On October 1 1987 a wage dispute at the Sasol 1 petroleum refinery in Sasolburg turned ugly. Management called in police and vigilantes to break up the workers’ strike, at the cost of 77 workers’ lives and 2 400 jobs.
Twenty-three years and three democratically elected presidents later, ex-workers are still seeking an apology and compensation from Sasol for the apartheid-era atrocity. On May 20 this year President Jacob Zuma went to Sasolburg to lead a World Cup prayer meeting at Zamdela Stadium, in Sasolburg’s Zamdela township. Three ex-workers’ representatives — group leader Lenning Makhiwane (56), Daniel Letebele (61) and Johannes Lethetsa (54) — tried to hand over a dossier to Zuma, asking for his intervention in their case
We’re the ones who made Sasol great,” s a y s Lenning Makhiwane, as he leads us through a maze of streets in Zamdela township towards the stadium. The Sasol 1 petroleum refinery looms above the box-brick houses, its latticework of silver pipes like the discarded intestines of a giant robot.
Makhiwane worked in the Photostatting department at Sasol before the 1987 strike. Like most workers, he earned just R470 a month. Sasol offered a R100 wage increase; the workers wanted R200. Those who survived the baton charge by police outside Boiketlong Hall, where wage negotiations were supposed to take place, were laid off without a cent and were never reinstated.
‘We have been very much hoping and praying that our president will come,” Makhiwane says, clutching the dossier he plans to hand to Zuma. It lists the 77 workers who died of their injuries during the strike. Makhiwane has added copies of three letters from Nelson Mandela’s presidential office, dating back to 1996, which promise to look into the matter. And, finally, Makhiwane’s big hope: A photocopied Sunday Times article of October 4 2009 in which Zuma is quoted saying: ‘There is no law in our country that can be used to stop this process [victims of apartheid-era abuses seeking compensation from multinationals].
We respect the rights of individuals to pursue whatever avenue is available in seeking justice.”
‘Zuma is a man of his word,” Makhiwane says, with conviction.
‘He likes to hear from the grassroots and when he hears their problems he leaves no stone unturned.”
The bumpy ground around the stadium is filling up with ANC vehicles: Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs and Lexuses. A powdering of dun-coloured dust takes the edge off their polished sleekness. It’s 10am and Zuma is scheduled to arrive in an hour.
We are joined by Makhiwane’s colleagues, Daniel Letebele and Johannes Lethetsa, and we make our way through the gate, past the marshals: young women with mini-South African flags sticking out of their hair.
The entire soccer field has been covered with a white canopy. Inside dozens of rows of plastic chairs are occupied by female members of charismatic churches. Marshals hand out South African and ANC flags, vuvuzelas and soccer scarves. An irresistible chakalaka of religion, politics, patriotism and soccer mania is simmering as we take our seats.
Gospel bands and church groups sing and dance. Amid the euphoria Makhiwane and Letebele sit tapping their feet sedately, while Lethetsa sways in his seat. The MC grabs the microphone and screeches: ‘Feel it, it is heeeeeeeeeeere.”
She’s referring to the World Cup kick-off in 20 days.
But for the three men waiting for their president, the slogan resonates with the promise of today.
11am becomes noon, then 1pm becomes 2pm and still no sign of the president. Makhiwane sits bolt upright, clutching his dossier. He’s been waiting 23 years, after all. Four more hours is nothing.
He plans to give the dossier to a Zamdela ward councillor, Samora Semonyo, who was also fired by Sasol after the strike.
Semonyo, who knows ANC high-ups in the Free State, will then try to get it to Zuma. ‘I won’t seal the envelope, just in case they think it’s a bomb,” Makhiwane says, getting up to find Semonyo.
On his return Makhiwane tells us that ANC leaders insisted on reading the dossier before giving it to Zuma.
‘They were very much interested,” Makhiwane says, ‘and asked me for another copy to keep for themselves.”
‘They” include Mokebe Thithi, a Free State ANC provincial executive committee member, and the premier, Ace Magashule.
‘These comrades helped to further the national democratic revolution,” Thithi tells us, nodding at Makhiwane and Lethetsa. But he cannot confirm that the dossier will be given to Zuma.
‘The ANC is a collective. We will deal with the matter collectively. That is guaranteed,” is all he will say. Then he asks: ‘Why don’t you write about this nice rally here?” He shakes our hands and walks off.
Makhiwane is happy with Thithi’s response: ‘We trust the ANC,” he says.
Suddenly members of the crowd surge from the tent. The president is here! Makhiwane finds a spot on a grassy rise, with a view of the approaching cavalcade.
Zuma steps out of his vehicle and goes straight into the tent. There’s a two-second glimpse of the president’s iconic cranium. That’s all.
‘It’s next to impossible to meet the man himself,” concedes Makhiwane.
For the first time, his voice is flat. We don’t stay for Zuma’s speech. Instead, Letebele and Lethetsa squeeze into our vehicle and we head off to Lethetsa’s house.
After he lost his job as a process controller at Sasol, Lethetsa and his wife, Christonia, raised two sons and four daughters. He sold Sunlight soap and Jik detergent, while Christonia baked bread and cakes. She still does, because the Lethetsas now have two grandchildren to look after.
‘I want financial compensation from Sasol,” Lethetsa says, pointing to the weather-beaten brick walls of the house. ‘I would use it to renovate this.”
Across the road, Letebele introduces us to his wife, Ellen. She cradles their granddaughter in her arms and repeatedly kisses the child’s forehead.
Lethetsa and Letebele are lucky: Their marriages survived. Nearly 50 others didn’t. Ellen explains that she married Daniel ‘for love, not money”.
The night after the police attacked Sasol workers outside the community hall, Letebele did not sleep at home.
Non-striking workers and men Letebele describes as ‘police wearing Sasol overalls” tried to round up the striking employees and force them back to work. ‘For two weeks I hid among these houses around here,” Letebele says. ‘It was terrible.”
Ellen stayed at home with their children, fielding phone calls from anonymous men who wanted to know where her husband was hiding.
Like Christonia , Ellen eked out a living by baking cakes. There were days when she had to send their four children to school hungry, feeding them a bowl of porridge at night.
She supports her husband’s efforts to get compensation from Sasol: ‘Until then, we will suffer and go on,” she says.
Makhiwane and Letebele take us to Boiketlong Hall, where the workerswere met by a phalanx of police as they made their way to a meeting with Sasol management all those years ago. Both men were standing towards the back of the group and
so avoided the deadly blows that rained down on their colleagues towards the front.
‘We made sure we stayed very far away,” Makhiwane says.
Back at his house, he introduces us to his son, Sidwell. He’s been hanging out with his mates next door, sharing a few beers after work.
Sidwell is still wearing his dark blue Sasol overalls. Letebele says that his two daughters, Sarah and Boitumelo, also work for the company.
‘This is a new generation,” Makhiwane says. ‘They are clever. They are educated. They know what is going on. Our generation fought for this generation to have decent jobs.”
Makhiwane and son wave goodbye, two generations of Sasolburg’s chequered history standing side by side under the distant gaze of the gutted robot.
Heeding the call
A week later Makhiwane phoned the M&G to confirm that the presidency had received the ex-workers’ dossier, given the case a reference number and referred it to a ministry of labour representative in the president’s office.
Sasolburg’s chequered history
Sasolburg sprang up in the undulating countryside just south of the Vaal River in 1954 to provide accommodation for Sasol (the ‘Suid-Afrikaanse Steenkool, Olieen Gasmaatskappy” or ‘South African Coal, Oil and Gas Company”)
The Sasol 1 plant it established in Sasolburg used the Fischer-Tropsch process to convert coal into liquid fuel. The technology was first used by Nazi Germany, which faced the same strategic oil problem during World War II. The importance of Sasol 1 to the apartheid regime was underlined during the 1973 oil crisis when members
As international sanctions against South Africa began to bite, the Sasol 1 plant was targeted by Umkhonto weSizwe in 1980 as one of its first major sabotage operations. The attack failed, but Sasol workers were suspected of being complicit