South Africa: The Black Unions & the State of Emergency

Against the Current, No. 11, November-December 1987

Pippa Green & Alan Hirsch

THE RECENT STRIKE OF 300,000 black* South African miners against the most powerful industry in the subcontinent demonstrated the sturdiness of the roots the workers’ movement in South Africa has set down in the past fifteen years.

The three-week strike organized by the 250,000-strong National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the largest affiliate of the mainly black Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), was in support of a demand for a 30% wage increase. The mining houses offered between 17% and 23%. Before the strike underground wages ranged between R45 and R62 a week (about $22-$32).

The miners did not win a 30 % increase but the strike was the most serious challenge ever to the power of the mining conglomerates in South Africa. Moreover, it was a challenge exercised in an extremely hostile political climate. And it was a strike by the most oppressed non­agricultural workers in South Africa.

The miners do not have the right to reside permanently where they work and are forced to return to rural villages at the end of each annual contract. At the mines they live in single-sex compounds surrounded by barbed-wire fences and policed by company guards.

When the miners returned to work at the end of August, they returned with the union intact-an achievement that should not be underestimated. The industry lost $150 million in profits according to estimates of the independent Johannesburg-based Labour Monitoring Group (LMG).(1) The miners lost about $15 million in wages. “We taught them a very expensive lesson,” NUM General Secretary Cyril Ramaphosa said recently. “They didn’t teach us the lesson they expected to. They didn’t break the union.”(2)

The miners’ strike came hard on the heels of a strike by 18,000 railway workers who demanded recognition of their union, the COSATU-affiliated S.A. Railways and Harbour Workers Union (SARHWU). The workers, who are employed by the state-owned South African Transport Services (SATS), were dismissed. More than 400 SARHWU members and officials, including its president and general secretary, were detained in jails and police cells. Six SATS workers were shot dead by police during a march in Johannesburg.

Three months after the strike, in June of this year, the dismissed SATS workers were reinstated after an out of court settlement. The settlement was not wholly satisfactory for the union. According to a recent edition of the South African Labour Bulletin, SATS is reneging on parts of the agreement and still does not recognize the union. Nevertheless, despite sustained efforts, SATS did not succeed in breaking the union.(3)

Violent Repression

Both the miners’ and the railway workers’ strikes were fought under conditions of severe repression unleashed by the South African government. When the current State of Emergency was declared last year it heralded the harshest crackdown on organized labor in South African history.

More than 4,000 union officials and workers have been detained at some stage during the Emergency. In May of this year, the eleven-story building housing the COSATU headquarters and its affiliates in Johannesburg was destroyed in a fire following a bomb blast. The federation’s regional office in the Cape was damaged in a bomb attack in late August.

COSATU is South Africa’s most influential black trade­union federation with over 700,000 members. The other significant federation is the National Azanian Trade Union Congress (NACTU), which claimed about 400,000 members when it was formed earlier this year.(4)

Whereas COSATU adopts a nonracial perspective associated with the African National Congress (ANC), NACTU follows a black consciousness line in concurrence with the ANC’s rival, the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). While NACTU has some powerful and well­organized affiliates, it is less influential both in the sphere of industrial relations and politically.

COSATU members have also been among the major targets of detentions under the State of Emergency. Last year the Labour Monitoring Group calculated that at any one time, between 78% and 87% of detained unionists were from COSATU affiliates.(5)

The pattern of repression against the unions and the way the black union movement has managed to survive illustrates two vital processes: one, the changing relationship between the unions and politics in South Africa; two, the tight bonds between the unions and their mainly black industrial-worker constituency. These ties make the unions extremely resilient.

Because black workers in South Africa are deprived of the vote, they have exercised economic muscle to make their mark in the political arena. This is particularly apparent in the numerous national worker stayaways that re-emerged, after long quiescence, during the Soweto student rebellions of 1976.

The organization of stayaways through union structures has become increasingly sophisticated and more directly aimed at pressuring white employers to take a stand against the apartheid government.

Earlier this year, the LMG estimated that about 1.5 million workers stayed away from work for two consecutive days in protest against the racially exclusive elections.

Four days earlier, nearly 2.5 million workers observed International Labor Day on May 1 by staying away from work. Both figures represent a considerable proportion of the South African industrial working population of approximately 6 million.

Previous stayaways protested the murder of unionists in jail, the deaths of 177 coal miners in a mining accident, and the declaration of the State of Emergency. Annual stayaways on May Day have now forced many white employers to recognize May 1 as a paid public holiday. June 16, the anniversary of the first death in Soweto in 1976, is now a de facto holiday after years of massive commemorative stayaways.

Perhaps the pivotal stayaway occurred in November 1984 when workers protested the siege of the black township of Sebokeng by the South African Army. It was with this two-day general strike that the unions threw their organized weight behind the struggles in the townships and placed their own imprint on that struggle.

COSATU and Political Struggle

Shortly after its formation in 1985, COSATU met with exiled representatives of the banned African National Congress, and in a joint communique released afterwards, COSATU recognized the ANC as the main representative of the national liberation movement.

At the same time the union federation stressed the importance of independent working-class organizations, and the ANC acknowledged COSATU’s sovereignty.

At COSATU’s Second Congress, held last July, the nearly 1,500 delegates adopted the Freedom Charter as a guiding document. The Charter, drawn up at a historic “Congress of the People” in 1955 when the ANC was not yet outlawed, is widely regarded by the political opposition groups in South Africa as containing the minimum demands for democracy.

The COSATU congress further resolved to “develop and strengthen among all workers a coherent understanding of the Charter and encourage the fullest discussion on socialism and democracy within our structures and amongst all progressive and democratic forces.”

The four-day congress also indicated COSATU’s intention to build alliances with those organizations with “a proven record of struggle and history of mass mobilization and action in our struggles.” Such organizations should have “principles and policies which are compatible with those of organized workers in COSATU and the working class in general.” Thus COSATU strategy is to forge a united front with other groups. It sees its role as promoting the interests of the working class in that alliance.

In addition, COSATU passed resolutions on divestment and sanctions, based on its experiences over the last two years. Pointing to the fact that divestment often occurs “behind the backs of the workers,” the congress called on companies to give timely notice of withdrawal and to negotiate on fair terms with the union involved.(6)

Direct U.S. investment has declined by more than 50% since 1981. With the added pressure of the U.S. sanctions legislation, many companies are changing the form of their South African investments. Companies such as General Motors and IBM have arranged comfortable loans to local buyers who purchase the company along with its technology, designs and components-and leave the seller free of the headache of running the local operation. While claiming to divest, the multinationals in fact retain the option to return should economic conditions change or sanctions pressure wane.

Workers at the GM plant in Port Elizabeth faced this problem in October (1986, and raised the following demands:

• GM should provide a year’s notice as well as adequate information to allow workers and their organizations to make a decision on their future.

• The new owners must recognize and agree to negotiate with representative unions on any issues affecting workers, including issues arising from the withdrawal or sale.

• The companies must guarantee that no redundancies will follow.

• The departing company must guarantee minimum severance pay at the rate of one month’s pay per year of service.

• The departing company must guarantee that no benefits will be prejudiced by the withdrawal.(7)

The GM workers pointed out that GM had been reaping profits in South Africa for sixty years under the system of apartheid, and it is from those profits and not from the workers that divestment plans must come. Their strike raised in a concrete way the right of workers to control disinvestment and the social wealth of South Africa. Although broken by police action, the courts and a company lockout, the GM strike raised demands that moved beyond earlier COSATU resolutions. And it was this experience that helped to develop the 1987 congress resolution.

Finally, the congress called for comprehensive and mandatory sanctions, including:

• The stopping of loans and credit to the South African state and businessmen, municipalities and bantustans;

• Diplomatic isolation;

• The stopping of all South African tourists, business­ men and state officials traveling overseas;

• A stop to South Africans emigrating abroad;

• The withdrawal of South African Airways landing and airspace rights;

• The effective and comprehensive implementation of the UN arms embargo;

• A stop to South African businessmen and the state recruiting skilled workers overseas;

• A stop to sporting groups and individuals visiting and playing in South Africa and South African sporting groups going abroad.

Shortly following the congress, Gavin Reily, chair of Anglo-American, released a statement warning those who support sanctions and divestment that they should not expect sympathy from management. Clearly COSATU voted to develop a higher political profile at the very moment when the South African government and the business sector are expressing concern over that politicization.

The unions’ relationship to political organization has developed at a profound level. One of the most striking features of the detentions was not only that the vast majority of union detainees were shop stewards and workers rather than national leaders, but also that they came from areas where there was a high level of political resistance to the government.

Many shop stewards who are active in the community have also involved themselves in politics in particular ways. They have taken the politics of the union movement — the patient, grassroots organizing style and the democratic practices-into the heart of township organization.

In its determination to smash grassroots resistance, and particularly in its attempt to stifle emerging alternative power structures in the black townships, the state cracked down especially heavily on these union leaders. That most of the black unions have been resilient in the face of extraordinary pressures from the state is a function of their tight organizational structures.

Many of the industrial unions first emerged during a massive wave of strikes in Durban in 1973 after a long period of quiescence in the wake of the banning of the ANC and PAC in 1960. Working with very slender resources, little international protection, and against hostile employers who were accustomed to government protection against black unionization, the unions had to rely on the strength of their members’ commitment as their only defense against capital and the state.

In 1979, under pressure from the new unions and liberal capitalists facing industrial chaos, the government introduced labor reforms allowing — for the first time — African workers to belong to registered trade unions. Till then there had been no legal recourse to force recalcitrant employers to recognize representative African trade unions or to prevent the victimization of worker activists.

The unions were built on the close relationship between officials and their rank-and-file; they concentrated on developing worker leadership within each union. In the attempt to protect themselves against state repression, which included the frequent banning and detention of unionists and some suspicious deaths in jail, the unions adopted low political profiles and dealt only with shop­floor issues, where they began to make significant gains. Though for many years these unions were criticized for “economisrn,” the shop floor-oriented strategy meant that strong working union structures were gradually built.

In the wake of the student rebellion of the mid-1970s a new wave of more explicitly political unions emerged.

Many of these, although vocal in national political issues, were not well-organized on the shop floor and lost major industrial battles or signed unfavorable contracts. These two groups of unions are, very broadly, those that came together to form COSATU in 1985.

While the latter group of unions has forced a sharper focus on political issues, the organizational backbone of COSATU has been the industrial unions of the 1973-1979 wave, as well as the brilliantly organized NUM, which was formed as late as 1982. Although there have been tensions between these two groups within COSATU, it has managed to contain the two tendencies.

There is deep respect among COSATU’s leadership for the principles of democracy and tight shop-floor structures. “COSATU is not a building,” said the federation’s general secretary, Jay Naidoo, after the headquarters was destroyed.

Another unionist interviewed shortly after the State of Emergency was declared in June 1986, pointed out that the disruption of national communications links brought about by the Emergency had, in some instances, had “a positive effect on factory structures. Workers began to build the structures themselves.”

The combination of meticulously organized shop-floor-oriented unions and the highly politicized second wave produced a new form of worker-leader. These were organizers schooled in grassroots organization union­style, drawn into black township politics.

Most black townships in South Africa are predominantly working class, but high-profile political activities had traditionally been the province of the educated middle classes. The post-Sebokeng stayaway in 1984 symbolized the assertion by workers of their place in the political struggle.

Defend Moses Mayekiso!

One of the country’s best-known and most popular worker-leaders, Moses Mayekiso, general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), is on trial for treason.

NUMSA, which has a paid-up membership of 130,000, was formed out of a merger of six COSATU-affiliated metal unions in line with the federation’s “one union-one industry” policy. Organized in the most strategic sectors of the metal industry, it is one of the most potent industrial and social forces in South Africa today.

Mayekiso is not only a unionist. He was active in local community politics. He is a key member of a local civic association in the Alexandra township, on the outskirts of some of the plush white suburbs of Johannesburg. Mayekiso took the democratic politics of the shop floor into the community to build grassroots structures as alternatives to the government-imposed black local authority system. He brought along the mass of the com&munity of Alexandra with him.

In a similar way, another of the detained unionists, a National Union of Textile Workers official in Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape, played an equally important role there. He was a leader in the battle against removing black squatters from the edge of a white residential area and resettling them in a distant township.

And in Brits, near Pretoria, an entire committee of township members, comprising several active members of the metal union, was detained last year for several months. The workers, schooled in the politics of organization in their union, had been active members of the committee that resisted government plans to resettle the entire township on the border of one of the bantustans (“black homelands”) declared “independent” by Pretoria.

Likewise in Northern Natal, COSATU’s smallest region with only 10,000 members, all twenty-four of the COSATU officers-the majority of them workers-were detained. This seems crucially linked to the establishment of a rival union. The United Workers Unions of South Africa (UWUSA) is backed by the stridently anti­COSATU Zulu political organization, Inkatha, which is headed by President Reagan’s favorite, Chief Gatsha Buthelezi.

Unionists in the area suspected that the detentions were designed to give UWUSA a breathing space to organize, particularly as no members from the rival union were jailed. Inkatha clearly perceives COSATU as its chief political opponent in a region where its reactionary nationalism was previously the only political voice.

The unions at first responded to the Emergency with a wave of spontaneous strikes and stayaways, aimed at putting pressure on employers to intervene with the authorities. They also used links they had cultivated with Western European and American unions to put pressure on multinational companies in South Africa, which had looked on passively as their employees were detained.

One worker, Amon Msane, who is employed by the 3M Corporation’s South African subsidiary, is still in detention. Union and anti-apartheid groups in the United States have highlighted both Msane’s continued incarceration and the charges being pressed against Mayekiso.

The Emergency has not seriously affected the strength of black unions on the shop floor, nor did that seem to be its major aim. In addition to immobilizing anti-apartheid movements like the United Democratic Front, its aim — one that was for a time successful — was to circumscribe the union movement’s involvement in politics.

But the heightened climate of resistance, even in the face of repression, and the ability of the well-organized union structures to retain their coherence, has kept black unions in the forefront of the political struggle. The adoption of clear political programs by both COSATU and its affiliates during the course of the past year is evidence of that. Two of the most powerful-NUMSA and NUM-as well as some smaller affiliates have adopted the Freedom Charter at their national congresses and have passed resolutions endorsing socialisn1, thus taking the demands laid out in the Charter a step further. Nowhere has the union movement’s development and resilience in the face of the Emergency been more amply demonstrated than in the recent miners’ strike where a relatively young union was able not only to take out 300,000 workers but also to bring them back to work from the scattered corners of rural South Africa where many of them had returned.

The two waves of unionization since the early 1970s have produced a black South African labor movement that even in the current period of retreat and consolidation is both politically vital and solidly grounded.


  1. South African Labour Bulletin vol. 12, #5, July 1987.
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  2. In These Times, Sept. 9-15, 1987.
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  3. South African Labour Bulletin, vol. 12, #5, July 1987.
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  4. This figure has been questioned by labor journalists in South Africa. When the union was formed last year-out of a merger between the Council of Unions of South Africa and AZACTU-it had between 150,000-200,000 members.
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  5. Labour Monitoring Group, Weekly Reports, 1986.
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  6. South African Labour Bulletin, vol. 12, #6/7, Aug./Sept. 1987.
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  7. 7. South African Labour Bulletin, vol. 12, #1, Nov./Dec.

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*Since the South African regime uses “Black” [capitalized] to describe a particular racial group, the non-racial movement uses “black” to define all those not considered “white” under South Africa’s racial law.

November-December 1987, ATC 11

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