South Africa from World War II to the mid-1970s

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In the previous article on the workers’ movement in South Africa1, we addressed the history of South Africa by successively evoking the birth of capitalism, of the working class, the apartheid system and the first movements of workers’ struggle. And we ended the article by showing that, following the crushing of the workers’ struggles of the 1920s, the bourgeoisie (then represented by the Labour Party and the Afrikaner National Party) managed to stifle all expressions of proletarian class struggle, so that it was not until the eve of the Second World War that we see the working class awake from its deep sleep. Clearly, after the crushing of the insurrectionary strike of 1922 in a terrible bloodbath and up until the late 1930s, the South African proletariat was paralysed and essentially left the terrain of struggle to the white and black nationalist groups and parties.

This article highlights the formidable effect of the apartheid system on the class struggle, combined with the action of the trade unions and parties of the bourgeoisie, up until the end of the 1960s when, faced with the unprecedented development of the class struggle, the bourgeoisie had to “modernise” its political apparatus and revamp its system. In other words, it had to face up to the South African proletariat, which had finally resumed its massive struggles by enrolling in the global waves of struggle that marked the end of the 1960s and early 1970s.

To evoke this period of the working class struggle, we rely heavily on the work of Brigitte Lachartre,2 member of the Centre for Research, Information and Action in Africa – CRIAA – the only body (to our knowledge) that is dedicated to the history of social struggles in South Africa.

Ephemeral revival of the class struggle during the second butchery of 39-45

War preparations in Europe meant for South Africa an unexpected acceleration of industrialization, the major industrial countries constituting the principal sources of support for the South African economy: “(...) The period 1937-1945 was marked by a brutal acceleration of the industrial process. South Africa, at this time, was forced to develop its own processing industries given the economic paralysis of Europe at war and of its exports across the world.3

This resulted in the massive recruitment of workers and increasing rates of production. Against these rates and the degradation of its living conditions, the working class had to suddenly wake up and launch itself into struggle:

For the African masses, this phase of industrial intensification was reflected in accelerated proletarianisation, further increased by the fact that a quarter of the white labour force was then enrolled in voluntary military service with the Allies. During this period, workers’ struggles and strikes led to significant wage increases (13% per year between 1941 and 1944) and a resurgence of the African trade union movement. (...) Between 1934 and 1945 there were a record 304 strikes in which 58,000 Africans, coloureds and Indians and 6,000 whites took part. In 1946, the African miners’ union, an organisation not legally recognised, triggered a very important wave of strikes across the country that was repressed in blood. It nevertheless managed to mobilize some 74,000 black workers.”4

So the South African regime was forced to develop its own processing industries, given that it also had to replace a large part of the workforce mobilised in the imperialist slaughter. This meant that South Africa achieved at that time a certain level of technological development that allowed it to free itself (momentarily) from its European suppliers; a unique case on the African continent.

For its part, unexpectedly, the working class was able to quite massively resume its struggle in reaction to the super-exploitation caused by the speed up of work rates. Through a heroic movement (in the context of war with martial law applying) it was able to wrest wage increases without being massacred in a bloodbath. This defensive struggle, however, was largely insufficient to positively affect the dynamics of the class struggle, which was still largely contained by the bourgeois state. Indeed, the state was not slow to take advantage of the wartime context to reinforce its repressive apparatus and finally managed to inflict a heavy defeat on the entire South African proletariat. This defeat (like those experienced previously) traumatised the working class for a long time and plunged it into inertia, allowing the South African bourgeoisie to consolidate its victory at the political level, in particular through the formalisation of the apartheid system. The South African state, which was directed by the Afrikaners after their victory in parliamentary elections in 1948, decided to reinforce all the old repressive laws and measures5 against the proletarian masses in general. Thus, apartheid officially became a system of governance, justifying the most barbaric acts against the working class in its various ethnic groups and especially against Africans. These went from “small” vexations to the most abject practices:: separate toilets, separate kitchens, separate living areas, separate public benches, separate bus/taxis, separate schools, separate hospitals, etc. And they were all accompanied by an article of law punishing by imprisonment anyone who ventured to violate these monstrous laws. And indeed each year more than 300,000 people were arrested for breaches of these despicable laws. Thus, a worker of European origin was likely to go to jail if he was caught drinking with someone who was black or of mixed race. In this context where everyone risked prison, it was impossible to envisage a political discussion between proletarians of different ethnic groups.6

This situation weighed terribly on the ability of the working class as a whole to struggle, to the point of plunging it back into a period of “sleep” (like the one after the 1920s), which lasted from the 1950s until the early 1970s. During this period, the class struggle was diverted mainly by supporters of the struggle for “national liberation”, namely the partisans of the ANC/CP, behind whose cause they led black South African workers up until the end of apartheid.

Parties and unions divert the struggles onto a nationalist terrain

Parties and unions played a leading role in systematically diverting workers’ struggles onto the terrain of white and black nationalism. It is not necessary to describe at length the role played by the Labour Party against the working class, this being evident from the fact that, the day after its active participation in the global butchery of 1914-1918, it used its power to openly carry out violent attacks against the South African proletariat. Moreover, from that moment, it ceased to officially claim membership of “the workers’ movement”, which did not prevent it from preserving its links with the unions it was close to like TUCSA (Trade Union Confederation of South Africa). In addition, between 1914 and the end of apartheid, before breaking up, it passed from government to opposition, and vice versa, like any “classical” bourgeois party

For more details on the ANC, readers are referred to the previous article in this series. If we mention it here it is mainly because it is its alliance with the CP and trade unions that allowed it to play a double role as the controller and oppressor of the working class.

As for the Communist Party, we will return to the way it dealt with a certain proletarian opposition at the beginning of its black nationalist orientation, applying the instructions of Stalin and the degenerating Third International. Certainly the information we have does not indicate the numerical or political importance of this proletarian opposition to the South African Communist Party, but it was strong enough to attract the attention of Leon Trotsky who attempted to support it.

The counter-revolutionary role of the South African Communist Party under Stalin’s leadership

The South African Communist Party, as a “Stalinised party,” played a harmful counter-revolutionary role against the workers’ struggles in the early 1930s, when this former internationalist party was already in the grip of a profound process of degeneration. Having participated in the struggle for proletarian revolution at the beginning of its formation in the 1920s, the South African CP was very quickly manipulated by the Stalinist regime and from 1928 it obediently executed its counter-revolutionary orders, including the making of alliances with the black bourgeoisie. The Stalinist theory of “socialism in one country” was accompanied by the idea that underdeveloped countries must necessarily pass through a “bourgeois revolution” and that, in this vision, the proletariat could still fight against colonial oppression but on no account struggle for the overthrow of capitalism in order to establish proletarian power in the colonies. This policy was translated concretely, at the end of the 1920s, into a “class collaboration” where the South African CP was first the “proletarian guarantor” of the ANC’s nationalist policies before definitively becoming its active accomplice up until today. This can be illustrated by these dire words from a secretary general of the CP, addressing Mandela: “Nelson (...) we are fighting the same enemy (...) we are working in the context of African nationalism.7

An internationalist minority opposed to the nationalist orientation of the South African CP

This policy of the South African CP was contested by a minority whose efforts Trotsky himself attempted to support, unfortunately in the wrong way. Instead of resolutely fighting against the nationalist and counter-revolutionary orientation advocated by Stalin in South Africa, in 1935 Leon Trotsky summed up the attitude that the revolutionary militants should have towards the ANC:

1. The Bolshevik-Leninists put themselves in defence of the Congress in all cases when it is being attacked by the white oppressors and their chauvinistic agents in the ranks of the workers’ organisations.

2. The Bolshevik-Leninists place the progressive over against the reactionary tendencies in the program of the Congress.

3. The Bolshevik-Leninists unmask before the native masses the inability of the Congress to achieve the realisation of even its own demands, because of its superficial, conciliatory policy, and develop in contradistinction to the Congress a program of revolutionary class struggle.

4. Separate, episodic agreements with the Congress, if they are forced by circumstances, are permissible only within the framework of strictly defined practical tasks, with the retention of full and complete independence of our own organization and freedom of political criticism.”8

It is disconcerting to learn that, despite the evidence of the counter-revolutionary character of the Stalinist orientation applied by the South African CP towards the ANC, Trotsky still sought to accommodate himself with its diversionary tactics. On the one hand he asserted: “The Bolshevik-Leninists put themselves in defence of the Congress”, and on the other: “The Bolshevik-Leninists unmask before the native masses the inability of the Congress to achieve the realisation of even its own demands...

This was nothing but an expression of a policy of accommodation and conciliation with a fraction of the bourgeoisie because, at that time, there were no grounds to foresee any possible evolution of the ANC towards a proletarian class position. But above all, Trotsky was unable to see the reversal of the course of the class struggle, the domination of the counter-revolution, which was expressed by the victory of Stalinism.

It is no longer surprising to hear the Trotskyist group Lutte Ouvrière (80 years later), having noted the erroneous character of Trotsky’s orientation, attempt to justify this orientation with typical Trotskyist contortions by saying, on the one hand: “Trotsky’s policy did not have a decisive influence but we must bear it in mind....” On the other hand, Lutte Ouvrière says the South African CP: “began fully in the service of the ANC and has continually sought to hide its bourgeois character”.

Instead of just saying that Trotsky’s policy on the matter was wrong and that the CP had become a bourgeois party just like the ANC, LO engages in hypocritical acrobatics aimed at masking the nature of the South African Stalinist party. In doing so LO tries to hide its own bourgeois character and emotional ties with Stalinism.

The unions’ role as saboteurs of struggles and the efforts of “revolutionary syndicalism”

It should first be said that, by their natural role as “professional negotiators” and “peacemakers” of the conflicts between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the unions cannot truly constitute organs of the struggle for proletarian revolution, especially in the period of capitalist decadence, as illustrated by the history of class struggle since 1914.

However, we should underline the fact that, with the butchery of 1914-1918, workers defending proletarian internationalism tried to create revolutionary unions such as the IWA (Industrial Workers of Africa), on the model of the American IWW, and the ICU (the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union)9:

“(...) In 1917, a poster appeared on the walls of Johannesburg, convening a meeting for July 19: ‘Come and discuss issues of common interest between white and indigenous workers’. This text was published by the International Socialist League (ISL), a revolutionary syndicalist organization influenced by the American IWW (...) and formed in 1915 in opposition to the First World War and the racist and conservative policies of the South African Labour Party and craft unions. Comprising at the beginning mostly white activists, the ISL moved very quickly towards black workers, calling in its weekly newspaper International, to build ‘a new union that overcomes the limitations of trade, skin colour, race and sex to destroy capitalism by a blockade of the capitalist class’”10

As shown in this quotation, truly revolutionary minorities did try to create “revolutionary” unions in order to destroy capitalism and its ruling class. We should note that the ICU was born in 1919 following a merger with the IWA and grew rapidly. But unfortunately this union soon abandoned the field of proletarian internationalism:

This union grew tremendously from 1924 and reached a peak of 100,000 members in 1927, making it the largest organisation of Africans after the ANC in the 1950s. In the 1930s, the ICU even established sections in Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe before declining gradually. The ICU was not officially a revolutionary syndicalist organization. It was more influenced by nationalist and traditionalist ideologies than anti-capitalism, and developed a certain form of bureaucracy.”11

As can be seen, “revolutionary” unionism did not thrive for as long in South Africa as its partisans claimed. The ICU was certainly a “radical” and combative union, which initially advocated the unity of the working class. But even before the end of the 1920s it oriented itself towards the exclusive defence of the “black cause” under the pretext that the official (white) unions did not defend the indigenous workers. Moreover, Clements Kadalie12 one of the ICU’s most influential leaders, categorically rejected the notion of “class struggle” and ceased to integrate white workers (including members of the South African CP) into his union. Finally, the ICU died in the early 1930s under the blows of the ruling power and from its own contradictions. However, later on a number of its leaders pursued their union activities in other groups known for their African trade union nationalism, while other elements opting for internationalism were marginalised or dispersed.

Unions designed according to the laws of the apartheid regime

Like all states, faced with the working class, the apartheid regime felt the need for trade unions, but in this case they were to be designed according to the principles of the segregationist system:

“(…) The unionised South African population was organised in unions partitioned according to the race of their members A first distinction was officially imposed between recognised unions, that is to say, those registered with the Ministry of Labour and workers’ organisations not recognised by the government, that is to say, which did not enjoy the official status of a workers’ union. This primary cleavage was the result, firstly, of the law on the settlement of Bantu work disputes (...), which maintained that Africans without the status of “employee” did not have the right to form fully recognised unions; and secondly, of the law on reconciliation in the industry (...) that allowed whites, coloureds and Indians to join unions but prohibited the creation of new mixed unions.13

At first glance, one can see in the South African state’s conception of trade unionism a certain cynicism and a very elementary racism. But really, the hidden purpose was to avoid at all costs a consciousness among the workers (of all backgrounds) that the resistance struggles of the working class were fundamentally confrontations between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the two real antagonistic classes in society. What is the best instrument for this bourgeois policy on the ground? It is obviously unionism. Hence all the laws and regulations on trade unions decided by the government at the time in order to improve the effectiveness of its anti-proletarian defences. The fact remains that the African section of the proletariat was the main target of the oppressor regime because it was larger and more combative, hence the fury which the bourgeois power showed towards it:

Since 1950, the African trade unions have lived under the threat of the law on the suppression of communism, which gives the government the power to declare any organisation, including an African union (but not the other unions), ‘illegal’ if it engages in activities to promote the objectives of communism. (…) The definition of communism includes, among others, activities aimed at provoking ‘industrial, social or economic change’. Thus, a strike, or any action organised by a trade union to end the system of reserved jobs or obtain wage increases and better working conditions, could well be declared favourable to ‘communism’ and serve as an excuse to outlaw the union.14

For the South African government, behind the workers’ struggles there was the spectre of the questioning of its system, which it identified with the struggle for communism. Such a perspective was, we know, far from corresponding to the possibilities of this period of counter-revolution, which was unfavourable to the struggles of the working class on its own class terrain and where the struggle for communism was identified with the establishing of Stalinist-type regimes. But this does not preclude the fact that, even in these conditions, regimes of whatever kind are faced with the need to block the spontaneous tendency of workers to struggle to defend their conditions of life and work. The apartheid system understood that the unions constituted the best means of doing this, any union not pliant with its rules running the risk of being outlawed.

The main existing unions until the 1970s

These were the following:

  • The unions of European origin: these had always followed the orientations of the colonial power, and in particular supported the war efforts in 1914-1918 and in 1939-1945. Similarly they assumed until the end of the apartheid system and beyond their role as “defenders” of the exclusive interests of white workers, even when they included workers of colour in their ranks. On the one hand there was the South African Confederation of Labour, considered as the most racist and conservative workers’ grouping in the country (close to the apartheid regime) and, on the other, the Trade Union Confederation of South Africa, whose complicit ties to the Labour Party were very old. Most workers of colour (Indian and ‘coloured’ as defined by the regime but neither blacks nor whites) were for their part sometimes in mixed unions (some coloured but mainly white) and sometimes in unions of “colour”.

  • African trade unions: these were more or less strongly tied to the CP and the ANC, proclaiming themselves as defenders of the African workers and for national liberation. These were the Congress of South African Trade Unions (SACTU), the Free Trade Union Federation of South Africa and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

In 1974, there were 1,673,000 union members organised on the one hand in 85 exclusively white unions and on the other in 41 mixed and coloured unions regrouping a total of 45,188 white members and 130,350 of colour. But although outnumbered by members of colour, the white union members were of course more advantaged and considered they were better than the latter:

“(...) White workers’ unions were concentrated in economic sectors long protected by the government and reserved as a priority for the Afrikaner workforce, the electoral base of the ruling party. The six most numerically important white unions (...) were implanted in public and municipal services, the iron and steel industry, the automobile industry and mechanical engineering, railways and port services.”15

With this kind of union apparatus, we can better understand the difficulties of the white working class in identifying with its sister fractions (black, coloured and Indian), since the steel barriers set up by the segregationist system made it almost impossible to envisage any common action between proletarians faced with the same exploiter.

There were (in 1974) 1,015,000 union members organised, firstly, in trade unions exclusively of colour and, secondly, in mixed unions (i.e. all those in unions excluding black Africans). “The white unions were racially homogeneous, while the coloured or Asian unions had to submit to the coercion of the nationalist government.16

In the same year (1974), black Africans represented 70% of the working population and some 6,300,000 were affiliated to unions that were not officially recognised, given that workers didn’t have the right to organise themselves. Here again is an aberration of the apartheid system with its bureaucracy of another age in which the state and employers were allowed to employ people while denying them the status of employees, but allowing them nevertheless to create their own unions. What could therefore be the purpose of the regime’s manoeuvres in this situation?

It is clear that the tolerance of the African trade union organisations by the regime in no way contradicted its objective of controlling and dividing the working class along ethnic or nationalist lines. Indeed it is easier to control a strike controlled by “responsible” union organisations (even if unrecognised) than having to deal with a “wildcat” movement without leaders identified in advance. Besides, in this regard, the South African regime was following a “recipe” that was applied by all states faced with a combative proletariat.

The national liberation struggle against the class struggle

In reaction to the formal establishment of apartheid (1948), which resulted in the legal prohibition of African organisations, the CP and the ANC mobilised their militants, including the unions, and embarked on an armed struggle. With terror being employed on both sides, the working class suffered the consequences and could not avoid being enlisted by one or the other. Clearly, the working class as a whole was firmly taken hostage by the nationalists of all stripes.

Between 1956 and 1964, the main leaders of the ANC, the PAC,17 and the South African Communist Party were arrested. The interminable trials to which they were subjected eventually ended in life imprisonment or renewed banishment for the principal historic leaders (N. Mandela, W. Sisulu, R. Fischer...), while very heavy prison sentences hit all the militants. Those who could escape repression took refuge in Lesotho, Ghana, Zambia, Tanzania, Botswana. (…) In addition, military camps in countries neighbouring South Africa regrouped refugees or ‘freedom fighters’ who underwent military training and stood ready to intervene. Inside the country, the decade 1960-1970 was one of silence: repression silenced the opposition and only the protests of some religious and student organisations were heard. Strikes could be counted on the fingers of one hand while black workers bowed their heads, and black puppet leaders appointed by the Nationalist government, collaborated in the policy of dividing the country.18

From all this it is clear that the South African proletariat was chained, trapped between the repression of the ruling power and the impasse of armed struggle launched by the African nationalists. This amply explains the passivity of the working class during this long period ranging from the 1940s up until the 1970s (except for the ephemeral episode of struggles during the second world butchery). But above all, this situation was an opportunity for the parties and trade unions to fully occupy the ideological terrain, poisoning class consciousness by striving to systematically transform every struggle of the working class into a struggle for “national liberation” for one section and one to defend the interests of “white workers” for the other. Obviously all this could only satisfy the objectives of the enemy of the working class, namely South African national capital.

The recovery of the class struggle: the strike waves between 1972 and 1975

After a long period of apathy, when it was subdued and held in check by the apartheid government and supporters of the liberation struggle, the working class successfully renewed its struggles in Namibia (a colony of South Africa at that time), thus enrolling itself in the worldwide waves of struggle that marked the end of the 1960s and the 1970s. 19

The example of Namibia

As in South Africa, the working class in Namibia was, on the one side, caught in the bloody clutches of the South African police regime, and, on the other, dominated by the supporters of the national liberation struggle (SWAPO20). But, unlike the working class in South Africa which benefited from a long experience of struggle, it was the working class in Namibia, one with no real experience (to our knowledge), that would start the ball rolling in the struggles of the 1970s:

Eleven years had passed since the last African mass movements. The white regime took advantage of this respite to consolidate its plans for separate development. On the social front, peace and stability could be loudly proclaimed across the world. But, two series of events emerged to disturb the ‘white peace’ in South Africa and create a sense of disquiet: the first occurred at the end of 1971 in Namibia, a territory illegally occupied by South Africa, and which, since 1965, had been agitated by the resistance of the South-West Africa People’ Organisation (SWAPO) to the central government of Pretoria. The second took place in the course of 1972 in South Africa itself, in the form of spectacular strikes launched by the bus conductors of Johannesburg. These two waves of unrest are generally attributed with the role of detonator for the events which were unleashed in the first days of January 1973.”21

The first strike started in Namibia in Windhoek (the capital) and its suburbs, in Katutura, where 6,000 workers decided to enter into struggle against the political and economic oppression of the South African regime. And 12,000 other workers spread over a dozen industrial centres would soon follow the same strike agenda as their Katutura comrades. Thus 18,000 strikers downed tools several days after the beginning of the movement – one third of the estimated workforce of 50,000. And, despite threats of state repression and the violent blackmail of the employers, the workers’ fighting spirit remained intact:

Two weeks after the start of the strike almost all the strikers were sent back to the townships. The employers announced that they would re-hire the Ovambo (the ethnic name of the strikers) who had been disciplined, but would seek their workforce from elsewhere if they did not accept the conditions on offer. With the workers standing firm, the employers launched a wide recruitment campaign in other parts of the country, as well as in Lesotho and South Africa: they failed to recruit more than 1,000 new workers and were forced to go back and talk to the Ovambo workers.”22

Clearly, faced with the fighting spirit of the workers, the employers began to manoeuvre to divide the strikers, but were forced to give way: “The employment contracts against which the strike was organised were subject to some changes; the recruitment agency (the SWANLA) was dismantled and its functions devolved to the Bantu authorities with the obligation to create recruitment offices in each Bantustan; the terms ‘masters’ and ‘servants’ were replaced in the contracts with ‘employers’ and ‘employees’.”23

Obviously, given everything that remained in the arsenal of apartheid in the world of work, we can say that the victory of the strikers was not decisive. However this was a highly symbolic and promising victory in the context in which the strike movement unfolded: “The scale of the strikes was such that it made it impossible for the government to adopt any traditional style of punitive action.24

This showed that the balance of forces began to change in favour of the working class, which was able to show its militancy and its courage against the repressive regime. Besides, the exemplary experience of the struggle of the Namibian workers did not fail to spread to South Africa, unfolding there on an even more massive scale.

Strikes and riots in South Africa between 1972 and 1975

After Namibia, the working class continued its struggle within South Africa in 1972 where 300 Johannesburg bus drivers went on strike, 350 in Pretoria; 2,000 dockers came out in Durban and 2,000 in Cape Town. All these strikes made demands for wage rises or better working conditions. And their importance could be measured by the anxiety of the bourgeoisie, which was soon employing huge resources to defeat the movements:

The reaction of the government and the employers was brutal and swift. The 300 strikers in Johannesburg were arrested. In Durban, 15 of them were sacked. In other sectors, at the Ferro Plastic Rubber Industries, they were penalised 100 rand or given 50 days in jail for stopping work illegally. At Colgate-Palmolive (Boksburg) all African staff were dismissed. In one diamond mine, the striking miners were sentenced to 80 days in prison, their contracts were cancelled and they were sent back to their townships.25

This brutal reaction expresses very clearly the palpable concern of the ruling class. However, the savagery which the South African bourgeoisie showed was accompanied by a dose of realism, because wage increases were granted to certain striking sectors with a view to encouraging a return to work. And as Brigitte Lachartre says:

Half-victory, half defeat, the 1972 strikes mainly had the effect of taking the authorities by surprise, and they swiftly took stock of the situation, refusing to negotiate with the black workers, deployed the police and dismissed the strikers. Some statistical measures help us to see the scale of the events that shook the country in the following years: coming from various sources, they do not match exactly and are inclined to under-estimate. According to the Ministry of Labour, there were 246 strikes in 1973, which involved 75,843 black workers. For its part, the Police Department declared that its forces were involved in dealing with 261 strikes in the same year. Meanwhile, union activists in Durban estimated at 100,000 the number of black workers who went on strike in Natal during the first three months of 1973. For 1974, the figure of 374 strikes was given for the industrial sector alone and there were considered to be 57,656 strikers. For the province of Natal alone from June 1972 to June 1974, there were officially 222 work stoppages involving 78,216 workers. In mid-June 1974, 39 strikes in metallurgy had been registered, 30 in textiles, 22 in the garment sector, 18 in construction, 15 in commerce and distribution. (...) Wildcat strikes were increasing. Durban had 30,000 strikers in mid-February ‘73, and the movement spread throughout the country.”26

As we can see, South Africa was fully drawn into the successive waves of struggle that unfolded from the late 1960s and which signalled the opening of a course towards the development of class confrontations globally. Many of these strikes had to face the harsh repression of the government and employers’ militias and ended in hundreds of deaths and injuries in the workers’ ranks. The aggression and fury of the forces of capitalist order were directed at strikers who were only demanding dignified living conditions. Therefore, we must underline the courage and the fighting spirit of the South African working class (black, in particular) that generally went into struggle in solidarity and relying on its own consciousness, as is illustrated by the following example:

The first expression of anger took place in a construction equipment plant (bricks and tiles): Coronation Brick and Tile Co, located in the industrial suburb of Durban. 2000 workers, the entire African workforce of the company, went on strike on 9 January 1973 in the morning. They demanded the doubling of their wages (which then amounted to 9 rand per week) and then demanded that they be tripled. An increase had been promised the previous year but had still not yet been given.

The workers of the first factory told how the strike began: they were awakened by a group of comrades at about three in the morning, who told them to meet on the football field instead of going to clock in for work. A delegation of sorts then left in the direction of the warehouses in the Avoca area to ask other workers to join them at the stadium. This first phase of the strike unfolded in good spirits and the slogans were warmly welcomed. Nobody was opposed. The Avoca workforce went to the stadium across town in two columns and without worrying about the heavy traffic on the streets of the city at that time or the prohibitions they were breaking. Passing through the gates of the stadium, they all sang: ‘Filumuntu ufesadikiza’, meaning ‘the man is dead, but his spirit still lives on.’”27

Here we see the working class engaging in a very different form of struggle, taking things into its own hands without consulting anyone; that is to say, neither the unions nor any other “social mediators”, a development which could only disorient the employers. Indeed, as expected, the company’s CEO said he did not want to discuss with the strikers inside a football stadium but would only be ready to negotiate with a “delegation”. But since an enterprise committee already existed, the workers flatly refused to form a delegation, chanting “our demands are clear, we do not want a committee, we want 30 rand a week”. So the South African government began to manoeuvre by sending the Zulu authorities (their puppets) to “discuss” with the strikers, while the police stood by with loaded guns. In the end, the strikers had to go back to work under the combined pressure of all the various forces of the regime and accept an increase of 2.077 rand after refusing 1.50 previously. The workers returned to work deeply dissatisfied because of the low salary increase obtained. However, with the press having broadcast the news of the movement, other sectors immediately gave it a fresh impetus by launching into struggle.

Two days later, 150 workers of a small tea packing company (TW Beckett) stopped work, demanding a wage increase of 3 rand a week. The reaction of management was to call the police and fire all those who refused to return to work. There were no negotiations. One of the employees said: ‘We were given 10 minutes to make our minds up’. A hundred workers refused to return to work. A few days later the management let it be known that it would re-hire the sacked workers but at the previous wage. Almost no one went back to his post. After only three weeks of the strike, the company agreed an increase of 3 rand for everyone. Almost all the workers were re-hired. (…). At the same time as the strike at Beckett’s, African workers from several service companies and boat repairers (JH Skitt and Co. and James Brown and Hamer) also stopped work. (...) The strike lasted several days and an increase of 2 to 3 rand a week was finally agreed.”28

A new phenomenon had occurred: a series of strikes which had ended in real victories because, faced with the balance of force imposed by the strikers, the bosses (in a state company) were forced to give in to the workers’ wage demands. In this sense, the most illustrative case is that of Beckett’s, which had agreed an increase of 3 rand a week; that is, the amount demanded by its employees. At the same time they were forced to take back almost all workers they had wanted to sack. Another very remarkable fact in the struggle was the conscious solidarity between workers from different ethnic groups, in this case, Africans and Indians. This wonderful gesture illustrates the ability of the working class to unite in struggle despite the multiple divisions institutionalised by the South African bourgeoisie and knowingly condoned and enforced by the trade unions and the nationalist parties. Therefore, ultimately, we can speak of a glorious workers’ victory over the forces of capital. Indeed, it was a success appreciated as such by the workers themselves, and which encouraged other sectors to launch strike action, for example in the public service sector:

On 5th February, the most spectacular actions, but also the most tension-filled, were carried out: 3,000 employees of the Durban municipality went on strike from the roads, sewers, electricity and slaughterhouse sectors. The weekly salary of the staff at the time amounted to 13 rand; the demands were for this to be doubled. The protests had such an affect that soon there were 16,000 workers refusing the increase of 2 rand made by the municipal council. It’s noteworthy that the Africans and Indians acted more often than not in close solidarity, even though the municipality had sent a large number of Indian employees home, so, it was said, they would not be molested and forced to strike by the Africans! If it was true that the Africans and Indians had different pay scales, the gaps in pay between them were not very important and usually varied between very low and low. On the other hand, if the Indians had the right to strike – which the Africans did not – this right was only applicable to certain sectors and in certain circumstances. However, in the public services, considered ‘essential services’, strikes were prohibited to everyone in the same way”.29

This strike, where we see the struggles in the private and public sectors coinciding, is also a major element expressing very clearly the high level of militancy and class consciousness reached by the South African proletariat in the early 1970s, especially as these movements took place, as always, in the same context of bloody repression - the automatic response of the apartheid regime, particularly against strikes considered “illegal”. And yet, despite all this, the militancy remained intact and even grew:

The situation remained explosive: the municipal workers had refused a wage increase of 15%; the number of factories affected by the strike had further increased and the majority of the textile workers had not returned to work. Addressing the striking workers of the municipality, one of the officials threatened them with the physical force he had the right to use, since their strike was illegal. (...) The crowd then began to jeer at him and ordered him off the stage. Trying to explain that the municipal council had already granted an increase of 15%, he was again interrupted by the workers who shouted to him that they wanted a further 10 rand. (...) The atmosphere of these meetings seems to have been mostly euphoric and the comments from the crowd of strikers more jocular than furious. The workers gave the impression of throwing off a weight that had long oppressed them. (...) As for the demands they made at these demonstrations, these also revealed the euphoric excitement since they were calling for wage increases much higher than could actually be achieved, sometimes in the order of 50-100%.”

Here we can speak in terms of a working class that had greatly recovered its class consciousness and was no longer content with wage increases but was more concerned with its self-respect and its dignity. More importantly, it demonstrated self-confidence, as shown above for example in the verbal exchange with the spokesman for the forces of law and order who the workers openly mocked. In short, in the words of the author of this quotation, the workers were euphoric and far from shocked by the police repression imposed by the state. On the contrary, in this situation where the South African proletariat had demonstrated its self-confidence, its class consciousness sowed confusion and panic inside the ruling class.

The bourgeois reaction to the workers’ strikes shows its disorientation

Clearly, faced with a wave of struggles of such strength, the ruling class could not stand idly by. But the leaders of the country were visibly surprised by the scale of combativity and the determination of the strikers, hence the dispersion and incoherence of the reactions of the bourgeoisie’s representatives.

This is demonstrated by these statements:

  • The President of the republic: “The subversive organisations persist in their efforts to incite sectors of the population to agitate. Their effects are resolutely opposed by the constant vigilance of the South African police. Sporadic strikes and protest campaigns, according to certain publications – organs of the Communist Party – are organised or given moral support by them, but have not produced significant results”.

  • The Minister of Labour: “The strikes in Natal show, by their conduct, that this is not a wage problem. (...) Everything indicates that an action was organised and that the strikers are out to get something more than a simple wage increase. The action of the workers and their unwillingness to negotiate clearly shows that agitation for union rights is not the solution and that it is only a smokescreen that hides something else ...”

  • A representative of the employers: “I don’t know who first had the idea to replace the strikers by prisoners, but this solution merits study. The alternative would be to employ Whites, but they use paint guns, which is hardly practicable in the windy conditions. As for the prisoners, we could certainly use them to clean the port and its surroundings …

  • An observer reflecting on the attitude of the unions to the strikes: “Another important aspect of the social situation in the country was specifically highlighted during these strikes: namely the loss of significant influence of the official unions. Although some members of these unions were themselves involved in some of these strikes, the majority of the union organisations were aware that the initiative was coming entirely from the non-unionised African workers and that there was no point in their intervening.”

This series of reactions clearly demonstrates a sense of panic at all levels of the South African state, and a particularly worrying phenomenon for the bourgeoisie was that these strikes were triggered and often controlled by the workers themselves, that is to say, with no union involvement. This attempt of the workers to control their struggles largely explains the divisions that were openly expressed by those in power over the means to be used to counteract the dynamic of the working class, as illustrated by the following quote:

The Anglophone and international sectors of capital did not have the same attachment to the racist and conservative doctrines as the state administrators. For them, productivity and profitability took precedence – at least at the level of discourse – over the official ideology and the legislative encumbrances of the colour barrier. (...). The most advanced spokesmen of the employers, for whom Harry Oppenheimer – President of the Anglo-American Corporation – was the leading voice, were for the gradual integration of the African labour force into the higher-paying skilled jobs, for improving the living and working conditions of the black workers and miners, and for its introduction to be controlled, at each stage, by the African trade unions.30

And, learning from the workers’ struggles, the big boss (Oppenheimer) of one of the largest diamond companies was instrumental (with others) in calling for the legalisation of the African unions to give them the means to better control the working class. Similarly, here is the case made by a spokesman of the “Progressive Party”, a close ally of the big boss quoted above: “The unions play an important role in that they prevent political disorder, (...) which, as history amply demonstrates, often follows from economic demands. If we can prevent these disorders through trade unionism and with negotiations on wages and working conditions, we can also reduce other risks. And it is not unionism which risks aggravating the situation”. Unlike the proponents of the apartheid “hard line”, this spokesman of the bourgeoisie (who we can describe as “enlightened”) saw very well the importance of the role played by the trade unions for the ruling class as forces for controlling the working class and preventing “risks” and “political disorder”.

The workers’ militancy forces the bourgeoisie to change its legislative system

Predictably, in drawing the lessons from the waves of struggle that shook the country in the early 1970s, the (“enlightened”) South African bourgeoisie was forced to react by adopting a series of measures to deal with the rising combativity of a working class that was becoming more and more aware of its strength and confidence. “The 1973 strikes broke out when its deputies were opening the parliamentary session in Cape Town. As was reported by the trade unionists in Durban, the representatives of the employers’ organisations and chambers of commerce went as a delegation to meet with the Minister of Labour to set up the first firewall against workers’ unrest. On this occasion, state-employer consultations were numerous and acted upon; past mistakes were not repeated.31

Indeed, after a series of consultations between the government, parliamentarians and employers, it was decided to “relax” a number of repressive measures to prevent “wildcat strikes” by giving more space to the African trade unions so that they could assume control over the workers. In doing so, the South African bourgeoisie became more “reasonable”, taking into account the changing balance of forces imposed by the working class through its massive struggles.

For a provisional conclusion on these great strike waves, we present the views of Brigitte Lachartre on these movements and those of a group of researchers from Durban, since both seem relevant in the light of the qualitative overall assessment: “The development of solidarity among the black workers in struggle and the increased awareness of their class unity were highlighted by many observers. This unquantifiable acquisition of the struggles is understood by them as the most positive for the continuation of the organisation of the movement of the black workers.32

And according to the analysis of the group of researchers33 cited by Brigitte Lachartre:

We note, moreover, that the spontaneity of the strikes was a major reason for their success, especially when compared with the relative failure of the mass actions of the Africans in the 50’s, in a period of more intense political activity. It was enough that the strikes were clearly organised (...) for the police to quickly seize those responsible. At the time, organised as they were, the strikes were a much greater threat to the White power; their demands were not negligible and, from the point of view of the Whites, the use of violence seemed the only possible outcome.

But the spontaneity of strikes does not mean that their demands were confined to the purely economic framework. These strikes were also political: the fact that the workers demanded the doubling of their wages is not a sign of the naiveté or stupidity of the Africans. It indicates more the expression of the rejection of their situation and their desire for a totally different society. The workers did return to work with some modest gains, but they were not more contented than they were before the strikes...”

We concur especially with the last paragraph of this quote, which gives a coherent conclusion to the overall analysis of the conduct of the struggles. As shown by its various experiences, the working class can easily switch from the economic struggle to the political struggle and vice versa. But we should above all retain the idea that the strikes were also very political. Indeed, behind the economic demands, the political consciousness of the South African working class was developing and this was a source of concern for the South African bourgeoisie. In other words, the political character of the strike waves in the years 1972-1975 eventually caused serious cracks in the apartheid system by forcing the political and industrial apparatus of capital to review its machinery for supervising the working class. This gave rise to a broad debate at the summit of the South African state on the question of the relaxation of repressive measures and more generally on the democratisation of social life, particularly regarding the legalisation of black trade unions. And indeed, after 1973 (the year of powerful strike movements), 17 new black trade unions were created or legalised in addition to the 13 previously existing. In other words, this debate was triggered by the workers’ struggles which led to the gradual process of dismantling the apartheid system but always under the pressure of workers’ struggles. Clearly by creating or strengthening the union forces, the bourgeoisie wanted to provide “social firemen” capable of extinguishing the flames of the workers’ struggles. For example, while maintaining the traditional means of deflecting social movements (nationalism, racism and corporatism), the bourgeoisie added a new “democratic” component by granting or extending “political rights” (supervised rights of association) to the black populations. It was this same process that allowed the ANC to come to power. However, as will be seen later on, the South African government would never abandon its other more traditional repressive measures against the working class, namely its police and military forces. This will be illustrated in the next article, particularly by looking at the large scale struggles of Soweto in 1976.

Lassou, June 2015

1. Published in International Review nº 154.

2. Luttes ouvrières et libération en Afrique du Sud, Editions Syros, 1977. We draw the reader’s attention to the fact that a simple reading of the book does not allow us to really know its author, her profile in terms of precise political influences. Nevertheless this seems close (at the time of the release of her book)to the intellectual milieu of the French left (or extreme left), as indicated from the following passage in her introduction: “(...) What to say to the individual concerned and aware of the game being played in southern Africa, to the political activist, trade unionist, student? Tell them about the struggles that led to it; that is, no doubt, what he expects. It is also a way of getting his attention by showing him how these struggles are close to him and how the society to which he belongs depends on their outcome. This is the choice that has been made here: to talk of the struggles of the black proletariat in recent years. Not that others have not done such work at different levels, and it would be a pity to pass over these in silence (those of intellectuals of all races, progressive Christians ...).

It turns out that among the authors (and other researchers) that we encountered in our research on the history of the workers’ movement in South Africa, Brigitte Lachartre is the only one who proposes to focus on the issue of workers’ struggles in this region, describing their progress with conviction and detailed analyses. Ultimately, that’s why we rely on it as a primary source document. Of course, where necessary, we reserve the right to express our disagreement with this or that element of her viewpoint.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. 1924 law passed by the Labourites and Afrikaners when in power.

6. On the “specific” difficulties of the white working class see International Review nº 154, the sections on “Apartheid against the class struggle”, and “National liberation struggle against the class struggle”.

7. See International Review nº 154.

9. Lucien van der Walt.

10. See the first article in this series in International Review nº 154.

11 .Lucien van der Walt, ibid.

13. Lachartre, ibid.

14. A. Hepple, Les travailleurs livrés à l’apartheid, cited by Lachartre, ibid.

15. Lachartre, ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Pan-Africanist Congress, a split from the ANC.

18. Lachartre, ibid.

19. See ibid.

20. South-West Africa People’s Organisation. Namibia was called “South-West Africa” at that time. See:

21. Lachartre, ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid.

27. The Durban Strikes - 1973, quoted by Brigitte Lachartre, ibid.

28. Ibid.

29. Lachartre, ibid.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid.

33. Authors of The Durban Strikes - 1973.


Historic events: 





South Africa