The Role of Organized Labor

The Durban Strikes of 1973

Although most political organizations had been banned in 1960 and many leaders were in jail or in exile, African unrest grew because of stagnant wages and declining living standards throughout the country. Black underground workers in the gold mining industry were the most exploited outside of women domestic workers. In 1972, their wages were R18 per month, less than the two shillings six pence they had been making in 1902! And while African miners made R18, white miners made R400 per month. It was in the Indian Ocean port city of Durban, far from the mines of the Reef, (Witwatersrand), where workers’ action emerged, although African wages there were no lower than other places in the Republic. At the time, Durban workers were for the most part not members of trade unions. Yet on January 9, 1973, 2,000 workers struck the Coronation Brick and Tile Company demanding a rise in wages from R8.97 to R20 per week. (Pampallis, Foundations of the New South Africa. p.247)

Coverage of the strike was all over the newspapers, and the workers received a small wage increase. Durban was also the home to Frame Industries Group, one of the largest textile manufacturers in the world at the time and one of the lowest-paying firms in South Africa. Tensions had risen there even before the Coronation strike, and stoppages at Frame would continue for well over the next decade. During the first three months of 1973, more than 61,000 workers participated in 160 strikes. (For a compilation of the Durban strikes activities, with accompanying photos see the magazine Sechaba, Vol. 7 nos. 4, 5, 6, and 7, April - July, 1973)

Several other factors may well have contributed to the Durban strikes. Workers there seemed to have an informal network in that they shared a common language Zulu as well as common traditions. Their traditional homeland of KwaZulu, while much reduced in size, had remained more intact than others in South Africa and even had a functioning government led by a Paramount Chief later King, and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Their leadership authority, rooted in tradition, had a considerable degree of legitimacy. Buthelezi, unlike other homeland leaders who were hostile to unions, repeatedly called for “African union rights.” Furthermore, the largest African townships around Durban, Umlazi, was within KwaZulu’s borders, and some observers argue that workers were willing to risk a strike action because they were not affected by the pass laws that restricted Africa access to the cities in other parts of the country. (Friedman, pp. 47-48) Whatever the reasons for the success of the strikes, the Durban stoppages signaled the first major fissure in the wall of grand apartheid. As one older transportation worker stated, “I’ve waited nine years for things to improve, but instead things “have become worse. We are treated like babies, not like men with brains. Only now that there is trouble they are talking to us like men.”

And talk they did, for what the workers had won was little in the way of wages, and more in the way of recognition of their humanity, their needs, and the beginnings of an understanding of their conditions. Even whites in the Durban area agreed that African’s pay was too low and that the strikes had been justified. As the pressure mounted on private industry and government alike, the realization dawned on white South Africa that black labor was now a permanent part of the economic and social landscape. The net result was to move towards eventual recognition of African unions and to set up a system for recognition and collective bargaining.

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