There was a festive atmosphere at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) offices in Auckland Park on Thursday, where striking members of the Media Workers’ Association of South Africa (Mwasa) and the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) picketed along the sidewalk.
Wearing maracabas and blowing multicoloured vuvuzelas, the workers brandished posters that read “Close the Gab, give us our 12,2%”, and “Greedy fat cats must go”, alongside a picture of spotted, overweight cat.
The unions have been in a wage dispute with the SABC since April and got permission to strike earlier this month. The SABC has not increased its wage offer above 8,5%, despite the unions’ indications that they would be prepared to consider an offer of 10%.
The parties appeared to have come to an impasse, and on Wednesday night the Afrikaans news was disrupted while earlier on Thursday Morning Live was delayed by about 15 minutes. This was in spite of the SABC’s repeated assertion that it had contingency plans in place to ensure uninterrupted service.
Alain Ndedi, a producer at SABC, stood on the sidelines watching Thursday’s proceedings. “I’m not striking, but I support the movement,” he said. “There are many people who are not striking who support the whole idea, who support the strike, that’s why the contingency plans aren’t working.”
Another striker intimated that the disruptions were “a signal”.
When asked about rumours that management had barricaded themselves in the tower to prevent further disruption, Ndedi chuckled. “They’re having regular meetings, but to say that they’re barricaded, no no.” Ndedi said he hoped the parties could find some common ground. “We’re supposed to keep the public informed. If we don’t broadcast, how are they going to stay informed?”
After a while, the strikers moved to a grassy patch just inside the gates of the SABC, where union leaders had come to address the crowd.
Brandishing a loudspeaker, Mwasa general secretary Ernest Dlamini outlined the unions’ plans. “We’re meeting the board tomorrow [Friday] and will report back immediately.”
Dlamini said Mwasa would give the SABC notice of its intention to strike on Monday if its demands are not met.
Following Friday’s meeting, the union will report back to its members in different regions. “What it means comrades is that tomorrow we are going back to work,” he said.
At this, there was an outbreak of cries from the crowd. “Go slow!”, “Are we going to go slow?”
“There’ll be no go-slow, fast-slow, medium-slow,” Dlamini responded. “We can’t pretend that everything is normal or in order. Things are bad. But if parties continue to engage, we can resolve the problem,” he continued.
The crowd cheered and the microphone was handed over to Sophie Mokoena, a member of the Congress of South African Trade Unions-affiliated CWU. “We’re going to go back to work. We have to do everything in line with the law, but if tomorrow we find out we’re going to continue the strike, we need to start today with a plan of action. We realise this strike was clumsy, but at least there was some impact,” she said. Mokoena called for a task team to be formed, to help leaders plan the way forward and decide how to make a “serious impact” in case of a second strike.
A CWU-member, who asked not to be named, got cheers of support when she slammed the media for misinforming the public. “We do not want 12,2% and the media must get that straight. They [the SABC] made us sign an agreement that says 12,2%,” she said, pointing out that the 12,2% is what workers are contractually entitled to.
Last year Mwasa asked for a 16% increase and the CWU asked for a 15% increase. But the unions eventually settled for the SABC’s offer of 12,2%, which formed part of a three-year, multi-term agreement based on the consumer price index.
“They reneged on their own multi-term agreement and that’s why we’re angry. In April, a day before the implementation, they told us they don’t have enough money. They should have opened talks in February because they do have a procedural agreement,” she said.
The CWU’s Mzawai Mbeje called on workers to be level-headed. “When we sit down and talk, please look at things that are realistic, otherwise we’re going to keep on striking without end,” he said.
The crowd then dispersed, breaking into smaller groups to discuss their options. Some picnicked on the lawn, others gathered outside the entrance to the SABC where they began to sing strike songs. It wasn’t long before the strikers broke out into a rendition of Umshini Wami, dancing exaggeratedly. Soon enough, the lyrics had changed from “Awalethu umshini wami” to “Awalethu money wami”.
Meanwhile, the police, who had been standing on the sidelines watching, went to their vehicles and retrieved guns and ammunition. When asked if they were expecting any trouble, the commander in charge, without making eye contact, said to refer any questions to the police’s media liaison officer in Pretoria.
The police stood, arms crossed, with bullet belts strapped across their bodies and round their waists as the refrain rose: “Awalethu money wam, money wam!”