WSF (1999): “Victory! BTR-SARMCOL Workers Win 13-year Battle”

WSF (1999): “Victory! BTR-SARMCOL Workers Win 13-year Battle”

From Workers Solidarity, magazine of the Workers Solidarity Federation, volume 5, number 1, second quarter 1999. Complete PDF is here

ON MAY DAY 1985, workers at the BTR-Sarmcol rubber factory at Howick outside Maritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, embarked on a wildcat strike. The following day, the bosses fired all 970 strikers, members of the then Metal and Allied Workers Union, which was not recognised by plant management. And so began the longest and one of the bloodiest labour battles in South African history. The community of Mophomeni was torn apart by the resulting conflict between strikers and the scabs hired by management to replace them. Since 1985, 39 people have been killed in fighting related to the dismissals. The dispute came at a very dangerous time in the province, when the first Inkatha units were returning from secret death-squad training in the Caprivi Strip in Namibia. The IFP-ANC battle for the heartland was about to begin and the laid-off workers at Mophomeni were in the thick of things.


In December 1985, MAWU chief shop-steward Phineas Sibiya, a key witness for the strikers in the Industrial Court inquiry into the mass firing, called members of the strike committee together at his house for a strategy meeting. But armed Inkatha members abducted the four-member committee from the house, took them to the Mophomeni community hall where they were tortured, then driven to a deserted stretch of road on the way to Lion’s River where they were executed one by one. Their bodies were burnt together in a car at the scene. Only Sibiya’s brother Micca managed to escape, by rolling down a bank into the river where he hid all night as the killers searched for him. An inquest found nine Inkatha members responsible for the murders, but none have yet been prosecuted. In July 1987, the Industrial Court ruled that the dismissal had been fair, but the workers challenged the decision in the Natal Supreme Court, arguing that the Industrial Court presiding officer was biased because he had attended a conference arranged by BTR-Sarmcol’s industrial relations advisor. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of the workers and in March 1992, a new Industrial Court hearing with a new presiding officer began. In October 1995, the Industrial Court again ruled against the workers, but they appealed to the Labour Appeal Court. They lost again, but took the case to the Supreme Court of Appeals in Bloemfontein.


In the meanwhile, although some strikers had managed to get new jobs and had to move to other parts of the country, about 400 stuck together. They came up with interesting ways to support themselves during their 13 years in the wilderness. They wrote a play about their dismissal and toured with it, they started a co-operative producing T-shirts and started a co-op farming venture.

Finally, in March last year, the Appeals Court found in favour of the dismissed workers, saying BTR-Sarmcol unfairly dismissed them. The court referred the matter back to the Industrial Court to decide how much compensation management must pay. In its decision last year, the Appeals Court judges found that BTR-Sarmcol management itself, in its desire to break the union, was the main reason for the strike and that it seized the opportunity presented by the strike to replace all unionised workers with non-unionised workers. Judge Pierre Olivier described the 13-year battle as a simple attempt by the union to gain legal recognition. He found that no responsible employer, knowing the consequences to an entire community, would dismiss its entire workforce of almost 1 000 people, each with an average service of 25 years, after giving them just a one-hour ultimatum