The Nordic Africa Institute

John Gomomo

Federation of South African Trade Unions—ANC—South African Communist Party President of the Congress of South African Trade Unions

The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Stockholm, 6 September 1996.

Tor Sellström: As a young industrial worker in the Eastern Cape, were you aware of the support extended by the Nordic countries to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa?

John Gomomo: Yes, I was aware of the involvement by the Nordic countries in our liberation struggle. I was aware of the fact that ANC had built a very strong link with Sweden and that there was an anti-apartheid movement which was close to ANC and to SACTU.
In the trade union movement, we also became close to the Nordic anti-apartheid groups. Whenever we visited Sweden or any other Nordic country we would not go back to South Africa without meeting them to brief them about the developments at home and talk to them about our expectations. We did have some COSATU-affiliated unions that received money from the Nordic countries through SACTU, but we also had direct links with the Nordic trade unions. For example, I am from the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, NUMSA, and there are long-standing relations between NUMSA and the Swedish Metalworkers Union. Also, the South African National Union of Mineworkers,
Liberation in Southern Africa—Regional and Swedish Voices
NUM, have longstanding relations with the Swedes, as well as the clothing and textile and the transport workers’ unions.
When we established COSATU in 1985, we took a resolution that we should not affiliate to any international trade union centre. At that time, there were some who said that we should affiliate to WFTU and others who said that we should affiliate to ICFTU, but we felt that in order to keep our federation united we should not do that. Although we were not affiliated to ICFTU, we had already established close, direct relations with the trade unions in Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands. Our main financial support came from these five countries. But we were under pressure from ICFTU, saying that we were undermining them. Since the trade unions in all these five countries were affiliates of ICFTU, why did they not channel their money to ICFTU and from there to the South African unions? However, we thought that it would put us under serious controls and we did not want that to happen. We thus established bilateral relations and within this relationship we met every year—either abroad or in South Africa—to discuss the budgets for the following year, how we were to run the federation and so on.
The Nordic unions have done super work for us in South Africa and we still maintain that relationship. For example, two weeks ago three delegates from COSATU spent two days in each of these five countries to discuss our future co-operation. We feel that Sweden and the other Nordic countries have played a very important role in helping us to fight for our freedom. This will be enshrined in the history books of our country. However, now is the time to strengthen that link. They helped us morally and financially in the past, but to enable us to get out of the present transition period in South Africa we now need them even more.
The South African trade union movement is suffering from brain-drain, especially in COSATU. We have lost about eighty-eight leaders, excluding administrators, who have left for positions in government and in nongovernmental organizations. Some of the good union leaders left with their administrators and a big gap was created between the leadership and the rank-and-file. Political developments are so fast in South Africa. We need education and, in general, lack the capacity to carry us through the transition period. That is why we need the support of the Nordic unions even more than before.

Tor Sellström: The question of international affiliation must have been a problem. For example, the ICFTU-affiliated Swedish LO/TCO did not recognize the WFTU-affiliated SACTU and the situation was the same in the other Nordic countries. You solved this problem by establishing direct links between the South African and the Nordic unions?

John Gomomo: In March 1995, COSATU had an international policy conference. It was an important conference, because after the 1994 democratic elections we thought that we should look into these matters. We had seen that some of the WFTU-affiliated unions were joining ICFTU. Where were we going? We had a long debate and spent about six hours on this question without coming to a real conclusion, because some of our affiliates—especially the smaller unions—felt threatened that they were going to be pulled by the nose by the bigger unions to join ICFTU. But we were not divided half-and-half. Those who held that position were very few and if we had taken a vote we could have voted for joining ICFTU. However, it has never been the policy of our federation to take such a decision by vote. We would rather discuss, reach consensus and come to a conclusion. So, we decided not to affiliate, but rather to extend links to all international unions, speak to them and get to know even the independent federations to see who could help us to take our struggle forward.
Last month we were invited to the ICFTU conference. I lead the COSATU delegation and managed to bring along all the affiliates that I believe are the ones that are feeling threatened by joining. What was interesting at that conference was that I was able to speak to the international secretariats of their union counterparts, asking them to speak to the South African unions and build up a relationship. After that our unions felt different, telling me that ‘we cannot be isolated’. I said that I did not want to push them and that ‘next year in September there will be a new COSATU congress, where the question of international affiliation also will be an item on the agenda. There you can take it up.’

Tor Sellström: In the mid-1970s, you worked at the Volkswagen factory in Uitenhage. Two Swedish-owned companies—SKF Ball Bearings and Volvo/Lawson Motors—were also based there. How were the conditions at these companies regarding trade union rights, salaries etc.? How was the behaviour of the management?

John Gomomo: In those days, the behaviour of the management at the Swedish-owned companies was no better than that at any of the South African companies. The attitude of the management was clearly the attitude of the government of the day. But, after the visit by the LO/TCO delegation in 1975 we managed to have an exchange between the Swedish trade unions and the workers in South Africa, which was helpful.
Our approach in those days was that if there was a delegation from Sweden or from any other country coming to South Africa, we would invite all shop stewards from the various sectors to come and talk to the delegation and the delegation would respond. I think that the first visit by LO/TCO helped a lot. It even helped shop stewards from other companies to know the inside of SKF and to get a good response from the trade union delegation from Sweden as to how they saw things. After the visit, they went back to talk to their respective managements, saying that they must change things and that they must allow the constitution of free trade unions and so on.
Following that visit we sent a delegation from South Africa to Sweden. I was very new in the trade unions, but I went with the delegation. We flew to Sweden. This was in 1979 and it was my first visit. We came to a hall and the secretary said to me: ‘Before we open this door you must know that there are many people inside’. I said: ‘What are they here for?’ ‘They want to know about South Africa from you’. I said: ‘But I have never talked to an international audience before. What should I say?’. She said: ‘I do not know. Let us open the door’. We opened the door. There was a big gathering inside and I started to explain our situation. People were frowning and you could see them asking themselves: ‘Is it real what he is talking about? Is it true? Can they really be treated that way?’ Well, that helped a lot to build a relationship of solidarity. Later, we sent some shop stewards from SKF South Africa to Sweden to meet the Swedish metalworkers and learn about the company. That broadened their minds and strengthened them to come back to South Africa and speak to the management, challenging them on issues that they believed were unjust.
We went as far as to establish what we called ‘multinational shop stewards’ solidarity’ with German and Swedish companies. They met every second year. The South African shop stewards sent reports to their colleagues in Germany and Sweden about what was happening in the country. Sometimes they would go to Sweden, or people from Sweden would go to South Africa to meet the shop stewards that worked in German and Swedish companies there. We also extended that to American companies in the engineering sector.

Tor Sellström: Did you encounter the same understanding from the Swedish trade unions regarding sanctions against South Africa?

John Gomomo: Well, I must say that of all the countries that supported South Africa by imposing sanctions, Sweden was number one. They even suffered a lot in that process. To give an example: the German companies in South Africa wanted to bypass sanctions and improve their machinery. In return, we then formulated fourteen points, demanding that the German companies that were operating in South Africa should not abide by the apartheid laws. For example, if any of their workers were detained, the companies must ensure that they were kept on the pay-roll until they were being charged. Eventually, that forced the German companies to allow the formation of shop steward councils, taking part in the struggle to pressurize the government.
At the same time, the Swedish companies were also complaining that they—because of sanctions—could not improve their machinery. They were still using their old machines. So, they asked for a code of conduct from ANC and the trade unions in South Africa. It was a hell of a struggle. We had to travel from South Africa to Lusaka to meet ANC and SACTU. Some agreed and some did not agree, but in the end they would not establish such a code. At the time of the unbanning of ANC and SACP in 1990, we were still battling. If you looked at the machines at the SKF factory they were all old, because the company could not replace them. The Swedes suffered from that. But they stuck to their guns. I praise the Swedes for all what they have done. Others tried to manoeuvre, but the Swedes did not.

Tor Sellström: Swedish trade union support to South Africa was mainly oriented towards organization, education and legal aid. In your opinion, what aspects of the support were particularly important for the building of the South African trade union movement?

John Gomomo: The Swedes pushed the players in the country to agree that there should be paid time for the training of shop stewards and workers. If the trade union wanted to take out some shop stewards for training—for example, twice or four times a year—that should be paid by the company. That set a precedent and allowed us to push other companies to follow suit, which was great. Their sanctions’ campaign was also really outstanding. I do not need to comment further on that.
Another important point regarded the so-called human resources structure, which was key to the running of the plants. A manager in this structure was the key person to us in South Africa, because he was dealing with labour and nothing else. He could either take the road of Sweden or the road of South Africa. When the shop stewards at a Swedish company raised the problem with us we contacted the Swedes about the attitude of that person. The Swedes immediately intervened and said: ‘Either you toe the line or you get out and we put somebody else there.’ This matter was even discussed in Sweden. We sent the chairperson of the shop stewards to go and discuss it. The person in question was changed and they brought in a new manager.

Tor Sellström: Due to the prevailing circumstances, the assistance was extended in a covert manner. Do you think that the South African workers knew that they were supported by the trade unions in Sweden and the other Nordic countries? Could you inform them about the support?

John Gomomo: If we had mentioned the details of the support in a general trade union meeting it would have leaked to the security of the government. Even if I had come to Sweden to collect money I would not have taken it with me, because I would have been searched like hell at the airport upon arrival in South Africa. Instead, we would say: ‘Can you please send the money through the Swedish embassy. We will change it into South African currency and put it into our account.’
But what we did was the following: when we were giving our financial reports to the members, we would go to the screen and say: ‘This is the yearly contribution from the workers and this is the expenditure. This is what is left over and this is the money that we have spent.’ Now, the question would then come up: ‘Where do you get the money from?’ We would say: ‘We get it from our counterparts’— the international trade unions—but we would not go into details. We would say that we got the money from our counterparts in the Nordic countries, supporting our struggle. Now, any worker had the right to come to our office and get the details, but we could not divulge them in public. That was how we used to do it. So, the workers knew that we were getting money from the Nordic countries.

Tor Sellström: Did you experience that the support was given with political conditions attached to it? If so, what were the conditions?

John Gomomo: The labour movement in South Africa was very divided in those days. There were some who said that it was clear that the money came from political organizations to influence our members, arguing that if you are receiving funds you are going to be influenced in this or that direction. But in all our contacts with the Swedes and the Germans it was made clear that they could not interfere with our politics. What they wanted, however, was accountability. Even if it was stipulated what the money was going to be used for, you had to report back what you had done with it. But they would not say to us that we had to go in this or that direction. There was no such condition attached.