On November 22nd, 5,000 workers from various facilities and distribution centers belonging to the dairy company Clover were swept by a powerful strike that could have brought about economic paralysis, although this would not come to pass.
By Cesar Neto of CSP – Conlutas
Translated by Carlos Sapir
The strike had many special characteristics: it occurred at a company that is not nationalized, which had been acquired by a company that bottles Coca-Cola products in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel. The strike was called against cuts that would reduce the workers’ conditions to ones resembling slavery, and the union leadership transitioned the struggle from being a struggle for better wages to a struggle for the nationalization of the industry under workers’ control. The Ramaphosa government, a coalition of the ANC-COSATO-CPSA, is opposed to nationalization, but there is a major solidarity campaign supporting the strike.
Let’s learn more about this story
- Clover: origins and current ownership
Clover was founded in South Africa in 1898, exports products to 10 countries, and has subsidiaries in three more. In 2019, as part of the process of privatization of the South African economy, Clover was sold to the Israeli company Central Bottling Company (CBC).
CBC, a bottler for Coca-Cola, counts the siblings David and Drorit Wertheim among its principal shareholders. According to Forbes, they are among the richest people in the world: David is in the top 1000, and Drorit is within the top 2000. In addition to owning much of the CBC, they are majority shareholders of Bank Mizrahi-Tehafot, the third largest Israeli bank in occupied Palestine.
- CBC produces Coca-Cola in the occupied Palestinian territories
The Central Bottling Company can be considered one of the largest Coca-Cola bottlers in the world, but this is only part of the story. The CBC owns factories for this most famous of soda companies in the illegal Israeli settlement of Atarot: in other words, the production is carried out on land stolen from Palestinians with extreme violence, murder, rape, expulsions, the destruction of villages, and genocide. Beyond producing Coca-Cola products on land stolen from Palestinians, the CBC also has a subsidiary, the Tabor Winery, which uses land in the occupied Syrian territory of the Golan Heights.
From the moment that Clover was privatized and sold in 2019, the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (GIWUSA) presented demands to the Competition Tribunal (an independent defense tribunal established in 1998 that also takes up cases of economic competition), opposing the privatization of the company, particularly because of the fact that CBC manufactures products in the occupied Palestinian territories and thus is part of the Apartheid system that oppresses the Palestinian people.
Visual from the solidarity campaign organized by Friends of Al-Aqsa
“Sadly, [the court] rejected the union’s demands and held that the matter was outside its jurisdiction,” said the Palestinian Solidarity Alliance. “We condemn this flagrant display of apathy by the court with respect to a topic of great moral importance. International economic pressure was a critical part of ending Apartheid in South Africa. If our legislators were to act with moral integrity, such measures would be fundamental for ending Apartheid in Palestine as well.”
- Strike against slavelike conditions
When Clover was sold, the buyers took out $6.61 million USD in loans. Two years later, in order to pay off this debt, the business tried to reduce its salary expenses by $18.53 million USD. The CBC tried to impose massive cuts on workers’ living conditions, including a wage increase lower than inflation, two extra hours tacked on to the workday, six working days a week, and staff reductions for delivery trucks resulting in the laying off of 350 workers.
- The CBC’s strategy for importing dairy products and converting production facilities into storage depots
The process of de-industrialization in South Africa has deepened over the past few years. The most symbolic case was that of food and grain production, which suffered a steep decline thanks to imports facilitated by neoliberal policies and free-trade agreements, especially with other countries in BRICS.
For the unions that represent the Clover workers, there are strong signs that the company is hoping to close factories and import dairy products from factories in occupied Palestine.
- Repression, Israeli style
When Clover’s two Zionist owners realized that they were losing control of the situation, they did what they knew best: the violent imposition of their authority by hiring armed guards.
A massive contingent of private security guards were deployed at the entrances of Clover facilities in Contantia Kloof, Roodepoort, a suburb of Johannesburg on Thursday, December 2nd. Dressed in riot gear, the armed guards took positions to block protesters. Two black vehicles with tinted windows were parked side by side in view of the facility entrance.
“BUYING ISRAELI GOODS…IS FUNDING APARTHEID” by Carlos Latuff. Hebrew text reads “Police”
“The weapons are for protection in case something goes wrong, but we do not intend to use them,” said one plainclothes security official carrying a rifle.
The day began with intimidation, but when buses of red-clad union workers began to arrive, with men and women dancing and singing fight songs in the South African tradition, the Zionists retreated.
- Solidarity and BDS: Public action
No struggle can be victorious for as long as we fight alone. We need allies. The workers at Clover learned this important lesson quite quickly. On January 8, hundreds of workers rallied in Johannesburg and Cape Town in a solidarity action with Clover workers.
Among the unions present were the GIWUSA and FAWU (Food and Allied Workers Union), and a very special ally: Palestinian solidarity organizations, specifically the Palestine Solidarity Alliance and BDS. Additionally, other organizations such as WASP, Media Review Network, One Voice Of All Hawkers Association were present, among others.
- Nationalization and workers’ control
The Secretary General of the GIWUSA, John Appolis, confirms that the CBC is “using the South African market only to make a quick short term profit and to import their own products into South Africa”. The current inter-African free trade agreements and the construction of infrastructure for the transportation of goods across the continent are turning South Africa into an important trading post for CBC and reducing the value of its local production.
According to the president of the GIWUSA, Mametlwe Sebei, “since the sale and privatization of Clover in 2019, production capacity is being destroyed in order to secure the South African market for Israeli imports.”
In the privatization deal signed by the South African state’s regulatory bodies, there was to be a moratorium of three years, ending in October 2022, during which mass layoffs were to be prohibited, and the development of new jobs was to be guaranteed. Even with this provision, 800 workers have had to accept “voluntary” dismissals.
Clover workers on strike holding placards supporting the Palestinian struggle |Photo: Giwusa
But Sebei says that “there was nothing voluntary about it, because of the changes in working conditions that have included the transfer of worksites to locations hundreds of kilometers from their homes in the interior to coastal cities, where they cannot live off of the salary that they earn,” concluding that “the company is closing its offices in the interior and moving them to zonal regions like Durban, a metropolis. The rural workers live in tribal territories with communal property that they can access free of charge. In Durban, you can’t even buy a hut for less than R$1000 ($61 USD), a price that they can’t afford. Thus, these workers have been forced to accept the so-called VSPs”.
Workers, and the unions that represent them, have reached the conclusion that the government needs to renationalize Clover in order to keep the business from becoming a distribution agency for Israeli dairy products. But, according to the union leaders, nationalization is not enough. The company needs to be taken over by the state and controlled democratically by its workers.
Sebei notes the many cases of layoffs in state businesses and suggests that “control and management of the industry following nationalization needs to be assigned to workers who are prepared to operate it as a cooperative, and not left in the hands of government bureaucrats.”
- ANC and CPSA on the other side of the picket line
Knowing that CBC is based in the occupied Palestinian territories and supports Israeli apartheid in Palestine, any reasonable person would expect Cyril Ramaphosa, who fought alongside Nelson Mandela in the struggle against South African Apartheid, to be unconditionally on the side of the South African workers against the Zionists. Given his resumé, one would also expect support from the Minister of Commerce, Industry and Competition, Ebrahim Patel, a former leader of a textile workers union.
But workers are discovering day by day the true role of the ANC government. In a letter calling for support and solidarity, the strikers confirm that “The ANC government welcomed the take-over of Clover by Milco SA and turned a blind eye to the violation of international law by CBC with its operation in the occupied territories of Palestine. We are not surprised by this as the ANC government has been the active agent for both national and international capital. With its neo-liberal policies the ANC government placed the interests of capital at the centre of the development of the country. Instead of development and advancement of the lives of the masses, we have seen and experienced the entrenchment of the positions and wealth of the old-apartheid ruling class. Black cheap labour is still the foundation of South African capitalism and the ANC government is the facilitator of the supply of black cheap labour.”
The ruling coalition of South Africa, comprising the ANC, COSATU and the CPSA, have done everything they could as a government to avoid intervening in this conflict. But this is not just any conflict, this is a conflict between foreign Zionists, defenders of apartheid, against Palestinians, and they are now attacking South African workers as well.
Since the beginning of the strike, the strikers have tried to make contact with the ANC-COSATU-CPSA government and have come away empty-handed. On January 14, nearly two months after the start of the strike, the provincial secretary of GIWUSA in West Cape, Abeedah Adams, said that they have been trying to contact the minister of Commerce and Industry, but without success. “EP [Ebrahim Patel] has been missing since December and has avoided meeting with us. Our demands are clear and we want Clover to be nationalized under worker and community control. We are asking for the unconditional reinstatement of all laid-off workers. We do not want to work under the austerity measure of a 20% pay cut. The workers are already earning slave-wages. We also know that Milco/CBC has supported the Israeli Defense Forces.”
ALL SOLIDARITY WITH THE CLOVER WORKERS’ STRUGGLE
The alliance between the unions GIWUSA, FAWU, the central union SAFTU, and the Palestinian organizations BDS and Palestine Solidarity Alliance, have already organized significant actions in Johannesburg and Cape Town, in addition to demonstrations in front of the Israeli Embassy.
On January 25, these organizations will put together solidarity actions with the South African workers, and also in support of the Palestinians’ struggle against the occupation of their land, especially the land held by Coca-Cola in Israel, Clover’s benefactor.
In struggle and solidarity