Sticking it to the boss is not so simple, according to an expert

Is carrying sticks and other objects during a strike an act of intimidation? On Wednesday this week, the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) considered both sides of this debate as it deals with the case of a group of workers who lost their jobs for so-called violent strike action.

Last week, the Mail & Guardian reported on the expert opinion by anthropology lecturer Hylton White who said sticks are used to demonstrate unity among striking workers. 

To conclude that workers carrying sticks during strike action are seeking to intimidate or threaten is based on problematic assumptions rooted in inaccurate historical descriptions of African people, White said.

But another expert opinion filed at the CCMA late last week, deems this argument “simplistic”, arguing that it “fails to appreciate the complex nature and contestation between workers and employers”.

The specific case relates to a 2018 strike by workers at Luxor Paints in Boksburg. Just more than a week into the strike, on March 5, the scene turned ugly when private security was called in to stop the strike, allegedly shooting rubber bullets at workers. One worker lost an eye.

More than 180 workers were dismissed, some for carrying sticks and other objects during the strike, which Luxor Paints deemed violent.

In an expert opinion for Luxor Paints, Thembinkosi Masuku — a policing and collective violence researcher — says “it is inconceivable that the carrying of sticks and other objects is purely an expression of culture”.

He later adds that the use of sticks “goes beyond symbolism of cultural expression, but [is] a demonstration of anger, frustration, power, militancy and aggression. 

“It is often a chilling display of fury and intimidation which is at odds with the law and lawful political dissent in a modern democratic society,” Masuku adds.

He says that, having viewed the footage of the Luxor strike, he can “confidently conclude that the carrying of cultural and dangerous weapons by the striking workers is consistent with protest culture in South Africa, which is often defined by a show of force, coercion, solidarity, power and a rallying call to be heard and taken seriously by those in power”.

In his assessment of the footage, White said workers did not appear threatening and seemed joyful in many instances. He also refutes the assertion that the sticks, some of them leafy twigs and branches, were weapons.

Masuku notes that “the symbolic use of cultural and other weapons” during public protests has been dealt with at two major commissions of inquiry, namely the Goldstone Commission — which investigated the political violence that occurred between July 1991 and the 1994 general elections — and the Farlam Commission of inquiry into the 2012 Marikana massacre.

The Goldstone Commission recommended that “the carrying of any dangerous weapon in public should be outlawed — whether in respect of political meetings or any other place”.

Masuku quotes the Farlam Commission recommendation: “The propensity in South Africa presently for the carrying of sharp instruments and firearms and the associated violence, even in service-delivery protests, require strict enforcement of the laws prohibiting synch conduct.”

He concludes that both commissions recognised the cultural significance of carrying “cultural weapons”, “but nevertheless declared such conduct unlawful because of their propensity to escalate and promote violence and acts of intimidation”.

The Marikana massacre, during which 34 striking miners were shot dead by police outside the Lonmin platinum mines, is described as the worst act of police brutality since the end of apartheid.

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