The Freedom struggle in Cape Town

Growing social unrest: Community mobilisation, strikes and student protests in the Western Cape in the 1980s

The late 1970s witnessed increased labour unrest in the region of the Western Cape. For instance, the Fattis and Monis strike and boycott, Saldanha Bay fish factory strike and the red meat boycott amongst others. Perhaps one of the important developments in the late 1970s was the formation of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) in 1979. FOSATU was the first South African trade union federation that organised mostly Black employees that aimed to be a national, non-racial umbrella organisation that could coordinate Black trade union movements. The federation was formed after the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) and Federation of Free African Trade Unions (FFATU) disintegrated in the 1960's.

Strikes

Fattis and Monis Strike 1979

In the Western Cape the Fattis Monis strike unleashed a period of strikes in the workplace which intersected with school boycotts, bus boycott, product boycotts and civic mobilisation. Community organisations, trade unions and student bodies combine forces to challenge the government. Although these groups pursued divergent and at times conflicting interests, they supported one another in their struggle against apartheid.

On 23-24 April 1979, after the formation of Federation of South African Trade Union (FOSATU), two members of the Food and Canning Workers Union (FCWU), one of the unions that had not joined FOSATU were fired dismissed at the Fattis and Monis factory in Bellville South. This was after the workers submitted a petition signed by 45 African and Coloured workers to the management demanding union recognition, a minimum wage of R40 per week, eight hours wing day, lunch and tea breaks and 3 weeks of annual leave. Fellow workers mobilized and demanded the reinstatement of dismissed workers, when the employer refused; a strike that lasted seven months ensued.

The Coloured workers involved were told by the management that they had to choose between the factory’s liaison committee and the union or face dismissal. When the workers rejected the factory proposal they were dismissed and a strike broke out. Fattis and Monis attempted to break the strike by sidestepping the FCWU and talking directly to individuals but failed. Meanwhile students at the University of the Western Cape launched a boycott of Fattis and Monis products on 11 May.

Their campaign was joined by people nationally and internationally.  Students organized a blitz on Fattis and Monis products, pasting them with boycott stickers, refusing to pay for them at tills. Youth leaders such as Ebrahim Patel, Trevor Wentzel, Zenaria Barends, Kate Phillips and Jonathan de Vries played a key role in organising the boycott and raising funds to support the strikers.

On 5 October the Fattis and Monis management reopened negotiators and a settlement was reached on 8 November. The strike became a catalyst for mobilization in the Western Cape as African and Coloured solidarity public meetings were held in Athlone, Gugulethu and Langa. The success of the Fattis and Monis strike highlighted the effectiveness of instances where African and Coloured workers cooperated in asserting their rights. Furthermore, the threads of community support sustained the strike which turned out to be national consumer boycott for seven months. 

Bus Boycott

On 3 June 1980 protest against higher bus fares erupted in the Cape Flats in Cape Town.  The protest was organised in an attempt by the community to reverse recent bus fare increases. A Bus Action Committee whose task was to coordinate the boycott was formed. Once again as in the meat boycott, students became instrumental in giving momentum to the boycott. The Committee of 81 appointed representatives who sat on the Bus Action Committee. Students distributed literature while others organised lift clubs. When support began to wane, some students attempted enforce the boycott by force. Buses were stoned and in other cases buses were stopped and people were ordered to get off the bus.

Red meat boycott

The student boycott extended beyond the demand for better education as it became intertwined with broader struggles of the local working class. Their boycott overlapped with strikes and other boycotts where students played an active role. A case in point is the student support for the red meat boycott. In 1980 an estimated 800 meat workers belonging to the Western Province General Workers Unions (WPGWU) went on strike in support of fellow workers who had been dismissed. The dismissed employees were demanding the recognition for their unregistered and elected non racial workers’ committee.

Organizers of the strike called for community support to raise money to mitigate the impact of the strike for fellow meat workers and called for boycott of all red meat. The boycott encompassed meats such as polonies, sausages, mince, chops steaks, bacon, processed meats and take away foods. Students responded and provided extensive support for the meat workers. For instance the Committee of 81 liaised with WPGWU on the kind of help they could offer. Students spread the message on the boycott to communities by distributing leaflets and organizing meetings in which they kept communities informed about their won boycott and the red meat boycott. They also engaged in demonstrations in various parts of Cape Town including targeting closing down a shopping complex and banking facilities in Cape Town.

Student protests and school boycotts

Student protests took a variety of forms ranging from rallies, confrontation with security forces, erection of barricades and bombs. After the founding of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) and the Azanian Student's Organisation (AZASO) in 1979, school protests became more organisationally directed. Students demanded the removal of South African Defence Force (SADF) teachers from schools, readmission of barred students and free and compulsory education.

The boycott originated in Cape Town, where it was fuelled by deteriorating conditions in the schools and the mushrooming of local organisations. The school boycott began in Hanover Park in February 1980 and spread to most coloured schools across the country by April. For instance, on 29 April 1980 hundreds of Coloured school children were arrested and detained under the Riotous Assemblies Act in Johannesburg during a the school boycott. The schools boycott also spread to universities, rural areas and the' homelands. Indian schools in Pretoria and Durban joined the boycott. In the Eastern Cape, Port Elizabeth also joined the boycott.  Security forces responded with widespread detentions of student activists. Across the country, up to 100 000 children in Coloured, Indian and African schools, and university students on five black campuses boycotted classes between April 1980 and January 1981. In Cape Town schools such as Mountview and Crystal Secondary Schools were joined by the University of the Western Cape and Hewat Teachers Training College in the boycott.

On 28 May 1980, two students Bernard Fortuin aged 15 and William Lubbe aged 19 were shot dead from an unmarked police vehicle in Elsies River in an apparent ambush. Three other were injured during the shooting. This resulted in complete school boycott that was launched on 30 May 1980. A subsequent protest march attracted between 40 000 -60 000 students and people from civic organisations. The school boycott and the resultant violence peaked between 17 and 18 June 1980 in the Coloured townships of Elsies River, Lavender Hill and Bishop Lavis when a two-day stay away was held to commemorate the uprising of 1976.

During the protests a Committee of 81 was formed by student leaders such as Ebrahim Patel, Zunaid Dharsey and Zenariah Barends among others to coordinate efforts of the boycott. On 16 July 1980, the 'Committee of 81' representing all Coloured schools and colleges in the Western Cape convened and decided to end class boycotts and on 30 July 1980 the Coloured students suspended their school boycott in the Western Cape. The boycott resulted in the formation of the Student Representative Councils (SRC) and branches of COSAS in every participating school.

Last updated : 13-Apr-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 30-Jun-2011

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