In late February, Amandla interviewed Comrade Montwane Ngoato, a Giwusa shop steward who works at the Clayville Plant as a Load Controller, checking stock into the trucks. He stays in Tembisa with his family.
Amandla!: The strike that’s been going on, since the end of last year, has been one of the most important strikes in recent memory in South Africa. Can you give us some background?
Montwane Ngoato: In 2019, Clover was bought by Milco, a consortium led by Israel’s Central Bottling Company. Prior to 2019, I think the last strike action took place in 2012. 2019 is when we see our heavy strike actions continue. To start with I will just highlight the reasons why we are on strike.
The company has just launched a major onslaught on the workers, by saying to us they want to save almost R300 million in labour costs. That is a clear indication that they want to cut the benefits and conditions of employment to maximise their profits. The company currently has retrenched 863 people, including closing four branches. In addition, it is proposing salary reductions of between 20% and 48%. Other things the company wants to do include:
- Taking away the meal allowance;
- Implementing a 12-hour day shift which they call a compressed work week;
- Taking away a van assistant from each truck, so that the driver must also drive and at the same time go and help the remaining assistant;
- Making public holidays and Sundays compulsory working days;
- Paying according to hours worked, with no basic salary.
I think no one can cope with these kind of conditions.
A!: The union has demanded the disinvestment of Milco, which is linked to the fact that Milco’s majority shareholder operates in illegal settlements in East Jerusalem. So, the question of Palestine has been an important issue in the strike. Can you explain the view of the Union and the workers on this particular political matter?
MN: I feel it has been politicised from day one, when they allowed Milco to take over. Everyone is aware of the situation of Palestine. On our side, as workers, we are very grateful to have BDS on the table. We would like the government to disinvest Milco so that we will be in solidarity with the Palestine struggle.
A!: How was the decision to go on strike taken?
MN: Fawu and Giwusa were both negotiating separately on wages. Fawu managed to sacrifice by signing for four and a half percent; we as Giwusa did not sign then. Then came the company’s section 189 retrenchment. On the retrenchment, we as Fawu and Giwusa started it jointly, up until the last meeting of the section 189 where it ended up collapsing and leading to the strike where we are.
Based on the situation that we faced in terms of section 189, we ended up agreeing with Fawu’s wage increase of 4.5%. The Section 189 issues were the ones that led us to the strike.
Then, after they have introduced the austerity measures that they wanted to implement in the section 189, they indicated to the unions that the 4.5% is not for everyone, it’s not across the board. So it was clear to us that now we entered a new fight.
A!: Can you just indicate to us whether Giwusa and Fawu worked together from the beginning?
MN: Yes, we are working together. At first when we served notice of 48 hours for us to go on strike, Fawu did not serve notice at the very same time with us as they were having some outstanding meetings with the company. But most of the workers came out and then along the way, after some few days, that’s when Fawu members came out also.
We have acknowledged that we are fighting the same battle and there will never be any compromise. The enemy is one. We have learned a lot in terms of how we can challenge issues jointly. We don’t want to ask who is from which union. An injury to one is an injury to all. So any condition or any issue that we come across, even if we’re back to work, then we must just come together as labour to deal with the issues decisively.
A!: Can you just explain what happened from the time that you went on strike.
MN: The first day of strike, we were very much happy to see the labour force all out, irrespective of the unions, including some non-union members. We had our picket lines on a daily basis. A few weeks after the strike commenced, that’s when we had some solidarity support from the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) and also from the EFF which is always behind the labour movement.
We also managed to have a few marches, to Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), to the Union buildings and to our head office in Roodepoort.
A!: Could you just say something about the support for the strike across the country?
MN: My branch, Clayville, has been solid since day one up until even today, and is still strong. Some of the branches that were strong, even though they cannot beat Clayville, were the likes of Queensburgh, Polokwane, City Deep, to mention a few. Some of the branches, which are minority, did not pitch to the strike, which is the likes of Nelspruit. But most of the branches, I will say first week, second week, third week, they were all on strike.
As time goes on, you might have those little individuals who are going back, but through the support intensifying of the strike, we ended up having a solid support across the country.
As an affiliate, we also have had good support from Saftu, whereby they also intervened on the demands. And they also helped us to reach the DTI, where we have had plus minus three meetings. As we speak, we are just waiting for the response from the DTI. Hopefully, we believe maybe sooner or later, we’ll get something from them.
A!: Tell us about the mass mobilisation internationally that happened on 27th January?
MN: We saw a need to escalate the strike. We are dealing with very arrogant management. We saw an opportunity to engage internationally because of the Israeli company. We understood that there are sanctions, there are boycotts, there are disinvestments based on Israeli businesses. So in that movement, we have had great achievements in terms of solidarity, and we believe it was a very good move from our side. We received support internationally from UK, and Brazil, to mention few. And the decision that we took to mobilise internationally was also to show solidarity in terms of slavery activities, and how apartheid regimes have been escalating across the world.
The company didn’t expect the workers to mobilise on such a significant basis, and at some point, they made some compromises. They gave in to parts of the demands. They proposed to postpone the austerity measures by eight months. We did not agree, because clearly, it indicated to us that after eight months, they are still going to do what we are not in agreement with. So, the cooling period of eight months was not a good thing for us.
In return, we proposed 18 months. Time for us, as unions, Saftu and government to see why is the company not making profit or not making production. The government requested the financial status of the company, only to find that the company is not prepared to share such financial documents, as they call it private and confidential. So, we are just sensing that there is something behind that financial status.
We have proposed to the government, please lead the process in terms of seeking all the relevant information. Thereafter, if there is a need for a salary cut, then that’s when the government must just give a bailout or some form of money to settle the strike. As workers we believe whatever we are receiving currently is not enough, and we are not ready to receive another cut.
A!: One of the discussions that the workers and the unions have had relates to the disinvestment and proposal for nationalisation under workers control and management, in the form of a cooperative. Where does Giwusa stand on this? What is the proposal that is being put forward as an alternative to Milco controlling Clover?
MN: We have had enough of Milco; Milco must go back home. Government must just intervene by taking Clover to nationalise it, while waiting for someone who is prepared to deal with the demands of the workers
A!: And what has the government said about that demand from the workers?
MN: Some of the demands might not be met in a single hour or one day or two days. But if we are waiting for a response from government without pressure, they will just keep you on the waiting list until and until. So we are hoping that as labour we must just mobilise one another so that our movement and our struggle continues up until we reach a point where the government can hear us and take Milco out of the country.
A!: What impact has the strike had on workers and their families?
MN: We’re in a devastating situation, heartbroken, traumatised. It was a very black Christmas for us. Even the company itself did not want to give us a 13th cheque, which was a guaranteed bonus. We are having families, we’re having some installments, loads of things that we are planning in our life, which are our basic needs. You can imagine how are we surviving with kids going to school without any source of income on the table. So God knows we are just trying our best to be strong on a daily basis but some of the things mentally, physically, then they become challenging.
My second child is six months old. You can imagine all the healthcare, means of transport for the kids to school. My wife has been supportive, but kids don’t even know why are you not going to work. Why are you staying home. Normally, we don’t have luxury groceries or luxury foods, but the little that we had before, now we are not getting it. Anyhow. So now we were just from the bottom to the ground, under the ground. Life goes on. But starvation is also increasing.
A!: One of the issues that has affected the strike in the last few weeks has been the violence. Could you explain what’s been going on and how that has affected the strike?
MN: In the first week of the strike, there was an incident that took place. People were grabbed from the street and beaten inside the company premises, on management’s watch. If the company allows someone to be beaten inside the company premises, what does it say to us as workers?
Then there was an attack, which ended up falling into all the social media. Maybe it’s just because it was a white guy, not to be racist, but that’s the situation that we are facing. It ended up being told as if we are on the picket lines with guns, heavily armed with everything, because it was all over shared to the media to say that Clover strikers hired buses, with guns, and stoned one of the security guards. In fact, it was a clear provocation, on our way to a march in Atlas.
On our way, as we were leaving the premises, the company claimed that we wanted to occupy the factory, which was not true. And the security reacted. We were gathered there on our way to the march, leaving the picket lines. We believe the security company was instructed, because they came to the second bus and stopped it. They had no understanding of why are we supposed to be there. They are claiming we are time and again violent, but they have lost some cases in terms of court interdicts. So it is clear that we have been peaceful and we are still peaceful and will stay peaceful, up until we get what we want.
If we were violent and maybe trying to occupy the factory, they would have just run to court for a court interdict. We are surprised that they didn’t. Why, if we are violent, did they not take the matter to the Labour Court.
A!: The strike has now been on for three months. In your view, is the strike holding together? Are the workers remaining strong? And how do you see the strike playing out over the next few weeks?
MN: All I can say is we are still strong, solid. We are not turning back. Forward we go. Backwards never. In the coming two weeks, there are a few things that we can just finalise in terms of the boycott. Maybe our boycott has not been as much as was expected. But through further mobilisation, together with Saftu’s preparation of mass action, we believe that in two or three weeks time, maybe there will be some agreement.