Lonely Heroes

Whatever their stated purpose, strikes by 300,000 black miners against South Africa's gold and coal mines are one more probe of the question of how long force and oppression by the white minority can dominate the nation's black majority.

The strikes are an internal affair that do not lend themselves to the kinds of external pressures to abandon South Africa's system of apartheid that were represented by trade sanctions and withdrawal of investments from South Africa. But Americans should have no question about where their sympathies lie. The lonely heroics of the miners in withholding labor in the face of beatings are, in the end, more powerful weapons against apartheid than any amount of violence.

The government of President Pieter W. Botha and the black National Union of Mineworkers both pretend in public that the strike is just another round of wage disputes. But it is nothing more than pretense. Striking workers gather to sing freedom songs of the African National Congress, the leading force against apartheid in South Africa that has been banned by the government. For its part, the government lets it be known that the 10-year-old law permitting strikes by black unions needs tightening up.

If nothing else, the strike provides a vidid picture of the injustices that a system like apartheid promotes in South African society. Miners are demanding a 30% increase in pay, but it would take an increase of 300% to 500% to pull the wages of black miners up to the level that whites earn in the mines--mostly as supervisors and technicians.

Incredibly, being on strike and facing the tear gas and the rubber bullets of mine security forces and government police may be safer than working. About 800 black Africans died in mining accidents last year, but there are no such things as hazard pay or death benefits. Black miners get two weeks of vacation a year, compared with 30 days for the white mine workers. While they are working, the black miners live in dormitories--or hostels, as the South Africans call them--at the mines, far from the villages where the miners' families live.

Reports conflict on the number of strikers and the economic damage to the mine owners and the South African government. Some estimates put the cost to mine owners as high as $75 million as the strike entered its second week--enough to meet the union's economic demands for a year. The number of workers on strike could be as high as 340,000. In either event the strikes hurt not only the mine owners but also the South African government, which depends on gold for half its foreign currency. It is also impossible to know precisely how many acts of sabotage the union has carried out, and which of the claims of sabotage by miners and brutality by security guards are valid.

Company and union negotiators met on Monday for the first time since the walkouts began. They talked not about getting the miners back to work but about deploying security guards in ways that would avoid violence as much as possible.

The mine strikes are not make-or-break battles for South Africa. Union leaders talk of the strikes as a test of strength and will, but they insist that political implications will come years from now, if at all, and will depend on whether the unions can hold out this time long enough to improve their economic conditions and increase their power to bargain with the mine owners. They may be right. Still, other blacks in South Africa cannot but notice, and find at least some political encouragement in, the fact that earlier walkouts by the miners lasted only days and that this one is now in its second week with no end in sight.

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