Originally appeared in Inqaba Ya Basebenzi No. 24-25 (October 1987).

Uwusa [United Workers Union of South Africa] was launched by Buthelezi’s Inkatha in May 1986. It is not a union. It is not even a “tribally-based union”. It is an armed gang created for no other purpose than to break strikes and unions. For all its claims of more than 100,000 worker “members”, Uwusa has not led a single strike since its foundation.

Uwusa is part of the organised counter-revolutionary apparatus of the bosses. Unable to defeat, penetrate, or divide the workers’ movement with its white forces of repression alone, the ruling class is increasingly compelled to unleash auxiliary forces of reaction in the form of black vigilante murder squads – both in the townships and the workplaces.

Of these forces, Inkatha is the most formidable, because of the political base that vigilante-in-chief Gatsha Buthelezi has built in Zululand through fear and appeals to conservative tribal prejudices. Uwusa is the arm of the reactionary Inkatha gangster clique extended into the workplaces.

Over the last period, vigilantes have engulfed township after township, with the support of the police and the army. The ravages of the witdoeke in Crossroads in May-June 1986 were a grim warning of the extent to which the use of vigilantes had become an open and conscious part of the policies of the ruling class. Since then, civil war has raged in Natal, and the vigilantes have penetrated even strongholds of our movement in the Eastern Cape and elsewhere.

Hundreds of activists have been murdered, with scarcely an official prosecution coming to court – while workers and youth accused of “necklacing” collaborators are rushed by the state to judgment and to execution.

The assault of Uwusa vigilantes on the NUM at Hlobane Colliery in Natal in May 1986 was the counterpart of Crossroads for the trade union movement. At least eleven and possibly twenty NUM activists were murdered; a strike was broken; and the NUM was smashed at the mine. In December Inkatha impis, led by their national youth organiser and backed by KwaZulu police, invaded Mphophomeni en masse to attack BTR strikers; three shop stewards were abducted, tortured, and murdered. Uwusa has since been invited by BTR management to “unionise” the scabs.

This was the start of a murderous offensive by Uwusa in factories and mines of Natal, the East Rand, and the Eastern Transvaal. Among the casualties have been worker-activists at Zincor refinery, and an NUM organiser murdered in his office at Coronation Colliery in Vryheid by a group of men who mashed his brains with a section of piping filled with lead.

The liberal capitalists are promoting Buthelezi, Inkatha and Uwusa with the conscious purpose of dividing and defeating the revolutionary workers’ movement. Gavin Relly, head of Anglo American, put it in a nutshell: “You can’t expect us to run away from the one black leader who says exactly what we think. I’ve been told that Buthelezi plays a rough game in Natal. But SA is not for the fainthearted.”[1]

Workers and youth everywhere need to discuss how to challenge and defeat Uwusa’s penetration of the workplaces, and vigilantes everywhere. For activists especially it is a matter of life and death. To work-out and put forward a clear national strategy to defeat Inkatha, Uwusa and all vigilantes is an urgent task for the leadership of Cosatu, the UDF and the ANC.

Supporters of the Marxist Workers Tendency of the ANC put forward the following points for consideration, based on experience.

Morale, Organisation and Armed Self-defence

Uwusa’s infiltration of workplaces tends to follow a general pattern. Management hire Zulu workers from Uwusa. They arrive at the factory and begin to split the workers on ethnic lines, instituting a propaganda campaign against the leaders of the Cosatu union. Then at some stage the leaders of the Uwusa gang get arms and murder several of the union activists. This takes place either to try directly to bring a strike to an end by eliminating its leaders or, more generally, to try to induce a state of paralysis amongst the workers and establish Uwusa as the main union.

The starting-point in the fightback against Uwusa is recognition of the central factor favouring the workers – their elemental power when organised collectively. Uwusa thugs seldom arrive at a factory or mine with a majority of the workers on their side. In fact Uwusa killings are generally carried-out by small bands of armed men, five or six in number.

In the first stages of battle there is therefore a decisive social weight in favour of the organised trade union. But this will not last for long if mistakes in tactics are made when the Uwusa scum set to work. Their tactic is not to take on the mass of the workers but to have them stand aside so that they can deal with the union activists separately. They will say to the bulk of the workers: “Our quarrel is not with you – it is with these ANC communists who are your leaders.”

Thus in the early stages of defence against an Uwusa assault a key element is binding the workers together, in unity, as a force. We would suggest that any factory where Uwusa arrives should have a mass meeting of workers to explain the issues, raise worker morale and put forward a plan of action.

This plan of action has to have, as its main components: the organisation of the workers’ use of their collective power, and preparations for armed self-defence.

Where Uwusa attacks, these elements have to be put into operation swiftly and resolutely.

For Organised Defence Committees

Immediately some form of self-defence committees must be established not only at the workplace but also where the workers live. If the workers live in hostels near to the place of work this is especially important since this will be where they are most likely to be attacked. A complete security system is necessary including day- and night-patrols of the living area because in these struggles management-employed security will most often operate in the interests of Uwusa.

Defence can be organised on the basis of groups of ten or twenty workers, each with a team leader. These leaders, or some among them, should meet in a central defence committee to discuss strategy and tactics.

The first task of the defence committee is to organise a warning system which mobilises all the workers to come out together to meet an attack. A mass of three-hundred workers is a considerable force for a group of Uwusa scum to take on, even if they are armed. It cannot be emphasised enough that this collective organisation of the mass of the workers is a key. The same will apply in township battles with the vigilantes.

It might happen, for example, that Uwusa launches an initial attack in a band of ten or eleven, and kills two or three union activists before workers are prepared for it. The next morning four shop stewards are in the hostel area and see two Uwusa thugs. What should they do?

The immediate response might well be “We are four, they are two, let’s get the bastards”. There may be instances where that would be correct. But it is dangerous to look for short-cuts or ways of defeating Uwusa through heroic actions of individual workers. We must concentrate on the key thing. Better for the shop stewards to prepare for battle, mobilise, and organise the workers, build their confidence and then from a position of strength deal a crushing blow to Uwusa.

This approach is in no way a shrinking from armed conflict. To achieve success, workers need to strike hard at the decisive moment from a position of strength, not lash out in desperation like a wounded animal.

Arming for Self-defence

Once defence committees are in operation, much can actually be done with rudimentary weapons to transform seemingly defenceless workers into a formidable fighting force.

In this respect workers can learn from the battles of the township youth. Basic stiff-arm metal slings can be purchased from dealers for around R5 or R6. Or they can be made. Twenty people armed with such slings firing ball bearings or old spark plugs or pieces of metal waste can wreak a lot of damage on any band of assailants. That and detachments armed with pangas, kieries and bricks will in action make these Uwusa murderers think twice.

This is not to underestimate the advantages of the fire-power that they will have on their side. So, if it is possible some firearms should be procured. A proper system for their hiding and use should be devised. We know of hostel areas searched for arms by security forces in the day before an Uwusa attack was launched.

The Uwusa scum are expecting to inflict the blows, not receive them. The first casualties they suffer have a big effect on the morale of the rest of them. They begin to wonder whether acting as killers on behalf of the bosses is worth the price they may have to pay.

To Cosatu Locals and SAYCO for Support

Wherever Uwusa appears our defence plans should include immediate attempts to mobilise other workers and youth in the local area and regionally. If Uwusa becomes established in one workplace, the bosses can bring it into the next. Urgent approaches should be made to shop stewards in the Cosatu locals as well as to the SAYCO branches to engage jointly in organising armed self-defence. There should be a thorough campaign of political education and propaganda against Uwusa directed to every workplace in the area.

Strike Back Against the Bosses

It is the bosses who bring Uwusa to attack the union and in one way or another are responsible for arming them. Strike action is thus a key element in the armoury.

But the arrival of Uwusa is not necessarily the occasion for immediate action on these lines. Often the bosses may welcome a strike at this point, or try to provoke it, to provide grounds for mass dismissals and mass hiring of Uwusa scabs. Nevertheless preparation of a strike is a vital element in strategy.

The ground has to be prepared politically and organisationally. Special efforts should be made to patiently explain the issues to Zulu workers and win them over. Not all of them are cannon fodder for Uwusa. We know of cases where Zulu workers hired to boost the numbers of Uwusa have been won to the Cosatu union and been the bravest fighters in the struggle to defend it!

To win such workers it is necessary to emphasise again and again the importance of unity in action within Cosatu in struggle over all the problems common to workers. A vigorous national campaign for a definite living wage would have a powerful impact in winning away potential recruits from Uwusa.

Efforts should also be made to win the support of company security guards for the union.

The bosses generally are responsible for the attacks of Uwusa. To stop them, ultimately we will have to overthrow them. But even now there are measures of self-defence that could be taken against individual bosses who are clearly seen by the workers to be directly involved in organising Uwusa attacks. They should realise that they cannot do this with impunity. If they unleash violence against us, ways can be found of showing them that they are standing at a door which can swing in both directions.

Remember Uwusa Always Comes Back

One further warning is necessary. Seldom is victory what it seems. Uwusa have powerful resources and backers and will not readily accept their first repulse. Usually they will be back for more within weeks. This is why vigilance is necessary and the maintenance of the defence committees essential long after Uwusa seem to be vanquished.

Organised defence, worker action or legal action?

While our strategy must base itself on the power of organised workers, legal action can be used as an auxiliary. While not propagating any illusions in what the bosses courts’ can do for us, we can try to make use of them where possible.

However recourse to the courts should never be presented as the main course of action open to unions against Uwusa attacks and murders.

Time and time again there has been resort to legal action in the courts, for instance by the leaders of NUM, as an alternative to the active building of armed defence committees. This legal strategy has not worked. Court orders have been issued in favour of NUM restricting the action of Uwusa, and still the carnage goes on.

Could a court order have saved the brave leaders of the Sarmcol workers butchered by an Inkatha mob? Did affidavits save the NUM organiser at Coronation Colliery? Did they save the activists murdered at Zincor? The answer is no, one thousand times no!

For a National Campaign Against Uwusa!

If this strategy for fighting Uwusa was carried forward in a vigorous national campaign led by Cosatu then, in our opinion, in a relatively short period of time this mob of gangsters would be a thing of the past. Literally the grip of Uwusa could be broken in a matter of weeks, not months.

Uwusa’s claimed “membership” is nothing compared with the organised force of Cosatu – with more than 700,000 in its ranks and a capability of mobilising millions.

Even a sharp propaganda campaign against Uwusa, which left the organisation of defence to workers locally, would have an enormous effect on the ranks of workers, organised and unorganised.

The more the bosses see that attacks by their Uwusa and other vigilante thugs are leading to widespread arming of the workers in self-defence, the more they will hesitate, and the momentum of the whole vigilante movement can be paralysed.

In all battles it helps to call things by their real name. The present policy of the leaders of Cosatu is not to brand Uwusa as a strike-breaking murder squad, but rather to dignify it as a “tribally-based union”. This softness and hesitation on Inkatha and Uwusa is a recipe for disaster. Venomous snakes do not become harmless worms because they are referred to as such – on the contrary, they are made bolder by conciliation, which also disarms workers in the face of these assaults.

Zincor Shows the Way

The three biggest confrontations so far between Uwusa and Cosatu, according to the labour correspondent of Business Day[2] have been at Hlobane colliery, Jabula Foods and Zincor zinc refinery in Springs.

From the limited information now available it seems that the workers at Zincor achieved a significant victory, while at Hlobane and Jabula the problem with Uwusa has continued. It appears also that at Zincor a number of the tactics outlined above were applied in one way or another which resulted in victory.

Tribute to Fallen Comrades

At this point we would like to pay tribute to all our brave comrades who have fallen prey to the murderous assaults of the vigilantes in township and factory.

But tears and mourning are not enough. We have to organise. We have to fight back with all our strength. These ideas, the ideas of Marxism, of class struggle, of preparing for a fight to the finish, are the only strategy for victory in our struggle.

© Transcribed from the original by the Marxist Workers Party (2020).

Continue to Part Three

[1] Business Day, 2 May 1986

[2] 30 April 1987