Carrying ‘weapons’ while striking is still a sticking point

Workers accused of violent strike action are challenging their dismissal, this time with the opinion of an expert, who says carrying sticks at a strike is not an act of intimidation.

In February 2018, workers at Luxor Paints in Boksburg went on strike over transport and housing allowances, medical aid and job security. Just over a week into the strike, on March 5, the scene turned ugly when private security was called in to stop the strike, allegedly shooting rubber bullets at workers. One worker lost an eye.

More than 180 workers were dismissed for carrying sticks and other objects during the strike, which Luxor Paints deemed violent.

Now the workers — who are members of the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa — are approaching the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) to challenge their dismissal, with an expert who says carrying sticks at a strike is not an act of violence or intimidation.

In an expert opinion, Hylton White, an anthropology lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, says in Southern Africa dancing with sticks at public gatherings has been documented as far back as the 1800s. 

“The use of sticks in these group settings is evocative of colonial and precolonial military traditions among different groups, but today are invoked in collective settings that have nothing to do with violence.”

According to White, the use of sticks in these settings serves a range of purposes: to convey a sense of authority or power, to assert a presence in a particular space, to choreograph movement and to create and demonstrate public unity.

Luxor Paints is opposing the workers’ CCMA application, stating that the strike was not peaceful. Back in 2018, a representative speaking on behalf of the company said striking workers carried stones, sticks and other weapons. The company has  filed video evidence of the workers’ alleged misconduct to support its  version of events.

But White says, in his opinion, the videos show the workers striking in a way that is “very similar” to demonstrations observed in research by himself and others on the use of sticks in other group settings. 

“I also observed a range of applicants carrying sticks in similar ways, including clearly older and even elderly men doing so. Finally, the applicants appeared to be joyful in many instances. 

“It is, therefore, my opinion that they intended to create and assert a public presence, and not to intimidate or threaten.”

White further notes that some of the workers were carrying leafy twigs and branches. These, he says, “were not items that could easily be used to threaten or cause harm”. Workers used other items, like bottles and planks, “to convey the same innocuous message of unity”, he adds.

White says that in the videos “many African people unconnected to their demonstration appeared to be unfazed” by the stick-carrying workers.

He concludes that, “It is neither objective nor reasonable to infer that the applicants, in carrying these items, intended to act in a threatening or intimidating manner.”

To presume that workers carrying sticks during strike action are seeking to intimidate or threaten is based on problematic assumptions rooted in inaccurate historical descriptions of African people, White says.

“There is a history, particularly in colonial writing, of portraying African men as brutish, irrationally violent and uncontrollable, and depictions of African men with sticks and spears have been used to support this view,” White says.

“This, in turn, led to a restricted reading of African men carrying sticks as being inherently violent.”

But the workers’ CCMA bid is complicated by a 2019 labour appeal court judgment, which found against a group of workers affiliated to the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) at Pail Print, a printing press in KwaZulu-Natal.

The workers, in that case, were dismissed for “brandishing or wielding of dangerous weapons” at a strike in 2014. They were accused of defying picketing rules by engaging in “unlawful or violent actions”. Strikers reportedly carried sticks and sjamboks, and one brandished a PVC pipe. Others carried a golf club and an axe.

When Numsa approached the CCMA, the arbitrator found that the workers had not been shown to have brandished weapons but “were clearly just carrying sticks in their hands”. The arbitrator concluded there was no evidence that they intended to threaten or intimidate anyone. 

The workers were reinstated with a written warning. But the arbitrator noted that the award should not be interpreted to validate the carrying of weapons during a strike and that. “It goes without saying that the less we see in South Africa of groups of men armed with sticks, the better.”

The appeal court concluded that the CCMA award was unreasonable. 

“The decision to have a sjambok, PVC pipe and sticks at a protest, at which others were in possession of a golf club and axe, was not only a clear breach but, viewed objectively, was aimed at sending a message, which, at the very least, was threatening to others,” the judgment reads.

The appeal court judgment concluded that the constitutionally protected right to strike “does not encompass a right to carry dangerous weapons on a picket line which, by their nature, not only expose others to the very real risk of injury, but also serve to threaten and intimidate”.

Debate over the violence of sticks at Marikana

The carrying of sticks amid strike action also came under scrutiny during the Farlam commission of inquiry into the Marikana massacre eight years ago.

On the afternoon of August 16 2012, 34 striking miners were murdered by police outside the Lonmin platinum mines on the outskirts of Marikana. It was described as the worst act of police brutality since the end of apartheid.

According to accounts captured in the Farlam commission report, at various points during the strike action mineworkers carried sticks. But witnesses, including police officials and security personnel, described the carrying of sticks alone to be non-violent. 

In his statement to the commission, Captain Veerasamy Velayudam Govender, the commander of the visible policing unit stationed at Marikana, said on the first day of the strike on August 10, workers carried sticks. But he did not see any threat being posed by the workers towards the police.

However, others described the carrying of sticks — alongside other objects, such as spears, knobkerries and pangas — as aggressive. At certain times, police told mineworkers to surrender their sticks.

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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