Spokesperson Zanele Sabela at the Satawu offices in Braamfontein.Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips/African News Agency/ANA

The one thing Zanele Sabela wants to do is “just sleep”.
She said this on Friday, day 24 of the nationwide bus strike during which she has been the spokesperson for the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu).

She had not had much sleep, understandably. Next to the untouched coffee on her desk was a sheaf of papers detailing the agreement with the employers, a 9% increase, down from the 12% mandate the workers had initially given them.

She hastened to add that this has not been strictly a Satawu initiative: “There were five unions involved.”

Satawu is just the majority union, despite the vocal Numsa.

The strike has been about wage negotiations, she said painstakingly, a trait that came to the fore throughout her media interviews during the strike. She has taken time. She has made an effort to put the workers’ point of view across.

Apart from the need to negotiate fair wages for bus drivers, the strike has been about their working conditions, Sabela said.

She said the regulations stipulate that there have to be two drivers. “The strange thing is that they say one waiting to take over is not on duty. Beside the fact that he helps to load stuff, collect tickets.”

She took the first cellphone call, one of many throughout the interview, giving updates, directing comrades, colleagues and the media.

“When the one is tired, he will take over,” she finishes the thought.

“They” is the employer. It is the same They who insist that the two drivers share the hours. “For example, if they take a 20-hour trip, they share the time.”

It does not take rocket science to fathom the absurdity of this arrangement.

Sabela said the unions had insisted, and prevailed, on giving the bus driver a R400-a-month allowance last year.

Among others sticking points is night shift. The Basic Conditions of Employment Act says six to six. “Here they say three to eight.

“The driver collects the bus at three in the morning, to get ready for peak hour. The time he spends relaxing in the bus after peak hour, because he can’t leave it unattended, the employer says he is not working. There is actually five hours a day he is not paid for.”

Yunus Shaik, for the employers, “says they work six hours, paid for eight”, Sabela recalled the argument, which she finds absurd.

“Zanele speaking,” she said into her cellphone, taking another call. She confirmed a meeting for 3pm later that day.

It is Friday and they are due to sign off on the agreement, 9%.

She said: “Relations were a lot more cordial yesterday. We are taking the contents of the offer to the workers to see if they agree or not, then make it known at a press conference. It is 9% for first year, 8% for second year. This time around we are signing a two-year agreement. The employers wanted three years’ agreement.”

At some point she accused the employers of negotiating in bad faith in the multitudes of media interviews she gave throughout the duration of the strike.

“Last Thursday they said 9% only for 11 months. While we were thrashing out other issues, they say they have flights to catch, if we don’t take this, they will revert to the mediator’s offer, which was lower. They come with this at a very crucial moment. Then, next thing they somersault and say they never made the unions that offer.”

During one television debate, Shaik said bus drivers earned R16000, Sabela said incredulously. “They earn R8000. I’ve even met a bus driver who worked for 11 years, he only takes home R4000. Even his (Shaik) Golden Arrow people don’t earn that much. That was just terrible because some people actually believed them.”

Her coffee remained untouched. She modestly heaped praise on her colleague, Solomon Mahlangu.

But she has done well as a communicator during the strike. She represented the cause of the bus driver well. The workers returned the favour somewhat with good behaviour: the strike was relatively violence free.

But she is adamant Mahlangu is the man. “He was indefatigable. When I asked if he was not tired he said (late ANC President OR) Tambo spend 30 years in the bush, working. He was never tired. Why should he be?”

It will be victory when they sign, she said ahead of the meeting later in the day.

She was happy that “those contentious issues have been referred to a task team. Yesterday they put in a clause that these will be implementable when agreed upon. This is wonderful. I think the employers are now aware of this unity. They will listen. They need to take the unions as partners. The workers too have shown strength of character”.

“Leaders of the strike have kept people informed, wanting to get on with the strike.”

She cracked up at the memory of Mahlangu at one point telling the workers about “Comrade Moses” who led the Israelites out of Egypt.

“For me that has been enlightening,” she said, still caught up in mirth.

As a spokesperson, her phone is always on, she said.

“It is important that I am available. That tells workers their plight is being taken seriously by the union leaders. It keeps their morale high. They also keep me on my toes.

“Members will tell you if you are quiet. Phakamile (Hlubi of Numsa) was vocal around the minimum wage. The workers ask why we are not being as visible.

“If we sign, it will be about 5% over inflation. The fact that it is a two-year agreement gives us time to iron out other issues.”

Asked about her personal relationship with the bus as a mode of transport, she said: “I was born in Alex. Me, my elder sister and my younger brother, we used to hop on a bus to go see my grandmother in Rivonia. We’d get on a bus to Joubert Park to go play on swings.”

She said the bus service was now professional and efficient.

She is impressed with the BRT: “I wish they would go further. For people to have that pride in the service.”

She thinks the taxi industry has failed to take advantage of the bus strike.

“Instead of using this time to treat people better, they didn’t. If you speak to someone who takes a bus, they know their driver. There is such a personal relationship.”

The employers have mellowed, she thinks. “Someone from the employers was shaking my hand the other day, which was lovely.

“People say we did well, which is quite nice.”

She took her daughter, 16, to the pharmacy for a balm after a sports injury, she said. The lady at the pharmacy asked if they were nearing agreement. The daughter now closes the door on her mother, so she won’t hear her interviews.

“I can’t wait to sleep.”

She took another call. “I’m good, how are you?”

The Sunday Independent