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Nimrod Sejake

The power of the workers

(September 1984)

From Militant, No 716, 14 September 1984, p. 11.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

NIMROD SEJAKE, a black South African union activist for many years will be speaking at Militant’s 20th anniversary rally at Wembley on 20 October (see page 13 for details).

In this article he tells of some of his experiences in the 1950s.

I was the secretary of the iron and steel union in the Transvaal, in Johannesburg. We faced a vicious law, the Bantu Labour Settlement of Disputes Act which stipulated if Africans went on strike, the strike was immediately illegal, and their trade union movement not recognised.

There was no law that we could use as a channel for negotiations with the employers, but we had to face the employers all the time. So we organised workers to strike, not only to improve the terrible wages and conditions, but also in particular to disobey this Act.

Fight for our rights

We always made it clear to the workers that we should not face the employers from a position of weakness; the law was not on our side. To succeed we had to organise say a section 100% first and then tabulate the demands of the workers, and approach the employer. At one factory, called African Lamps, where a strike was organised the employers told me that according to the law I had no right to put forward the workers demands.

I said ‘OK, I know there is a law to that effect, but the crux of the matter is that you have entered a contract between management and the workers you employed but who are now members of a union even if you do not recognise it. You have to pay the wages for what they give you in exchange for these wages, which is essentially their labour power.’

Management felt insulted that I could talk like that to them when I was an African so I said: ‘If workers feel that you don’t pay them the wages commensary with their labour power they have the right to withhold that labour power’. This infuriated the management even more.

They threatened to call in the police because I was ‘illegally’ on the precinct of the factory even though I had gone asking them to have negotiations. After management had called the police and told their story the police told me, ‘Nimrod you are under arrest for trespass’.

But our workers were properly organised and the law could not stand in their way. The police took me to the charge office and the workers came out on strike.

While I was trying, despite police opposition, to telephone our lawyer informing her I was arrested, a telephone call arrived from the factory management, asking the police to bring me back to the factory because there was a strike!

Causing a commotion

‘Look Nimrod’, they told me, ‘you’ve caused a commotion at the factory!’ For some time I said I would not go back to the factory unless I was properly charged but the police begged me to go. At the factory, management begged me to ask the workers to return.

I spoke to the workers but in their own language, saying they should carry on with the decision they had taken and I would go on with the mandate to negotiate but that I was still under arrest. Management expected workers to meekly return to work but one worker who had been mandated to speak told management they would do nothing until my arrest had been explained.

Already the white workers had been sent home showing that the whole factory depended on the power of the black working class. When they saw the workers were determined to go on striking, the police suddenly discovered there was nothing they could do, they could not arrest me for trespass because I was there for a legal purpose even though the Disputes Act and other laws were on their side! In reality it as because we had used the power of the working class.

Nimrod Sejake will continue the lessons of the African Lamps dispute and others in a future issue.

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Last updated: 9 August 2016