Over six thousand workers climbed into the buses that day – that hot miserable day in November when Sasol fired their workers.
The workers were going home to their families. But they were not happy.
Christmas was around the corner – and all they had were empty dreams and heavy hearts. And they knew that when Christmas had come and gone, there would be nothing to do. There is never much to do in the homelands. But starve.
And so the workers got ready for a long, painful wait. They did not have much hope. They thought that the world would soon forget about them.
But some people did not forget. Their friends and comrades from their trade union still cared. And so did thousands of other workers in other trade unions.
And these people did not waste any time. There was much to do. They knew that they had to fight back.
After the workers were fired, the bosses at Sasol would not even talk to the workers union – the Chemical Workers Industrial Union. The bosses said they had nothing to talk about.
The union decided to fight back in many different ways. At first they spoke to newspapers and they went to speak to other workers. The union wanted to keep the Sasol workers’ struggle very much alive.
The union asked other trade unions for help. They spoke to 23 other unions. These unions have had meetings in the past. They have spoken about starting one big trade union – or a super federation of trade unions.
“We asked these unions to talk to the bosses in their factories,” says an organiser from the Sasol workers union. “We wanted other bosses to try and make the Sasol bosses change their minds. And we asked some unions to talk to the bosses’ organisation – the Federated Chamber of Industries.
“We also asked these unions to have a close look at their pension funds. Many pension funds have shares in the Sasol factory. For example, the metal workers pension fund has shares in Sasol. We asked the unions to think about pulling out of the pension funds – unless the pension funds helped the Sasol workers.”
WORKERS FROM OTHER COUNTRIES
The union then decided to ask workers from other countries for help. They wrote to workers in many parts of the world. They asked these workers to help in any way they could. They also asked them to talk to all the companies overseas who do business with Sasol.
Many overseas unions sent telegrams to the Sasol workers union in South Africa. They told the Sasol workers that they were with them in their struggle. They promised to help in any way they could.
When the union’s branch chairman, Calvin Makgaleng, went to Canada for a meeting, the union asked him to go to America afterwards. They asked him to talk to American workers and to newspapers there. They also asked him to find out which companies in America do business with Sasol in South Africa.
The Sasol workers’ union believes that workers from all countries share the same struggle. And they wanted to make sure that the world did not forget about their members – their members who were sitting and waiting in the homelands.
THE MINE WORKERS
After the Sasol workers were fired, the union thought that the rest of their members would lose hope in their union. But this did not happen.
“At the Sasol factory, we also have members who work in the coal mines there,” says Meshack Ravuku, the union’s chief shopsteward. “There are four coal mines right next to the Sasol factory. The factory needs coal to make petrol.
“The coal miners did not join the big stayaway in November – and so they were not fired. The mine workers all stay in hostels inside the Sasol factory. We couldn’t go into the hostels to talk to them about the stayaway.
“After the other workers were fired, the mine workers had a hard time at the factory. The foremen started to treat these workers more badly than ever. The security people even went underground to watch the workers.
“The mine workers felt naked and alone. These workers came to the union with their problems. More and more of the workers joined the union. Instead of workers leaving the union, more joined. We were surprised – but very happy.
“The mine workers were important for two reasons. Firstly, the mine workers kept the union alive at Sasol. When the bosses fired all those workers, they thought they would get rid of us. But now they knew we were not going anywhere.
“And secondly, the mine workers gave us back some of our strength. If the bosses wouldn’t speak to us about the fired workers, we could always pull the mine workers out from the mines. Now we knew the bosses would talk to us.”
KEEPING IN TOUCH
Most of the union’s members were in different corners of the country. They could not call a meeting to make plans for the future. And a union needs to call meetings. After all, a union belongs to all it’s members.
There was only a small group of people left behind to carry on with the struggle. These people were the officials and organisers of the union and a strong group of shopstewards. There were also a few workers who lived in the townships.
“But the workers in the homelands did not just sit and wait,” says Meshack. “The workers kept in touch with the union. The workers in the homelands stuck together. They started small groups. One worker would phone the union. Then that worker passed the news to the other workers.”
The people at the union were glad that people phoned. But they knew that this was not enough. They decided to go and visit the workers at their homes.
“A few of us shopstewards went to Qwaqwa first,” says Phistus Mekgoe. “We got there on a Sunday. But when we got there, we could not find the workers. So we went to a shebeen and we had some luck. We found two workers there. We told them we wanted to have a meeting with the workers.
“These two workers sent some children to call the other workers. In a few minutes there were nearly 30 workers. We had a meeting.
“We spoke to the workers about many things. We spoke about the stayaway and the union. We wanted to know how the workers were feeling.
“The workers told us they still believed in the union. They knew that the union was trying it’s best. And they said that they were not sorry that they joined the big stayaway.
“The workers told us about their problems. They said they could not find any work in the homelands. And they told us about the few people who did work there. These people only get about R40 a month.
“After a few days in Qwaqwa, we went back to the union office for a few days. When we got back, we heard that Sasol was now taking some of the fired workers back. We got into the car again. We wanted to tell workers the news.
“Now we went to Lebowa and Venda. These places are very dry and the people suffer a lot. We saw one woman pushing a wheelbarrow full of vegetables. But this woman did not sell the vegetables. She swopped the vegetables for a little mealie meal.
“Many of the workers lived in far away places. In Venda, for example, we had to park the car. Then we had to walk over mountains to find the workers. But we found many workers. They were very pleased to see us. They too were still very proud of the union.
“We told them about Sasol taking some of the workers. We told them to go to the labour office and ask for their jobs back.
“A few workers got their jobs back. But these workers still worried about all their comrades who they were leaving behind. One worker from Bochum got his job back — but he did not go straight back to Sasol. He first went to fetch some other workers
in his Kombi. He told workers to come back to Sasol with him. He thought these workers may get jobs if they went back to Sasol.
“This man drove back to Sasol with a Kombi full of workers. He did not charge anybody for the trip. He paid out of his own pocket. The workers in the union all care very much for each other.”
MEETING THE BOSSES
In the meantime the union was still talking to other trade unions. They gave these unions the latest news. And they spoke about how other workers could help the Sasol workers.
Then together with the 23 other unions, the union decided that the Sasol bosses must talk to them Over 300 thousand workers belonged to all these unions. Now the bosses had to open their doors. Now they had to listen.
The unions wrote a letter of demand to the bosses of Sasol. In the letter they said that the bosses must begin talking to the union. And they said that the bosses must give the workers back their jobs.
But the unions did not only send this letter. The unions also decided to write to the government. They wanted the government to have a special meeting to hear the argument between the workers and the bosses. This special meeting is called a Conciliation Board hearing.
But before the unions wrote to the government, the bosses agreed to meet with the union. At last the bosses were ready to talk.
The union and the bosses met twice in December. The meetings were difficult and they did not agree on much. The bosses said they would only give jobs to their fired workers – but only until the end of January.
The union and the bosses did not agree how the bosses would take back the workers. The bosses said they would decide what workers they wanted back.
The union was not at all happy. They said they would still ask for a Conciliation Board hearing. They said they would watch the bosses until the end of January. Then they would have another meeting with the bosses.
And so in the middle of January, the unions wrote to the government asking for a Conciliation Board hearing. The government has 30 days to answer. If the government does not answer in 30 days, the law says the unions can go on strike. This means that 300 thousand workers can go on strike – and they will not be breaking the law.
By late January over 1 500 of the workers were back at work. But the bosses are carefully choosing the workers they want. They have told many of the workers that they cannot come back.
If Sasol does not give all the workers their jobs back the union will fight on. Maybe workers all over South Africa will stop work in support of the Sasol workers.
And so we now end our story. But for the Sasol workers, the story does not end here. Their struggle goes on.