State-owned Transnet has been forced to back down on its refusal to pay agreed bonuses to workers at its Eastern Cape Port of Ngqura after a two-week unprotected strike that cost the citrus fruit and automotive industries tens of millions of rands.
This was according to the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), speaking out about the unofficial strike by workers at the Port of Ngqura in Nelson Mandela Bay, 20km northeast of Port Elizabeth. According to Numsa Eastern Cape regional secretary Mziyanda Twani, at a meeting held on-site on Wednesday 17 July, workers were told they would be given a bonus to normalise the situation.
Transnet had an agreement in place with the unions that have members working at the port to pay incentives or performance bonuses twice a year, but failed to pay these. Twani said port managers told workers they were performing well and would receive their bonuses but “decision-makers” at the Transnet head office in Johannesburg had later refused to pay these bonuses.
Transnet announced on 14 July that it had obtained an interdict against the strike in the labour court. Workers went on a go-slow for two weeks without the authorisation or consent of their unions, disrupting the port’s radio communication system.
Transport provider issues
Twani said workers also felt aggrieved after Transnet fired the transport provider contracted to drive them to the port and back from the city centre each day. A new provider, allegedly from another province, had been given the contract, angering local taxi associations. Taxis carrying workers were allegedly shot at in the conflagration.
“Many workers just stayed home because they feared for their lives. Workers were not safe. That’s why for two weeks there was not a single full complement of staff on any of the shifts. But Transnet is hiding this from the public,” Twani said.
The new transport provider has now left Transnet. The company will put the contract out to tender in the next month and local taxi companies can bid for it.
The other two unions at the port are the United National Transport Union (Untu), an affiliate of the moderate Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa) and the Cosatu-affiliated South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu).
Satawu spokesperson Zanele Sabela said her union knew “nothing” about the go-slow or the unsafe transport and said that Satawu members distance themselves from “such an action”. She added: “None of our members have reported being shot at while in taxis en route to work.”
Untu general secretary Steve Harris said Transnet conceded that a contributing factor to the strike was its decision to award a contract to a new service provider to provide taxis to and from the port, but said he could not confirm if taxis were being shot at. He added that Untu had only been told by management that the bonuses were not paid to workers because they had not met their targets. Harris said one of the reasons the port had slowed to a standstill during the two-week go-slow was that some port equipment was not in working order.
No union owns up
The interim interdict, which ordered all workers to stop the go-slow and begin working at a normal level, was awarded against Numsa, Untu and Satawu, none of which have claimed responsibility for the strike.
Numsa is the newest union at Transnet, having begun organising there in 2014. In the past few years, it has made inroads, but Transnet still refuses to recognise it as a representative union. A joint task team between the unions and Transnet management, set up in 2017, only recognises workers that are represented by Satawu and Untu. Although Numsa has more than 130 members at the Ngqura port, it is not allowed on to the premises to meet with its members and was not invited to the meeting to end the impasse.
In the strike’s aftermath, Untu has lashed out at Numsa, accusing it of having organised the strike in secret, on its own, and having “intimidated” other union members into joining the strike. Untu spokesperson Sonja Carstens said: “We don’t have evidence that Numsa was behind it. But Numsa is trying everything to get recognition. That’s why they organised the strike.”
Carstens was not, however, able to confirm the nature of the intimidation. Meanwhile, on Untu’s official Facebook page, there was no mention of intimidation, only several comments pointing out that ordinary Transnet workers had not been part of “looting” at the parastatal and so should not have to forgo the bonuses they had been promised. The comments called for transparency from the union around the bonus discussion.
Numsa said it had not organised the strike and denied Untu’s claims of intimidation, pointing out that no intimidation had been observed or reported throughout the two weeks of strike action, which they say had the support of members from all three unions.
Alleged strike culprits
Transnet identified 11 of the workers as ringleaders and has suspended them. Untu said it would defend its members and wanted any of its members who participated in the go-slow to be paid for the two-week unofficial strike.
“The union will take legal action if the employer implements a blanket approach to the alleged culprits and refuses to pay their salaries,” Harris said.
The Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber told business journalists that the strike had meant citrus fruit producers could not get their fruit transported for two weeks, which cost the industry up to R100 million a week. The automotive sector was also affected as the Ngqura port is the key shipping site for the Eastern Cape.
Shaheed Mahomed, a labour commentator and activist in the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party, said the recently passed labour law amendments made it more difficult for workers to strike legally.
“But tightened labour laws do not remove class conflict,” he said. “These amendments are like putting an obstacle in the way of the river.” He likened the grassroots-organised strike at the Ngqura port to farm workers continuously blockading the highway near Oak Valley in Grabouw, Western Cape, and workers staging a sit-in at the Lanxess Chrome Mine in Rustenburg, North West, in protest against the sexual harassment of female miners.
Mahomed said Satawu and Untu ran the risk of becoming “tools for Transnet management” by trying to blame Numsa for the strike. “The central point should be adequate transport to and from work as well as the payment of the workers’ bonuses.” He added that Satawu was once a militant union, but that now Untu and Satawu were “sweetheart unions and do not represent workers’ interests”.
“Satawu has for a while been effectively in partnership with the Transnet bosses through its ANC alliance and membership of the joint task team with Transnet bosses,” he said. “Untu also sits on this joint task team, which excludes Numsa. Untu only conveyed the message from the employer that workers had apparently not met their targets,” he said.
Transnet refused to discuss the transport problems or the performance bonuses despite repeated requests, only saying that the interdict was sought to prevent unprotected strike action.