SA blacks go on strike to back white comrade

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IF YOU came across Jose Liebenberg on a dark night and you happened to be a black South African, alone and unarmed, the voices of your ancestors would be urging you to cross the road.

A muscular 6ft 3in with a black moustache, this 31-year- old Special Forces veteran of the Angolan wars is an Afrikaner with a short fuse and a ready smile.

A fireman for the last five years in Boksburg, east of Johannesburg, Mr Liebenberg grins as he recalls the events of Friday 29 July.

'I was driving through town, lost in thought because I'd just been fired from my job for assaulting a guy, when I noticed there was a bloody great commotion outside the offices of the town council. There were more than a thousand black people - old, young, men, women, everything - and they were dancing and singing and shouting. I thought, 'hell, man, what's all this about?' Then, suddenly, a bunch of them see me, recognise me, and run towards my car.

' 'Come]' they said. 'Join us] We're here for you] We're here for you, comrade]' And then I realised: they'd come to protest against the council for firing me. They'd gone out on strike - for me]' Six months ago Mr Liebenberg had done something most unusual for a man of his station, race and social class. He joined what he calls 'a black union' - the South African Municipal Workers' Union, (Samwu), an affiliate of the African National Congress- aligned Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

'Why did I join? Well, I'm a liberal sort of guy, you know. I want a fair chance for all. I've always greeted black people in a polite way, for example, but that made people call me a 'kaffir-lover'.

'One thing I don't like at work is that all 50 firemen are white. When I asked Nic Swanepoel, the fire chief, last year what he was doing about affirmative action he just ignored me. I mean, hell, we work in the townships and not one of us is black]

'So that's why I joined Samwu but then Swanepoel started calling me a Communist and stuff. The big shit started when I told Swanepoel that I'd joined the ANC and was going to vote for Mandela in the election.'

He says that from then on he was victimised and abused. One day last month a colleague pushed the abuse a bit too far and he told him to retract. 'He refused so I gave him a few clouts - nothing bad, he didn't go to hospital or anything and the guy's even withdrawn charges against me - but it was the pretext they were looking for to get rid of me.'

Mr Swanepoel, reached at his office, said Mr Liebenberg was telling 'blatant lies'. 'He's assaulted staff on more than one occasion and that's reason enough for dismissal. I protect everyone's right to belong to a union. And he's lying, too, when he says I'm a racist. Things are changing in South Africa and, the truth is, we're changing too.'

Maria Moropodi, a Samwu shop steward at the town council, explains the support for Mr Liebenberg: 'He has been fired for being in the union, that is all. But also if Jose is fired it will stop other whites from joining Cosatu and we want everyone to see that we are a non-racial organisation which stands up for all of the workers. So if he is fired we will start a campaign of much more militant industrial action.'

The 'if' exists because Mr Liebenberg's case comes before arbitration later this month. 'We'll see,' he says. 'But I know my comrades in the union mean their threats.'