White workers on South Africa's railways (Transnet), traditionally some of the most conservative and racist in outlook, are starting to join the predominantly black South African Railway and Harbour Workers' Union. SARHWU is affiliated with the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions and is a member of the Congress Alliance, which groups together COSATU, the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party.
Retrenchment threatening 60,000 jobs has forced white workers to look for a union that has the strength and determination to stand up for them. Most belong to the conservative Artisan Staff Association, many of whose members are dissatisfied with the performance of their leaders in negotiations over wages and conditions.
Typical of the white workers coming over to SARHWU is Marcus Momberg. Momberg is a 31-year-old Afrikaner who drives trucks for Transnet. He lives in a white working class area near Johannesburg and is a former farmer. Momberg was one of a wave of 1500 white workers who joined SARHWU early last year. Virtually every white worker at the Kaserne cartage depot, where Momberg works, joined the militant union.
Momberg told the South African Weekly Mail that he joined the pro-ANC union because its white counterpart "never did anything" for the Transnet workers. His depot was recruited to SARHWU by black shop steward David Mnisi, a tough veteran of two rail strikes, a man they all expressed respect for. Another of the white recruits, 51-year-old Arthur Theron, explained why: "I battled for years to get shoes and rainsuits for drivers through Spoorbond [a white union]. We still don't get them — but the blacks do."
Asked if they were concerned about SARHWU's links with the ANC and the SACP, Momberg replied: "If our leaders [the National Party] can sit down with them, why can't we?"
There is enormous potential for joining up Transnet's white workers to SARHWU believes Johan Beaurain, the union's only white official. "The key is to get our black members to do the organising. They've been so hammered by whites that they can't conceive that these people are insecure and worth approaching", Beaurain explained to the newspaper.
In August, 4000 black SARHWU members in the northern Transvaal protested against the dismissal of a white colleague, winning more white workers to the union. "Colour is falling away under the circumstances; stop orders [requests for automatic deduction of union dues from pay packets] are coming fast to SARHWU."