Down Rats!by Samora Chapman / 12.09.2013
The morning air was cracked open by a riot of angry voices screaming: “Phansi amagundane, phansi! Amandla kubantu, amandla! Amagundane uyasebenza, asihambe!” Now my isiZulu isn’t too good… but here goes: Down with the rats! Power to the people, power! Rats you are working, lets go!
I poked my head out of my car bubble, and spotted the source of the bantu ruckus. A group of about 30 people were toyi-toying, chanting and wielding knobkieries outside the Engen garage on Essenwood Road.
Sounds like revolution. Sounds like fun! So I hopped out of my vehicle and went to investigate.
A three week strike by car workers has just ended, bringing the motor industry to its knees. The strike was a major victory for the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), with five of the seven global vehicle makers operating in SA agreeing to a 11.5% wage increase this year, followed by 10% increases in 2014 and 2015.
This week, thousands of petrol attendants are putting down their pumps, picking up their kieries and going to war for the same reward.
Back to the action… I strolled down the road and got some pics, which wasn’t received all too well as the protesters turned on me like the enemy.
A vicious young guy with missing teeth and hateful eyes held a kierie in my face, sinews in his arms bristling, begging to smash my brains in. His name was printed on his overalls: Wiseman.
“Where’s your permit to take photos! Who do you work for!” spat Wiseman.
“Fuck you!” I shot back like a silly young fool. In moments I was face to face with an angry mob, as people joined Wiseman, shouting and taunting.
“You have the right to strike and I have the right to take photos. This is a public area!” I argued.
Luckily a grizzly old numzan came to my rescue before blood was shed. He brought me back down to earth with a thud.
“Why you get angry so quickly son? You are a journalist, you must get used to this.”
The strikers left me to be scolded by the numzan and started marching up the road. After our talk I fell in line and vowed to be a wiser man.
The old numzan’s name was Mr Ngubane and he gave me the rundown.
“We are marching to make all the other petrol attendants join the strike,” explained Ngubane. “This is a NUMSA strike. It is happening all over South Africa. We want a 30% increase.”
At that moment we passed an old age home full of wrinkly old white people clutching their teacups, quivering. The volume of chanting rose to new heights of excitement at the site of the ‘oppressors’ of yesteryear.
“Amandla! Viva comrade, viva. Abantu bafuna imali manje!”
Power! Viva comrade, viva. The people want money now!
As the protest reached a crescendo, the vicious, toothless Wiseman ran into Essenwood Park and tried to murder a couple hadedas with his knobkierie.
The march hung a left, up a particularly affluent road, passing mansions, beamers and racist barking dogs. A fleet of cop cars had caught on and began tailing the march.
The cops soon decided to step in and a combi screeched to a halt, cutting off the march. Out spilled five or six men in blue.
“Ya’ll can strike all day if you want,” said the main ou amiably as he double clutched a cigarette.
“But we wont stand for aggressive threatening behaviour… so please hand over your weapons – sticks and knobkieries. You can keep your umbrellas.”
He then turned to me and asked if I got a good picture of the cops trailing the protesters.
“Yes sir,” I said.
The protesters refused to hand over their weapons, citing ‘cultural reasons’. They had rats to bliksem, after all.
So the whole show continued up to the Ridge Road Shell Garage, where a couple of petrol attendants in plain clothes were seen fleeing for their lives. The toyi-toying became wilder and more fervent than ever at the site of the rats… it seems they had long forgotten who the real enemies were.
A middle aged Indian lady and her son were manning the petrol pumps. “I am the owner,” the lady told me. She wished to remain anonymous. “Me and my son and my aunty are pumping petrol… just trying to keep business going.”
“How money of your staff are on strike?” I asked.
“The majority… but not all of them. Some want to work but they are scared for their lives. They have been threatened and pressurized for months leading up to this.”
“How much do your petrol attendants earn?”
“R18 per hour. We are open minded and ready to discuss the wages… but the demands they are making are unreasonable. At the end of the day, it’s up to the Fuel Retailers Association, not us. We don’t set the wages.”
After 15 minutes of heated protest, the strikers pressed on down the road and I bailed. At the end of the day the strikers will return home to their dusty townships with hungry bellies and tired legs.
The question is – would you fight for the right to put clothes on your kids back and send them to a decent school? I know I would. So when you are inconvenienced by the motor industry strikes, spare a thought for the people that put your Toyota together, pump petrol and fix your rust. Cos chances are, they’ll never earn enough to own a car themselves.
It would help, of course, if the strikers could differentiate between the rats and the fat cats.
*All images © Samora Chapman.