In time for Africa Human Rights Day on 21 October 2014, former SASOL workers planned to picket outside the offices of SASOL in Sasolburg, in what is possibly South Africa’s longest unresolved labour dispute. Like Marikana, it was massive. Like at Marikana, dozens of lives were lost in the crossfire. But unlike Marikana, nobody knew about it. Until now. By KOKETSO MOETI.
In the end, the picket this week did not happen, owing to the SAPS’ refusal to accept notification from the ex-workers. The official reason given was that the former workers were still “in negotiations” and therefore could not picket; but the workers are suspicious, having walked in on SASOL management at the SAPS office. Meanwhile, the case itself is far from over.
Despite a court ruling in the workers’ favour, they have still not been paid out – and now they are demanding compensation.
The former workers had planned to protest their unfair and precipitate dismissal 27 years ago, and the failure of SASOL to pay out their accumulated benefits up to the present – despite their long service records, in some cases of up to 35 years.
The wholesale dismissal of workers was SASOL’s response to a strike undertaken by workers on 1 October 1987, leading to the dismissal of some 2,400 people.
On Monday 5 October 1987, SASOL issued the decision that dismissed employees who had lived in hostels provided by them would be evicted on 72 hours’ notice. This notice was reduced to six hours on the following day, on the order of Sasol One’s general manager at the time – a man identified in the records only as Mr Jacobs. This, according to affidavits from whistleblowers who have since come forward, was done “to put pressure on the union”.
The evictions started early on the morning of Friday 7 October, about six days before the Supreme Court issued an eviction order.
It emerges, on examination of records from the court case, that SASOL’s management at the time viewed the strikers with some hostility. It appears they perceived the strikers as disloyal workers who harboured within their ranks intimidators, potential intimidators and saboteurs.
Few records remain, partly owing to the National Key Points Act 102/1980, which protects Sasol One to a large extent. Sasol One was one of the country’s first National Key Points and was protected under 1980 legislation from “loss, damage, disruption or immobilisation (that) may prejudice the Republic”, perceived as it was to be a site of vital concern to the then-government. Any actions taken against workers at SASOL plants were kept secret, protected public view through the National Key Point legislation that remains in place today.
However, what does emerge from the court records is that SASOL introduced extraordinary security measures, including calling in the labour unrest unit they had established, as well as the South African Police. The intimidation and harassment of striking workers who remained disciplined and did not cause any damage to SASOL property was intensified by individuals (many from the IFP) who had been incentivised by SASOL to serve as informers and to use whatever measures were deemed necessary to stop union activity. Within a few weeks of the strike, 77 workers lost their lives.
SASOL continues to deny responsibility for the deaths of workers from the 1987 strike. But individual testimonies are more damning. In 1989, the Labour Court found:
“It would not be an exaggeration to say that the respondents [SASOL], like the legendary Rip van Winkle, slept through an entire revolution in industrial relations. This explains why the respondents appear to have paranoia about strikes and why the word ‘strike’ is studiously avoided in their literature. Sasol One’s annual report for 1988 refers euphemistically to the strike as an ‘irregular stay-away’ and bewailed the fact that sound labour relations which had prevailed at Sasol One for 35 years had been ‘disrupted’ in October 1987.
“It came as no surprise that the respondents used every means at their disposal – including unfair means – to paralyse the strike. They established a special ‘labour unrest task force’ which had no qualms in making use of informers to monitor the activities of the union. Through their security department they secured the presence of the SA Police to induce or intimidate the strikers to return to work. They sought to apply pressure on the union by compelling the hostel dwellers to vacate their rooms even before an eviction order had been obtained from the Supreme Court. The order itself was eventually obtained on the basis of allegations which were factually not entirely truthful or correct”.
Despite the judgement being in their favour, SASOL’s ex-workers have never received compensation. Now, 27 years later, they are demanding that SASOL (or NATREF):
Mr Lenning Makhiwane, Chairperson of the Khulumani member group – which is made up of the dismissed workers – says, “We should be compensated for the years we have suffered, so that we can have our dignity restored. Many things happened as a result of that strike. People were killed; others lost their families, and much more.”
Although the ex-workers have continued to fight for compensation, thus far they have not succeeded. Now, one can only wonder for how they will be thwarted in the long journey of rebuilding their lives. DM
Koketso Moeti is a mother, campaigner and avid blogger. She has a long background in civic activism and has over the years worked at the intersection of governance, communication and citizen action. Apart from that Koketso is also a liker of things; a lover of people and has no sense of humour. Also on Twitter at @Kmoeti