Book Review: Asijiki


A History of the South African Commercial Catering and Allied Workers Union (Saccawu)

Author: Kally ForrestReviewed by: Mziwakhe Hlangani Asijiki (No turning back) is a slim, idyllic volume of the South African Commercial Catering and Allied Workers Union (Saccawu), graphically presenting the complex modern history of the revolutionary struggles of a non-racial trade union. But small as the book is, it manages to convey the long, noisy, chaotic and action-packed times.There is much grim determination to show racism, above all, to be responsible for the sudden re-emergence of black trade unions and the dramatic unionisation of young and militant workers. Racism's presence is in everything. Like staff canteens, often dark, dirty and dingy hovels for Africans, as against first-class, luxurious conditions for white staffers.In the retail sector, African faces could not be seen in the front shop. Whites retained positions of cashiers, took the clerical jobs and were promoted to management posts while Africans permanently carried out unskilled and mostly casual jobs in the back as delivery boys, “cooks” in the place of chefs, off-loaded trucks without training prospects. Coloured and Indian workers were often entrusted with supervisory positions over Africans.

RacismAnd racism is demonstrated through individuals' stories. A stout black worker, Makhulu Ledwaba, was dismissed. His crime – he slapped a white woman in the face in the canteen for queue-jumping after she had sworn at him for refusing to give way to her to go past other black workers who were queueing before her. He then joined the union which successfully fought for his reinstatement. He later was elected president of the then Commercial Catering and Allied Workers Union of South Africa (Ccawusa)Then there is Alina Rantsulase, currently national treasurer of Cosatu. She was unfairly dismissed for two years from work following her stage-managed police arrest in the factory for allegedly stealing some item she had already paid for. Stories like these present the malicious side of the white management during those struggle days. The union's growth after the '80s was too quick for its own resources as youth were politicised and trade union membership surged.It was mostly women who led Saccawu's struggles, especially in areas like Cape Town where coloured men were thought to be more conservative than their women partners. Women saw an opportunity to wage women's equality struggles. CampaignsThe book hardly pauses between reflections on workers engaging in rolling mass demonstrations against management, the launch of campaigns for a living wage, extension of parental rights, for centralised bargaining, against retrenchments an end to casualisation, to win March 21, May 1 and June 16 as public holidays.It records the wide range of struggle tactics used from protest work stoppages to prolonged trial of strengths strikes to rolling mass actions and workplace occupations. With the formation of Saccawu, the union took forward its fighting legacy into the first democratic elections. The strength of its leadership was confirmed by the important positions they took up in the new democratic government and provincial legislatures, in Cosatu’s highest echelons and in high levels of retail management:

Papi Kganare, Free State MEC for safety and security; Nomvula Mokonyane, current Gauteng MEC for Housing; Herbert Mkhize, director of Nedlac; Edna Molewa, Premier of North West; Duma Nkosi, executive mayor of Ekurhuleni; Cosatu’s leader, Rantsulase and former journalist Dirk Hartford who founded YFM, the youth radio station. Get a copy from your nearest Saccawu regional office. It sells for R100. It moves on into current achievements, including Shoprite Checkers casuals who recently won the right for Saccawu to negotiate wages and conditions of employment for the first time and to be employed permanently. This is a struggle that the Union has been waging from its early days.One of the book's strongest features is the way the new political environment has radically changed members and organisers’ way of thinking about collective bargaining, union activism and its related risks.