Numsa strike: “It’s been a difficult and terrifying four weeks”

Thousands of members of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), the country's largest union, are seen taking part in a strike action through the Johannesburg CBD. More than 220,000 members of NUMSA have gone on strike throughout South Africa demanding an increase of 12 percent, nearly double the current inflation rate. (01.07.2014)

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa NUMSA returned to work on Tuesday after a month-long strike. BHEKI SIMELANE spoke to Numsa member Kenneth Mokoena (24), from Oakley in Mpumalanga in the aftermath of the strike.

I’m very excited that the strike has finally ended, I’m elated. It’s been a difficult and terrifying four weeks. You never know what could happen during a strike. As the weeks went by I became seriously worried and financial constraints started to take over my life. I really began to feel the pinch.

I get paid on a weekly basis. This means I have to spend wisely to be able to sustain my family. I managed to survive in the first week of the strike but my savings quickly ran out as my domestic expenses mounted. Things became worse in the second week as I tried to grapple with the possibility of a long strike. I worried about where I would get transport fare from if the strike were to continue.

The last few weeks were worse than hell. I had to think really hard about how I would maintain my girlfriend, who is seven months pregnant, and how I would pay my debts at the end of the month. The thought of providing for my girlfriend drove me crazy. Pregnancy is a delicate process and you need some cash in hand because you never know what might happen and when. I knew I was not the only one worker suffering the repercussions of the strike but that didn’t make me feel any better.

Kenneth Mokoena

There were some terrifying moments. One day during the first week of the strike, I joined a group of colleagues on a trip to work. We wanted to see if any of our colleagues had betrayed us and and gone back to work, becoming amagundwane as they say, which is isiZulu for “rats”. I caught a taxi on my way back but when I got to the Wadeville train station I saw a colored guy who works for one of the neighboring steel companies had been assaulted with a panga by striking workers. His one arm was totally cut off and his other arm barely hung from his shoulder. I think his assailants must have wanted to cut off both his arms, the very tools he uses to put food on the table for his family. I realized how dangerous it was for me to go back to work and stayed home for the rest of the strike.

On my first day back at work on Tuesday I realised that things must have been very hard for everyone. Colleagues who usually brought lunch tins to work hadn’t brought any; they looked feeble and were asking around for help. I felt sorry for the breadwinners who had to watch their families starve for a whole month. My older colleagues were hard hit even though they tried to hide it.

It has been a horrible month but I’m glad our union got something out of it. I’m really happy with the 10% in three years that we got. It’s going to go a long way in alleviating my financial burdens. I will probably recover from the financial strain in another four weeks time. I’d say the strike was worth it despite the financial strain.

– As told to Bheki Simelane