ESSAY ONE: Page 8 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.
To sum up: Since 1973, with the re-emergence of trade unions among black/African workers, the importance of shop-steward leadership was stressed again and again. Since the Durban strikes of 1973, and the formation of the TUACC affiliated industrial unions there, Natal was seen as the cradle of this new movement. (90) As Webster has argued, “the introduction of machine based production has undermined the traditional division of skill … it has shifted the power away from the ‘labour aristocrat’ and his craft union, and towards the production worker and his industrial union. Through their strategic location in the labour process these workers have been able to challenge the traditional forms of control”. And within these ranks there developed in South Africa, mass-based, non racial industrial unions which concentrate on building shop steward structures in their factories. (91)
The worker leadership of the 1970s was, in short, seen to be an important new component of South Africa’s economic and political life. It was seen to comprise militant, articulate, semi-skilled workers who were less dispensable in the factories than previous black generations.
The entry of unprecedented numbers of black workers into semi-skilled jobs, and their organization in the 1970s, has presented a new challenge to managerial authority. It has also widened the terrain of negotiation and pushed forward the invisible frontier of control in the workplace. From this, two new sets of demands emerged: the first challenged management’s prerogative in the sphere of production, the second touched wider issues that covered the sphere of reproduction. (92) While the first type of demand brought about countless confrontations between capital and labour, the latter soon brought shop-stewards and their unions into direct confrontation with the state.
By the early 1980s, we were witnessing the rise of shop-steward councils that straddled factory and township conflicts. (93) As the involvement of these stewards in the townships increased, we began witnessing what Saul & Gelb have called “the working class dramatically in motion” and the interpenetration of the shop floor with popular struggles in the townships. (94) Searching for a term to indicate this new-found zest among worker leaders, I called their emergent ideologies a “workerist populism.” Whereas this was seen to be quite a cogent typology to assess migrant metalworker protest and discontent, it was argued that one also had to understand this militancy as the coming-of age in the factories of the 1976 generation and, in Natal, of the 1973 generation. Suffice to say that the trade unions working from a position of increasing strength in Natal’s industries in the 1980s have generated a shift in power relations in the area, generating a search by capital to find new forms of accommodation and to move from a period of repressive managerial practices to one that seeks to find new forms of legitimation. That this increasingly has to take the form of an improvement in living and earning standards in Natal’s industries is a recent consensus in employer circles. To assume that this is a natural outcome is to ignore a long, protracted, bitter and often violent struggle to get there. What remains today is a delicate balance of forces in industry which, despite poverty, unemployment and hardship is beginning to be dented in order to improve the conditions of many workers.