Tensions are rising after negotiations have failed to progress in the three-month-long Clover strike.
The strike began at the branded foods and beverages group on 22 November, at the end of the second year of the Covid pandemic that, along with the health emergency, was underway amidst a frenzy of state corruption.
The company was taken over by Milco, a consortium led by the Israeli-owned Central Bottling Company, in a R4.8 billion deal in 2019.
The Competition Commission and the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition agreed to the deal because of the promise that the company would retain jobs.
At the time, Clover chief executive Johann Vorster said foreign investment could result in job creation, investment, ‘export opportunities and overseas work opportunities for South Africans’.
This is not how things have played out.
As General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (Giwusa) president Mametlwe Sebei noted: ‘The government supported this merger and Milco promised to create 500 jobs, but since it took over, about 2,000 workers have lost their jobs and six factories face closure.’
Seeking to cut R300 million from its labour bill, the company gave notice that it would ‘retrench’ several hundred workers and cut pay by 20%.
It also introduced a six-day working week with compulsory work on public holidays.
It further said its employees would work a 12-hour day instead of a nine-hour shift, without overtime.
Milco justified the cuts by saying that Covid had resulted in significant financial losses.
Clover closed its factory in Parow in June last year and announced that same month that it was shutting its Lichtenberg factory in North West because of a failure of municipal services, and would instead relocate to Durban.
There is no doubt that municipal services have collapsed in many towns – which is the sole responsibility of the ANC government – and that it has made all kinds of projects unviable.
Nonetheless, the hardships this imposed on workers inevitably escalated the sense of a gathering threat to their jobs and rights.
This has worsened as the company has also moved to close down factories in Milnerton, Heilbron, Frankfort, Lichtenburg and City Deep.
Clover workers are organised through two unions, Giwusa and the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu).
Both unions warn that Milco will hollow out Clover until it ceases manufacturing altogether and becomes just a distribution company for dairy products made in Israel and in the Palestinian territories it occupies.
The strike of about 4,000 workers had been relatively peaceful until January, when a number of workers and shop stewards received threatening phone calls.
Vehicles used by striking workers in Gauteng were attacked with petrol bombs on two consecutive nights.
After two months on strike, two failed negotiation attempts, cancelled Christmas bonuses for striking workers, two interdicts and Clover’s refusal to budge, things began to escalate.
Workers came under attack at the Clayville operation in Gauteng in February and accused Clover of hiring ‘thugs and hitmen to intimidate and attack strikers’.
Then Terrence Tegg, a former member of the South African Special Forces Brigade contracted to PPS Security, was killed on 18 February.
Police spokesperson Colonel Dimakatso Sello said he was ‘allegedly pelted with stones by protesters while three other security officers sustained injuries’.
After a video of an attack on security guards was circulated, the police arrested two suspects who have since appeared in the magistrate’s court in Thembisa on charges of murder, attempted murder and robbery.
It was later established that Tegg had died, although there is still no official confirmation of whether it was him or another security guard in the video.
Clover said PPS was hired to protect it from ‘violent industrial action’.
Spokesperson Steven Velthuysen said: ‘Union leaders and their members have all but ignored two interdicts and are clearly out of control. This is not industrial action. It’s murder.’
Saftu deputy secretary general Moloko Phakedi strongly denied union involvement in the killings.
Velthuysen’s inflammatory statements, made on what is now very dangerous ground, come straight from the playbook of another deadly strike after 10 people were killed.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said in an email to mining company Lonmin, which owns the platinum mine at Marikana, that ‘concomitant action’ was needed to deal with ‘plain dastardly criminals’ following the murders of two security guards, two police officers and six mineworkers that preceded the Marikana massacre.
Ramaphosa’s language was hardly an aberration. Inflammatory comment, much of it obscuring urgent labour issues with the reduction of complex, contradictory and dynamic situations to the simplistic language of criminality, was rapidly normalised across the elite public sphere. The media often behaved appallingly.
We all know how that ended – in an infamous massacre. Ten years later, nobody has been arrested, convicted or sentenced for those 44 murders.
Hours before the police opened fire on the more than 3,000 striking miners, the now retired Anglican Bishop of Pretoria, Johannes Seoka, went to the site with the aim of negotiating a just peace and advised Lonmin management to talk to their employees.
They refused, and instead labelled them ‘criminals and murderers’.
An opportunity to stop the violence, build peace and negotiate a viable solution to the impossible conditions faced by workers was lost. This is an important lesson for employers, the state and others to remember.
Unlike during the strike at Marikana, there has been minimal police presence during the Clover strike.
Private security companies have been contracted to police the strike.
There are echoes here of the July riots during which, as the police stood down, private security companies stepped into the gap. Private security has been linked to the murders of several of the more than 300 people who died in the upheaval.
When the police were about to move in on the Marikana strikers, they had live ammunition that they said they didn’t intend to use.
But, of course, no one brings a gun to a site of intense conflict if they are certain that they do not intend to start shooting.
With no negotiated progress towards some sort of resolution of the Clover strike, tensions are rising. De-escalation, undertaken with a commitment to negotiate towards just outcomes, is now imperative.
This is a national imperative that cannot be left in the hands of Clover.
Violence is becoming increasingly central to the everyday grammar of South African politics.
The faction of the ANC that had gathered around (ex-South African president jailed on corruption charges) Jacob Zuma, and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party have taken outrightly militaristic postures.
For years major strikes have often cost lives at the hands of the police and security guards.
In the aftermath of Marikana there should have been some sort of consensus that nobody should be murdered for struggling for their job or for doing their job.
There should have been some sort of national engagement on how to refound the negotiation of labour disputes on a more democratic basis and take practical steps towards building a just peace.
But even that massacre did not result in any kind of meaningful change. A decade on it is still business as usual.