Newsmaker: The peacemaker of platinum fields

2012-02-25 16:36

“Ja! Vavi! This one is sharp my bro!” a man remarked excitedly in Setswana as throngs of striking mineworkers marched from Freedom Park towards the football field at the nearby Impala Number 8 Shaft on Thursday.

“Hhayi! This one inkunzi (bull) bhuti! He knows how to fight,” says another.

But earlier that same afternoon, they had marched out of the venue in protest after their man, Cosatu’s general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, failed to arrive. At the time, it looked as if all hell was going to break loose among the 7 000-strong crowd.

On Wednesday, word spread like teargas fumes that Vavi would visit Shaft 8 after a similar address to workers at another part of the troubled platinum fields the previous day.

The spirits of the striking workers appeared immediately lifted. To some, it seemed as if Vavi would bring a solution. Such was the spirit among them on Thursday morning that to a few it appeared as if the man was bringing with him the very R9 000 salaries they were fighting for.

By 3pm, the field was packed with chanting and toyi-toying workers who became agitated with each passing minute.

When other officials tried to address them, they went mad. They left the field and fears were raised that they would create havoc where they gathered on the outskirts of Freedom Park.

An hour later, it took one man to persuade them to return.

That man was born on a farm in Hanover, Northern Cape, the 10th of 12 children to a father who was a mineworker and a mother who was a domestic worker.

The priest who baptised him apparently guessed his birthday – December 20 1962. A former child labourer, he began performing unpaid chores on the farm on which he was born at the age of five.

Vavi arrived to an empty stadium in an Audi sedan, worried union officials and armed riot police on edge.

After a brief chat with other union leaders, he hopped on to an armoured police vehicle to meet the workers.
They erupted into loud cheering and whistling as Vavi, in a black Nehru shirt embroidered with gold, emerged from the police vehicle.

“Vavi! Vavi! Vavi!” they chanted.

A man in a red T-shirt leaped forward, close to tears. His name was Nceba Gcelu (31). He handed Vavi his payslip reflecting the R3 000 he took home.

“We are dying underground! Why should we die for R3 000?” he says to the towering figure of Vavi, who calmly took the document and assured him such matters would be looked into.

A few lines from Vavi got the workers charging down to the stadium again. A demoralised lot moments earlier, they transformed into a boisterous crowd of almost 7 000, powering westwards towards the setting sun to hear him speak.

Their powerful singing seemed to bring on a cool breeze, which swept over the rich land where poor workers dig up precious metal for a miserable R3 000 a month. Before Vavi’s arrival, they sang about taking up arms against mine management.

After that, they celebrated the power of the workers.

“Ngawethu!” they roared like thunder when Vavi greeted them with the black power salute. Then they fell silent, spellbound for almost an hour, by Vavi speaking in isiXhosa, a comrade translating into Setswana.

Now and then they cheered and applauded as Vavi urged them to continue fighting for their rights.

He said he was disappointed with the poor showing of National Union of Mineworkers shop stewards and that, like them, he was once a mineworker earning just R300 a month.

All went well until Vavi urged them to return to work the following day and avoid weakening their cause with an illegal strike, or being forced to return to work on the employers’ terms, in dribs and drabs, driven by the reality of unemployment.

Even Vavi, the hero, failed to make them understand.

A group of workers, calling themselves the interim workers committee responded, saying they were not going back unless their demands for a raise were met – R9 000 or nothing.

Their heads silhouetted against the fading evening light, they cheered as Vavi said he would not abandon them simply because they disagreed with him. He didn’t expect to be applauded each time he opened his mouth.

As the workers dispersed, I asked Vavi if their demand for R9 000 was justified.

“If they lend you their tools for just a day, and you go down a mine shaft and drill and break rocks, you will agree that in fact these workers do not deserve R9 000 but R100 000,” he said, before a police motorcade whisked him away.

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