Responses to the 1973 strikes

The 1973 strikes was a major wake-up call for registered unions, most of which had been lulled into varying degrees of complacency by decades of bureaucratic bargaining procedure. A point often neglected by historians of the strikes, as well as newspapers reporting on the strikes at the time, is that a large number of Indian workers went out on strike along with their African colleagues.

A survey conducted soon after the strikes revealed that most of the walk-outs had Indian worker support. The survey also found that Indian male workers expressed a high degree of solidarity with African workers; a point of great political significance.

The KZN Homeland Government became involved after King Goodwill Zwelethini was called to intervene when the strike first began at the Corobrick and Tile factory in early January 1973. The King convinced workers to end the strike after promising to negotiate a better deal for them.

David Hemson argues that the strikes were spontaneous, in that they were not planned from a political centre, but that they were not unorganised. He points towards a level of underground leadership at the factory-floor level by ‘politicised’ workers, and also a degree of coordination by SACTU activists within the workforce.

While some strikers were fired, most factories, affected by the strikes, granted small increases of between one and two Rand to workers who had walked out. Increases were also granted to workers in a number of industries as a pre-emptive measure and some agreements were revised well before they were due to expire.

The Natal Garment Union achieved an increase of one Rand on all wage rates, including learners. The starting wage moved up to just over eight Rand per week, which made beginner garment workers in Natal better paid than their contemporaries anywhere else in the country.

A survey of factory owners and management shortly after the strikes led the IIE to conclude that management at most factories was not convinced of the huge extent of workers’ dissatisfaction. Another criticism against employers was their reactions to the strikes and in particular their claim that ‘agitators’ were to blame. Although employers publicly stated support for African unions, on the ground this was generally not followed through.

The Wage Board pledged to rework their wage determinations, with their first focus on unskilled workers. Government also amended the Bantu Labour Relations Regulation Amendment Bill, gazetted on 4 July 1973. The Bill basically extended some of the powers of the Works Committee system and granted, in theory, a very limited right to African workers to strike.

Internationally, after several newspaper exposés of the starvation wages paid to South African workers, the House of Commons launched a parliamentary enquiry into wages paid by British companies operating in South Africa. The strikes also re-focussed world attention on the plight of African workers.

 Two months after the January and February strikes, Labour Minister Marais Viljoen again put the blame for the strikes on “agitators”.

TUCSA seemed unable, or unwilling, to confront and hold to book employers. Their consistent call for ‘responsible representation’ is also reflected in their objections to the Bantu Labour Relations Regulation Amendment Bill, gazetted on 4 July 1973. The

Bill basically extended some of the powers of the Works Committee system. Under very stringent conditions, the right of African workers to strike was theoretically recognised. 

Last updated : 04-Feb-2014

This article was produced for South African History Online on 04-Feb-2014