In 1983, Alfred Temba Qabula joined the Metal and Allied Workers Union and immediately began to bring workers at the Dunlop factory in Durban, where he worked, into the union. The following year, he started to perform his praise poem, Izibongo zika Fosatu at union meetings. His performances initiated a revival of imbongi poetry throughout South Africa, as workers transformed this tradition into a powerful expression of their struggles.
This is an edited extract from his book, A Working Life, Cruel Beyond Belief, first published in 1989.
In 1983, when the company refused to respond to our demands, we decided to go on strike. We planned to start the strike on Monday. Then a lawyer advised us not to go on strike. We decided we would go back to work and start a go-slow, a canteen boycott, and an overtime boycott. The company had made arrangements because it had spread through the whole factory that the strike was going to happen soon. The company employed many people outside the gate and told them that they must come on Monday when we were going to strike. But on Monday, we entered the gate as usual and we began our everyday duties.
Then we noticed that there were many people at the gate with their lunchboxes – some with a half loaf of bread, some with a quarter, some with mahewu. We didn’t know what was really happening, but the company had employed them to replace us when we went on strike. We carried on with our work.
After three months, there was a big rumour (I think it really happened) that the company was sued by the department of manpower. The rumour was saying that the company had to pay R68 000 to the department and to those workers. Some of them had resigned from their jobs because they wanted to work at Dunlop. We often heard people say that the people at Dunlop earn a lot of money. The rumour was that R38 000 was for the department and the rest divided among those workers, who earned big money for doing nothing – because we didn’t go on strike.
After the go-slow, the canteen boycott and the overtime boycott, many people were dismissed. We disputed that and the union applied for a Conciliation Board (CB) but the company opposed the CB. Then we just kept quiet and carried on with our work.
In 1984 we started wage negotiations demanding 31 cents across the board but the company offered us six cents. We declared a dispute.
‘You can’t overcome this company’
There was a man working at the canteen – the induna – who always teased me, saying: “Hey, you think you’re going to win. This is a giant company. This is the government; you can’t overcome this company.”
But after we boycotted the canteen, a heap of food was dumped. There were high piles taken away and then we dumped some more. We piled a container full of rotten food because the workers didn’t buy it any more. This happened until they decided to close the canteen.
We had planned to strike because of wage negotiations. The workers were very angry because the company had taken our yearly bonus, claiming that it was in a slump because of our stoppages. So we stopped work. After we stopped work the company decided to dismiss us.
At the same time, there was the Durban Rubber and Industrial Union (DRIU), which was the company’s sweetheart. Most of the coloured and Indian workers refused to join the Metal and Allied Workers Union (Mawu) because they said they couldn’t join a political organisation inside the company premises. There were a few coloureds who joined the union. But the day we were fired, all of us were fired, even DRIU members. So they decided to join Mawu.
The workers’ policy at Dunlop was: if you had refused to join for a long time, then you had to stand in the centre of the workforce and tell them that you have repented; that you have come to join the union; that you realise now that it is time to join. They did that and then we gave them joining forms, cards and did everything we had to.
Then we marched out – we were going to build a new Dunlop factory at St Anthony’s where we met every day, from Monday to Friday, early – as if we were going to work. We had to report to our shop steward before 7am.
The ‘special boys’
At the same time, we elected a group of workers who were going to be our eyes at Dunlop meetings. After a while they came to be known as the “special boys”. If a person didn’t report, the special boys had to fetch him at his home and bring him to St Anthony’s by car. One of the special boys had a kombi and we paid for petrol. There were some people who always came with the special boys, who were trying to dive. We warned them that they shouldn’t do this because they were trying to break our unity, that we had decided on this strategy to preserve the unity of the workers.
During the first week and the second week, there was no communication between the company and the union. In the third week, the personnel manager phoned our organiser to ask him if they could meet at the Royal Hotel. The organiser told him that he had to get a mandate from the workers and that he couldn’t come to the Royal Hotel alone. He would have to come with a negotiating team.
The workers gave us a mandate to go to the meeting. We went there and the personnel manager asked if the workers were prepared to come to work. We said: “Yes. The workers haven’t got any problem with their work, but they want their demands.” They asked if the workers would come back if they responded to the workers’ demands. We said: “Yes. They will do so.”
That is where we started to negotiate again. They told us that the workers would have to fill in new forms if they came back. They would have to come in as new workers with a new contract and they would lose all their benefits. We said we couldn’t accept that but would take it to the workers. They also told us they would suspend 12 workers who were intimidating workers at the company gate.
We said: “No, we can’t accept that. We are out for the four people who were dismissed. We can’t lose more people.” We hadn’t done a ballot for the wage negotiations but for the dismissed people – so we stuck to that. The company hadn’t realised that we came out on strike because of the four people – they thought we had forgotten. It had happened in 1983 and it was now 1984.
They made a brief statement and dumped it at St Anthony’s. After that, the workers said to us, the shop stewards, that we had to stay there with them, that we couldn’t go to the company again because the company was not prepared to respond to our demands.
The company phoned the organisers, who said the workers had stopped them from coming because the company was not prepared to negotiate faithfully. By the fifth week, they called us to negotiate again. We negotiated but came to a deadlock again.
The company telexed the union, saying they wanted a special meeting with the negotiating team. We went to the special meeting. They said: “We agree to these things. The workers must come back. It will be like nothing has happened. There will be no new contract and they won’t lose anything. They must come back to their work.”
We called it a victory. We planned to come back together the following day at St Anthony’s, where we would discuss how to go back to Dunlop. The next morning, our official came and explained what the company was saying. The workers said: “Ja, now we are going back to our work again.”
Now the big question was: how were we going to move? We were a large number – about 1 500. There were some workers from Dunlop Sport at Mobeni, in the south of Durban, who had joined us. We decided to walk from St Anthony’s to Dunlop. We planned to go in fours.
We crossed Old Dutch, we passed the Indian Market in peace, then we crossed Berea. As we were crossing, the police came with their vans. They grabbed the first four. I was in the second lot. They put us inside the van. Then all the workers jumped inside the van. They said: “No. We want these people in front only.”
We said: “No. These are our leaders. We want to go with them wherever they go. Where are you taking them?” They told us to sit down and forced the other workers to walk past Berea Road and the technikon. They packed the people into an empty area known as Sparks. The workers started to sing and dance the toyi-toyi. The senior policeman came and asked what was happening. Bob Marie, the organiser, said: “Your people took the workers and stuck them there.”
The officer asked where the workers came from. “These are the strikers of Dunlop,” said Bobby. “They are going back to work at Dunlop.” “Okay, let the people go,” said the officer, “back to their work.”
From then on, we didn’t walk in order as we had done before. We spread all over the road, singing, coming down Williams Road. There were some women at Dalton Hostel who sold meat, homemade bread and beans with mealies (which we call izinkobe), and inside meat like liver. They were singing with us.
When we joined Sydney Road, there were the staff of Dunlop: the clerks, computer people, typists were waving with their doeks, saying: “Come on, come on. Come on, come on.” We heard that there was only one day left before they would have been kicked out, if we hadn’t come back to work. We entered the gate and they told us to go to our departments. We went to our departments and arranged the starting time for the following day. We were paid our money from the week before we were fired.
Then they said to the negotiating committee: “Now you are back at work. That’s fine, we are only going to do one thing. We are going to suspend the 12 who intimidated the people here at the gate.”
We reported to the workers. The workers said: “Okay, if the company says that, shop stewards, go and tell them that now we can stay out for about a year. We’ve got our money; our pockets are full of money. We can solve our problems. Don’t worry – we are going back to the forest again at St Anthony’s, to use our machines there.”
The company decided to drop that. They said they would not suspend the people. We said: “Okay, we will work.” The following day, we started our duty and there was happiness among the people.
We did not stop at organising ourselves but spread our influence down the whole of Sydney Road, as the workers in other factories became organised. The working conditions in these factories were also bad.
Alfred Temba Qabula’s A Working Life, Cruel Beyond Belief has been republished by Jacana.