Numsa diehards drive message home

At least 1 000 striking workers gathered outside the Dunswart train station near Main Reef Road in Boksburg East on Wednesday this week. They have been gathering there every morning in the cold since the strike began last week to plan which factories they would be visiting on the East Rand.

They target factories where members of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) are still turning up for work.

A slender man, a Numsa leader, climbs on to a rubbish bin and addresses the crowd in isiZulu and isiXhosa. He tells them not to damage property or steal, or they will be arrested. He says there have many complaints that property has been damaged and tells them not to wear their red Numsa T-shirts.

“We don’t want police to identify the people they arrest as Numsa members just because they were caught in red uniform,” he says.

A regional leader, Vusi Hlatshwayo, standing next to the bin, tells the crowd that, although many Numsa members are not pitching up to support the strike, they were the first to complain that the union was not helping them. “Tell them that they can’t see changes while in bed.”

The workers listen quietly.

Armed strikers
The police watch the crowd from a nearby bridge. A photographer takes pictures of the crowd from another bridge. The strikers point him out and a young man throws a stone at him. The photographer moves out of sight.

Armed with sticks, knob­kerries and sjamboks, the strikers move off in groups of three or four. Many of them stop to buy vetkoek and coffee from a woman with a blanket wrapped around her waist.

I join the group. An old man, who is smoking a cigarette, tells me he is on strike because living is so expensive. He says the high prices of petrol and food are among the causes for the strike.

“People are financially burdened and can’t afford the basics in life, like taking care of their children.”

As a factory worker, he takes home R3 400 every fortnight.

He says he wishes the Numsa strike could be similar to the five-month-long platinum strike in Rustenburg.

Weapons to scare, not harm
Another man walks past us carrying a knobkerrie. The old man says that workers should not carry traditional weapons “[but] we can carry the sticks just to scare off the nonstriking workers, not to harm them”.

Police reported this week that more than 100 workers had been arrested for vandalism and theft since the strike began.

The crowd moves to the Boksburg East industrial area. As we walk, we sing: “Umthetho wakho, uwunambeko” (You don’t have respect) and “Uwazi abantu abadala” (You don’t show respect to the elders).

We arrive outside the locked gates of the Steel Metal & Tools Company. A worker wearing khaki-coloured clothes is inside the gates and the strikers call out to him for some water.

Closed gates
Later, two managers come out and speak to the strike leaders through the gates. They say they will not be opening them.

A man in the crowd blows a vuvuzela while others sing and dance. Five police vans arrive and park about 100m away. Armed policemen get out and look on as we sing a song asking: “Show us who killed our fellow workers in Marikana?”

After about two hours, we begin heading back to the station. My feet are sore. The crowd seems listless and tired. I see the same old man in the crowd. He now carries a stick.

He says Numsa members are still divided. “Look at the small number of people here today. Some have decided to go to work while others are at home instead of being part of the demonstration.”

On Thursday, the strikers were back in the cold outside the station.

Rapula Moatshe is the Eugene Saldanha fellow for social justice reporting, sponsored by the Charities Aid Foundation Southern Africa.

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