April 15, 1986 - VOLUME 7 - NUMBER 7
A P A R T H E I D ' S V I C T I M S A N D A L L I E S
Working Against Apartheid
Trade Unions in South AfricaAn Interview with Nomonde Ngubo
Over the last six years black trade unions in South Africa have emerged as a powerful challenge to the P.W. Botha regime. The black majority, dispossessed of their land and lacking political and civil rights, nevertheless have significant leverage in their ability to withhold their labor.
Nomonde Ngubo, a former organizer for the National Union of Mineworkers in South Africa, recently talked with the Multinational Monitor about the importance of trade unions in the fight for racial equality in South Africa. Ngubo, who is currently working with the United Mineworkers of America, also talked about the role of labor in the Free South Africa Movement's boycott of Shell Oil Company.
Multinational Monitor: Why has Shell Oil been picked as the first target in the boycott of companies that operate in South Africa?
Nomonde Ngubo: The Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA) has called for international action against all oil companies that operate in South Africa, because of the strategic significance that they play in the apartheid system: providing oil and petroleum to the military and police. Without this oil, not only would the economy of South Africa be impinged upon, but the military and police would not have that fuel to quell strikes and demonstrations and to kill people at random.
But Shell singled itself out as a boycott target by continually violating the [nine-year U.N.] oil embargo. For the past decade, it has ignored pressure from the international anti-apartheid movement to pull out.
Monitor: Why was a boycott chosen as the method to exert pressure on Royal Dutch/Shell?
Ngubo: The Shell Boycott is in essence a form of selective disinvestment. Economic pressure can take the form of boycotts, sanctions, petitions or shareholder resolutions. The boycott weapon has been a traditional non-violent means of forcing a company to feel the pinch in their profits. It then forces them to make decisions based on the loss of profits.
Sometimes other methods can appeal to a company's sense of moral values. But, if companies can stay in South Africa as long as they do despite pleas from the South African workers to disinvest, it means you can no longer appeal to their morality.
The situation in South Africa can no longer go on. There is an international outcry about the continued presence of that regime and its oppressive methods.
Monitor: Will the boycott be extended to other oil companies?
Ngubo: A major pull out of a company like Royal Dutch/Shell would have a lot of symbolic significance. Indeed, it could bring down the economy. If the boycott encourages Shell, which is the largest, to pull out of South Africa, then it is hoped that the smaller companies will also pull out.
Monitor: For the last several years U.S. companies have successfully deflected calls for divestment by asserting that through their compliance with the Sullivan Principles they are forcing significant reforms. Have the Sullivan Principles been responsible for bringing about substantive changes?
Ngubo: The question in South Africa at this point is no longer what can be done inside the internal affairs of a company. The South African labor movement has demonstrated that the problems of the worker extend beyond the workplace. That's the shortcoming of the Sullivan Principles. Changes at the workplace can improve the life of the worker from 8:00 until 5:00, beyond that point, they cannot help. The person still has to carry a pass, is subject to regulated movement in the country, and lives in a community that is chosen for him by the government. The apartheid structure makes the equality that is called for by the Sullivan Principles impossible.
For many years people thought that apartheid could be reformed. But, if it was true that the Sullivan Principles could improve the standard of living of workers, the situation would not have deteriorated to the point that it has today. The [P.W. Botha] government has introduced some cosmetic changes to make apartheid more acceptable, but the bottom line is that people do not want an amelioration of the apartheid system or a modification of the system, they want it to be completely dismantled.
Monitor: Since 1979, when the right to organize black workers became legal in South Africa, what role have trade unions played in the anti-apartheid movement?
Ngubo: The labor movement has become a powerful force for the government to reckon with because the issues in trade union disputes in South Africa cut across both economic and political lines.
If [as a black worker] you cannot live with your family, according to law, then that becomes an economic as well as a political issue. A promotion might be an economic demand, but if you are denied a promotion because of a certain law then it becomes a political demand. Workers have found it almost impossible to separate these political and economic issues.
Monitor: Under what restrictions do trade unions operate in South Africa?
Ngubo: Trade unions have been subjected to various forms of intimidation by the government. The security laws that exist in South Africa allow the government to dissolve a union if they suspect that it is engaging in "subversive activities." The government can detain leaders of trade unions without trial under any of a number of acts. There is also a registration requirement which demands that unions give the names of their members and their nationality, race and residential area to the government. All these things can be used to clamp down on union activity.
Monitor: Is government intimidation effective in keeping workers from joining trade unions?
Ngubo: People used to think if you didn't join a union you were safe. But tear gas knows no color, and the military doesn't know who is a union member and who isn't. When there is a problem on the company premises, [unionized or not], the workers are subjected to the same form of government terror. Your conditions do not improve just because you are not a union worker. The people have seen that unions can gain wage increases for their workers, better health and safety conditions and benefits, so that too has been encouraging. When workers have been dismissed they can be reinstated through the resolution procedure conducted by the unions.
Monitor: Since only 10 percent of black workers in South Africa are unionized what other avenues are open for people to fight for better living and working conditions?
Ngubo: Some people have formed community associations and women's associations to petition the government. But these people have no recourse in terms of the law. As long as they are unable to improve their situation they provide a cheap source of labor for the government. It is therefore important for labor to negotiate better living conditions for all the people, in order to increase their own bargaining strength.
Monitor: Can you describe how the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was formed?
Ngubo: When the National Union of Mineworkers was founded we had about seven unions affiliated with us, and about 15,000 members. There has been tremendous progress. In less than three years we now have a membership of 250,000.
But it is also the union with the most glaring problems. The conditions of work are appalling. Mineworkers have to leave home for 11 months out of the year, and stay in hostels-usually single sex hostels-and sleep on concrete benches. Unlike white workers, they have to renew their contract every year so they get no benefits like seniority or pension rights. Black workers get about 1/10 the wages of a white man.
Monitor: How successful has the mineworkers union been in improving working conditions for its members?
Ngubo: The formation of the union itself was a start. For a long time we had unions for white miners which refused to accept blacks as members. The second step was that we had wage negotiations in 1983. That was the first time that there was a raise. It was a 13 percent raise which was very little considering what they had asked for. But, considering the circumstances, it was a tremendous boost.
Monitor: What role can U.S. unions play in the antiapartheid movement?
Ngubo: Multinational corporations have demonstrated that they have the power to force labor to accept slave labor conditions, because they can always find someone else to do the work. If they can't, they close shop here, and go into business in another country. But that mobility has created worker solidarity.
Many in the labor movement are beginning to realize even without focusing on the issue of apartheid, that it is their duty as workers to uplift the standards of workers everywhere in order to maintain their bargaining strength.
Monitor: The Reagan administration has opposed divestment in part by claiming that loss of the South African market will result in the layoff of workers in the United States. Is this true?
Ngubo: U.S. workers are not competing for the South African market, but against the cheap source of labor it provides. Goods that are produced through slave labor conditions are sold in U.S. markets.
Monitor: Many opponents of economic sanctions against South Africa say divestment should not be undertaken because it will hurt blacks the most. Have black workers been able to speak with a united voice on the issue of divestment?
Ngubo: About 35 unions came together early this year to form the Congress of South African Trade Unions [COSATU]. This federation is a non-racial workers federation aimed at forming a united force to confront the government about the needs of the workers. They have called for economic sanctions as well as disinvestment legislation to be imposed on countries and companies that invest in South Africa.
Monitor: In recent months, South African officials have repeatedly stated their readiness to implement significant reforms. Has the P. W. Botha administration made any attempt to make good its promises of reform?
Ngubo: Several years ago the former prime minister promised to make changes, but he said he needed fifteen months. At the end of fifteen months, when he was asked what changes he had made, he said he was surprised that we had not noticed. Subtle changes are not what the people are asking for right now.
Black people have been dispossessed of their land and their political right to have even a single vote in parliament. We need a voice, but the only way someone can speak for anyone else, even in democratic countries, has been through the electoral process. In South Africa, that does not exist. That is where we have to start.