The Role of Organized Labor

The first of the large African strikes was in February 1920 on the mines of the East Rand. It eventually spread to cover some 71,000 workers, half of all black miners on the Rand. By month’s end, the strike had been broken, leaving 11 miners dead and 120 others injured. A second strike began in October 1923 in Port Elizabeth and was led by the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU), which had been organized in Cape Town four years earlier. By 1923, the ICU was organizing in much of the Eastern Cape, had spread to many of the large cities and towns of the Union of South Africa, and was changing its strategy from bargaining and protesting over specific labor grievances to making political demands for African freedom. (Reader’s Digest, Illustrated History of South Africa, pp.304-311). Although the ICU would transform itself into a nationalist movement in the 1920s and 1930s, it would fall to internal dissension and state repression.

The 1930s and 1940s saw a revival in African trade unionism, as Africans employed in the private sector rose rapidly from 54,856 in 1932-33 to 215,582 in 1945-46. (Lewis, Industrialisation and Trade Union Organisation in South Africa, 1924-55. pp.159 ff.) This was the result first of expansion in the mining sector and second the isolation of South Africa during the Second World War and the cut-off imports from abroad. The country had to industrialize in many sectors, leading the state to take a somewhat more conciliatory approach towards African unions. (Lewis, p.160. See especially War Measure 145 of 1942) World War II had other influences on the South African labor scene as well. Africans had been called up to serve as service troops and to work in the port cities, where they came in contact with South Africans of all ethnic/racial backgrounds. They also became acquainted with ideas from overseas, including those concerning economic and social justice, and with the movement to end colonialism in other parts of the world in the immediate post war period.

African women have worked in South African industry for as long as it has been in existence, and they have been key participants in labor’s resistance to apartheid and to the color bar before it. In an economy characterized by migrant labor, women have had to be care givers and workers and, in some cases, founders of trade unions, all at the same time. (Mashimi, Introduction, Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life, pp. xix-ff). It was women who organized the Anti Pass Law Campaign of 1956 in support of labor and who coined the famous slogan “You have tampered with the women. You have struck a rock. You have dislodged a boulder: you will be crushed.” Women trade union members would play a key role as resisters, organizers, and bearers of collective memory during the dark days of apartheid. (See the very interesting collection of women’s voices in Vukani Makhosikazi, South African Women Speak.)

When the National Party came to power in 1948, it promulgated a newer and more rigid racial policy of apartheid and severely repressed the steadily growing African trade union movement. In 1955, fourteen government-registered unions broke with the Trade Union Council of South Africa (TUCSA) when it refused to admit African unions. They then formed the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). Closely allied from the start with the African National Congress (ANC), SACTU played a largely political role almost from the beginning, seeking to advance the agenda of the ANC, but it largely ignored the demands and wishes of workers on the shop floor. In 1960 when the ANC was banned, with its leaders arrested or underground, SACTU’s submission to the nationalist movement and low priority to worker organizing cost it dearly. Few workers were in a position to defend the union, and between 1960 and 1966 160 unionists were arrested and many others were driven underground. SACTU ceased to function. (Friedman, pp. 32-33. [For a voice representative of that period between 1946 and 1973, and the influence of the left on the union movement access listen to Billy Nair interview segment] [Listen to second Nair segment]

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