South Africa: Workers take over factory

On Wednesday 20 October, the workers of the Mine Line/TAP Engineering factory in Krugersdorp, just outside Soweto, started an occupation of their workplace to stop the former owner from stripping the factory of machinery and other assets and to fight to save their jobs.

The workers are organised by the Metal and Electrical Workers Union of South Africa (MEWUSA) in which the Democratic Socialist Movement (sister party of the Socialist Party), plays a leading role. They are occupying the plant and mobilising a mass solidarity campaign, demanding state takeover of the factory, so that it can be reopened as a democratically run workers’ co-operative.

Mine Line/Tap Engineering, which produces valves, locomotives etc for the mining industry, was shut down in August as the owner, Mr. Mulder, was trying to escape responsibility for the deaths of three workers in a 4 August accident, caused by his gross disregard for workers’ health and safety. Despite the economic crisis, Mine Line has remained a viable business. The insolvency is the direct result of Mulder’s criminal looting, fraud and theft. He took R15m in cash from the company account, in addition to the fleet of luxury cars and helicopters he had bought himself with company money, and filed for bankruptcy the following day. While he has since been colluding with the liquidator, Commonwealth Trust, to loot the company, stealing its funds to set up business elsewhere, the 107 workers and the families of the workers who were killed are left with nothing to show for, in most cases, over 25 years of service.

Workers decided on Wednesday 20 October to guard the premises to stop the ex-owner and the liquidator from stealing any more machinery or other assets from the factory. Workers are fighting to save jobs, pensions and benefits, but also to show that production and society in general can be run without the capitalist bosses. The workers are demanding that the state should transfer ownership to the workers and inject capital to revive the business, and are forming a co-operative to run the factory, as a step towards the nationalisation of the company under workers’ control and management.

The occupation of Mine Line is the first action of this kind by workers in South Africa (SA) to defend jobs since the onset of the recession in 2008. Over 1 million jobs have been lost in SA since the recession set in – according to the IMF this is the world’s highest rate, relative to growth rates. 55% of SA’s working age population is not economically active (although the official unemployment rate is “only” 25%).

Regrettably, the trade union movement’s leaders have reacted to the recession as if it is a natural phenomenon for which no-one can be blamed. Instead of coordinating a united mass action campaign to push back the bosses’ offensive and defend jobs, they have focused on signing deals with the bosses and government for the “common good” – in effect, bailing out the bosses. The Mine Line workers are refusing to pay for the crisis caused by their boss and are sending a loud and clear message to workers everywhere to do the same. The economic crisis has exposed to millions that the capitalist system is unable to take society forward and this struggle will provide important lessons for organised workers, struggling working class communities and youth organisations in SA and internationally on how to fight for a socialist alternative.

The workers are mobilising and appealing for the support of other workers and their communities. Already, the Democratic Socialist Movement, COPAC and the wider Conference of the Democratic Left, a new united left initiative, are taking an active part in support for the occupation. There is now an urgent need to unite the weight of the entire labour movement and the mass struggles of communities and youth into a mass solidarity campaign. Pressure also needs to be put on the company’s main creditors: ABSA (bank) to pursue the ex-owner, not the company, to recover what is owed to it (he borrowed R35m on false pretenses and never invested it in the company). The same applies to the R15m owed to the South African Revenue Services (SARS).

The workers are inspired by the courageous examples set by workers at INNSE in Italy and the Vestas and Visteon occupations in Britain. The Socialist Party sends solidarity greetings to MEWUSA and the Mine Line Workers Committee. We wish them well with their brave struggle.

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December 2010