1980s >> 1987 >> no-998-october-1987

Trade Unions in South Africa

For three weeks in August, black workers in South Africa took on six of the world’s largest mining corporations — the backbone of South Africa’s economy. Although the mineworkers’ strike was ultimately defeated, it nevertheless marked a significant point in the development of trade unions in South Africa.


The miners’ strike was primarily about wages and conditions, although in a country which denies blacks political rights, it was inevitably in some senses political. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) had rejected a management offer of a 15-23.4 per cent wage increase which had been unilaterally implemented at the beginning of July, demanding instead an across the board increase of 30 per cent. However, black miners’ grievances go far beyond dissatisfaction with the wage increase offered them to include:


  • the differential wage structures for black and white workers in the mining industry; the 484.541 black gold miners’ earned in 1986 on average R5.127 (£1,602) as compared to the R27.679 (£8.650) earned by white gold miners. Black coal miners earned an average of R5.781 (£1.806) as compared to R27.838 (£8.700). Although the ratio of white miners’ wages to black miners’ has improved since 1970 (when the ratio was 27 to one) the sense of grievance persists.
  • Black mine workers get just 14 days a year paid holiday while white workers get 35 days.
  • Working conditions in the mines are appalling: miners often work in tunnels just one metre high at depths of 3½ kilometres and temperatures of over 28° C.
  • Safety standards are abysmal: 681 miners were killed in gold mines alone last year and 1.351 suffered “reportable injuries” — the majority of which involved permanent disability. In 1986, in a single explosion at the Kinross gold mine 177 workers were killed.
  • Black miners are often migrant workers. compelled to live in over-crowded hostels in mine compounds, with up to 24 men sharing a room. Many workers go months without seeing their families left behind in the “homelands’.


Such conditions are as old as the mining industry but it is only recently that black mine workers have had the organisation and strength to challenge them through strike action.


The Growth of Black Trade Unionism
Until the 1950s the colour bar forced black workers to remain in unskilled work by reserving skilled jobs for whites. Any black worker who caused trouble for the bosses could easily be sacked and replaced by another from the pool of unemployed black labour. However, with the expansion of industry since the 1950s came the need for greater numbers of skilled and semi-skilled workers — a need which the white working class could not fulfill. Black workers were trained to make up the shortfall. But skilled black workers could not be sacked and replaced so easily as unskilled workers, as was demonstrated by a series of strikes in Durban in 1973. Although black trade unions were still officially illegal, embryonic unions entered into bilateral negotiations in individual factories over union recognition. By the end of 1975 the new unions had approximately 14,000 members.


The Soweto uprising in 1976 led to a series of state-initiated reforms in a belated attempt to head off further serious confrontations. The Wiehahn Commission was set up and reported in 1979, recommending a series of reforms including the recognition of “legal” strikes; the granting of union rights to migrant workers (initially union rights had only been conceded to black workers with permanent rights of residence in the urban areas in an attempt to create a more privileged stratum of blacks); the dismantling of the colour bar in employment; and the setting up of conciliation and arbitration structures. By the beginning of 1986 about 20 per cent of South Africa’s labour force had joined trade unions at 3,500 workplaces.


However, from its birth the trade union movement in South Africa has been divided. Until 1985 there were three separate trade union structures: the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) composed mainly of auto and textile workers’ unions; the Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA) which was inspired by the black consciousness movement and recognised no common links with white workers (the NUM was, at this time, CUSA’s largest affiliate) and finally “community unions” – general unions which organised locally, across industries.


The division was not just organisational but reflected different ideas about tactics and the role of trade unions in the wider political struggle against apartheid. The “community unions” and CUSA argued that it was necessary to unite with other “progressive” forces and so affiliated to the ANC-dominated United Democratic Front. They also adopted a more overtly political stance, arguing that real advances for black workers could only be won in the political arena. FOSATU, on the other hand, concentrated more on traditional areas of concern to trade unions — securing better wages and conditions for their members.


The division between the two tendencies in black trade unionism reached a crisis point at the time of the 1984 township rebellions. As a result the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) was set up, composed of the FOSATU affiliated unions, the “community unions” and the NUM (which, by this time, had split from CUSA which, in turn, had merged with another black consciousness federation). The aim was to build one strong trade union movement — an aim that to a considerable extent has been achieved. But the debate within COSATU has continued. Some of the major unions have adopted the ANC’s “Freedom Charter” which, among other things, calls for nationalisation. Other unions within the movement are unhappy at what they see as too close links with the ANC, have opposed adoption of the “Freedom Charter” and the sending of a COSATU delegation recently to meet ANC leaders in exile in Lusaka.


The development of black trade unions during the 1970s and 1980s has been condoned by both government and bosses. Since the changing nature of employment in South Africa had made unions more or less inevitable despite legal bans, there was a general feeling — reflected in the Wiehahn Commission’s report — that it would be preferable if they were legal and subject to restrictions, rather than underground and difficult to control. So attempts were made to co-opt more conservative trade union leaders, while at the same time intimidating the militants through arrest and detention.


The Mine Workers’ Strike
The miners’ strike demonstrated the organisational capacity of what are still very young black trade unions. The NUM was formed as recently as 1982 and yet it still managed to stage a three week strike with the aim of bringing out 200,000 workers at 28 gold mines and 18 coal mines. It was also a different kind of strike in that it was first and foremost about wages and conditions, unlike previous strikes which had been stoppages of limited duration to commemorate particular events, like the Soweto uprising. The ability of the NUM to mobilise so many workers clearly surprised the mining bosses as did the unions’ decision to instruct members to return home, which had the effect of lengthening the strike. For many miners’ the journey home took several days. It would take time for a message to reach them to let them know that the strike was over and more days would be lost during their return journey from the “homelands”. Furthermore miners were much better placed to survive the strike away from the compounds where they would be subject to threats, intimidation and violence from mine security and police.


Nevertheless, the strike ended in defeat for the NUM. As talks between mine owners and workers collapsed and as, increasingly, the strike was seen as a trial of strength between union and bosses, strikers were sacked and others were given an ultimatum — return to work or face dismissal. As sacked workers returned to their “homelands”, other black workers were queuing up to take their places. For example, in poverty-stricken Lesotho, 60 per cent of the work force is employed in South Africa, the vast majority in the mines and the earnings of these workers constitute 52 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. With unemployment in Lesotho running at about 50 per cent the mine owners had a readily available pool of surplus labour to use to break the strike.


Trade Unions and Apartheid
The growth of black trade unionism in South Africa has been an inevitable consequence of capitalism — workers must combine to take action to defend and advance their pay and conditions of work. And, as everywhere else, trade unionism reflects both the strength and the weakness of the working class. Workers’ strength lies in their ability to force concessions from employers through united action and the judicious use of the strike weapon. Their weakness lies in the fact that trade union action is a product of capitalism and presupposes the existence of capitalism. So long as workers engage only in trade union action they can only defend their position within capitalism and never win for themselves all the benefits that they could have.


The peculiar conditions that apartheid imposes add a further complication to trade union activity in South Africa. Black trade unionists are struggling against both the pressures imposed on them as workers by the capitalist system of wage slavery and those imposed on them as blacks by the apartheid system. COSATU reflects the dilemma that this poses: it is a multi-racial union organisation and as such recognises that, despite attempts to divide them, black and white workers share a common class interest. But it also has close links with the ANC whose aim is not only the abolition of apartheid but also the establishment of a black nationalist state with an economy organised along state capitalist lines which could not be in the interests of South African workers – black or white.


Janie Percy-Smith