The Guardian 13 April, 2005

Practical solidarity:
South African unionist Zico Tamela

Zico Tamela is the International Secretary of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU). He is also a leading member of the South African Communist Party in Johannesburg, and a longstanding member of the ANC.

A part of the COSATU union federation, SATAWU organises aviation, maritime, road and rail workers as well as cleaners and security workers in South Africa.

During the early 1980s, Zico was a student activist at the Johannesburg University, where he was involved in a successful boycott campaign.

In 1989, he was forced into exile and continued his studies at Bristol University. Later Zico worked for the British white collar trade union, NALGO, as an organiser for the Bloomsbury Branch, returning to South Africa in 1995.

Zico recently visited Australia. In Sydney he spoke with Anna Pha of The Guardian and discussed the purpose of his visit and the work of his union in South Africa. The following is an excerpt from that interview.

ZC: … We organise in the transport, security and kindred industries and we have a membership of about 105,000 workers.

We are affiliated to the Congress of South African Trade Unions which is COSATU, the biggest federation in the country. Internationally we are affiliated to the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) as well the Union Network International (UNI). The ITF caters for the transport part of our membership and the UNI caters for the security and kindred.

We have had some relations with the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and we continue to have those relations with them now. They date back quite some time even during the Apartheid days. The MUA played quite an important role in the maritime and industrial struggle against the Apartheid. But, recently we are pursuing two projects. One is the establishment of a credit union for housing for SATAWU members. We have learnt that from them. The MUA have such an infrastructure which is useful for accessing housing for their members. So they have assisted us to establish one.

But that project came in after we had being pursuing another one between the ports of Durban in South Africa and Fremantle here in Australia. That project would contribute a lot to the economic development in both countries, particularly the economic activity around the ports.

At the present moment the mining unions both in Australia and in South Africa have also joined in on that project so it is now pursued by both miners’ unions as well as transport unions. It was the MUA that originally sat down and then the mine workers union here and then the National Union of Mine Workers in South Africa.

I have come here to try to assist us move forward with those projects. That’s one aspect of my visit here.

AP: Could you tell us a bit more about that project between the ports?

ZC: We are trying to link Fremantle with Durban to try and make sure the flow of goods between the two ports within the shipping industry does bring the two countries — particularly through those two ports — some kind of economic cooperation. As a union we want to drive that cooperation. We want to make sure there is a clear program, an economic program developing between the two countries around these two ports whereby, not only the ports but also in Durban as a city and in Fremantle and the surrounding area, there can be some kind of exchange.

Maybe the two cities could be linked, basically some sort of twinning of the sort that happens between countries where you can twin Liverpool in the UK with Brisbane here. They become sister cities. So then you can extend more from economic cooperation around the ports to include areas like education, like health and perhaps even sport and culture. But we want to start at that level and then broaden it to basically the unions assisting in economic development — to not allow the shipping industry bosses to do their own thing. Obviously we must also look into issues like the environment.

Also we must promote the well-being of workers in the two ports, both in terms of their working conditions, in terms of health and safety at the workplace, improvement of the hours and also the social contribution of the shipping industry to the well-being of the citizens of the two cities in Durban and Fremantle. So that’s broadly what we are looking at. But also now with the mining industry, through the miners unions being involved it also includes mining communities now.

AP: What sort of trade is there between the ports of Durban and Fremantle? Is there a great deal of cargo passing between the two ports?

ZC: Yes, there is a great deal and some of it is the transportation of minerals. That’s why, for example, the miners’ unions are also involved. But it is also generally goods of all sorts including manufactured goods… I am not quite sure of the volumes but there is certainly movement of goods between the two countries and, as I’ve said, even during the apartheid days it used to take place.

Because of the international sanctions campaign South African ships were obviously given a hard time and were isolated as part of the boycotting of South African products. But now we want to turn that around. Now there has been an increase in that movement of goods between the two countries since then. But obviously, only after the dismantling of apartheid we have striven to increase the level of economic cooperation.

AP: What is the other aspect of your visit?

ZC: The other aspect is the question of the struggle against war — the anti-war movement. Part of my coming over here was to assist convening the cooperation between the South African anti-war or peace movement with the one in Australia. Hence, the Victorian Peace Movement has been part of sponsoring my visit here. It is to share ideas around about how do we cooperate globally to make sure that we prevent wars like these aggressive wars by imperialist forces on countries like Iraq and so on. And if those wars do take place, how do we take militant action uniting the broadest possible forces under the leadership of the working class to end such wars and starting towards a peaceful world?

So it is to share ideas around about how to strengthen the anti-war movement here and similarly in South Africa and also the level of cooperation, how we could have cooperated far better than what we did, how in future we can work closer and closer together.

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