Hi. My name is Rosina*. I am 46 years old. I work for a cleaning company that’s contracted to do cleaning in an Engineering firm. The Engineering firm produces car accessories like tow bars and bull bars, anything based on metal. My job is to clean the offices of the bosses. Last week the Union for the metal manufacturing workers declared a wage strike starting on Monday. I called my boss and asked if I should go to work on Monday and he asked me if our cleaning company produces any metal products. I said no and he said go to work then.(*Name changed out of fear – please note that Rosina is a composite fictional character created to bring about a sense of reality to the stories of intimidation that always accompany strikes in our country).
On Sunday evening I could not sleep because I was really afraid of what would happen on Monday when I went to work. My friend, Tshidi, who got me this job had come to see me on Saturday. She used to do the same job that I’m doing and she told me that two years ago, she and another woman were forced to go to work when the metal workers strike started. On their way to work, a group of men from the Engineering firm spotted them on the train.
Amongst this group of men were two women also wearing the red T-shirts of the Union. The group of men asked them why they were going to work because there was a strike on. Before they could answer, the two women in the group surged forward and started slapping them. The bigger of the two women grabbed my friend Tshidi by her work uniform’s front pockets and yanked them so hard they got torn off. Then the second woman shouted that this was nothing, they should undress them.
How could one woman do this another, Tshidi asked me. I couldn’t answer.
The men just kept on singing a song about “rats”. Tshidi later learned that “rats” were people who go to work when others are on strike. The song said the rats should be thrown off the moving train. Tshidi said she started begging for the women to just strip them naked but not throw them off the train. Now the school kids going to on the train jumped onto the seats to get a better view of Tshidi and her friend as they were stripped naked and assaulted.
Tshidi says she just knelt down and started praying. As they approached the next station where they were supposed to get off, the group sang louder. The beatings had stopped now, Tshidi says some of the people on the train had taken out their cellphones and recorded videos of their humiliation. Luckily the whole chanting group got off at that station and an elderly woman gave Tshidi and her friend her jacket and her shawl to cover up. The elderly woman kept on muttering “comrades, mxm”.
Tshidi’s eyes were now filled with tears as she continued relating the story. She says since there was still some way to go before getting to her station she got up, covered her self with the old woman’s clothes and she and her friend sat on either side of the elderly woman. The woman put her arms around them and drew them close. She started relating a story of how she, herself had in the early eighties gone through a similar experience.
She said she used to work as a domestic worker Johannesburg’s Northern suburbs which were then exclusively inhabited by white people. During the festive season the “comrades” declared a boycott of all white-owned shops, to pressure the then government into making political changes. One day, on her way back from work, she bought a loaf of bread and washing powder from one of these shops because she thought the “comrades” would have dispersed by the time she reached the townships in the evening. She was wrong. The bright yellow-coloured shopping plastic bag gave her away.
She says she was made to eat her groceries, the powder soap included. Luckily, the “comrades” back then had some respect, they would not beat up an elderly woman. But today’s comrades had no respect. Tshidi says the old woman then turned and looked her in the eye and asked, “Tell me my child, how does stripping naked a middle-aged mother on a train get you the 10% wage increase you are demanding from the bosses at work?” Tshidi could not answer.
After Tshidi left I made up my mind that I’m going to work because my daughter’s school fees are due at the end of the month, I can’t afford “no work no pay” or worse, to be fired. My daughter is the first person to attend University in my family. The Union can wait.
The train journey was safe enough, it was the walk from the train station to work that filled me with fear. I had decided to catch an early morning train to avoid any striking workers, and that plan seemed to have worked. I could not understand why the Union bosses could not explain to their members that not every worker could be a Union member or could afford to stay away from work, or why they could not stop them from assaulting non-strikers, especially people like me who are only contractors who will not benefit one bit from the strike.
The bosses trickled into the offices one by one. You could sense the tension in the offices. The workshop floor was deserted, not a single worker in sight. Instead they had congregated outside the company’s gates and were singing militant songs. All was well until about midday when the striking workers decided to move into the premises. I was on my lunch break but luckily behind closed doors when they came. They were looking for the “rats”. The company bosses seemed to get really agitated by all the commotion.
As I sat hiding on the third floor of the administration building, shaking like a leaf, Tshidi’s words kept ringing in my ears.
Tshidi had told me the old woman on the train had kept asking: “We were told that freedom came in 1994 when we voted. What kind of freedom brings fear with it?” As I looked at the chanting workers, I could not understand how a people who themselves were once victims of humiliating acts visited on them by the authorities could twenty years later humiliate each other like this. Perhaps, as the old woman had suggested, the “comrades had only gained freedom to humiliate their own people” but had not been freed themselves.
“Freedom to rule she said, was not necessarily freedom if not accompanied by freedom of the mind, that’s why they were stealing from their own people, abusing the people’s money. Their minds are still in bondage”. The old lady had further said, there was “nothing as worse as leaving the enemy alone and fighting yourselves”. She said even her pot-smoking Rastafarian neighbour understood this more than the comrades: “only ourselves can free our minds” he kept on saying every time she lamented corruption in government. She said that they did all this in the name of economic freedom, but she said if that economic freedom came with this sort of fear, she didn’t want it.
I got home okay yesterday. I watched the evening news and the national Union bosses claimed a 90% success rate in people staying away from work. He also condemned “any” violence that had unfortunately occurred, “these were not necessarily Union members causing all the havoc”.
Suddenly I, Rosina, knew what I wanted, it wasn’t for the bosses to give them their 10% so they could leave me alone, it was for us to be really free, without fear. That my colleagues will not be ruled by fear of this freedom. My daughter, who’s at university, once told me that she came across a book by Bantu Steve Biko, I Write What I Like. She says in the book, the government of the day ruled the country by instilling fear in everyone, but Biko reasoned that this was a fear that could not last, for it masked a real anger at the prevailing conditions. On the 12th of September, some people commemorated his death. He died in 1977. I miss him in a way, surely today he would be writing against this kind fear, the kind that’s being used to keep people like me in bondage every strike season.
My neighbour who works at a petrol filling station told me a funny story yesterday. Petrol station attendants are on strike too, meaning they are not refueling cars at gas stations. He says at about six in the evening a big-shot Union guy pulled into the station looking for petrol. This after earlier that day he had sworn the workers would bring the whole province to a standstill, “petrol stations will run dry…” I guess he forgot to fill up his tank the day before the strike season swung into gear, now he was looking for “rats” to fill up his car. Eish, strike season!