They say that when the wind blows down there in Port Elizabeth, it really does blow. Men have to hold into their hats and women their skirts.
But these days much more than hats and dresses are blowing away in windy Port Elizabeth. These days jobs are blowing away in the wind. Thousands of workers in Port Elizabeth have lost their jobs. And thousands more will lose their jobs in the near future.
The story starts a long time back – all the way back to 1924 when the very first car was made in South Africa. The car was a Ford and it was made in Port Elizabeth. And that was the beginning of big, big business.
Before you couId hoot three times, other big motor car factories also moved into Port Elizabeth and the nearby town of Uitenhage. Soon Ford, Volkswagen, and General Motors all had big factories there.
But it did not stop there. Lots of other smaller factories also started up. These factories made this and that for motor cars – like axles, tyres and windscreens. Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage became the home of the motor industry.
But Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage were not only the home of motor cars. These places became the home of hundreds of thousands of workers who worked in all these factories.
These workers live in townships like New Brighton, Zwide, Kwa-Zakhele and Nobuhle.
Many of these workers are members of trade unions. The biggest unions are NAAWU and MACWUSA. The workers in these unions have fought many hard battles together. And slowly they won these battles. At some factories like Ford, the workers got the highest wages in the country.
But no more. Today the motor industry is in a bad way. People don’t have the money to buy cars. The bosses don’t need so many workers any more. The good times are over.
In the last few months of last year, 2300 workers lost their jobs at the motor car factories. And that’s just in the big factories. At least 10 000 workers lost their jobs in the smaller factories.
The factories all closed for a long time over Christmas. When the factories opened in the new year, most of the workers who sti II had jobs were put on “short time.” They only work for three or four days a week.
And early this year, General Motors laid off 500 workers for two months. Maybe they will get their jobs back. Maybe they won’t. The company hasn’t made any promises.
Mr W. Mzizi lost his job at the Volkswagen factory last year. He believes that the bosses didn’t try hard enough to help the workers. “We had a plan,” says Mr Mzizi. “We asked our union to go and speak to the bosses. We asked that each and every worker work short time. Half a loaf of bread is better than no loaf at all. But the bosses did not Iisten to us. They did not like our plan.”
Mr Mzizi also believes that the bosses want to break the unity of the workers. “In 1980 the workers in the trade unions showed their power,” says Mr Mzizi. “We demanded R2 an hour. Last year we demanded R3.50 an hour because of the high cost of living. The bosses just want to break the power of the workers.”
Vumile Mpuntshe lost his job at Ford last year. He feels that Ford did not tell the workers what was going on. “We workers work very far from the people in the offices,” he says. “We knew nothing about the company. We were just there to work. We made 127 cars a day.
“When they wanted us to work short time, the foreman just said: ‘Gentlemen, we are only working until 12 o’clock today. Itshayile 12 o’clock.’ And when the bosses told us to go, all they said was: ‘Gentlemen, business is bad. Thank you and goodbye’.”
The workers of Port Elizabeth, like workers all over South Africa, are in bad trouble. There are no new jobs waiting for them. Two out of three women workers and one out of three men in Port Elizabeth don’t have jobs. The workers of Port Elizabeth are very angry. And who can blame them?
But the real bad news came on the 31st Janaury this year. Ford said they were moving most of their business out of Port Elizabeth. They are going to join together with another big motor company called AMCAR in Pretoria.
Ford said they are moving the factory that makes trucks, tractors and the Granada and Escourt cars. Only the Ford Sierra will still be made in Port Elizabeth.
And so now 2000 more workers will lose their jobs at Ford. But of course the problem does not end here. Many of the smaller factories will now also say goodbye to their workers.
When Ford said they were joining another company and moving to Pretoria,· the workers got very, very angry. Both the big trade unions have said just what they feel about the Ford motor company.
“The whole world is telling American companies to stop doing business in South Africa,” says Dennis Neer, the general secretary of MACWUSA. “Now the Ford company is joining together with a South African company. They are doing this to keep their profits safe.
“The American companies come here and pay workers much less than they pay workers in America. They come here because it’s cheap.
And then the companies say they are good to their workers. They say that they build houses for their workers. But they give the money to the councils the puppets of the government. These people build expensive houses that few workers can buy.”
Ford also tells the world that they train and educate their workers. But not many black workers get anything out of this. Mostly the whites and a very few “coloured” workers get proper training. NAAWU wrote a pamphlet for all it’s members to read. The pamphlet said that the bosses did not talk to the union before they decided to join with the other company.
The union say they do not agree at all with Ford moving to Pretoria. Thousands of workers and their families will suffer because of the move.
NAAWU also says that the government does not help the workers. The government spends all the money from taxes on apartheid. They spend the money on Bantustans and the new ‘circus’ parliament. The government should spend money on making jobs for more people.
But it’s now all too late. Ford is leaving Port Elizabeth and that’s that. Thousands of workers wiII suffer. They will join the long lines of workers who are suffering already.
I feel very sad but I don’t worry so much about myself,” says Vumile Mpuntshe. “I am used to going without anything in my stomach. But the small children don’t understand what is happening. They need milk. They want bread. But they don’t get it. They drink water before they go to sleep. And then they cry the whole night. They cry because they are hungry.”