- MINING AND THE DEVELOPMENT
OF AN INDUSTRIAL WORKING CLASS
- MANUFACTURING AND THE SPREAD
AND GROWTH OF WORKING CLASS ORGANISATION
- THE REAWAKENING OF THE BLACK
- SOUTH AFRICAN CAPITALISM IN
OVERVIEW OF SOUTH
AFRICAN LABOUR HISTORY
Before the discovery of gold in the late 1800s,
small beginnings of the making of the working class in South Africa had
begun. The key to the process was the disruption of traditional forms
of social organisation of the African indigenous peoples.
The opening of a refreshment station in the
Cape in the 1600s saw the gradual displacement and conquer of the Khoi
and San peoples who had inhabited the area for a long time before the
Europeans embarked on commercial voyages around the world. This expansion
of world trade played an important role in the growth of commercial agriculture.
There was therefore a growing need for more land and labour.
The need for labour on the farms and the persistence
of subsistence farming by Africans was clearly an obstacle in the development
of commercial farming by Boer and British colonists. This is what was
behind the trail of cattle and land dispossessions in the hinterland of
the Cape. In Natal the shortage of labour on the sugar farms was resolved
by the importation of indentured labour from India. From the 1850s, taxes
pieces of labour legislation like the Locations
Acts were introduced to force Africans off the land and to go and work
on the farms for a money wage.
MINING AND THE DEVELOPMENT
OF AN INDUSTRIAL WORKING CLASS
It was mining, and the discovery of gold in
particular, that was to demand rapid and large scale uprooting of peasants
and their transformation into wage earners. Small, independent diggers
were quickly replaced by bigger capitalist companies who had a large capital
base for big and concentrated operations. So, from the beginning the mining
industry was characterized by a monopoly of ownership.
The deep level nature of South African mining
required a lot of investment in machinery and skilled labour. As part
of dealing with the high costs in production there was a need for a large
pool of cheap labour. It was during the mining period that the migrant
labour system was relied upon as a backbone of the economy in South Africa.
This meant that, besides the few skilled workers that were imported from
Europe, the mining industry was characterized by a large concentration
of black cheap labour. Control over the supply of black labour would over
the years continue to be at the center of state legislation regarding
the movement of Africans between the countryside and the cities.
Even though attempts were made to enlist indentured
Chinese labour, it became clear that the long-term future of the mining
industry depended on ensuring a reliable and cheap source of African labour.
The number of African workers rose from 15 000 in 1890 to 19 000 by 1912.
The struggles of African workers against the mining monopolies would be
waged independently of the White working class who had organized into
craft unions to protect their skilled positions and to fight for job reservation.
In later years the mine bosses and the state would deal a crushing blow
to the White working class (1922 miners' strike) to safeguard the extraordinary
profitability of the gold mines.
THE SPREAD AND GROWTH OF WORKING CLASS ORGANISATION
The development of the mining industry had
laid a solid basis for the growth of the manufacturing sector of the economy
from the 1920s onwards. The growth of this industry was also strengthened
by the protectionist policies followed by the Pact government of 1924.
In the 1940s Gold mining was to be surpassed by manufacturing in terms
of size of sector and the number of workers employed. Hundreds of thousands
of workers joined trade unions and craft unions were forced to allow membership
of semi-skilled workers. White women joined the ranks of the industrial
working class also.
The expansion of the manufacturing industry
meant an increase in mechanization and usage of semi-skilled labour. The
state invested heavily in infrastructure to support the development of
manufacturing and capitalism in general. Hence the establishment of parastatals
in this period. Continued high profitability levels in the gold mining
industry played a very critical role in providing general financial support
to the development of capitalism in South Africa. But the growing organization
of the working class had to be dealt with if the profitability of capitalism
was to be secured. The Pact government put in place an array of socio-political
and labour laws to entrench the racial division of the working class and
further destroyed the militancy of White workers.
The growth of the manufacturing sector ushered
in the first industrial unions in the history of South Africa and created
the conditions for mass politics in the African working class. The growth
of the manufacturing sector and the changes this brought about to the
nature of the working class meant that craft unions were increasingly
becoming a thing of the past. Industrial unionization was on the rise.
The South African Industrial Federation was active in the Rand Revolt,
When the South African Trade Union Council
was formed in 1925, this development represented greater co-ordination
between the emerging unions in the growing manufacturing sector. This
changing composition of the workforce was reflected in the evolution of
the Garment Workers Union from a craft union. The growth of industry and
the increase in the number of workers also made non-racial worker action
a possibility in the 1920s. Within the constraints of the racially divisive
labour legislation of the time, there were creative organizational ways
of building greater unity. It is in this period that we have the phenomenon
of parallel unionism. It is also in this period that African workers formed
the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union, ICU, which started off as
a militant general union but declined over time.
Important in this period was also the role
played by the International Socialist League in also organizing African
and other non-White sections of the working class. The Industrial Workers
of Africa was formed in this period. Internationally, especially in Europe
and Asia, this period was characterized by socialist revolutions.
The increase in the social weight of the African
working class was to lead to the re-orientation of the Communist Party
away from the increasingly racist White working class. Their involvement
with the ICU, however, led to a conflict with the increasingly conservative
leadership and they were finally expelled. The ICU itself did not live
long after these organizational problems and soon disintegrated in the
Parallel to the existence of the ICU various
industrial unions for Africans came into being and in 1928 the Federation
of Non-European Trade Unions was formed. The strategy was to consolidate
worker power in the various industries as opposed to going the general
unionism route of the ICU. In the 1920s the growth of the manufacturing
industry increased the power of African workers. It was the impact of
the Great Depression that was to undermine the strength of these industrial
unions. Only two of its affiliated unions lasted through the depression.
The 1930s saw another round of attempts at union organization as workers
had gained experience of this in the preceding period. The tradition of
striving for co-operation between the different racial sections of the
working class continued to be pursued by radical activists.
In 1930 the South African Trades and Labour
Council was formed from a coming together of unions with vastly different
traditions. There were conservative craft unions, White racist industrial
unions, white dominated racially mixed industrial unions and non-racial
industrial unions. These differences were later to lead to the collapse
of the SATLC. Initially the constitution of the SATLC provided for a block
vote system which made it easier for the conservative unions to dominate.
But when this was changed to a system of voting by industrial grouping
the more progressive militant activists gained control of the NEC in 1938.
From this time on the union body adopted a
more militant position on various matters. For instance there was the
establishment of Local Committees to facilitate non-racial working class
solidarity. This allowed for independent initiatives of solidarity of
the kind that was demonstrated during the 1946 mineworkers' strike. It
is important to note that there were always tensions. In 1944 it was this
strong position of the industrial unions that made the SATLC to adopt
the Workers' Charter as a step in the struggle for socialism, “as
our form of government, which will bring emancipation to the working people
from exploitation and oppression and will place the common people in control
of South Africa.
The experience of the Second World War and
the militancy of the period finally drove these unions apart. In 1947
the first unions broke away. A much bigger split occurred when these unions
had to deal with the passing of the Suppression of Communism Act in 1950.
By 1952 the SATLC had been severely weakened.
The other more decisive question was one of
choosing between pursuing an alliance with the conservative craft unions
and throwing their lot with, and staking their future on, the militant
African trade unions. In 1954, the executive chose the re-establishment
of an alliance with the craft unions at the expense of African workers.
A split occurred.
Following this split a process of re-groupment
was to lead to the formation of SACTU, which was to take up the struggle
for non-racial industrial unions through the remainder of the 1950s and
into the 1960s. When the Federation of Non-European of Trade
Unions crumbled in the immediate aftermath of the Great Depression, it
was to take almost a decade for a new co-ordinating body to be formed.
In 1941, in the middle of the intensity of the war effort, the Council
of Non-European Trade Unions was formed. CNETU played a very big role
in the 1954 formation of SACTU, years after the SATLC split.
The 1950s were years of
increased repression and resistance in South Africa, with the Nationalist
Party having come into power in 1948. Growth in the mining industry during
the World War 2 had not translated into increased profitability. The manufacturing
industry did not expand. The “Reserves” could no longer support
the people living there, and this created problems for the continued justification
of the cheap labour system. Apartheid policies of the NP would ensure
greater control of the working class for the capitalists to maintain and
increase their profits. The passing of a myriad of racist laws that affected
every aspect of black life in South Africa signaled a determination by
the ruling class to totally crush all opposition and remove all obstacles
to the profitability of the capitalist system.
It is against this background
that the 1950s were characterized by high levels of political mobilization
that involved labour and political organizations across the national spectrum.
SACTU got involved in the Congress Alliance with organizations like the
ANC. The union federation continued the tradition of strong industrial
unionism and was explicit in its policy stance of a need for radical political
transformation. The close links with the political movements meant that
SACTU was to be specially affected by the banning and imprisonment of
many activists in the early 1960s. By the mid-1960s the political and
labour movements had been successfully crushed by the Apartheid regime.
However, the militant traditions and experience of SACTU were to live
on into the next round of democratic and militant trade unionism of the
The 1960s were a decade
of unprecedented economic growth in South Africa as the country became
more attractive to foreign direct investment. The political and labour
market environment was also conducive to high rates of profitability.
It is during this decade that the industrial base of the economy
was to be greatly increased and consolidated as the state also embarked
on a programme of expansion of parastatals. This is also the period when
there was an increase in the number of monopolies and multinational companies.
Union organization was dominated in this period by White racist trade
unions and conservative multi racial bodies like TUCSA. This made it more
difficult for workers to benefit from the economic growth and to resist
the power of the bosses and the state.
REAWAKENING OF THE BLACK WORKING CLASS
The mass strikes that spread
from Durban to other areas of the country in 1973 and the rapid growth
of the factory based union organization have their roots in what had happened
to the economy in the 1960s:
- The growth of the economy increased
the size and power of the working class. The number of women workers
- Capital intensive industry meant
far larger factories with greater numbers of workers. It also meant
an increased demand for semi-skilled and supervisory labour. This
meant a strengthening of the bargaining power of African workers.
- Monopoly capitalism meant that
many workers in different parts of the country could unite and confront
the same boss.
- The visible signs of advanced
industrialization and economic growth had continued, right through
the 1960s, to be in stark contrast to the generally, and relatively,
low levels of African working class incomes.
As the strike wave spread
to other industrial centers, cities and towns of the country, workers
realized that organization and not just militancy was important in consolidating
their power. They formed trade unions. In many cases they were assisted
by service organizations, many of which were staffed by young White intellectuals.
Various registered unions in TUCSA assisted in the formation of the General
Factory Workers Benefit fund which laid the basis for worker organization
in Natal. It made representations to the Wage Board regarding wage determinations,
especially of new unskilled workers.
Some of the unions that
emerged from the GFWBF were the Metal and Allied Workers' Union (MAWU)
and the National Union of Textile Workers (NUTW). The new style of mass
based organizing and factory centered union organization were strengths
that would soon affect the internal life TUCSA. African workers, who had
been readmitted in 1973, began to demand a meaningful role within the
conservative union federation, and this was to be the beginning of a decline
that was to lead to the demise of TUCSA in the 1980s.
The resilience of factory
based organization proved its advantage when the new unions were able
to survive another round of intensified state repression that was a response
to mobilization that was initiated by Black students in 1976. When their
leaders had been detained workers in a factory would demand to meet directly
with the management to deal with their issues. The struggle for recognition
meant a lot of sacrifice by workers and it happened that certain managements
would find it tactically advisable to talk to the new unions. But in some
cases like the Heinemann factory on the East Rand these struggles ended
in cruel defeats for the workers.
The inexorable forward
surge of the new union movement forced the government and bosses to find
new ways of controlling the unions. The endorsement of the recommendations
of the Wiehahn Commission meant an opening of the legal space for the
unions to consolidate their power.
The state, however, required
them to register to enjoy these newly acquired rights. When FOSATU was
formed in 1979 it took the decision that registration had advantages in
that it would allow unions to build their strength.
It soon became clear that
the state strategy was not able to kill the militancy of the workers.
This is why the bosses and the state continued to feel threatened by the
new movement. The early 1980s saw the emergence of other unions and federations
as workers pushed on for more organization and unity. By 1984 there was
CUSA, SAAWU and AZACTU as well.
Like in previous rounds
of struggle in South Africa, for workers and their trade unions the environment
within which they operated remained politically charged. The struggles
of workers at the factory floor never really evolved in isolation from
the struggles in the townships. Rising unemployment, fuelled by a spate
of retrenchments, low wages, the collapse of Bantu Education and rising
rents were some of the issues that brought the movement together. The
intensification of the struggle against apartheid needed a strong and
united movement and the unions were to play a very important role in this.
The government wanted to implement some political reforms as a solution
to the economic and political crisis that was faced by capitalism.
It is at this point that
we see the emergence of formations like the National Forum (NF) and the
United Democratic Front (UDF). Even though some unions did not get directly
involved in these bodies, they encouraged their members to take part in
community struggles. In the mid-1980s workers in the country succeeded
in building giant federations like COSATU and NACTU. This was the period
when the question of working class leadership had already been settled
in the hard fought battles that came immediately before this. Even though
these two federations did not formally affiliate to any of the banned
political movements like the ANC and the PAC, their allegiances were quite
clear from early on.
AFRICAN CAPITALISM IN CRISIS
The 1980s were a very intense
period in the history of South African politics. The Apartheid regime
was intent on stemming the tide of political rebellion as it continued
to find a solution to the political and economic crisis of capitalist
rule. In their attempts to advance and consolidate their position the
unions made sure they remained true to the tradition of industrial organization.
The many unions that had sprung up in the preceding years were encouraged
to combine into larger and stronger industrial affiliates.
There were serious attempts
to organize the unemployed and to form a co-operative movement as an organizational
response to the effects of the economic crisis. The unions began to broaden
their agenda at the workplace and started taking up issues of Health and
Safety. The role of culture in organization, something that had been recognized
earlier by some of the FOSATU unions, began to be appreciated.
The role women played in
the labour process had by now become a fact of life. Women had also been
part of the hundreds of thousands that had flocked into unions, and some
of them had steadily demonstrated the capacity of women workers to lead.
To strengthen this tendency women members organized their own forums within
the unions to ensure that women's issues became union issues in reality.
In this way unions and
the federations were made to include women's and gender issues in their
collective bargaining strategies. The holding of Women's Congress by COSATU
in 1988 was a recognition of the importance of this issue.
As part of the attacks
on the mass movement the state initiated a process of reversing some of
the organizational, labour and social gains by coming up with amendments
to the Labour Relations Act. Even though a federation like COSATU had
in 1987 adopted the Freedom Charter as its guiding policy, something that
located it formally in the tradition of the Congress Alliance, the union
movement was able to forge unity in the fight against the Labour Bill
in the same year. This is also the time when violence was used against
the Miners' and the Railway Workers' strikes and the Living Wage Campaign.
The momentum of the anti-Labour Bill mobilization and the unity of workers
across federations finally led to the holding of the Workers Summit in
March 1989, where workers formulated their own Labour Relations Act.
By the close of the 1980s
there were clear signs that the apartheid state was embarking on further
attempts at political liberalization as a continuation of attempts to
resolve the crisis of capitalist rule. This time they had realized the
centrality of a settlement that had the blessing of the weakened but politically
undefeated Black masses. They now had to talk to the genuine leaders of
the rebellious masses.
The political dialogue
and the negotiations that were initiated by the Apartheid state generated
a lot of hope on the part of the masses and demanded the attention of
all social sectors. The role of the union movement would become very critical
to the agenda of the mass political movement as it had been the only sector
to emerge from the repression of the late 1980s organizationally intact.
It was, therefore, to be the sector to be heavily relied upon in the process
of mass mobilization. The working class was the section of the population
that the ruling class would have to weaken as it strove to resolve the
crisis of capitalist rule.
In 1990 the state unbanned
the major political organizations of the masses, released the leaders
from prison and allowed exiles to return to the country. The confidence
demonstrated by the state rested on the internal balance of forces that
favoured the ruling class. They had been able to deal with the insurgency
of the mid-1980s, and internationally imperialism held sway as socialist
forces, with the Soviet Bloc crumbling, were on the retreat.
The CODESA negotiations
and how the Apartheid state responded to the overall demand for majority
rule was a clear indication that the ruling class was determined to ensure
that the democratization process would have a monopoly capitalist imprint.
Where the reformist leadership showed signs of bowing to pressure from
below the ruling class was always ready to unleash violence on the working
class. The mass movement in this period began to retreat from previously
held radical and socialist positions. Mass struggle began to be subjected
to the considerations of the negotiations process.
The process was characterized
by a long list of compromises by the leadership and an avoidance of confrontation
with the state on the issue of state violence. This approach continued
even though the masses demonstrated their preparedness to fight. The early
1990s saw an upsurge in struggle as workers were settling old scores on
the factory floor.
New layers of the working
class came to the fore as struggles against privatization, retrenchments
and growing unemployment became generalized. The compromises by the leadership
caused some sections of the labour movement to start the famous discussion
on the Workers' Party.
As the ANC moved closer
to governmental office, a lot of its positions on socio-economic and political
questions had been watered down considerably. It was not long after it
had come to power that the masses began to taste the fruits of the compromise
deal at CODESA. The government's economic policy (GEAR), a replacement
of the RDP, was clearly a continuation of the Normative Economic Framework
of the previous government. The foreign policy of the ANC government showed
that it was willing to embrace dictators like Suharto and behave like
a mini-imperialist power in the sub-region. The ANC's approach to the
national budget has consistently showed its commitment to the interests
of big capital.
This shift on the part
of the leadership had a demobilizing effect on the working class and its
organizations. From the beginning of and even before, the tenure of the
new power there were clear tendencies towards bureaucratization and centralisation
of power, both in government and in the ANC as an organization. Moreover,
there was a growing merger between the two in terms of policy making.
The responses of the labour
movement (COSATU playing a prominent role of course) to this drift towards
a neo-liberal framework by the ANC did not help in ensuring that the broad
working class remains mobilized and politically effective. The formal
relationship between COSATU and the ANC meant that opposition to the neo-liberal
policies of the ANC was not rigorous and consistent. Struggles against
the amendments to labour laws ended in a compromising position for workers.
Opposition to the privatization of state enterprises and job losses remained
half-hearted and episodic in nature. As a result of this workers continued
to lose ground to a more confident management at workplace level.
The debate on globalisation
and its effects on working class communities has not translated into concrete
mobilization and organization on issues such as casualisation and growing
unemployment. Collaboration between COSATU and the communities around
issues like the budget has remained at the level of lobbying. Globalisation
and how it affects urban and rural communities has not been on the agenda
of the labour movement and, as a result, this has not assisted in the
strengthening of emerging social movements. In certain cases there is
hostility to these independent initiatives.
Union international affiliation
and the participation of South African unions in international struggles
is an area that has continued to generate debate in congresses as workers
have demanded that international policy resolutions have concrete meaning
in this era of globalisation. There have been times, though, when South
African unions have been involved in international actions around specific
The debates on the Workers'
Charter and the Workers Party have taken place also within a process of
searching for alternatives to the capitalist framework of the ANC. There
was talk of the need for a Conference on Socialism. For some the SACP
had to play a leading role in this process, for others the Party was too
much in the pocket of the ANC to be able to lead this process. Yet the
unions mobilized for an ANC electoral victory in 1999.
In this period we also
saw the continuing disparity between the large numbers of women workers
in the unions and the few key positions they hold in the movement. There
was also a marked decline in enthusiasm and capacity to sustain a tradition
of workers' education. Organisational weaknesses began to manifest themselves
in the emergence of new unions catering for neglected sectors and workers
looking for better service. Some of these unions belonged to FEDUSA. The
gap between leadership and workers began to widen as the union culture
began to also involve investment activities.
Given these weaknesses,
the big question is whether unions will be able to continue the militant
and democratic tradition as we enter a new century. In what ways will
workers carry forward the traditions of the 1970s and 1980s?
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