By Richard Poplak, Diana Neille, Sumeya Gasa and Shaun Swingler. Illustrations by Moses Mkhondo

5 The Movement

Thabo Tsolos’ house is a fading middle class property in a fading middle class neighbourhood in an old part of Johannesburg, with views of the same mine-dumps around which South African Breweries was born. On a Sunday in late November, Tsolo’s outdoor carport was transformed into a command centre. The Tsolo residence served as the unofficial headquarters of a movement called Golekane! (Tagline: Enuff is Enuff!) Inaugurated by Seipati Tsolo, Thabo’s wife, in 2012, Golekane! included at least 140 former ODs, the widows of eight deceased drivers, seven current contractors, and sundry lawyers and politicians. It’s one of innumerable hashtag-free, self-generated special interest groups that assemble in communities across South Africa every weekend. Democracy at work; revolution by a thousand cuts; epic whinge-fest: call it what you like, but Golekane! was formed to wrestle back a measure of the agency that was lost—Seipati would say stolen—when Thabo Tsolo signed that contract back in 2009.

This, then, is the logical endpoint of the 28-year-old empowerment programme initiated by a beer monopoly during the apartheid regime’s death rattle. Where in the old days ABI depots were the centre of drivers’ social and political lives, one of the OD scheme’s more obvious objectives—crushing the ability to organise—put an end to all of that. Seipati Tsolo’s collective emerged to fill the vacuum. The movement is occasionally riven by the squabbling characteristic of any group comprised of more than two people, but for the most part it’s a driver-led, driver-organised response to what its members believe were the injustices perpetrated by ABI and the half a dozen name-brand corporations that assisted them in instituting and maintaining what Golakane! allege was a fraudulent BEE scheme.

In the shade of the carport, beneath a baking sheet of corrugated iron, a rangy young man named Shaun Dlanjwa spat out preacher’s cadences to about 70 rapt Golekan-ites. “ABI, SABMiller—these people hate us,” said Dlanjwa. “So why do we romanticise them? The battle is about to begin, and we’re not going to rest until we defeat them.” As an EFF ward secretary and the intermediary between Golekane! and their legal representatives, he was there to bring members up to date on the court proceedings, while simultaneously campaigning for Julius Malema.

He needn’t have bothered with the latter item. Here, the EFF was an easy sell: almost everyone present was a member.

Photo Members of Golekane! prepare to march at an anti-corruption rally in downtown Johannesburg in September 2015. Their banner reads, "SABMiller/ABI Killer: down with BEE lies, owner-driver scam." Photo credit: Shaun Swingler.

Most of the legal experts consulted for this investigation believe that Andries Nkome is facing a tough battle against ABI in the Gauteng High Court. In late 2014, the Labour Appeal Court dismissed a case in which 20 owner-drivers sued UTi SA for the same reasons the Golekane! ODs are suing ABI—they believed that their contracts bound UTi to South African labour legislation. What’s more, although the R6.3 billion former ABI drivers are demanding is derived from a comparison between their pay and that of drivers at Coca-Cola bottlers Shanduka, the numbers can seem like something of a thumb suck, and a court may regard their claim skeptically.

Nkome and his EFF backers, however, are betting on the fact that the “Thabo Tsolo and others vs. ABI” will go all the way to the constitutional court, where gallons of political elixir will be wrung out of it. As Stuart Wilson put it, “Where you can show that a contract unfairly infringes a constitutional or statutory right, you may be able to demonstrate that the contract was invalid. Or that you shouldn’t at least be held to the most oppressive parts of it. And, then you can attack the particular clauses of the contract which are inconsistent with labour law.”

Regardless of how the case plays out, Golekane’s demands land squarely within the political zeitgeist. #FeesMustFall, #RhodesMustFall and other such movements were able to link students’ issues—fee hikes, the removal of archaic colonial iconography, the slow pace of transformation—to the outsourcing of menial labour on university campuses. This student/worker solidarity harkened back to the immense labour disruptions of the 1980s, stoppages that contributed to the felling of the previous regime. Shaun Dlanjwa, pronking his way around the Tsolo carport, made these links as explicit as he possibly could.

“What happened to the old consumer boycotts of the 80s?” he asked “Why don’t we do those anymore?” Later, in the cool of the Tsolo living room, he explained further. “[The EFF] is going to assist them to boycott all the products of Coca-Cola in South Africa. We already have support in Soweto. There will be no truck of Coca-Cola that will be going into Soweto at the end of the year. And not just in Gauteng. We want to do it across the country this festive season.”

Former owner-driver Mpho Lebogo warns SABMiller and ABI about the potential consequences of the changes to their B-BBEE scheme.

The way Golekane! and their allies see it, the court action and the consumer boycott are part of a multi-pronged attack. Should the court case end in a settlement—well, fabulous. But Golekane!, by design or by accident, is now part of a much wider call for economic transformation: an end to outsourcing, an end to labour brokering, and a return to the letter of the constitution’s labour legislation. And there are consolation prizes that may end up being bigger than the first: terminating any hope of a rubber-stamped union between SABMiller and AB InBev, and helping to kill off 350-years of European-based corporate exploitation gussied up in the rhetoric of civilisation and benevolence.

***

This approach comes with certain dangers.

A fragmented beverage market would not necessarily benefit South African workers—small firms are often just as exploitative, if not more so, than big multinationals. And from an investment perspective, the wonks in the wood-panelled equity firms already consider South Africa to be in a chaotic spiral dive. The mining sector is in disarray, the manufacturing sector is evaporating, state-owned companies like Eskom and South African Airways are the epitome of dysfunction, while government, the federated unions and the private sector—all effectively in cahoots—value short term plunder over long term gain. In this milieu, SABMiller’s leverage is the stability they provide large institutional investors like the government pension plan Public Investment Corporation (PIC), the 10,000 or so jobs they provide work-starved South Africans, the tens of millions of Rands they “invest” into “the democratic process” across the ideological spectrum, the tens of millions more they pump into sports and other social programmes, the billions they pay SARS at the end of every Q4, and the promise of comfortable board posts for celebrity politicians at the end of it all.

No question: SABMiller is important. But that hardly matters anymore. In the past several years, the country’s ideological colour wheel has spun from pinkish to deep red, and calls for genuine economic transformation have dominated the national conversation. A radical left has emerged as the most potent political voice, and they will indubitably nudge the economy toward the shoals of nationalisation. For big corporates like SABMiller, this may prove disastrous. For the man on the street—who knows?

One thing is certain: every movement needs a symbol, and former owner-drivers and their backers believe that they have one at the ready. The story is gorgeously simple: Owner-drivers like Moses Mkhondo and Thabo Tsolo were asked to resign from their jobs, promised a bump in pay, cajoled into signing absurdly unfair contracts, exploited to the bottom of their bank loans, and then allegedly terminated without cause.

ABI’s response at the point of crisis? “For the last two years we’ve been engaging with the ex-owner drivers who were not happy with being terminated,” said Tshidi Ramogase. “We’ve been meeting with them to understand what happened, why were their contracts terminated. The scheme itself has had bad publicity and we’ve had to look back and say, ‘Is it really that bad?’ And we get to the same answer all the time. It is good for us and we do see the benefit daily. Ja, maybe things can be improved. But today as we speak, we believe there’s more win for both partners than there are any big negatives.”

The owner-drivers were once ABI’s favourite public relations mascots. It appears that they’re about to reverse the narrative, and become mascots for a very different cause with a very different outcome.

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There is, however, one last element to parse. Why would ABI and SABMiller send their drivers over the edge of the abyss? If every last OD in South Africa ended up swinging from his belt with a crumpled SARS bill in hand, where would the punters source their Coke Zeroes and their Castle Lites?

Mike Melnick answered this question with what appeared to be genuine bafflement. “ABI do care because they don’t want their programme to fold. If the guy runs his business so poorly that he eventually has his truck repossessed because he hasn’t been paying his VAT and SARS, they stand to compromise their delivery schedule. I don’t think anyone’s going to go into this process with the idea of, well, let’s see how these guys are going to fail. I mean that would be crazy. Why even do it in the first place?”

Yet they did do it. OD, for all its long-term bluster, was the ultimate in myopic, short-term corporate cannibalism: it hardly benefited SABMiller’s shareholders if the company they owned ended up contributing to the destruction of the South African middle class—the very consumers the company needed to maintain shareholder value? But there is a measure of sense in the madness. Andrew Levy, a South African labour relations expert and founder of Andrew Levy Employment, puts it this way: “Generally speaking, SA employers do not wish to employ. They don’t have an appetite for employment because they perceive labour law as being hostile. So any time they have a choice between [hoarding] capital and employing, they’ll go with hoarding capital.” Added the competition lawyer who spoke on condition of anonymity: “It’s a three-way strategy. Crush the competition, squeeze everybody’s margins—which includes your taverners and your owner-drivers—and raise the price to the consumer as high as you can according to their willingness to pay. It’s not rocket science. But you can only do it if people have no alternatives. If there’s nothing else to distribute, drivers have got no alternatives. If there’s nothing else to sell, taverns have got no alternatives. Nobody’s going to run a shebeen filling it with Windhoek Lager.”

Oddest of all, although the OD programme provided cheap ideological calories for both the left—new black empowered entrepreneurs!—and for the right—318 fewer employees and a busted union!—it is unlikely to have saved ABI and its parent company any money. “I would imagine that it’s probably cheaper to run your own fleet and I would think that from an administrative point of view it’s far less of a burden,” said Levy. “But I don’t know that the main motivation is financial. I would think that it’s really a marginal call. The main benefit comes in the fact that you reduce what is a huge, huge, huge vulnerability—labour.”

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The collage of the ideal South African village, the one Moses Mkhondo painted in the good old days, still hangs above his couch in Heidelberg. These days, Mkhondo is a Golekane! regular. It’s difficult to know whether his newfound activism squares with his built-in idealism. During a recent visit to his home, he said that he hadn’t painted since he stopped working, mostly because he couldn’t afford the materials.

If he couldn’t work, he couldn’t paint. And if he couldn’t paint, he couldn’t conceive of—and contribute to the creation of—an ideal world. Later, he sat beneath the painting and began reading out his termination letter to a room full of reporters, his wife Victoria sitting stoically beside him. He made it through two paragraphs before he started weeping. He sat with his head in his hands for a very long time.

DM