian workers and so forth and so on. They also need to understand what our problems are so that they will be able to assist us so that we will be able to assist them.

     We think we are doing justified work by urging the multinational corporations to stop investing their money here because we believe by so doing that will help unemployed people in America, unemployed people in Britain and so forth and so on to get jobs.

POM     You must have training programmes for field organisers?

M     Yes we do.

POM     Do you think that American unions could be helpful in teaching organising techniques or do you think that your situation is so special that the techniques they use to organise workers over there are not really applicable here?

M     Perhaps they can help on techniques as to how to go about organising but I see very little assistance in that respect. Why I am saying so is because here in SA we are faced with a situation where we've got to fight for better wages, better working conditions and, again, on top of that we have got to fight, whilst fighting for the right to organisation, fighting for the right to trade unions, we've got to fight against apartheid. So I don't think American workers or organisers have got that experience of fighting against apartheid. We've got to move about beating the police and all that type of thing. I believe in America they are free to organise and so forth. The only problems they are faced with is the management, not the government as is the case with the South African situation.

     So I think for one to be able to train field organisers in SA one acquires an experience, a practical experience of how the problems are faced and what are the problems actually in fact in SA. Finally, can you teach us theory as to what is meant by organising and so on. But when it comes to practice, the South Africa situation is completely different.

POM     Being a very actively involved trade unionist, African trade unionist, can you bargain directly with management?

M     With the unions that are under the National Federation of Workers Unions none has got a recognition agreement and as such we don't actively negotiate with management but the shop stewards negotiate with management. In other words the executive committees of the unions negotiate with the managements in their respective areas, not organisers from the office. So that is the difference.

POM     It's a big difference.

M     Yes, we do not actually

POM     You can't send in a team of negotiators?

M     No, the workers themselves elect and send out the team to negotiate on any particular issue that comes up.

POM     On the issue of, say, equal pay there must be black workers and white workers both belonging to unions who are paid different rates of pay for doing the same job. Like African workers just getting paid less. Does this create a divisive element between white unions and black unions?

M     In fact that was deliberately done some time back by the racial unions because this was not the attitude of the management from the onset but later on the management adopted that strategy but to date we see that as bit by bit coming to an end. The only problem we have is that very few of black workers are fairly trained on skilled jobs so that is how they dodge that issue of equal pay for equal work. You will find that most of the black workers are semi-trained and then as such the management will argue that, no, this person is not trained therefore he cannot get an equal amount as the worker A is getting. So that is what right now we are busy fighting against, that everyone should get an opportunity to be trained like anybody else.

M     I want to go to the funeral. I don't have money to travel and so people are trying to collect money so that I can go.

POM     Go to the funeral of?

M     Funeral of the four

POM     The four people from the UDF who were killed? Yes.

M     Yes. Back to the point. What were we saying?

POM     We were talking about where were we? About black workers do not have the skilled jobs.

M     Yes, that is the position today. Otherwise if you find people doing the same work with the same qualification, though not all the companies are paying but some of the companies are paying equal amount for equal pay. But the problem remains that training is not in parity with that of the white workers. So that is the problem that we are trying to solve.

POM     OK. I think I've got all I want. Thank you very much.

M     The name of the union is under the National Federation of Workers Unions. I forgot to mention a very important section of the labour force in SA that is highly exploited, that is the domestic workers and farm workers. These people aren't protected by any legislation yet are the lowest paid people in this country. So I am now getting back to that one. But the unions that are under the National Federation of Workers are the National Domestic Workers Union, NDU; National Post Office and Allied Workers Union, NPAWU; Bricks Clay and Allied Workers Union, that is BRICAU; Health and Allied Workers Union, HAWU; Cleaning Services and Allied Workers Union; Security Guards and Allied Workers Union; Municipality Workers Union of South Africa; Liquor and Catering Workers Union and Commercial Distributive Workers Union. I think that's about all.

POM     That's it. Terrific.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.