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Nimrod Sejake

Defying apartheid laws

(September 1984)

From Militant, No. 717, 21 September 1984, p. 11.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

IN MILITANT, 14 September, a leading member of the steelworkers union in South Africa in the ’50s, described how workers who were denied by law the right to trade unions organised at the African Lamps factory.

Here he takes up the story after he had been arrested for “trespass” while negotiating with management. The workers had downed tools on his arrest.

When it became clear that the workers were not going to end their strike, the police decided they could not take any action against me. My arrest was dropped even though I was breaking the Bantu Labour Settlement of Disputes Act 1953.

The next week, the workers met and we discussed strategy and tactics for the new offensive. We then received an indictment. I was accused number one. But we found out a very funny thing; every time we went to court, the factory stopped because everyone was in the union.

The Rand Daily Mail which covered our court case said that the iron and steel workers were the first African union to break the 1953 Act, so we felt our tactics were right were convicted nonetheless and fined £3 each. We had decided the day before to go to jail rather than pay the fine. We would say we had no money, because we knew we would have no scabs in our workplace so the factory could not work.

The employer was forced, not by the law, but by the conditions we had created to pay our fines himself! We knew he couldn’t raise the same number of workers with the same skill and expertise overnight.

But the employer thought it was all right to deduct a certain amount from our pay packet every week until the £3 was paid back to him. He did that but we appealed to the Supreme Court in Pretoria, which found against the employer who had to refund every worker their £3! What is more, wages went up, only by a penny an hour but by the standard of wages for black workers in South Africa then it was something to be proud of.

We had beaten the bosses in their own court, the Supreme Court, after conviction in the magistrates court. But more importantly we had won with our own weapon, the strike.

We learnt that when workers were properly organised, they were strong; they could beat the bosses at the factory, they could get an official out of the clutches of the police so the law was not all powerful.

Nimrod Sejake will be one of the speakers at Militant’s 20th anniversary rally on 20 October.

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Last updated: 9 August 2016