Clover strike takes on shades of Marikana

Tensions are rising as negotiations fail to progress. In the absence of a national emancipatory vision and amid an escalating social crisis, violence is tightening its hold.

The three-month-long Clover strike has turned in tightening cycles of desperation. In the midst of the catastrophic scale of unemployment, the pressure to hold jobs and ensure they pay a living wage to workers carrying their families through the crisis is crushing.

The strike began on 22 November, at the end of the second year of the Covid pandemic that, along with the health emergency and bitter taste left by the accompanying frenzy of state corruption, meant fewer jobs and then record-breaking fuel and food prices. The social fabric was stretched into such fragile threads that the early phase of the July riots, marked by the mass appropriation of food, was no surprise.

In much of the elite public sphere it is held as common sense that rolling back labour rights, won through years of organisation and struggle, with the stated aim of attracting “foreign direct investment”, is the route to a better future. Clover gives lie to this platitude. 

The company was taken over by Milco, a consortium led by the Israeli-owned Central Bottling Company, in a R4.8 billion deal in 2019. The Competition Commission and the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition agreed to the deal because of the promise that the company would retain jobs. 

At the time, Clover chief executive Johann Vorster said foreign investment could result in job creation, investment, “export opportunities and overseas work opportunities for South Africans”. This is not how things have played out.

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As General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (Giwusa) president Mametlwe Sebei notes: “The government supported this merger and Milco promised to create 500 jobs, but since it took over about 2 000 workers have lost their jobs and six factories face closure.” 

Seeking to cut R300 million from its labour bill, the company gave notice that it would retrench several hundred workers and cut pay by 20%. It also introduced a six-day working week with compulsory work on public holidays. It further said its employees would work a 12-hour day instead of a nine-hour shift, without overtime. Milco justified the cuts by saying that Covid resulted in significant financial losses.

Clover closed its factory in Parow in June last year and announced that same month that it was shutting its Lichtenberg factory in North West because of a failure of municipal services, and would instead relocate to Durban. There is no doubt that municipal services have collapsed in many towns, that this is the sole responsibility of the ANC, and that it has made all kinds of projects unviable. Nonetheless, the hardships this imposed on workers inevitably escalated the sense of a gathering threat to their jobs and rights. This has worsened as the company has moved to close down factories in Milnerton, Heilbron, Frankfort, Lichtenburg and City Deep.

Cycles of violence

Clover workers are organised through two unions, Giwusa and the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu). Both unions say Milco will hollow out Clover until it ceases manufacturing altogether and becomes a distribution company for dairy products made in Israel and in the Palestinian territories it occupies. 

The strike of about 4 000 workers had been relatively peaceful until January when, as New Frame reported, a number of workers and shop stewards received threatening phone calls. Vehicles used by striking workers in Gauteng were attacked with petrol bombs on two consecutive nights.

After two months on strike, two failed negotiation attempts, cancelled Christmas bonuses for striking workers, two interdicts and Clover’s refusal to budge, the strike began to cost lives. Tsephe Molatsi, a Fidelity security guard employed to protect company property, was attacked and killed, allegedly by Clover strikers, on 22 January.

Workers came under attack at the Clayville operation in Gauteng in February and accused Clover of  hiring “thugs and hitmen to intimidate and attack strikers”. 

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Then Terrence Tegg, a former member of the South African Special Forces Brigade contracted to PPS Security, was killed on 18 February. Police spokesperson Colonel Dimakatso Sello said he was “allegedly pelted with stones by protesters while three other security officers sustained injuries”. 

After a video of an attack on security guards was circulated, the police arrested two suspects who have appeared in the magistrate’s court in Thembisa on charges of murder, attempted murder and robbery. It was later established that Tegg had died, although there is still no official confirmation of whether it was him or another security guard in the video.

Clover said PPS was hired to protect it from “violent industrial action”. Spokesperson Steven Velthuysen said: “Union leaders and their members have all but ignored two interdicts and are clearly out of control. This is not industrial action. It’s murder.”

Saftu deputy secretary general Moloko Phakedi has denied union involvement in the killings and urged Clover as well as the police to bring those responsible to justice.

Eerie echoes

Velthuysen’s inflammatory statements, made on what is now very dangerous ground, come straight from the playbook of another deadly strike after 10 people were killed.

Cyril Ramaphosa said in an email to Lonmin, which owns the platinum mine at Marikana, that “concomitant action” was needed to deal with “plain dastardly criminals” following the murders of two security guards, two police officers and six mineworkers that preceded the Marikana massacre. 

Ramaphosa’s language was hardly an aberration. Inflammatory comment, much of it obscuring urgent labour issues with the reduction of complex, contradictory and dynamic situations to the simplistic language of criminality, was rapidly normalised across the elite public sphere. The media often behaved appallingly.  

We all know how that ended – in an infamous massacre. Ten years later, nobody has been arrested, convicted or sentenced for those 44 murders. 

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​​Hours before the police opened fire on the more than 3 000 striking miners, the now retired Anglican Bishop of Pretoria, Johannes Seoka, went to the koppie with the aim of negotiating a just peace and advised Lonmin management to talk to their employees. They refused and instead labelled them “criminals and murderers”. 

An opportunity to stop the violence, build peace and negotiate a viable solution to the impossible conditions faced by workers was lost. This is an important lesson for employers, the state and others to remember.

David Bruce, an independent researcher specialising in policing and public security, offered cogent analysis: “If Ramaphosa had referred to his experience as a labour leader, he might have had the wisdom to not only focus on the crimes, but also to concern himself with the context of conflict within which they were taking place.”

The privatisation of policing

Unlike during the strike at Marikana, there has been minimal police presence during the Clover strike. Private security companies have been contracted to police the strike. There are echoes here of the July riots during which, as the police stood down, private security companies stepped into the gap. Private security has been linked to the murders of several of the more than 300 people who died in the upheaval.

At the start of the strike, New Frame contributor Oupa Nkosi reported: “Dressed in riot gear, the armed guards positioned themselves to stop any protesting employees who were recently retrenched. Two black armoured vehicles were parked close to each other, one at the entrance and the other a metre away overlooking the premises. Everyone waited. ‘The guns are for protection in case things go wrong, but we don’t intend to use them,’ said a man in charge of security not wearing a uniform and holding a rifle.”

When the police were about to move in on the Marikana strikers, they had live ammunition that they said they didn’t intend to use. But, of course, no one brings a gun to a site of intense conflict if they are certain that they do not intend to start shooting.

With no negotiated progress towards some sort of resolution of the Clover strike, tensions are rising. De-escalation, undertaken with a commitment to negotiate towards just outcomes, is now imperative. This is a national imperative that cannot be left in the hands of Clover.

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A decent society is a non-violent society. We are a brutal and brutalised society. We live in day-to-day fear of criminal violence, women are often not safe in their homes, and the state governs impoverished Black people with routine and often fatal forms of violence. 

Violence is becoming increasingly central to the everyday grammar of our politics. The faction of the ANC that cohered around Jacob Zuma and the EFF have taken outrightly militaristic postures. For years major strikes have often cost lives at the hands of the police and security guards, and sometimes as a result of attacks on scab or replacement labour – often described as amagundane (rats).  

In the aftermath of Marikana there should have been some sort of consensus that nobody should be murdered for struggling for their job or for doing their job. There should have been some sort of national engagement on how to refound the negotiation of labour disputes on a more democratic basis and take practical steps towards building a just peace. But even that massacre, and the murders that proceeded it, did not result in any kind of meaningful change. A decade on it is still business as usual.

The horrors of the present are not fate. We have not been sentenced to endure them in perpetuity. We can and must organise to do better.

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