Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU)

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The Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU) was established in April 1973 in with the assistance of the General Factory Workers Benefit Fund (GFWBF). It was launched in Pietermaritzburg with Alpheus Mthethwa, an employee of the Benefit Fund, elected branch secretary. This union was organized in the electrical engineering, electronic equipment, motor, rubber, cables, non-ferrous metals, iron and steel, and heavy engineering sectors. It operated as an independent, non-racial trade union. Amongst one of the companies where the union organised from 1973 was Sarmcol, a subsidiary of a British Tyre and Rubber Company. However, the company refused to recognise the union.

After two years of fighting for recognition and being denied, workers at Sarmcol from Mpophomeni Township went on strike on 30 April 1985*. As a consequence 970 workers were dismissed from work.  When the dismissed workers attempted to meet at Mphophomeni Community Hall, a court interdict was brought against them. They were then forced to seek an alternative venue and approached Father Larry Kaufmaan who granted permission to use the Catholic Church as a meeting place every Wednesday. At political tensions grew in Natal in the 1980s, members of MAWU meeting at the church had to vacate the venue quickly they were attacked by Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) members. The security police also began harassing workers meeting at the church forcing them to relocate to Howick. 

Meanwhile, a court inquiry was conducted into the mass dismissal of workers. When Phineas Sibiya a leading shop steward of MAWU who was also a leading witness in the inquiry called a meeting at his place, armed men entered his house and abducted four committee members. Three of them were shot dead and their bodies burnt while Micca Sibiya, the brother of Phineas escaped with gunshot wound.

The inquiry resulted in a compromise settlement in which the company allowed union organisers access to the company and to stop order facilities. In 1985 members of MAWU in Mpophomeni created a play, The Long March which highlighted the plight of workers Sarmcol and the refusal of the management to accede to the workers demand.  

*Some sources give the date as 1 May 1985


References:
• Sithole, J, and Ndlovu, S., ‘The Revival of the Labour Movement, 1970”“1980’ in The Road to Democracy in South Africa, Volume 2, 1970-1980, (Pretoria ”“UNISA), p.203.
• Brown, J, (1991), History from South Africa: Alternative Visions and Practices,(Tmeple University Press), p.325
• 
Kearney, P, (2009), Guardian of the Light: Denis Hurley: Renewing the Church, Opposing Apartheid, (New York), p.231

Last updated : 02-Feb-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 05-Feb-2013