Above a faded couch in Moses Mkhondo’s makeshift home hangs a framed tableau of the perfect South African village. The collage was assembled by Mkhondo himself, back when he made a living driving trucks filled with Coca-Cola to spaza shops and taverns and corner cafes throughout Johannesburg’s East Rand. The collage is meant to represent Mkhondo’s ideal world: a bustling middle-class town, centred around a Coca-Cola depot from which great trucks ply the roads, dispensing bottled joy to a booming country.
For 30 years, Mkhondo could pretend to himself that he lived in this world. In early 2014 he was forced to stop pretending.
Long before he understood that he’d been outsourced, Moses Mkhondo was one of Coca-Cola’s star drivers, a model employee who won prizes and was sent on an international trip for exceeding his performance targets. Born in Alexandra in 1959, he began his career in 1984 as a crewman at Amalgamated Beverage Industries (ABI), South Africa’s largest bottler of Coca-Cola and other major soft drink brands.
Twenty years later, Mkhondo became an exemplar of an affirmative action policy that made local and international headlines—a black economic empowerment (BEE) initiative that would, for better or for worse, come to define the future of work in the New South Africa. ABI, along with the company that would come to fully own it, the beer giant SABMiller plc, dubbed the programme “owner-driver” (OD), and its intention was to transform one-time employees into prosperous, independent businessmen. OD helped earn the companies a host of social responsibility awards, and burnished their ironclad reputations as the Rainbow Nation’s most upstanding corporate citizens.
Today, however, Moses Mkhondo lives in a hastily built home on the fringes of Heidelberg, not merely broke but catastrophically in debt. He, his family, and the thousands of South Africans caught in the OD scheme’s steady implosion are trying to make sense of what went so wrong. Andries Nkome, the attorney that represented Lonmin miners after the 2012 Marikana Massacre, is now assisting 150 former owner-drivers in their bid to sue ABI and SABMiller for losses amounting to over R6 billion. They are facing off against a vast corporate entity that is soon to become even bigger—if the single largest acquisition in the history of the London Stock Exchange passes regulatory muster, in 2016 SABMiller will join Anheuser-Busch InBev at their headquarters in Belgium, as part of a $350 billion multinational with a 29 percent market share of the planet’s beer consumption.
On trial is not just SABMiller’s local record as an engine of empowerment, but the very concept of outsourcing and casualisation in a country with enormous and unsustainable divisions between rich and poor. Those pursuing the matter intend it to be a landmark case, a precedent-setter that helps redefine the nature of work in South Africa. And this may only be the beginning—Nkome has initiated proceedings that, if successful, will prove that SABMiller’s vaunted BEE brainchild was, in the words of Shaun Dlanjwa, an Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) ward secretary and the liaison between former drivers and their legal representatives, “less a scheme than a scam.”
“Make no mistake, this case is huge,” said Dlanjwa. “You watch. It’s going to be bigger than Marikana.”