Spearing labour history

Posted on June 1, 2012

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Many matters of national and regional importance have been neglected in the past two weeks, submerged beneath the fuss and furore caused by the charade surrounding the satirical Spear painting. Callers to radio shows noted that issues such as the shambles in education with the non-delivery of text books seemed forgotten as this storm on a gallery wall was prioritised.

Cosatu too, found itself dragged in, although individual affiliates hold differing views about THAT painting and the reactions to it. The same applies to individual trade unionists and to affiliates of the other federations.

However, according to some union critics, there was at least one positive effect: the great myth of a reconciling rainbow nation marching forward on level playing fields provided by the 1994 settlement, may have been shattered. According to this view, the country as a whole may now start to look honestly at the realities of the past and the legacies carried into the present; that myth making and political opportunism may eventually be sidelined.

This is perhaps naive, given the intensity of feelings expressed and the obviously widespread ignorance of the role of satire. Also because the Spear controversy suits those exploiting the situation for their own personal or political ends.

In any event, a great opportunity to reappraise the past, the present and possible routes to the future was lost last week in the hubbub about the Spear. It was an anniversary that should have been central to the memory of the struggle for democracy, especially to the trade union movement and, in particular, to Cosatu: the centennial of Alexandra township.

However, this would have required an honest look at a history that is, in many ways, a microcosm of the last decades of apartheid rule and the post-1994 transition. “Alex” — also known as “Dark City” — was the place where a combination of trade union organisation and community militancy briefly created a “liberated zone” at the height of apartheid repression.

This was unsurprising, because Alex was the first urban centre for the working class majority and home to important working class protests of the anti-apartheid era. A sprawling, overcrowded, settlement along the banks of the Jukskei River, north-east of Johannesburg, Alex is steeped in the history of the struggle for human dignity.

This was clearly shown over decades in a series of bus boycotts to protest against rising fares. The 1943 boycott, for example, had a profound effect on a young resident and protest march participant of that time. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela later wrote in his book, Long Walk to Freedom, that it was this event that signalled his move from observer to activist.

In those days, bus transport was essential, with most workers facing a daily 30km return journey to and from Johannesburg. Ironically, and a fact that has echoes in questions today about investment companies owned by trade unions and political parties, one of the early bus companies was owned and operated by Richard Baloyi, then treasurer-general of the ANC.

But it was the 1957 protest against a fare rise on the “Green Mambas”, the Public Utility Transport Corporation buses that saw Alex become the focus of international media attention. There are still people today, in Alex and elsewhere, who recall the sight of thousands of workers, men and women trudging, before dawn and well after dusk, along the roadsides to and from the city.

For nearly six months, from January to July, that protest continued in the face of constant harassment and intimidation, before the authorities finally backed down, making it one of the few victories of that time. Given this history, it is little wonder that Alex became the centre of one of the most successful — if brief — examples of “peoples’ power” during the turbulent 1980s.

Street, block and yard committees exercised democratic control throughout a township surrounded by the armed might of the apartheid state. This is described graphically in the excellent 2008 history of Alex by Philip Bonner and Noor Nieftagodien.

The apartheid state had lost control, certainly of Alex, but the exiled ANC also exercised only tenuous influence. The Alexandra Action Committee (AAC) was the elected body that applied democratic trade union principles to community organisation, maintaining that elected representatives were always answerable to, and recallable by, their constituencies.

The AAC adopted the red flag as its symbol, and talked of a future new society based on “bottom up”, community control. The then “workerist” Metal and Allied Workers’ Union that went on to form the core of the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) was a major influence.

Brutal repression ended this exercise in grassroots democracy. State-sponsored “vigilantes” attacked, “comtstotsis”, young gangsters using the title, “comrades” moved in, corrupting in particular, the “peoples’ courts” and divisions between established residents and the amagoduka (newcomers usually living in hostels) were promoted. Critically, the leading members of the AAC were detained.

Moses Mayekiso, Paul Tshabalala, Richard Mdakane, Obed Bapela, and Mzwanele Mayekiso were finally charged with the capital offence of treason. While he was in jail, Moses Mayekiso was elected the first general secretary of Numsa.

This case of the “Alex 5” was designed to provide legal justification to crack down on the then recently formed Cosatu. Ii triggered the biggest ever international trade union anti-apartheid campaign. In 1989 the Alex 5 were acquitted.

Such events were clearly not on the minds of the Greater Alexandra Chamber of Commerce and Industry when a centennial celebration was announced last year under the umbrella of the local Development Forum. “What we want is a celebration for the people of Alex that will not focus on trade unions or political parties,” the forum’s acting chair, Zodwa Tlale said this week.

But the forum also missed the anniversary “because funding is not yet through”. Events may be staged at the end of the year.

Perhaps, by then, the labour movement will have realised the importance of Alex where an estimated 60 per cent of workers are now without jobs.