On 24th October 1986, the South African Transport Services called Andrew Nedzamba, one of their drivers, into the City Deep offices. They did not know then that this would lead to the biggest strike by railway workers in South Africa.
On Friday, 13th March, the railway workers stopped work, after Andrew Nedzamba was fired. They did not know then that six of their fellow workers would die – and that their union offices would be blown up.
Letshema Molemohi, a worker from the SATS City Deep depot, told Learn and Teach how the strike started. “We were very angry about Andrew,” said Letshema. “Andrew forgot to hand in some money he collected one Friday. So he gave it in on Monday morning before he went out on his rounds.”
“The same day, the bosses called Andrew to the office. They asked him to make a statement, saying why he did not give the money in. Andrew wrote down what happened. Then he forgot all about it.”
“But in February, the bosses called Andrew to the offices again. They said that Andrew agreed in his statement that he was guilty. Ten days later they told Andrew that he was fired for “misconduct”.
WORKERS ARE TIRED
“When the other drivers heard that Andrew was fired, we stopped work.” We told the SATS bosses we would not work until Andrew was back at work. Then we went and told our union, SARHWU – the South African Railways and Harbours Workers Union – what was happening at the City Deep depot.
“The bosses sent a man called Mr Berndt to talk with us. They said Andrew could come back as a labourer. We said no. Then they said he can have his job back but he must pay a fine of R80. We said no again.”
“For years SATS have treated us badly. For years they have fired people for nothing. We are tired of bad treatment. So this time the workers said, ‘Enough is enough.’ We were not just fighting for Andrew. We were fighting for ourselves too.”
THE WORKERS DEMANDS
“We did not go home – we just stayed in the change rooms. We kept the keys of our trucks with us – so that no-one could drive them. And while we were waiting, we drew up a list of demands. The list said:
1. Andrew must get his job back.
2. The workers must get full pay for the days that they did not work.
3. Workers must have a say when another worker is disciplined.
4. The bosses must talk to workers about decisions which affect the workers.
5. Black and white workers must be treated in the same way.
6. The workers must be free to say what they think without getting into trouble at work.
“We gave this list to the bosses and we went back to the change rooms. Early the next morning, the police arrived.
They showed us a letter from the courts. The letter said we must not stop people from driving our trucks. So we gave the police our keys.”
At the end of the week, SARHWU called a meeting. They asked railway workers from other depots to come. The union thought a few hundred people would be at the meeting. But when they got to their offices, there were thousands of workers waiting. The news of Andrew’s case had spread fast.
At the meeting, the workers from the other depots said they would help the City Deep workers. They decided to send a team of people to talk to the bosses. Workers and the SATS bosses met nearly everyday for the next week. But they could not agree.
The workers then suggested to the bosses that they get an outsider to help them find an agreement. SATS said no. They also aid that they would not talk to the workers’ chosen team – they would only talk to the SATS union – BLATU. But the workers say they do not want BLATU. They want SATS to talk to the union that most workers belong to – SARHWU.
OTHER WORKERS JOIN IN
When SATS refused to talk to the workers, they decided to take strong action. Workers from other depots joined the City Deep people. 22 000 railway workers stopped work all over the Rand. Even some workers in Bloemfontein refused to work.
Walter Molefe has worked for SATS since 1959. He is a ticket collector in Roodepoort. Walter told Learn and Teach why he joined the strike: “SATS does not care for the people who work for them. They treat us bad. And when we say we want to be treated like human beings, they send the police.”
BAD TREATMENT FOR TOO LONG
“I have worked for SATS for a long time. I have seen people come and go for no reason. I have seen white workers treating black workers badly. Whites get powerful jobs, while black workers, no matter how good they are, stay at the bottom of everything. And when there is trouble with the bosses, the whites protect themselves and blame the black workers.
“SATS expect us to keep quiet and let them play with our lives. Don’t they understand that we have families to look after? Don’t they understand that we need to be treated fairly? It is time that SATS learnt to listen to us. And that is why I am on strike.”
Letshema went on with the story of the strike. “People started to attack and bum trains,” Lesthema said. “SATS accused us – and our union of doing this. But we do not know who burnt the trains.
“SATS gave us until Wednesday, 15th April, to go back to work. Then they fired 16 000 workers. On that Wednesday, we held meetings to talk about what to do. I was at Cosatu House when we heard the police had attacked a meeting in Germiston and killed three people.”
COSATU HOUSE ATTACKED
“Workers at Cosatu House were worried and shocked when they heard this news. Some workers rushed to Doornfontein Station to catch the train to Germiston. They wanted to help their fellow workers. Before we knew what was happening Cosatu House was surrounded by police and three more workers were dead. 400 SATS workers were arrested that day.”
“In the days that followed, there was a muddle. The strikers were frightened to come to Cosatu House. Bit by bit people came back. But now we are back in the same situation. Since Cosatu House was bombed, we have nowhere to meet.”
THE STRIKE GOES ON
Justice Langa is the President of SARHWU members wash away the blood of their comrades after three strikers were shot in Germiston.
He told Learn and Teach what is happening at the moment. “The workers have not given up,” Justice said. “We are waiting to see what will happen. We are taking SATS to court. We say that SATS was acting outside the law when they fired all the workers.
“SATS say they will not employ new workers until the court case – and they will not chase workers out of their hostels. The court case will be held on the 25th May. We are hopeful that we will reach an agreement with them.”
A LONG, HARD FIGHT
“It has been a long and difficult battle. Workers have died and been detained. We have really suffered. And the unions have suffered too – not just our union – but all the unions. All the people from Cosatu House are out on the streets, looking for new offices.
“We did not want to cause problems for the other unions. But we cannot go back to our old lives under SATS. When we go back, we want to know that we will be treated like human beings.”
We salute the SATS workers for their courage. They have fought long and hard. The SATS bosses must know that the world is watching them – we have all seen how they treat the people who work for them. And we hope the strikers will win their fight for better treatment on the railways.