1 Million Blacks Stay Away From Jobs in S. Africa

Times Staff Writer

More than 1 million black workers stayed away from their jobs Thursday in the largest demonstration yet of their power to cripple the South African economy.

The strike by an estimated 1.5 million black workers was 70% to 100% effective in most urban areas, according to business spokesmen and monitoring groups. Hundreds of mines, factories and stores across the country either closed or reduced their operations to a minimum.

The workers were joined by more than 1 million black students who boycotted classes for the day, turning the May Day strike into the biggest anti-apartheid protest in the country’s history.


Black Unity Stressed

Winnie Mandela, the black nationalist leader, urged black workers to strengthen their unity and use the increased power that this would give them to campaign for the end of South Africa’s apartheid system of racial separation and minority white rule.

“We are fighting for our land, and we are going to get our land,” she told a May Day rally of 30,000 in Soweto, the black satellite city outside Johannesburg. “The wealth of this country belongs to you. It is your hands that made this country rich . . . you are the ones digging those mines. I want to call upon you to close up ranks and prepare for the final onslaught (against apartheid), the day when you are called upon to fire back and defend yourselves.”

At least six people were killed in extensive racial unrest Thursday as police clashed repeatedly in more than 30 cities and towns around the country with anti-government demonstrators seeking to hold May Day rallies that had been banned under South Africa’s sweeping security laws. Numerous injuries were also reported, and police said they made dozens of arrests.

The May Day strike was the first major demonstration by the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions--a new federation of predominantly black labor unions with more than half a million members--of its support among black workers. Federation leaders wanted to show their ability to translate the rising militancy of black workers into political action.

Signal for Government

“The government must take this as a signal that the black community can, despite its divisions, weld itself together and do something,” said Jimmy McKenzie, a senior general manager at Barclays Bank, the country’s largest. “This has been a demonstration of economic power and political power that must not be ignored.”

The national Associated Chambers of Commerce reported “massive absence from work” in most urban areas, and Eddie Webster, head of the independent Labor Monitoring Group here, estimated that at least 1.5 million and perhaps as many as 2.5 million blacks out of a labor force of more than 6 million, which includes domestic, rural and unemployed workers, remained away from work Thursday.

Although companies used white supervisors, non-striking Colored (mixed-race) and Indian workers and temporary employees to remain in operation Thursday, the blacks’ absence clearly showed the economy’s dependency on black labor, particularly in such key sectors as mining and manufacturing. Downtown Johannesburg, which usually bustles with blacks as the country’s largest commercial center, was virtually an all-white city Thursday.

‘Biggest Stayaway’

“Without doubt, this is the biggest nationwide stay-away (strike) we have ever had,” Vincent Brett, the Associated Chambers of Commerce manpower director, said. He commented that it reflected extensive support not only for black labor union demands that May Day be made a public holiday but also the readiness of black workers to use general strikes in support of other political demands.

But black labor leaders themselves acknowledged Thursday that this would be difficult because of their own deep ideological differences, which in turn reflect the political divisions that have made it all but impossible in recent years for the black community to take united action on any issue.