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1.The Mercedes Benz – SA workers’ Struggle








The Mercedes Benz – SA workers’ Struggle

After a 3 and half year Arbitration Trial

Editorial introduction

We 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

The 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 scheme!

We 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.

The 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.

It 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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:

On 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),

I have discussed the matter with Chris Baker (company advocate) and he confirmed the following

(1) “I did not make the statement on page 5 clause ( 1 ) in evidence

(2) 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”

This 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.

Numsa 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.


(1) Precedent set in respect of non - adherence to agreement process and procedure etc.

(2) Tensions within Numsa and the impact on the shop floor

(3) Loyalty of the employees selected to those outside and its impact on the shop floor

(4) The effect and tensions created within the dismissed workers was created by selective employment.

(5) The continuous threat to the company until the last of the 500 dismissed employees is back at Mercedes Benz.

(6) Continuous threat to the viability of the company.

(7) Preferential treatment of the dismissed employees above other unemployed people and children of MBSA employees, pensioner etc.

(8) The Tension that employment of the dismissed employees would create between Mercedes Benz in Germany and Mercedes Benz in South Africa.

(9) The Tensions that selective employment would create within MBSA management.


(1) Mercedes Benz S.A. would not be allowed by Numsa to employ from outside.

(2) Violent confrontation in plant and community possible.

(3) 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.

(4) MBSA would not be able to build Mitsubishi or the C class and volumes required for commercial vehicles or Honda.

(5) 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.

(6) The constructive relationship between Numsa and MBSA would be destroyed.



(1)After extensive consultation and serious consideration MBSA was not prepared to employ the workers collectively dismissed on 1990 strike.

(2)MBSA 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:

2.1the formation of a job creation Company independent of MBSA

2.2the 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.

2.3 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.

2.4 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.

This 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.

The 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.

An 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.

Mandela 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Meeting 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 Prison.

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.

Our 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 points:

(a) That Numsa shopstewards at MBSA had compromised the dismissed in their evidence

(b) Les Kettledas together with Mercedes Benz should ensure that the affected employees get jobs in East London; the job creation project should be revisited.

(c) He admitted orally that during the apartheid era out of 500 arbitration trials only 2 succeeded.

The 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.

On May 1997 our principal Cde Enoch Godongwana agreed with MBSA principal Mr Christopher Kopke on the following:

(1) 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 project.

(2) That pensioners be paid their pensions according to MBSA pension scheme.

(3) Ex gratia payment for the +-58 deceased and integration of one able member of affected family to the job creation project.

Relief 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.

We 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.

Cosatu 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

[PART 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]

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