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The Role of Organized Labor

Labor unions and working people generally played a key role in the demise of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Why this is so comes into clearer focus when we understand why unions come into existence anywhere. As American union activist and song writer Si Kahn stated:
Not only is organizing the best way for powerless people to win their rights, … it has other benefits which may be more important than the actual gains they make.
“Through organizing people learn something about themselves. They find dignity in place of mistreatment ... self respect in place of lack of self confidence. They begin to use more fully the skills and ability they possess.”
More than that, they begin to believe in their ability to change the world and “once people learn that by organizing they are able to change small things, they will start to think about changing the larger things.”(Friedman, Building Tomorrow Today, p.7).
In an extremely racially segregated society, this statement takes on even more meaning. Attempting to restore a sense of dignity to their members, unions usually seek to “democratize’ the workplace and later, by extension, the neighborhoods, communities and even the nation-state in which their members live. This process began in the mining sector early in the 20th century and in the early industrialization of South Africa and also in African resistance to the loss of their land and livelihood through colonial conquest.

The Rand Revolt

The most well-known early labor revolt in South Africa began on March 10, 1922, when white mine workers struck in a violent confrontation with the mine owners and later with government troops. The strike in the rapidly expanding gold mining industry was precipitated by the owners’ attempts to take away the privileged position of the white miners by moving many more African miners into skilled jobs. By July 5, 19,000 white workers were on strike, and many of them attacked not only police and later troops, but also African miners who attempted to take over their jobs (scabs).

Less well known are strikes by African workers several years earlier. As early as 1913, 9,000 African miners had struck several mines on the Witwatersrand. Provoked by poor wages and horrible conditions (African miners wages has risen by about a penny from 1911 to 1919), Africans organized many more strikes and boycotts on the mines, culminating in two major actions in the 1920s. Both had at their core similar causes – stagnant wages, horrible living conditions in and around the job sites, and the humiliation of the color bar, the precursor of post-1948 apartheid. The color bar was seen by most African workers and intellectuals as crippling their economic and social progress, while keeping wages abysmally low. (“The Rand Revolt,” Chapter 13, Class and Colour in South Africa,)

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