Everyone agrees there is something pretty strange going on at the Port of Ngqura outside Port Elizabeth. They differ in three ways on where the strangeness stems from, though.
Is this an early preparation for the violent overthrow of the government in 2019?
Is it proof that the ANC is treating a parastatal like a political chess piece?
Or is the strangeness because workers are being fooled into replicating in the transport sector what is happening in the platinum sector?
It doesn’t help – or give much hope for the direction in which labour relations are heading this strike season – that the parties involved who do not deal in disinformation cite a need for secrecy, that the real action plays out behind security fences and in the dead of night, and that everyone accuses everyone else of lying.
Workers at Ngqura, a port that functions largely as a trans-shipment hub while the Coega industrial development zone develops around it, have been on strike for eight weeks.
How many workers? More than 400, say members of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) gathered outside the gates, a group in itself some 40 people strong. Enough to cause operations to be severely hampered.
A little over 100, says port operator Transnet, and shipments are being handled just fine.
The strike has been blamed for criminal acts against working Transnet employees, with arson and allegations of intimidation, something not previously seen in similar industrial action in the area.
Who is responsible for the violence? Well, Numsa of course, says fellow Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) affiliate the South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (Satawu), the majority union at the terminal and one of only two recognised by Transnet for the purposes of negotiations.
The arson is self-inflicted, say the Numsa members, by employees who believed the rumours that Transnet would replace cars and houses that were set alight; and the claims of intimidation are exactly – and only – that: claims.
Why are the Numsa workers striking? Because of bread-and-butter employment issues, say those picketing, including a unilateral change in the duration of shifts and unfair deductions to pay for their company-arranged commute. For no particular reason it can detect, says Transnet, and certainly not because of “strike-able” issues.
But there is a more sinister, if perhaps fanciful, explanation for why those workers have downed tools, according to Satawu: because ports are an entry point for weapons and there are forces in South Africa that will, in the not-too-distant future, require the import of weapons.
“We are reliably informed that, as part of Numsa’s strategy, they are now in bed with Amcu [the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, best known for its strike on the platinum belt] and the EFF [the Economic Freedom Fighters],” Satawu spokesperson Vincent Masoga told the Mail & Guardian.
“The political motives of these three organisations are similar: to destabilise the country, to prepare South Africa for a 2019 Arab-style revolution. And they want a way they can freely have their rogue friends bringing illegal arms [into] the country.”
Numsa, in return, accused Satawu of dreaming up such allegations with the help of “intelligence elements in the state”.
Planned insurrection is an outré claim, but one that captures the deep mutual distrust that now characterises the Ngqura strike – and the ideological differences that bode ill for its resolution, for the likelihood of work stoppages at other Transnet operations and for labour relations.
“We are fighting with our government here, the people we voted for, not just Transnet,” said one picketing Numsa worker this week.
The striking workers are not demanding a pay increase. And although they insist they are fighting for fair working conditions, every conversation drifts towards the political: Transnet is too close to the ANC; Satawu and Transnet are conspiring to oppose a workerist agenda; workers need to show the state who is in charge.
Rumour has it that Amcu has tried to organise in the Port Elizabeth harbour. Yet the parallels between that union’s rise in the mining industry and Numsa’s move into Transnet are inescapable, if largely unspoken.
On the whole Numsa is neither an upstart nor a breakaway union, like Amcu, but in the Transnet context it can be described as both. Most Transnet workers are represented by Satawu, the United Transport and Allied Trade Union and the South African Railway and Harbour Workers’ Union – two specialist rail and port unions that merged in 2012. Numsa is the newcomer, and Transnet workers who joined it in early 2014 quote, nearly word for word, the logic of National Union of Mineworkers members who joined Amcu in droves during 2012 and 2013.
“These Satawu guys do nothing …Or they help the employer to exploit us,” said one worker.
Like Amcu converts, the newly minted Numsa members at Transnet believe Satawu is too sympathetic to the company and that the company, in turn, favours the established union. Like those who switched to Amcu, the new Numsa members say they are forcing their issues through the ranks and are not dictated to by Numsa officials, but others dismiss them as pawns in a larger game.
Like platinum companies in 2012, Transnet says it can only negotiate with its largest unions, and that it must stick to agreed protocols until Numsa reaches critical mass in its 60 000-strong workforce, even though it is concerned about the strike and its associated violence.
Like platinum producers in 2012 and 2013 – and, until recently, even during the current negotiations – Transnet was under the impression that all the reasons given for the strike had already been resolved.
“Last year we had extensive consultation with Satawu on the shifts; we have records of that,” said Siya Mhlaluka, Transnet’s general manager for port terminals in the Eastern Cape. “It culminated in an agreement.”
The use of labour brokers has been phased out, he said, and Transnet considers its transport arrangements for Ngqura workers among the most generous in the country. “We don’t think there is any reason for this strike.”
The numbers at Ngqura are small. Numsa hopes that will change; the union is talking about sympathy strikes in the Eastern Cape and perhaps convincing others to join both the union and the fight.
“It’s basically politics,” said Viwe James, who is handling negotiations for Numsa, on why those negotiations appear to be going nowhere. “The ANC says to Transnet: ‘Don’t engage’, and Transnet doesn’t engage with us. If they want to make it a national political issue, we’ll make it a national political issue.”
Meanwhile, the tiny Ngqura strike has become the centre of a nasty battle between Numsa and Satawu within Cosatu, a federation to which both still technically belong, even as Numsa moves forward with plans to set up an opposition party to the ANC, with which Cosatu is allied.
Failing to support the ANC in the general election would have been insufficient grounds for Numsa’s expulsion, Cosatu insiders say. But poaching members from a sister union is a different matter. So is flouting Cosatu resolutions that Numsa and Satawu should not bring the federation into disrepute, and conducting an organised strike.
On Wednesday Satawu formally declared its intention to fight Numsa “tooth and nail”. On Thursday, Numsa said it would be a waste of time to respond to “imaginary statements” from Satawu.
And unwavering workers remained on strike outside the gates to Ngqura.