S. Africa Black Unions Lead Fight Against Apartheid

Times Staff Writer

“Two years ago, black kids were in the streets by the thousands, and that was worrying enough, even scary. Today, we have their fathers going out on strike by the tens of thousands, and that is truly frightening.”

With that, an executive of one of South Africa’s biggest industrial conglomerates--one of those struck by black miners for three weeks last month--summed up the major shift within the country’s anti-apartheid movement over the past year as black workers have moved into the forefront of the struggle against minority white rule.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions, which--although only 21 months old--claims more than a million members, is playing an increasingly political role, fusing the broader anti-apartheid struggle with its own drive to win a much larger share of the country’s wealth for black workers.


Strikes have proliferated--even before the massive miners’ strike, more than four times as many workdays had been lost this year as throughout 1986--with many of the work stoppages having political as well as economic goals.

And the “campaign for a living wage,” launched by COSATU, as the union federation is known, has become a rallying point for not only the rapidly growing black labor movement but for the United Democratic Front, a coalition of 750 anti-apartheid groups, and also for other activists. The drive makes the pay of black workers a political as well as economic issue.

“We are involved in politics, and we are totally opposed to the present regime,” says Jay Naidoo, COSATU’s general secretary. “In apartheid South Africa, you cannot be a trade union that truly represents your members without being involved in politics.”

Both the politicization and strength of the black unions were evident in the two-day general strike by an estimated 1 1/2 million workers during the whites-only parliamentary elections in May. There were similar protests, called “stayaways” here to distinguish them from ordinary strikes, to observe International Workers Day on May 1 and on June 16 to mark the 11th anniversary of the student uprising in Soweto.

“The workers themselves are not content to be apolitical,” a factory shop steward from the Food & Allied Workers Union commented. “We have come to see economic issues as inseparable from political ones . . . and the progress we make at the bargaining table will be intertwined with progress in the political forum.”

Even such traditional union concerns as higher wages and safer working conditions now have an overriding political aspect.


“A demand for a living wage is, by implication, a political demand,” says Eddie Webster, a labor specialist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “It is aimed at what is seen as the unacceptable inequality of wealth in South Africa, and it is an attempt to change that, to change the political-economic system of this country.”

But the big shift has been the emergence of black unions, particularly COSATU and its affiliates, as an important element within the broader anti-apartheid movement. This followed many years of playing a small, narrow role, that left the movement’s leadership to political activists but kept the young unions safe from controversy.

Main Vehicle of Resistance

“The union movement has become the major vehicle of black resistance,” argues Steven Friedman, a researcher at the independent South African Institute of Race Relations and a labor historian. “As the state of emergency continues to restrict township resistance sharply, the miners, the postal workers and many others continue to provide evidence of the unions’ ability to mobilize their members. . . .

“More than ever before, anti-apartheid movements are pinning their hopes on the unions to maintain the mobilization that has been restricted in the (black) townships. This has given them unprecedented political credibility but has also subjected them to intense pressures.”

COSATU brought additional leadership and stronger organization to the broader anti-apartheid movement at a time when the government’s state of emergency, imposed nearly 15 months ago, had driven the United Democratic Front and many of its affiliates underground.

“The unions can act where often we can’t now,” a member of the United Democratic Front’s national leadership said, asking not to be quoted by name. “Their officials do not have immunity from detention--just look at how many are in detention or on trial--but their organizational structures have been better able to withstand this wave of repression. And, because they represent workers and because employers must consequently negotiate with them, there are strong pressures to keep them functioning and effective.”


The unions also are bringing a different style of politics to the anti-apartheid movement with their emphasis on careful grass-roots organization and democracy, rather than on mass protests led by charismatic political activists.

Their leaders have emerged largely from the factory floor during the decade-long struggle to establish black labor unions and from bargaining with white managements since the unions’ legalization in 1979. Although most are ordinary men and women, often without much formal education, they are dedicated people whose success has given them a new confidence and determination.

Ideological Shift

The unions’ greater involvement has also brought an important ideological shift that makes workers the “vanguard” of the anti-apartheid struggle and transforms a movement to end white minority rule into an effort to replace it with a government--based on the principle of one person, one vote--that will act “in the interests of the working class.”

“The effective consolidation of links between COSATU and community-based (groups) is essential not only for support in major strikes and for defending the organizations,” Naidoo says, “but also to lay the foundation for building real working-class leadership in the mass democratic struggle. We see this as a legitimate extension of our trade union activity.”

This puts black unions, which had preferred until recently to focus on workplace issues and on building their organization, into the middle of “the struggle for national liberation,” as the anti-apartheid movement describes itself.

“Workers are the most exploited class under apartheid, and worker aspirations and worker perceptions should be the leading ideals of the struggle against apartheid,” says Frank Meintjies, a top COSATU official. “Formal democracy, leaving monopoly capital in real control of the country, is not what the workers are demanding--they want real change, fundamental change. . . .


“The other reason we say that workers are the vanguard is that, aside from those in the underground and the armed struggle . . . workers have the most muscle. Students can boycott classes for a long time, but that does not hurt the regime. Workers, when united and motivated, can take strike action that could be decisive.”

This is precisely what now worries the government and much of South African business.

They are infuriated by the way that the black unions have fused political and economic issues and are even more alarmed by the socialism that many labor leaders proclaim and by what they see as the increasing efforts by the outlawed African National Congress (ANC) and South African Communist Party to use the unions.

“Have we created a monster? That’s what everyone is asking,” says a white industrial relations consultant who advises the government as well as South African and foreign companies and asked not to be quoted by name. “What happened to those unions that were supposed, when government gave them legal standing eight years ago, to concentrate on bread-and-butter issues, to devote themselves to worker advancement, to be an escape valve for black grievances and to stay out of politics?

“Businessmen look out on the streets today and see three or four times as many black workers on strike than they did even a year ago; they sit down at the bargaining table and hear some demands that are far greater than they are prepared for, some of which are clearly political rather than economic, and then they project all this ahead to a time when, as the ANC says, there could be general strikes aimed at bringing down the government. . . .

“So, then other questions come: Can we make them stay out of politics? Can we lock up the radicals and Communists? Can we buy off the workers? Can we create ‘safe’ unions? And the answer is no, no way.”

To Amend Labor Laws

But Piet du Plessis, the minister of manpower, told Parliament last month that the government intends to amend the country’s labor laws this year to redress what he sees as a growing imbalance between management and labor and to prevent the “politicization” of black unions.


A labor court will be established with authority to award damages where “unreasonable action” has caused financial loss. Sympathy strikes will be prohibited, and workers fired while striking outside provisions of the law will no longer be able to go to court to win reinstatement.

The Federated Chambers of Industries, which represents major employers, cautioned the government against a crackdown on the unions, warning that union political activities are inevitable until blacks have “an effective say in running the country.”

Other industrial relations specialists do not see even highly politicized unions, such as the National Union of Mineworkers, the country’s largest union, as a real danger, and instead place their faith in the give and take of collective bargaining.

Bobby Godsell, the industrial relations director of Anglo American Corp., which was hit hardest in the strike by an estimated 315,000 black miners, said as it ended last month that both management and labor understood the heavy costs of what had been largely a test of strength between the mine workers and management for control of the industry that is the source of South Africa’s wealth.

“I don’t think we were under any illusions about the power, strength and effectiveness of the union, its leadership and its members,” Godsell said. “To take very large numbers of people out on strike and to keep them out for three weeks is a real achievement . . . . Both the union and the employers have demonstrated their ability to administer and withstand pain.”

The miners’ strike ended with only limited gains in benefits after Anglo American began mass dismissals of its workers, as permitted under South African law, and the union saw that not only its strength but perhaps even its survival would be threatened if more than half of its members were fired.


While some analysts interpreted this as a defeat both for the Mineworkers Union and black unions in general, union leaders saw it as a gain--not as great as they had hoped for, but still a gain.

“The strike has transformed the face of labor relations in South Africa,” Naidoo said. “We have changed fundamentally the prerogative of the employers to make decisions that affect every aspect of our lives.”

COSATU’s increasing militancy has made it the target of numerous attacks. Its headquarters was badly damaged in bomb blasts in May, and five of its regional offices also have been bombed, set on fire or burgled in recent weeks.

‘Union-Bashing’ Seen

Martheanne Finnemore, an industrial relations specialist at the University of Port Elizabeth, sees the increasing, never-solved attacks, along with the arrests and detentions of union leaders over the past year, as clear “union-bashing tactics.”

“The escalation of harassment appears to be directly proportional to the increasing political role and socialist ideology propounded by the union leadership,” Finnemore says, adding that “political goals have now been declared as equally important” as unions’ traditional economic goals.

“If workers avoided an overt political role, they would lose credibility in the (black) townships where they would have to answer to the growing number of unemployed and other political organizations for their lack of commitment to the liberation struggle,” she says. “On the other hand, seeking alliances for political purposes--for example with the youth--is likely to attract repressive action from the state.”


Union officials say they now fear a wave of arrests later this year, followed by a “show trial” in which top labor leaders will be charged with treason, sedition, subversion and economic sabotage as a result of their political activities.

“Why is involvement in politics offensive?” asks COSATU’s Meintjies. “Is no one but the government allowed to take part in shaping a democratic South Africa?

“Our unions, in fact, give priority to shop-floor issues--wages, working conditions, grievances--and if they didn’t, our base would be eroded. . . . We can only take national political action, such as a stayaway to protest the whites-only elections, up to the point that our shop-floor action has already produced results on bread-and-butter issues for workers.”

Business and government have “created the situation that has brought our militancy,” Meintjies added. “They don’t understand how deep our poverty is, how our living standards are deteriorating and how determined people are to change the system that is responsible for this. . . . Workers bear the brunt of repression in South Africa, and that, precisely that, is the cause of their militancy.”

Researcher Michael Cadman of the Times Johannesburg Bureau contributed to this article.