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South Africa: Workers' factory takeover to defend jobs enters second month

November 17 video made by Workers' World Media, Cape Town.

November 17, 2010 -- A militant factory occupation by South African metalworkers is about to enter its second month. On October 20, 2010, workers at the Mine Line/TAP Engineering factory in Krugersdorp, just outside Soweto, began the occupation to prevent the removal of machinery and other assets and to fight to save their jobs. The workers are demanding the state take over the factory, so that it can be reopened as a democratically run workers' cooperative.

The workers are organised by the Metal and Electrical Workers Union of South Africa (MEWUSA), in which the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM, the affiliate of the Committee for a Workers' International in South Africa) plays a leading role.

Mine Line/Tap Engineering produces valves, locomotives and other items for the mining industry. It was shut down in August when the owner, Waynerd Mulder, attempted to escape responsibility for the deaths of three workers in an August 4 accident, caused by gross disregard for workers' health and safety. Despite the economic crisis, Mine Line has remained a viable business. The insolvency is the direct result of Mulder's criminal looting, fraud and theft. He took 15 million rand in cash from the company account, in addition to the fleet of luxury cars and helicopters he had bought with company money, and filed for bankruptcy the following day. While he has since been colluding with the liquidator, Commonwealth Trust, to loot the company, stealing its funds to set up business elsewhere, the 107 workers and the families of the workers who were killed are left with nothing to show for, in most cases, over 25 years of service.

Workers decided on October 20 to guard the premises to stop the ex-owner and the liquidator from stealing any more machinery or other assets from the factory. They have also changed the locks at the factory, which is located near Doornkop Mine. Some men have brought in beds, so they can sleep there at night, while woman take part in the sit-in from the morning until the afternoon because they have children to look after at home.

"Entering the main office where about 50 workers are assembled, one immediately conjures up images of the Paris Commune, a government that briefly ruled Paris from March 28 to May 28, 1871, and which was made up of anarchists and Marxists. It was hailed as the first assumption of power by the working class during the Industrial Revolution", reported the November 14 Business Report.

Union spokesperson Mametlwe Sebei said Mulder had been taking assets from the factory and stripping it of whatever value remained, hence the occupation. "Until there is a proper inventory, Mulder is not allowed to take any assets away", he said.

On November 15, the workers with the support from the solidarity committee resisted the owner's son's attempt to steal one of the computers and scrap metal. In his speedy getaway, his 4X4 bakkie [ute] got stuck in a ditch. It has become clear that the security firm is colluding with the owners and liquidators and are looking for ways to break the occupation.

The workers are fighting to save jobs, pensions and benefits, but also to show that production and society in general can be run without the capitalist bosses. The workers are demanding that the state transfer ownership to the workers and inject capital to revive the business, and are forming a cooperative to run the factory, as a step towards the nationalisation of the company under workers’ control and management.

The occupation of Mine Line is the first action of this kind by workers in South Africa to defend jobs since the onset of the recession in 2008. More than 1 million jobs have been lost in South Africa since the recession set in -- according to the IMF this is the world's highest rate, relative to growth rates. Fifty-five per cent of South Africa's working-age population is not economically active (although the official unemployment rate is "only" 25%).

The Mine Line workers are refusing to pay for the crisis caused by their boss and are sending a loud and clear message to workers everywhere to do the same.

The workers are mobilising and appealing for the support of other workers and their communities. The Democratic Socialist Movement and the Conference of the Democratic Left, a new united left initiative, are taking an active part in building support for the occupation. A Mine Line/TAP Workers Solidarity Committee has been established, which includes Mine Line/TAP workers and the following organisations: MEWUSA, NACTU, Conference of the Democratic Left, Co-operative and Policy Alternative Centre, Concerned Wits students and Academics, Democratic Socialist Movement, Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front, Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, Landless Peoples’ Movement and the Anti-Privatisation Forum.

On October 27, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) expressed its support for the decision taken by Mine Line workers to takeover and the run the company. "This decision taken by workers is consistent with the objectives of the Freedom Charter of making sure that economic power is transferred to the hands of the people", NUMSA's regional secretary, Sizwe Dlamini said.

There is now an urgent need to unite the weight of the entire labour movement and the mass struggles of communities and youth into a mass solidarity campaign. Pressure also needs to be put on the company’s main creditors: ABSA bank to pursue the ex-owner, not the company, to recover what is owed to it (he borrowed R35 million on false pretenses and never invested it in the company). The same applies to the R15 million owed to the South African Revenue Services.

The workers have been inspired by the courageous examples set by workers at the Vestas and Visteon occupations in Britain, and are appealing to all working-class political organisations, trade unions and individuals to send brief messages of solidarity to MEWUSA and the Mine Line Workers Committee, as well as letters of protest to the liquidating company (model letter of protest and details below). Please send all messages and protest letters c/- mewusa@lantic.net or to MEWUSA, 107 Market St, Elephant House, 5th floor, Johannesburg 2000, South Africa.

[This article is based on a report that appeared at http://www.socialistworld.net/doc/4626 and other reports.]

Model letter of protest (send c/- mewusa@lantic.net or to MEWUSA, 107 Market St, Elephant House, 5th floor, Johannesburg 2000, South Africa)

To: Mr. Lebogang Michael Moloto

Commonwealth Trust

CC: ABSA Capital; SARS Head Office

Dear Sir,

I/ we ………………………….. have been made aware that your company, Commonwealth Trust, is currently engaged in the liquidation process of Mine Line/ TAP Engineering in Krugersdorp, South Africa. As you must be aware, despite the economic crisis, the company’s insolvency is the direct result of the owner’s Mr. W. Mulder’s, criminal looting, fraud and theft: having obtained a R35 loan from ABSA on false pretenses he failed to invest these funds in the company. He owes SARS R15m after failing to pay taxes. He has not contributed to the workers provident funds since 2007. His filing for voluntary surrender appears to have been an attempt to also escape responsibility for the deaths of three employees on August 4, 2010, in a workplace accident caused by his gross disregard for workers’ health and safety. Following this horrific accident, Mr. Mulder took out R15m in cash from the company’s account, illegally as the company was already technically insolvent, only to file for bankruptcy the very next day. The workforce, many of whom have worked for Mr. Mulder for over 25 years or for several generations, stand left with nothing.

It has become clear to the workers, their union MEWUSA and their comrades around South Africa and the world, that your representative, Mr. Gordon Nokhanda, has failed to take all this into account and has instead been colluding with the ex-owner to enable him to further loot the company. Your company is supposed to safeguard the assets of Mine Line on behalf of workers and other creditors, but while workers have not even been allowed to take out their personal belongings from their lockers, you have assisted Mr. Mulder in grabbing almost every single remaining useful asset of the company, presumably with the aim of continuing business elsewhere in a scandalous fraud. On Wednesday October 20 workers therefore decided that because they could have no confidence in your representative, they should start guarding the premises themselves. Already the workers on guard – not your staff – have stopped several attempts by Mr. Mulder to remove further company assets. That this criminal activity has been allowed is an indictment on your company and if not corrected we will expose and condemn it widely through all available channels.

The collusion with a boss that should obviously be behind bars is particularly breathtaking as your company has presented itself as one sympathetic to the labour movement – instead it is now playing an instrumental role in condemning workers to the massive pool of the unemployed.

We therefore urge you to:

  • Immediately open all the books and inventory for perusal and verification of company assets by the workers.
  • Lay criminal charges against the previous owner Mr. Mulder, laying claim to all the monies and assets unlawfully he has taken from the company.
  • Stop the attempts to sell the company or its assets off without the consent of the workers.
  • Transfer full control over the workplace and all its assets to the workers’ cooperative.


Yours sincerely,

……………………………………….
 

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