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South Africa’s ex-Midrand Council workers are engaged in what is surely the world’s longest running industrial dispute, a Burston for our times. It started back in 1994, in the midst of the birth pains of South African democracy, when more than 500 workers employed by Midrand Council took industrial action against corrupt employment practices.
At that time, local government structures had not yet been subject to democratic "transformation"; they were still the creations of the apartheid era. Midrand was run by remnants of the old regime with no interest in reaching a settlement. Under pressure, some strikers returned to work, but the great majority remained in dispute.
In 1996, Midrand Council disappeared into the new local government structures, its responsibilities passed to Johannesburg City Council. There were hopes that the dispute would now be resolved, with the strikers re-integrated into the council workforce, but these came to nothing, thanks to endless buck passing and bureaucratic inertia (i.e. lack of political will).
The now ex-Midrand workers were left in limbo, on strike against an authority that no longer existed, pressing their demands on an authority that refused to recognise them as employees.
Through all this time, to the present day, the strikers have continued to meet, to agitate and to organise. Many of the original group have passed away (though some of their descendants are active in the campaign). Some have reached pension age (but receive no pension). Others have become too sick and weak to work, and others have moved out of the vicinity, often seeking refuge with family in far-away communities. As a recent statement from the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) says, “Despite these hardships and sometimes with virtually no external support, the Midrand workers have remained resolute and committed to settling their dispute with dignity and with fairness.”
For 19 years, they have met every Sunday in Ivory Park/Tembisa “in significant numbers, and often in excess of 120, to hear progress in their dispute, and to share whatever meagre resources they have”.
For many years, they did so with no help from outside, relying entirely on their own resources, which were meagre but treated collectively. In 2009, SAMWU assumed a more active role. With the full support of the 283 remaining ex-Midrand strikers, the union resolved to launch a “political intervention” to secure a just resolution.
Negotiations with Johannesburg authorities commenced but were dogged by what SAMWU describes as “delays and roadblocks”. The election of a new mayor in 2012 led to further postponements. A recent public letter from SAMWU notes:
“Two months ago, we learned that a report [on the Midrand dispute] had in fact been submitted to the Mayoral Committee, but we were not allowed to see it, or were able to contribute to it. Indeed we have not even been informed of the outcomes of the Mayoral Committee’s deliberations. In our view this contradicts both the consultation process we had agreed, and national and local government policy of open and transparent government.
“We can only assume that there are forces within the Council who are determined to derail the cause of the Midrand workers, and who perhaps for reasons only known to themselves do not want the Midrand case resolved.”
Nonetheless, support for the Midrand workers is growing. Their campaign has been endorsed by COSATU and many of its affiliates. Media interest has also risen in recent months, in South Africa and beyond.
It’s a small scale struggle with a very big resonance. The context includes the debate about the relation of labour unions to the African National Congress government, the widespread feeling that the post-apartheid regime has failed to deliver on the promises of liberation, and the hot issue of corruption. The ANC’s right-wing opponents exploit the latter for their own ends, but it is nonetheless a reality, a corrosive force running counter to democratic aspirations. Through SAMWU and other unions, public sector workers have shown that they want to tackle corruption and need support from their employers to do so. Obviously there are others with different interests.
In any case, the ex-Midrand workers deserve support and solidarity from trades unionists everywhere, especially public sector trades unionists. Their tenacity is an example to us all.