The former Transkei was created by British imperialism as a reservoir for cheap labour, initially to supply the mines
and farms and later factories, gardens and kitchens of whites who lorded it over the colony as superior race. But 17
years of bourgeois democracy, politically supervised by the African National Congress (ANC), have not brought any
significant relief to the majority of workers and poor people of this wretched part of the Eastern Cape.
Their conditions of life are worse than during the horrors of both the colonial and apartheid eras. Then at least, some
contract to the mines or elsewhere offered a flicker of hope. Now, this is dead-end country – a cruel epitome of
unemployment, poverty and disease that ravage the poor working people in SA. Organising under these conditions,
it is important to understand what has given rise to them.
As a racist-engineered Bantustan, the Transkei had no modern industries. As the discovery of diamonds and gold
thrust SA belatedly into the world economy, and mining houses and financial institutions mushroomed followed
by a very limited manufacturing industry, the Transkei became a site for the mere reproduction of workers – at no
cost to the capitalist thanks to the migrant labour system. Backward agriculture and retail businesses became the
economic mainstay. To artificially create its running dogs, the black middle class – a sinister means of divide and
rule by the white capitalist class to strangle the working class – the apartheid regime turned over the retail businesses
to a small layer of Africans. Capitalism, however, abhors late-comers, particularly manufactured ones. This class
had no financial backbone. In time it went bankrupt. To survive, it has had to rent out business buildings to other,
racially disparate, sets of the middle class – white, Indian and Chinese.
It is this very oppressive and exploitative crop of primitive capitalists which the Commercial, Services and Allied
Workers Union (COSAWU) is up against in this area. The few African petty propertied elements degrade and
dehumanise African workers. Most of them pay a miserly R100 to R120 a week, in brazen defiance of government
sectoral wage determinations. Workers work more than the time stipulated in the Basic Conditions of Employment
Act (BCEA), without overtime payment. In short, the entire BCEA is contemptuously disregarded as if it does not
exist. That there are no penalties for these exploiters is an indictment of government. The labour inspectors seem
to be casting a blind eye. Here, the old established labour unions seem to have no interest in organising workers,
employed or unemployed.
Against this background, the entire population is trapped in poverty, backwardness and superstition. While
huge service delivery protests and strikes have exploded in the face of the ANC government and its capitalist
bosses elsewhere in the country, the East of the Eastern Cape remains dormant. Socio-economic backwardness,
unemployment, poverty, disease and lack of revolutionary leadership have all rendered the working and poor people
Worst is sky-high unemployment. The lucky few are employed in twos, threes, fours etc in very small shops. With
huge armies of unemployed knocking at the door of each shop, those inside are, at the slightest complaint, easily
dismissed and replaced. Employers project themselves as having the power to employ and dismiss at will, even
arguing that they employ these poor people to help them.
Many workers are not aware of the existence of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration
(CCMA) which in most cases is of no use. Workers also do not know the labour laws meant to offer some protection
against employers. This ignorance is sponsored by the ANC government through the Department of Labour,
rendering workers perpetual victims of this rotten capitalist system.
Cosawu rallying workers
Nevertheless, workers do not cease to be workers. They do not lose their class consciousness that propels them to
defend themselves against the shop floor horrors perpetrated by these petty representatives of capitalism.
Cosawu has been operating in the East of the Eastern Cape since 2004, when we led over a hundred workers on a
May Day march in the rural town of Bizana. From there Cosawu’s membership spread to Flagstaff, Lusikisiki and
Port St. Johns, covering retail shops, resorts, funeral parlours and the Majola Tea plantation.
By 2008 membership had reached 500. This, unfortunately, could not be sustained or improved on due to the
permanent economic recession gripping this area. Some shops and resorts have shut down and others reduced
staff and working hours. Dismissals are the order of the day. CCMA cases are often frustrated -- their outcomes
invariably dependent on the whims of the commissioner who identifies, by education and social status, in class terms
with the employer. Despite the near impossibility of challenging abusive behaviour of commissioners, Cosawu has
on a number of occasions succeeded in having workers reinstated or compensated.
Recognising the debilitating effects of a backward area, Cosawu has recently adopted a tactic of involving labour
inspectors in organising workers. In Flagstaff and Ntabankulu, Cosawu organises workers’ meetings on a regular
basis and invites labour inspectors to explain to workers the labour laws they are supposed to enforce.
This has made Cosawu’s name appealing to workers. But because of the numerical weakness of workers in some
businesses, they have not yet felt working class power flowing through their veins. To counter this weakness,
Cosawu is building shop stewards councils in Flagstaff and Ntabankulu. The aim is to organise marches, led by shop
steward councils, to protest against the monstrous cruelty perpetrated by these petty employers.
Cosawu stands and fights for a revolutionary class unity of the entire working class – unity that will enable workers
to build their mass workers’ party for socialism that will be built on the ruins of the decadent capitalism.