Kally Forrest tells a lengthy story of metal workers: “These soldiers of metal unions freely shared with me their experiences, struggles, sufferings, victories, jubilations, thoughts and analyses of the unions’ role in the period they participated in,” she says. “Their narratives and observations were astute and at times inspirational, even when it was painful for them to revisit such memories.”
For personal reasons I have always searched for knowledge and understanding on the significance of the 80s within the broader SA socio-political and economic struggle. Being born in that era, I hold that the events of that time have a fundamental expression in my everyday outlook on life and thus Kally Forrest’s “Metal that will not bend” was a welcome read.
Focusing on the evolution of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), the book traces the historical moments that defined the workers’ rights struggle in SA, almost making a mockery of those who are today calling for the repeal of labour laws.
In penetrating the institutional memory of black labour, Forrest touches a raw nerve as she demonstrates how the corporate SA accumulated superprofits on the abuse of black labour and its collaboration with the apartheid government, which is a subject some deem a taboo in contemporary SA.
She exposes the similarities between the tactics that were applied by business to quash workers’ organisations and the strategies used by business today to avoid workers organizing in the workplace, providing key answers to the challenges facing SA today.
Writing for Business Day, Itumeleng Mahabane verifies the relevance of “Metal that will not bend” when he notes that “context is everything and yet, in SA, the context that arises from the legacy of our past is too often disregarded…Yet an obdurate refusal to consider how that past shapes the present makes us blind to the pitfalls that are otherwise avoidable.”
Forrest does not spare the rod either, as she criticizes the union for neglecting migrant workers – who were at one point instrumental in building union power. She argues that the negligence created a vacuum between migrant workers and the communities, resulting in a fertile ground for the civil war between Inkatha-led hostel dwellers and residents in the early 90s.
A significant expression of Numsa’s political philosophy is captured in its attempts to influence the ANC government policy post ’94, particularly with the initial conception and drafting of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), which was nonetheless watered down by the ruling party in its adoption.
For those interested in the theory of unionism the final chapter provides different strands of thought that shaped labour movements globally. These include Robert Michels, Richard Lester, Colin Crouch, Charles and many more.
Zwelinzima Vavi of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) describes Forrest’s work as “a lesson from pioneers who forged the weapons of today.”
Kally Forrest is the former editor of the South African Labour Bulletin.
Win a copy of “Metal that will not bend” signed by Numsa president Cedric Gina. To enter, please answer the following question:
Who is the author of “Metal that will not bend”?
Email the answer to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Entries close on Thursday 29 September 2011. NB: this book giveaway is a personal initiative of the writer and has no legal bearing on Avusa Media or any of its associated partners.