South Africa Arrests 718 Black Workers Striking at Soweto Hospital for Higher Pay

Times Staff Writer

More than 700 striking black hospital workers were arrested by riot police and troops here Thursday as they demonstrated for higher wages in a new challenge to South Africa’s minority white government.

When the police moved to detain seven of the strike’s leaders outside Baragwanath Hospital, the main medical facility of Soweto, Johannesburg’s sprawling black sister city, hundreds of student nurses, clerks, cooks, porters, janitors and other workers refused to disperse and came forward to be arrested.

The peaceful confrontation, signaling the mounting restiveness of black workers over low pay and the growing readiness to take strike action, even against the state, appeared to take the police by surprise. Officers struggled to arrest all those surging forward, chanting anti-government slogans and singing freedom songs.


The 718 who were arrested were charged with taking part in an illegal strike and in an illegal gathering. They were released on their own recognizance.

Hospital in Chaos

The strike, which started Wednesday, and the demonstration left the 2,700-bed hospital, the country’s largest, in chaos as physicians found themselves working as orderlies, nurses as cooks, and administrators as elevator operators. The hospital’s superintendent warned that its services will have to be curtailed sharply if the strike continues.

The strike was started by the hospital’s support staff, most of whom are paid $44 to $60 a month plus room and board and are seeking pay increases of $35 to $40.

But the strike now has the backing of student nurses angered first by the hospital’s demand that they do the strikers’ work and then by attempts to confine them to their dormitories under armed guard.

On Wednesday night, the strikers went on a rampage through the hospital’s kitchens and dining areas after administrators told them that their demand for a pay increase would not be considered before March and that no increase is likely before July. Student nurses joined them, forcing the newly armed security guards to flee.

Reporters Banned

Newsmen were ordered away from the vicinity of the hospital on Wednesday and again on Thursday by armed police enforcing the government’s total prohibition of on-the-scene reporting of unrest in Soweto.


In Cape Town on Thursday, President Pieter W. Botha reiterated his offer to include black representatives in the central government for the first time by appointing them to the President’s Council. This is a parliamentary body that resolves legislative disputes, advises the president and is drafting many of the country’s political, economic and social reforms.

Botha, addressing the council, asked for suggestions on the inclusion of blacks, and aides explained that he hopes to restructure the body so that it becomes a forum in which blacks and whites as well as Asians and Coloreds (people of mixed race) can negotiate new constitutional arrangements for the sharing of political power.

The council’s 60 members now include 41 whites, 13 Coloreds and 6 Asians. Blacks have political representation only in local governments and in their nominally autonomous tribal homelands.

Offer Spurned

Six weeks ago, when Botha first made the proposal for black representation on the council, most black leaders dismissed it as an offer of “seats in a talk shop.” While reaffirming his earlier pledges for a united South Africa with a “joint citizenship and franchise for all,” Botha went no further than in previous speeches in outlining the reforms he envisions emerging from the council’s deliberations.

Alex Boraine, acting leader of the liberal white opposition Progressive Federal Party, described the president’s proposals as “a classic example of too little, too late.” He warned that it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find any credible leaders willing to serve” on the restructured council.

In Namibia, which is also known as South-West Africa, the transitional government used the autonomy Pretoria gave it in June to release 22 guerrillas of the South-West Africa People’s Organization. All 22 had been imprisoned for terrorism, and most of them were serving life sentences.


Fanuel Kozonguizi, the Namibian minister of justice, said the prisoners’ unconditional release was “an indication of the sincerity with which the transitional government plans not only to promote national unity but to give effect to the provisions of the bill of fundamental human rights,” which it had adopted earlier.

Timed for U.N. Impact

The release also appeared to be timed for maximum impact at the United Nations, where Namibian independence is again on the agenda.

In his address to the President’s Council in Cape Town, Botha also announced the government’s decision to develop two large gas fields on the ocean floor off Mossel Bay, on the Cape of Good Hope, as part of South Africa’s effort to produce more synthetic fuels and reduce its dependence on imported oil.

The $1.4-billion project is expected to provide 20,000 jobs in the economically depressed Cape province. The project will be financed largely out of the government’s special energy fund.

Botha also dismissed a member of the Council of Ministers from the House of Delegates, the Asian chamber of Parliament, for leaking news of the government decision at a political meeting Wednesday.

In the country’s continuing civil strife, two blacks, one a prominent anti-apartheid activist, were reported killed Thursday, and two white men were severely burned when their car was fire-bombed as they drove through a black township near George in Cape province.


Zalisile Matyholo, 32, a community leader in King William’s Town, was found dead near East London, the apparent victim of a “vigilante” squad in the nominally independent Xhosa tribal homeland of Ciskei. Another man was killed by shotgun fire as the police dispersed a crowd stoning a truck in Soweto.

2 Saved by Police

In Port Elizabeth, two members of the Black Civic Assn., who had been released from detention earlier this week in an attempt to end the four-month black boycott of white stores, were attacked as “sell-outs” by about 30 black youths. Gasoline-soaked tires had been placed about the two men, and the youths were about to set fire to them when a police patrol saved them. They said their attackers opposed the lifting of the boycott.

In Cape Town, police arrested more than 100 students and four teachers after they allegedly tore up examination papers and burned exercise books. The hunger strike by political detainees in the area’s prisons reportedly has grown and now involves more than 500 people, but the police and prison spokesmen refused to provide any information.