Mercedes Benz – SA workers’ Struggle
a 3 and half year Arbitration Trial
publish part 1 of a 2 part series written by some of the workers
dismissed from Mercedes Benz-SA in 1990. It is an important part
of the history of the class struggle in SA. This ongoing 11-year
battle has of course been greatly summarised below. It reflects
the changing consciousness of the workers involved, of putting their
faith in the popular front ANC-SACP-COSATU alliance, only to have
their hopes dashed. For further details contact Ntsikilelo Makupula
at ph 0824849754 or email
bosses of Mercedes Benz used the same legal firm, Chris Baker and
Associates, as the VWSA bosses in the mass dismissal of 1400 VW
workers on the 3rd Feb 2000. It was largely the same Numsa leaders
who co-operated with the bosses in both mass dismissals, albeit
in different positions. Mysteriously the company documents in the
VW case, made reference to the bosses having a secret meeting with
a certain Fikizolo, now an ex-Numsa official, who works in a senior
position in the CCMA in the province. In the company closing argument
the VW bosses made reference to the Mercedes Benz dismissal as part
of their justification why the dismissal should be confirmed. On
the day of the ‘ultimatum’, before even the company
had publicly announced the number of dismissals, the VW strikers’
representatives met the Numsa officials, including Tom and Jim,
who said the company was not prepared to take back all 1300 but
only 800. The rest of them should be accomodated in a job creation
salute the heroic struggle of the dismissed workers of Mercedes
Benz /[now] Daimler Chrysler and the workers of VWSA. As we support
their struggle for their demands we should remember that the courts
are there ultimately to regulate the class conflict and keep the
capitalist system intact.
Numsa and Cosatu leadership are shining examples reflecting an international
trend in the labour movement of a leadership that is tied to the
apron strings of the capitalist class, willing to sacrifice even
their own members in the name of the investor profits. Inside and
outside of Cosatu, the politics of working class independence and
workers’ control needs to be built up. This process has to
be part of the process of building a revolutionary working class
party and part of the rebuilding of a revolutionary International.
We say this should be the rebuilt Fourth International. Without
such an approach, the lessons of the heroic struggles daily waged
by the working class will be lost and the overall struggle for Socialism
will not be strengthened.
is only a conscious building of the politics of the Fourth International
in the workers’ movement that will lead not only to the cutting
of alliances and collaboration with the capitalists, but the providing
of an alternative leadership that will lead the struggle towards
Socialism. We invite all working class fighters and supporters to
work together with us to achieve this monumental and historic task,
the building of a revolutionary working class party as part of the
rebuilding of the Fourth International.
stresses and strains of searching for solutions within the capitalist
system is demonstrated by the struggle of the Mercedes Benz workers
who went on strike in 1990, against being prevented from engaging
in plant level bargaining. At that time wage negotiations took place
in a centralized bargaining forum. The Numsa Congress position was,
that centralised bargaining should not exclude plant level negotiations
to be held, over and above that which was agreed at central level.
Mercedes Benz workers were among the first to achieve higher wage
levels as per the Cosatu Living wage campaign demands. But when
central bargaining started in earnest, these workers’ levels
were forced to a standstill, while the rest of the industry caught
up. This caused great dissatisfaction among the workers who then
thought that they could depend on their plant level bargaining to
recover what was sacrificed at central level. The Numsa officials
changed the Congress decision and banned plant level bargaining.
This was what was behind the 1990 strike when workers occupied the
plant and demanded plant level bargaining. During the occupation,
Mthuthuzeli Tom, Tembalethu Fikizolo both National Bargaining Committee
members from Mercedes Benz,; Msitheli Nonyukela and B.Tuluma, Numsa
officials, called meetings of the workers at Duncan Village Gompo
Hall. Gradually workers went out of the plant and the few remaining
ones were then subjected to a police and army attack, being violently
evicted and arrested.
workers, who were injured by dog bites and heavy bruising, were
bought off by offers of reinstatement by the bosses. The scars remain,
however. Although it was a collective action, Numsa agreed to individual
defence, which meant that each of the 521 workers dismissed were
called in individually, resulting in the arbitration being dragged
out for 3 ½ years. Each worker was identified by means of
a photo. The photos clearly show many other workers but only the
521 were charged. What should have been a clear-cut case of selective
dismissal was left unchallenged by Numsa. Further, a key point was
that unchallenged evidence was led of Numsa leadership, agreeing
to the eviction and dismissal of the remaining workers. Below is
the story of the workers:
June 1994 all victims of the 1990 selective dismissals at Mercedes
Benz decided to occupy Numsa Border Region offices, angered by union
officials who withheld the outcome, realising the arbitration result
confirmed the dismissals. During this sit- in we perused all correspondence
between Numsa and Mercedes Benz, discovering a document titled “Numsa
arbitration” from Ian Russell, Mercedes Benz Human Resource
Manager, to Numsa Les Kettledas chief negotiator . It read “I
refer to the attached document and specifically page 5 clause (1),
have discussed the matter with Chris Baker (company advocate) and
he confirmed the following
“I did not make the statement on page 5 clause ( 1 ) in evidence
Advocate Van Niekerk probably sought to draw an inference to argument
based on a great deal of evidence oral and written which was not
challenged by Numsa.
(3) The point of issues arises out of advocate Van Niekerk’
s heads of argument and not the arbitrator’s”
is the introduction of the first page and when you check page 5
clause (1) you find that the union specifically through Mr Les Kettledas,
had distanced itself from the employees actions and had accepted
that those who participated in the strike and occupation ought to
be evicted and be dismissed.
as the union vehemently denied Mr Les Kettledas’ position
and went further to arrange a meeting with Mercedes Management and
ANC, leaving behind the representatives of the ex- workers. Proof
of Numsa not being involved in the dismissals was never presented
to the ex-workers.
POSITION ON IMPLICATIONS OF EMPLOYMENT [OF DISMISSED WORKERS]
Precedent set in respect of non - adherence to agreement process
and procedure etc.
Tensions within Numsa and the impact on the shop floor
Loyalty of the employees selected to those outside and its impact
on the shop floor
The effect and tensions created within the dismissed workers was
created by selective employment.
The continuous threat to the company until the last of the 500 dismissed
employees is back at Mercedes Benz.
Continuous threat to the viability of the company.
Preferential treatment of the dismissed employees above other unemployed
people and children of MBSA employees, pensioner etc.
The Tension that employment of the dismissed employees would create
between Mercedes Benz in Germany and Mercedes Benz in South Africa.
The Tensions that selective employment would create within MBSA
IMPLICATIONS OF NOT EMPLOYING [OF DISMISSED WORKERS]
(1) Mercedes Benz S.A. would not be allowed by Numsa to employ from
Violent confrontation in plant and community possible.
The Company will become the highlight of strife within Province,
which would have severe effect on investors’ confidence and
the prospect of socio-economic reconstruction in the Province.
MBSA would not be able to build Mitsubishi or the C class and volumes
required for commercial vehicles or Honda.
The viability of the company would be at a serious risk and the
MBAG shareholders would have to consider their continued investment
in South Africa.
The constructive relationship between Numsa and MBSA would be destroyed.
OF MERCEDES BENZ PROPOSAL FOR A JOB CREATION PROJECT
extensive consultation and serious consideration MBSA was not prepared
to employ the workers collectively dismissed on 1990 strike.
together with Numsa and ANC accepts that it has a responsibility
to endeavour to integrate the dismissed employees into gainful employment
as soon as practically possible to this end proposes:
formation of a job creation Company independent of MBSA
purpose of the job creation Company will be to:
-Identify job creation and employment opportunies
-Assist in developing the required skills
-Assist in linking the skills to employment opportunities.
Mercedes Benz will contribute R500. 000.00 to job creation Company
and propose that a further R500, 000, 00 be sourced from the work
security fund for training and development.
The R500, 000, 00 contribution from MBSA and the additional money
sourced from the industry work security fund to be used for the
benefit of the employees dismissed in 1990 from MBSA.
Mercedes proposal vindicated all Numsa ‘proposals’ and
was conveyed to us via Numsa and ANC officials. It was the position
of Cde Maxhegwana (ANC) ,Cde Basopu (ANC) , Smuts Ngonyama (ANC)
,Slumko Nondwangu (Numsa), Mthuthuzeli Tom(Numsa) ,Enoch Godongwana
(Numsa) that we (ex- workers) should agree with MBSA proposal, but
workers disagreed, pointing that such ‘job creation’
does not alleviate the hardship and suffering endured by 521 dismissal,
it ensures more suffering.
R1million offered by MBSA only covers costs for a training institution
and the training period was be 12 weeks and would only produce semi-
skilled level without any guarantee of a job thereafter. Our rejection
of this offer ensured more isolation by both MBSA and Numsa with
800 jobs being given to relatives of current employees Daimler S.A
and broader community. This angered the affected workers and -+300
ex - workers including wives and children went to the MBSA administration
offices, they met Ian Russell of Human resources who promised to
open negotiations but later ducked out through a back door. Workers
were later greeted by a squad of police vans and trucks and were
bundled to these police vehicles and dumped between the factory
and Mdantsane. Many had to walk between 20 and 15km, reaching our
homes with swollen feet.
Both Mitsubishi and C- class productions started and new recruits,
family members of workers of Mercedes Benz, started work in the
following month on June 14th 1994. 70 of the dismissed workers moved
through all plants in the industrial area, toyi - toying asking
also for support from the Mercedes Benz workers inside, who just
looked to their former comrades but offered no support . We approached
the paint shop area where we remained and work stopped there, with
paint shop suspending production for the afternoon shift. Within
five hours of the sit in , heavily armed police arrested those workers
, who were incarcerated at Fort Glomorgan prison . Early on the
16th June Numsa released a press statement saying that we were out
on bail while we were still in prison. Late on that afternoon of
16 June 1994 our families got together and found a lawyer Mzikhulu
Gwentshe, who secured our release without any bail application.
After going through our arbitration minutes , Mr Gwentshe agreed
to take our case to the state President pursuing reconciliation
which was advocated by Mr Mandela.
appointment was secured with his office in Pretoria by Premier Raymond
Mhlaba. Smuts Ngonyama accompanied us (3 ex- workers reps) Numsa
regional official to meet Tito Mboweni (minister of labour ) and
Les Kettledas now director general (labour ministry). Having been
introduced at the Union Buildings by Ngonyama to Mandela and others
,the meeting was declared open. Mr Gwentshe made a impassioned plea
to the President seeking an out court settlement. One of the reps
Ntsikelelo Makupula raised up his hand and was signalled to speak.
He read the section from the arbitration documents exposing the
conspiracy between Numsa and Mercedes, referring to the evidence
where Les Kettledas had agreed that the ex- workers should be evicted
and be dismissed. This document was passed around the table and
Hon Mandela read it himself and gave it to Tito Mboweni.
said to Tito Mboweni that he must approach the International Company
in Germany and approach top management to which Mboweni argreed.
President Mandela had to leave us since he was going to Indonesia.
First, Mboweni said that it would be in the best interest to approach
first MBSA management together with Numsa and Cosatu and a meeting
was scheduled in two months in Cape Town at the Parliamentary offices
of the Labour Dept. The following month we flew from East London
to Cape Town with Smuts Ngonyama. To our surprise there was no Cosatu
or Numsa delegate but Les Kettledas was present. It was agreed that
Smuts Ngonyama would prepare a video footage showing the plight
of the dismissed and a meeting with MBSA would be held in Pretoria.
In November, Mr Gwentshe released a press statement in the Daily
Dispatch that it was either make or break talks with Mercedes Benz
and the Minister of Labour the following day and on 21 Nov we met
in Pretoria. Present was Enoch Godongwane (Numsa) Les Kettledas
(labour ministry) Tito Mboweni (minister of labour) Smuts, Gwentshe
our Lawyer , N. Makupula and Z. Ziwele both ex- workers reps, and
MBSA management Ian Russell and Christopher Kopke. Negotiations
started on reinstatement and then moved to re- employment, but were
quickly diverted to a ‘job creation’ project. When we
the (Reps ex- workers) tried to put our rejection of the ‘job
creation’ citing that MBSA had jobs , Mr Kopke checked his
watch and told the Minister Tito who was chairing the meeting that
they had also a business appointment in Johannesburg and the Minister
said would try to reschedule the meeting.
company indicated that they also had another flight to take for
another business appointment in Zimbabwe later that day as well.
The meeting was closed without clear understanding of another meeting.
The worst confusion was that nobody was concerned about a clear
direction except both ex- workers but we had no power to force either
the Minister or Mercedes to continue. On our return following day
it was released on the front page of Daily Dispatch news that the
minister failed to convince the Mercedes bosses to reinstatement
in Pretoria. This was strategically released on the news before
our general meeting was to be held on that day. Most of the ex-
workers who had read the newspapers did not even bother to attend
the general meeting. Only 140 attended and on hearing the Pretoria
meeting minutes were hysterical - a few collapsed .The anger in
the room reaching common decision of let’s go to Mercedes
Benz and let it bury us alive.
chairperson raised his voice to say let’s approach MBSA with
a peaceful protest “Two buses were called and we departed
for Benz Admin area where we entered. Mr Ian Russell approached
us on the understanding that he would only speak with the leadership,
could we allow him to release his staff to work in another area
as they were frightened by us and we agreed.
him at his office he suggested that there would be a shareholders
meeting tomorrow at the Company and he can recommend our position
of reinstatement in that meeting also suggesting some refreshments.
We agreed that should be in writing and he left us to prepare that
letter never to return but police trucks and vans were filling the
parking area of the administration hiding sjamboks , dogs and R1
rifles .Police vans and trucks were opened and we were to told to
step inside. 132 men were sent to Mdantsane Prison, some of our
wives, 8 in all, and a child of 2 years were sent to Fort Glamorgan
Without informing each other, a hunger strike was engaged in both
prisons, in 7 days, 8 wives were released without bail while those
who were appearing for the second time in the police list of occupying
MBSA would be charged R200 and those who occupied first time, the
fine was R100 . In thirteen days without food some started collapsing
and numbers dropped to 92. Those who collapsed out were sent to
Prison hospital to be fed and they ate and later they were released.
In 28 days 92 dropped further, in fact the number, stopped at 58
where in 35 days of eating nothing we decided to enter a partial
hunger strike where we bought peanuts one packet55g and 2 small
sweets a day and endured 198days in prison including maltreatment
by prison authorities like being bundled with hardened criminals
in an overcrowded cell. We survived all those dirty tricks by sticking
to not eating any prison food. Our days of not eating were higher
than 35days from the fact that our visits from family were reduced
to twice a week and we would continue on weekends with nothing except
water. Some workers weight dropped drastically eg from 95kg to 67kg.
health went down- some were attacked by TB, dystrophy. Letters informing
authorities of our plight did not alter the situation. At last justice
Advisor Njiva Pikoli arrived at Mdantsane Prison and advised us
to go to trial. He was acting on behalf of the Justice Dept whose
Minister, Dullar Omar, had accused us to be creators of our predicament.
At this juncture, Mr Gwentshe died while we were in prison and we
decided to stand trial without a legal professional and were sentenced
after two weeks court trial. We were sentenced not to engage Mercedes
Benz or come near them - this was suspended for 3 ½ years.
Upon our release we wrote to the Labour Department, asking for directions
and were directed to Numsa where a meeting was arranged with Enoch
Godongwana, Numsa General Secretary then. Godongwana suggested to
us to get a legal opinion of our arbitration case where Mr Sogoni
was selected and in the process of accumulating evidence of video
tapes photographs oral and written evidence, decided to stop him
as the job became difficult for him and opted for Ben Ntonga law
firm in Mdantane where we were assisted by Mr L. Mbandazayo who
quickly got advocated Norman Arendse in Cape Town. Advocate Arendse
assisted by Mr L. Mbandezayo gave his legal opinion on the following
That Numsa shopstewards at MBSA had compromised the dismissed in
Les Kettledas together with Mercedes Benz should ensure that the
affected employees get jobs in East London; the job creation project
should be revisited.
He admitted orally that during the apartheid era out of 500 arbitration
trials only 2 succeeded.
question of revisiting job creation was not popular and was vehemently
rejected by the ex- MBSA workers. Godongwana, together with Tom
and all MBSA shopstewards of 1997 could not change the created situation,
when approached by Mr Mbandezayo, together with ex- workers reps
in a meeting with Mercedes Benz. Kopke insisted that he would not
re-instate 1990 strikers at MBSA but would encourage them to negotiate
the former 1994 job creation project. Enoch Godongwana moved that
the question of R1million should be set aside and the cost effectiveness
of this project should be discussed by those affected, subject to
that new proposals should be made. Brian Knoesen would be the contact
person of the company and Silumko Nondwangu be the contact person
of the union and we agreed to look at it subject to all workers
getting jobs. On the 12August 1997 Silumko Nondwangu was telephoned
by the workers representatives, who wrote a letter based on question
of finance and proposals, also looking at the possible meeting of
principals which were Kopke and Godongwana . The letter reads: Due
to our tele-conversation based on finance in the job creation project
and meeting of principals on the solution of this problem as top
priority. We would like to remind you of the agreements.
May 1997 our principal Cde Enoch Godongwana agreed with MBSA principal
Mr Christopher Kopke on the following:
That the offer of R1million should be set aside as the cost effectiveness
of this project would be determined by the unfolding facts on this
That pensioners be paid their pensions according to MBSA pension
Ex gratia payment for the +-58 deceased and integration of one able
member of affected family to the job creation project.
for the remaining number of affected employees and they be free
to add their input on idea of job creation project they wish to
attain according to their current skills. In the following week
we met Brian Knoesen of Daimler Benz S.A and he totally rejected
our proposals also arguing that there would be no finance except
training of 12 weeks by an independent institution, and we should
meet to ensure progress with Eastern Cape training centre or Eastern
Cape Technical College.
disagreed with Knoesen pointing the age - profile i.e. half of the
521 could be trained but the other half were old - timers and others
deceased, only able-bodied members should be integrated to the training.
But that made management more stubborn and the Union was not fighting
it. In fact the union had lost interest in our struggle, Nondwangu
still forcing us to go in the company direction while Godongwana
agreed that no finance would be forth coming for our demands. This
made us again to reject the job creation project as it was not going
to alleviate the hardship and suffering.
had initiated during this period that all its affiliates with big
numbers of apartheid era dismissals era should take those cases
to the Truth and Reconciliation process on Business. We told Numsa
that it would be better to approach the T. R. C and expose collaboration
of union officials in our dismissals especially Les Kettledas ,
Mthuthuzeli Tom and Thembalethu Fikizolo’s conspiracy with
Mercedes management . Numsa responded on document coded RS72/1,
which is available for all to see. Most important would be documents
and correspondence with Government, which is available on request.
We thought that the TRC would certainly give clarity on updating
our history. This was not to be. We then met Ocgawu, Oil Chemical
General and Allied Workers Union, and Workers International Vanguard
league. END OF PART 1
2 deals with the current situation at the company; how the company
propped up the military might of the NP regime; recent protests
by the dismissed workers; and the way forward]