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Publication Details

Reference
Gule, Khwezi  (2006) Exploration of Social Unionism in the context of neo-liberalism: Investigation of the Engen strike of 2001 as a focal point for emerging politics in Wentworth and Social Unionism. CCS Grant Report  : -.

Summary
In 2001 the township of Wentworth south of Durban emerged as one of the powerful sites of struggle in the post-1994 period because of the Engen strike. This struggle was fought on many material and ideological grounds. For the workers who initiated the strike, the demands were modest but with far-reaching implications. The initial sources for discontent were the reduced take-home pay because of tax deductions and mistreatment under the contract system. The workers actions challenged the effectiveness and legitimacy of the contracting system employed by Engen in carrying out maintenance work and with it the nature of the relationship between Engen and maintenance workers.

On a national level the strike articulated the growing impatience at unfulfilled promises of a “better life for all” amongst the poor including those communities that had been considered strongholds of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). What it also meant was that people were willing once again to embark on civil disobedience and to reject the institutional provisions for managing dissent.

The strike acted as a lens that brought into sharp focus many of the elements of communal discontent in Wentworth: the struggle for better working conditions; for social and environmental justice; for fair treatment by the police, as well as an improved quality of life. The strike also enjoyed widespread support from the media, public figures and activists. The fact that the workers gained little having managed only to keep their jobs and secure their salaries, without resolving the original grievances, make it seem that the strike was a failure. However, the fact that a downtrodden community could stand up to a multinational giant and the police, was considered a tremendous victory.

For these reasons the strike has acquired mythical proportions. The researcher was interested in finding out what conditions made the strike possible and what lessons could be drawn from it. What emerged was a less triumphant picture than had been reported. While such discoveries do not diminish the heroism and importance of the strike, a more holistic assessment of the strike’s effect was necessary.

The study also revealed some discontent with the leaders in the community. There appeared to be a superficial participation by the poor in structures that are supposed to Page 4 of 51 represent their interests. There also seems to be a host of individuals both inside and outside Wentworth who pursue personal interests under the pretext of fighting for the betterment of the community. Many leaders are complicit in this. There are also the divisions in community organisations that tend to hamper progress because leaders are engaged in power struggles. Both Engen and the government have exploited these divisions to limit community participation on issues that have a direct relevance to them: i.e. development and the environment, and to question the legitimacy of leaders who challenge their policies.

Some sections of the Wentworth community aligned themselves with the Concerned Citizen’s Forum (CCF). The CCF is a loose association of community organisations. The common element among them being resistance to the effects of cost-recovery and privatisation of basic services which in most cases manifest in water and electricity cutoffs, environmental injustice and evictions. Through this network of other organisations such as Jubilee South, the Environmental Justice Networking Forum, Youth for Work, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, Landless People’s Movement as well as the Social Movements Indaba poor communities have been challenging the ANC’s macroeconomic policy as well as the entrenchment of neo-liberalism as the only viable economic model.

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