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ESSAY ONE: Page 6 of 9


At around 5 o’clock each morning, when the fruit bats cease their ringing, and all creatures that scuttle about in the night making a din, become quiet on this coastline, a new intensive *screeching starts. It cuts the dawn’s lull to shreds. It is the voice of the lourie, the Gwala-Gwala Bird. Its name, I am told, originates from these shrieks, of horror. From the Nkandla forests to Durban’s coastline, from Khosi Bay to Port Edward, the din starts.


Trade Unionism

The precarious nature and uneven development of industry hampered trade union strength in Natal. Most of the efforts of progressive trade unionists in the 1930s and 1940s were spent on organizing small pockets of industrial or, as they were called, “rags and bags” workers. Many minuscule industrial unions were started and brought together under a limited number of organizers for financial viability. Padayachee, et al have noted this fragile nature and the fundamental structural and organizational problems in a recent study. The Trade and Labour Council “left” extended organization to African workers through ‘parallel’ unions, sometimes achieving remarkable forms of cross-colour class solidarity. (59) Capturing the initiatives from below, they managed in certain sectors to achieve substantial wage increases in the 1939-1946 period.

But militancy was usually met with the iron rod of the authorities, and in the case of African migrant workers deportations stretched the scant resources of existing trade unions adversely. (60) This was further exacerbated by conflicts with the stronger and craft based unions of the TLC’s ‘right-wing’.

The Usage of Captive Labour Forces

But most of all, trade union organization and cross-colour class solidarity was blocked by the ability of Natal’s employers to use one captive labour force against another. This was the case with Indian against White workers, and African against Indian workers. Although examples abound, the Dunlop strike of 1943 epitomises the dynamics at hand. Dunlop management resisted with vigour the recognition o the Durban Rubber Workers organized by the Trade and Labour Council “left”. Instead, they attempted to foster their own in-company union, pre-empting independent organization.

This led to a strike by the Indian workers of this rubber giant, and the subsequent dismissal of the majority of workers to be replaced by migrant African workers at lower wage-rates. (60) Furthermore, Frame’s textile mills resisted trade unionism in the form of the Textile Workers Industrial union which was backed by the Garment Workers Union of Natal. Once the trend of trade union pressure was irreversible, textile bosses begun substituting Indian with African workers. The Indian vs Zulu ‘riots’ in Durban finally set the clock back for any attempt at concretely attaining trade union goals by dividing African and Indian workers. (62)

But most importantly, as wages in Natal’s industry stood at their highest in the immediate post-war period, reflecting some real gain for Durban’s workers, employers began substituting existing labour with a new found captive labour force: Indian women. From the late 1940s onwards, Indian women began, slowly at first, but rapidly thereafter, replacing men in the clothing industry at cheaper wage rates alongside African men replacing Indian workers in the textile industry. This, together with serious wage cuts in the early 1950s, (63) reflects the downward trend in Indian and African workers wages in Table No. II above.

The Dunlop Experience

The pioneering study of African factory workers conducted by the University of Natal in 1946 found that even Dunlop’s healthiest and best paid (African) workers in Durban’ (64) showed signs of malnutrition and undernourishment to the extent that none were seen to be “normal” by any criteria. Only 4.8% of them were ‘urbanized’ with family residing in town on lengthy contracts of employment. The majority resided in appalling barracks and compounds and the ‘unhygienic’ shacks of Cato Manor. They earned an 8d per hour minimum, amounting to 30 shillings a week which could rise to 49s.11d a week with overtime. The survey noted the high food prices and high rentals that affected their incomes and their standards of life. Due to the substitution of Indian labour in a mass producing enterprise, the African workers were barely earning subsistence wages. For the 31 449 African workers employed in industry at the time, and the 16 716 employed in domestic service, conditions were even worse. They earned an average of three pounds and five shillings per month.

The 1950s and Early 1960s

A new period of worker militancy was initiated from the mid-1950s in Natal, primarily through the organizing drives of trade unions affiliated to SACTU. The decline in wage standards, accentuated by the economic stagnation of the second half of the decade, renewed spontaneous strike activity on the one hand, and trade union organization on the other. Most marked was the one-pound-a-day campaign initiated by SACTU and supported by the ANC in what was rapidly becoming a new phase of political trade unionism. Such wage demands and political grievances sent shock-waves through the employers in industry, but before long the South African State began its frontal assault against political opposition in the country. The repression of trade union leadership and the disorganization of African workers that it precipitated was to survive into the 1970s. but alongside this, a new dimension to the poverty of the African work force was added through the destruction and reorganization (relocation) of the urban African population from the inner city to the new townships of KwaMashu and Umlazi. Through this relocation bus fares and rentals increased, adding the volatile nature of working class budgets. (65)

The Durban Strikes

In 1973 in Durban close to 100 000 workers participated in a spontaneous strike-wave that was to be the foundation of the contemporary trade union movement in South Africa. But at the same time it was a demonstration of a reality hard to ignore: despite the gigantic strides of industry in the 1960s, and despite the creation and consolidation of mass production in Durban, the African working class was on the brink of starvation. Despite their semi-skilled status, the majority (70%) of African workers in industry earned below the R78.18c monthly household subsistence level for 1973. Despite the transition in the mode of production, the mode of consumption of African workers remained on minimum subsistence levels. This transition too was affected on the basis of a cheap labour system. (66)

“Sifunimali” and “Asinamali”, then the slogans used by a protesting black work force in Natal, have a material basis in the industrial history of the region. The era of John James (the notorious Indian worker who was insubordinate to the system of indenture causing alarm to the Wragg Commission), (67) Champion, the C.C.U., and industrial unions had up to the 1970s failed to create a balance of forces favorable to the working population.


 The power of industry and the State surged forth to create, however unevenly, the modern economy of the post 1970s period: An economy which was unthinkable without the vast centralization and concentration in industry that occurred in the post 1960s period. What the self-activity of the working population ensured is also a legacy of resistance and bitterness against the power structures of South Africa and Natal in particular.


The conditions in which the Durban strikes occurred were shaped by two important developments, which also distinguish them from earlier periods of class struggle.

Firstly, as was argued, the post-war period witnessed the gradual breakdown of the viability of Natal reserve areas and a destruction of the labour-tenant system on white farms and both events unleashed a rapid process of urbanization. (74) Industrial workers were becoming a more stable urban community who, far from having their dependents supported by a subsistence economy, were under increasing pressure to send remittances back to their relatives in the rural areas. At the same time inflation was eroding real wages and producing conditions of increasing hardship.

Secondly, the growing concentration of capital had resulted in an increase in the size of firms and the use of more capital intensive methods of production which relied on greater employment stability. (75)

This combination of increased economic hardship and greater concentration of workers in the work place eventually produced a spontaneous outburst of frustration and anger which spread rapidly into an illegal strikewave of close to a hundred thousand workers. Although the strikes were short-lived, real gains in the form of wage increases were won by workers giving impetus to a renewed surge of trade union organization.

In Durban, industrial unions were established in the textile, metal, chemical, transport and furniture industries, (76) under the umbrella of the Trade Union Advisory and Coordination Council (TUACC). They organized mainly African workers, although they were non-racially constituted. They were also unregistered and so functional outside the statutory labour relations framework of industrial councils. Initially the unions were swamped by a wave of worker enthusiasm which spread like wildfire from factory to factory, Difficult to contain, the rapid growth produced a rash of spontaneous strikes as workers flexed their collective muscles.

However, the enthusiasm of workers for the emerging unions was shared neither by employers nor by the State. Recognizing the need for some form of industrial relations structure, the government had introduced the “liaison committee” system in 1973. Its structure enabled managements to exert almost total control over the committees and the new unions represented a popular alternative for workers. State hostility was expressed in the form of the numerous detentions and bannings imposed on trade unionists while trade union members were constantly harassed and victimized by employers.

Nor were there the only obstacles. Much of the registered trade union movement, long accustomed to a comfortable accommodation with employers, was extremely hostile to the emerging unions in view of their tactics of mass organizations and militant confrontation with the bosses. Moreover the period from 1974-1978 was a time of severe recession with the physical volume of manufacturing production actually declining in 1977.

For a time the euphoria of the renewed worker struggle distracted attention from its unstructured nature and from the enormity of the obstacles in its path. The tactics of mass mobilization, after a short spell of militant strike activity, declined in popularity amongst workers. Furthermore, the absence of experienced leadership, democratic structures and disciplined worker unity were painfully reflected in the crushing defeats inflicted on them by industrialists.

A careful reassessment of strategy was undertaken in view of the goal of establishing a non-racial, democratic union movement. This review produced a major shift in organizational strategy, away from the mass recruitment of workers in favour of a policy of plant-by-plant organization. The new strategy had as its goal the cultivation of an experienced and representative network of shop stewards with strong links on the shop floor. Organizational depth was sought in order to strengthen the defence of workers’ interests.

The TUACC unions consequently focused on factory-based issues which were of immediate relevance to the daily lives of workers. This was in contrast to the more broadly political focus of the SACTU period (77) which was seen as a factor contributing to its downfall. This disciplined focus on economistic issues as a basis for establishing organizational strength was characteristic of the TUACC unions up to the formation of FOSATU in 1979. (78)

Another trade initiative which took place in natal during this period was the formation of the Black Allied Workers Union by the supporters of the Black Consciousness Movement. However, BAWU was characterized by limited organizational activity until 1979 when internal dissension over the doctrine of racial exclusivity fragmented the union and spawned the non-racial South African Allied workers union (SAAWU) which was later to attract widespread attention by virtue of its astonishing growth (mainly in East London), its high political profile and the ferocity of its confrontation with the State.

Meanwhile the TUACC unions, by means of painstaking grassroots organization had begun to lay the foundations of their subsequent rapid growth. Initially the principal struggle was for recognition by employers of their right to represent workers.

Concrete gains in the form of improved wages and working conditions were not, on the whole, forthcoming in this period, being regarded by the bosses as their exclusive responsibility. Nor was substantial numerical growth a feature of the period prior to 1979 due to the obstacles mentioned above and the in-depth organizing strategy of the unions. In some instances more or less formal degrees of recognition from employers were obtained. (79)

The mushrooming of “independent” union membership occurred only towards the end of the decade when a more favorable climate had emerged.

Four contributory factors can be identified: Firstly the organizational strength of the unions themselves enabled them to weather the harsh period of recession and repression and so cultivate a lasting credibility amongst workers and a realization amongst employers that they were a force with which to be reckoned.

Secondly, the changing structure of industrial production had increased the dependence of firms on a stable workforce and on continuity of production as both the scale and the capital intensity of production had increased. Given the fact that workers has almost universally rejected the government’s ‘liaison committee’ system as a useful means of resolving disputes, grievances continued to be expressed largely in the form of spontaneous industrial action which was unpredictable and disruptive for employers. There was consequently a growing, albeit reluctant, acceptance that trade unions for African workers would have to be accommodated in some way.

Thirdly, the need for industrial relations reform was even more starkly illustrated for both employers and the State by the implications of the Soweto Revolt of 1976. the events of Soweto underlined the threat that industrial relations could become a forum of direct political struggle with disastrous economic consequences. In order to avoid such an occurrence it was felt necessary to ensure that industrial conflict was mediated through a institutional framework which enjoyed the support of both employers and a substantial proportion of both workers and unions.

Fourthly, and of considerable significance, was the pressure exerted by foreign governments, companies and unions in support of industrial relations reform. Although this pressure was rallied to some extent by progressive forces overseas, the burgeoning trade union movement in South Africa played a crucial role in lobbying the support of international worker organizations such as the ICFTU and the labour movements in the home countries of multi-national corporations with subsidiaries operating in South Africa. The result was that some of the multinationals pressured their subsidiaries to recognize unregistered trade unions and to improve wages and working conditions for African workers.

Nevertheless, the factory floor struggles initiated by black workers and their shop-steward leaderships were impressive both in their persistence but also in their overcoming of the obstacles that stood in the way of organisation and unity. Shopstewards experiences in the factory were dominated by incessant struggles to recruit workers, establish trade unions and confront management.

Their memories are filled with remembrances of intense shopfloor struggles within their factories. A recent survey of the Worker Resistance in Natal Project found that the majority of shopstewards’ ages in Durban ranged in the 30 year bracket and many had vivid memories of the 1970s strikes and subsequent difficulties. Here are some examples: four shopstewards interviewed were working in factories where workers went on strike from between one day to one week. As they recall: “We were new in the factory. We helped influence the older guys. Management called a meeting after the strikes broke out to tell us not to take action because they would give us an increase. But when they failed to give the increase we went on strike. We were not well organized. We decided tomorrow we would strike. We stopped workers outside the factory gates. The day shift was coming in at 6.30am and we were leaving night shift. We asked to talk to the managing director to demand a R25 increase. We left at He elected a committee. We asked for Barney Dladla. They called Solomon Ngobese, the mayor of Umlazi. He was a sellout. He told us to go back to work. Management offered a R2 increase for every year of service. We agreed to go back. The police were all there and we told them we wanted an increase”. (80)

In response to demands made during the strike, workers were offered representation through a liaison committee. This was rejected after workers identified such committees as under management’s control and consequently unable to serve as an effective channel for furthering their struggles. A few began to initiate the recruiting of workers into a trade union.

According to these shopstewards, the setting up of a union was a long struggle. The main problem was that workers were uncertain of what a union would mean for them, they feared victimization from management, and watched the fate of those who were prepared to take the step into the unknown before they would commit themselves. Those pushing for the union went to the offices of the newly established unions, talked to organizers, planned strategies for recruiting workers in the factory, and eventually got the union into the factory in around 1981.

Managements used threats and racial divisions to fight off workers attempts to form unions: “I served on the liaison committee. But this was not too good. Management refused to have anything to do with the union. They said David Hemson and others were causing trouble in the company. There were three liaison committees – one for Africans, one for Indians, and one for whites”.

“In 1976 my best friend in the factory and I decided to go to Durban to find the union office. The organizer explained to us what a union is – how it works. He told us to go the factory and organize those who would be easy to organize and we did this. We were organizing African workers only. In 1977 we decided to try to elect union members on to the liaison committee. We did achieve this except for one department. At union meetings we would plan how tackle management. It was not easy to recruit. Some were scared because management threatened. They said they did not want an unregistered union. By 1979 most workers were in the union. Then we lost membership. Management said that we must organize all workers – not only African. But Indian workers did not want to join. The company began to employ more Indian workers to made sure we wouldn’t have a majority. Then in 1982 the company tried to retrench without looking at the last in first out principle. One guy with 10years service was retrenched at 4pm. The next day everyone joined the union. We went to negotiate a full recognition agreement. Indians joined as well, and even staff.”

According to another worker: “Workers were living under intimidation of being fired by their management if they associated themselves with the unions. Learning that I and another few workers had joined the union, management started to call each of us to give an account of our action. Well, we told the employers the plain truth – that we joined so that we would be protected from exploitation. Those others who had not joined were sure that we would be fired as it was the case with other factories. Fortunately we were not. It is then that workers from my firm got the courage to join. On the other hand this union was attracting many workers and that was even published in Ilanga (the Zulu-language newspaper). That also encouraged my factory workers to join. So in 1983 the union had a big following in the factory.” So despite being involved in the 1973 strikes, this did not mean immediate organization. Getting the union into the factory was a struggle. (81)

By the 1980s, these people had managed to build strong organizations on the factory-floor, which were resilient against managerial offensives. Furthermore, it is important to note that the process of unionization in Durban was much slower and more uneven than the impression gleaned from other accounts, which present the Durban strikes and the process of union formation as synonymous.

In this context, the heightened struggle of workers for trade union rights could not be dismissed. In 1977 the Wiehahn Commission was appointed to make recommendations for the amendment of labour legislation, creating a climate conducive to the increased, albeit selective, acceptability of trade unions. That these events should have coincided with a strong upswing in the economy from 1979-81 enhanced the conditions for rapid trade union growth.

Prior to the report of the Wiehahn Commission, and in fact in anticipation of it, the independent union movement sought to consolidate its ranks in the expectation that a difficult period lay ahead. A national initiative to establish a federation of non-racial democratic unions was launched in 1977. at the centre of this initiative were the TUACC unions and the registered national Union of Motor Assembly and Rubber Workers of South Africa and the United Automobile Workers (UAW) which subsequently merged with NUMARWOSA to form the National Automobile and Allied Workers Union (NAAWU).

Also involved in the early feasibility discussions were the Western province General Workers Union (later the General Workers Union), the Food and Canning Workers Union and the Consultative Committee of Black Trade Unions (the so-called Urban Training Project Unions based mainly on the Witwatersrand). Not all the unions remained committed to the idea of a new federation however, and in 1979 the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) emerged as a federation of the five TUACC unions, NUMARWOSA, UAW and four breakaway groups from UTP. (82) FOSATU thus consolidated at its inauguration some 60 000 workers into a single grouping which has occupied an increasingly central position in the South African labour movement.

The Wiehahn Commission report marked the opening of yet a further chapter in South Africa’s labour history: one that was characterized by change and upheaval. In Natal the FOSATU unions consolidated their claim to dominance in the labour movement, the lessons of the 1970s standing them in good stead. A sound, albeit small, organizational foundation was a valuable asset in a time of rapid growth and change, as was a core of experienced worker leadership. By 1985, the FOSATU unions together with unions closely related to the UDF and subscribing to the freedom charter came together into a more aggressively political super-federation, COSATU. By then the balance of forces in industry had altered despite economic recession.

At this point is not appropriated to recreate the dramatic industrial battles of the era: some of them will be outlined in the essays that follow. What is central in terms of this argument is an evaluation of the impact of trade unionism on Natal’s industrial life. In summary this impact has (a) affected wages and wage structures by creating a new balance of forces in industrial life, however fragile. They have also shifted terrain of demands from subsistence needs to a principle of the “living wage” and (b) affected the balance of power in industry by securing recognition agreements, access to factories and a stable base within the most crucial industrial sectors. (c) affected retrenchment procedures and shifted the prerogatives of recession management to finding ways of minimizing unemployment. (d) affected relationships on the shop floor through the utilization of shop steward structures and minimized indiscriminate dismissals through either direct action or through the legal forum of the industrial court as unfair labour practices. (e) affected relations through trials of strength, whether industry-wide or national, strikes or go-slows, boycotts or community and international pressure to rehire workforces. However uneven these gains might be in the light of the current down swing, what they have achieved is a shift in power relations in industry and reorganized the priorities of capital and the state. To ascribe this struggle to a natural unfolding of the logic of capital accumulation alone would be to confuse origins with causes.

WAGE AND WAGE STRUCTURES: The trade unions in Natal have fought hard to achieve across the board wage increases and to narrow the gap in wage gradations to substantially benefit the lower rungs of workers at the same time. In the latter case, wages of unskilled workers have been moving upwards in the metal and motor industry, the rubber and chemical industry, in the metropolitan areas and, in some instances, in the Northern Natal areas. (83)

Furthermore, the concept of the “living wage” pioneered by FOSATU and the actual struggles for R2 and then for R3.50 an hour undertaken by the Port Elizabeth/Uitenhage workers reverberated through local shop steward structures. This initiated a quiet revolution in the way workers approached their wage demands. In short, the trade unions managed to make some inroads and have begun altering the form of wage remuneration despite the recessionary period, dissolving in the process the relationship between cheap labour and industrial growth in Natal.