1973 Durban Strikes

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Workers marching, 1973 Durban strikes. © David Hemson Collection

Introduction

On 9 January 1973, workers at the Coronation Brick and Tile factory, outside Durban, came out on strike. Immediately thereafter, workers from small packaging, transport and ship repairs companies also came out on strike. By the end of March 1973, close on 100,000 mainly African workers, approximately half of the entire African workers employed in Durban, had come out on strike. South Africa’s Apartheid Government and its White capitalist allies were shaken by, presumably, what looked like a spontaneous strike, which had its beginnings in the complex mix of low wages, the humiliation of pass laws, the hardship of migrant labour, forced removals and the denial of the right to organise, the denial of basic human rights and racism that was the bedrock of Apartheid legislation. Through songs and marches, Durban workers made their demands heard - the first time since the political “stay at home” of the 1950s – and to exercise the power of factory based mass action.

The strikes signalled the beginning of a turning point in the long struggle of Black, Coloured and Indian workers to build non racial trade unions and to open up the possibility of mass struggle against the Apartheid regime. The Durban strikes marked the first stage of mass action that contributed to the spirit of rebellion in the country. The strike signalled the growth of militant non racial trade unionism; the evolution of an alliance between workers, the broad united front of progressive organisations and the banned underground liberation organisations. Above all, the strike signalled the central role of working class organisations in shaping the ideology, strategy and tactics of the struggle against Apartheid and racial capitalism, which culminated in the fall of the Apartheid regime in the 1990s.

During this period three distinct political traditions appeared in labour movement with different perspectives on broader political issues. The first tradition was from shop floor unions. They developed a cautious policy towards political involvement. The second was a national democratic tradition which argued that labour had an obligation to address socio-economic issues as workers struggles in factories and townships were indivisible and majority of the unions in this category were affiliated with political organisations. The third tradition developed from Black Consciousness and Africanist movements. This category demanded black leadership within the unions.  

Last updated : 06-Jan-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 08-Jan-2014