South Africa: DSM member and shop steward wins reinstatement at Super Spar

International solidarity plays role in victory

After a 5-month struggle, Vusi Khumalo, Democratic Socialist Movement (CWI South Africa), member and shop steward of the Commercial Services and Allied Workers Union, won reinstatement at Super Spar Royal Ascot in Cape Town. Vusi had been dismissed over an article he wrote in the October/December 2005 edition of the DSM’s paper, Izwi La Basebenzi. The article had exposed the oppressive regime in the workplace, including physical abuse of workers and failure to pay the government-legislated minimum wage. Super Spar was ordered by the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) to reinstate Vusi by no later than 24 May 2006 and repay all his wages — over R9000 ($1 400) since the date of his dismissal. The Commissioner of the arbitration hearing warned the company that failure to pay Vusi in full on that day would result in interest charges being levied on the back-pay.

In a judgement sharply critical of the conduct of the Super Spar management, the commissioner found that Vusi had not been responsible for the negative attitude towards management; that the allegations about underpayment, physical assault and the appearance of security guards in the workplace with guns drawn were true. Rejecting management’s contention that the workplace was an inappropriate place for Vusi to raise his views, the commissioner ruled that "Historically, this country’s democracy was born, among others, such as our schools, also in the workplace. It was the workers who fought discrimination, authoritarianism, and oppression. They contributed much to the labour laws as we know it today. And for this they used the workplace as a forum. It is the place where the culture of Apartheid and racism was crushed although consequently many lost their lives or their livelihood. It was the place where workers aspired towards democracy although it was never granted to them. Why now, would the freedom of expression in the workplace be denied after democracy had been obtained?".

The commissioner quoted extensively from Vusi’s article including his criticism of the ANC government for exploiting workers and denying them their rights after ten years of democracy as well as his reference to Karl Marx, "who explained that workers were the only force who could overthrow the bourgeois system and create a socialist society. It further confirms that the workers at Super Spar had taken the first step in that struggle." The commissioner defended Vusi’s right to express himself in a very "socialist" fashion since he is a member of the DSM and the article was printed in a socialist newspaper.

Supporting the views of the Freedom of Expression Institute who had flown down a lawyer from Johannesburg to give evidence in Vusi’s defence, the commissioner found that the employer had failed to appreciate that "freedom of expression lies at the heart of democracy even if (Vusi’)s views were considered controversial by some."

This victory comes shortly after the Department of Labour found that Super Spar had been underpaying workers since January 2005! Cosawu is now seeking a compliance order to compel the company to adjust the wages to the minimum and for back pay to January 2005.

Cosawu lost the union recognition case on a technicality. The cost of challenging ruling is prohibitive so Cosawu will continue to hand collect subscriptions from the workers.

However, the company has already indicated that they intend challenging the ruling. They have very little chance of success. Firstly the grounds for taking a commissioner on review (as the appeals against a CCMA award is known) are very limited. They are not permitted to challenge the case on the merits; they have to prove gross misconduct, obvious bias or corruption on the part of the commissioner. Even worse for Super Spar, they may not prevent Vusi from resuming duties even if they appeal.

Vusi has been exemplary in his conduct during his dismissal. Last week he collected 26 membership application forms from another Super Spar outlet with another 25 workers due to join this week.

The support Vusi and the union have received has played an enormous role in sustaining his and the workers’ morale. The DSM salutes all those who sent messages to Super Spar. So shaken was the management by the letters from "socialists from all over the world" as the commissioner put it, that management wanted to forward a complaint to the president of the country!

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May 2006