Birth of the African Mine Workers’ Union

The 1946 mine workers' strike was led by the African Mine Workers Union, whose president was J.B.Marks, he was also a leader in the South African Communist Party.

Black workers were introduced to trade unionism by the early struggles of white British workers who had begun to form trade unions from 1880 onwards. During the first thirty years of their existence the white workers were occupied in a turbulent struggle for decent wages, union recognition and survival.

Alex Hepple states:

"It was a struggle of white men, striving for a higher standard of life and inbred with a fiery belief in their cause which carried them into bloody strikes, violence and rebellion. Their main enemy was the Chamber of Mines, a body of men who owned the rich gold mines. The quarrel revolved around the Chamber's low-wage policy. This conflict greatly influenced the pattern and direction of trade unionism in South Africa. It introduced the race factor into labour economics and steered white workers into support of an industrial colour bar, with all its damaging effects on workers' solidarity."

Indeed solidarity between white and black workers was lost in those first thirty years, never to be regained to this day. The result has been that the white workers became the aristocrats of labour in South Africa, being among the highest paid workers in the world, while their black compatriots are still living below the breadline. What is worse, the overwhelming majority of white workers in South Africa became the main and the most vociferous supporters of successive racist regimes.

However, they taught the black workers one important lesson, i.e., in order to win their demands they had to organise. The organisation of African mine workers was and remains one of the most difficult - and the most essential - tasks facing the trade union and national movement in South Africa. Recruited from the four corners of the country and beyond its borders in Malawi, Lesotho, Botswana, Swaziland, Mozambique and, up to 1973, Angola, the African miners are spread out from Randfontein to Springs in the Witwatersrand, spilling over into the Orange Free State.

They are shut into prison-like compounds, speaking many languages, guarded and spied upon.

Any attempt at organisation exposed them to the wiles of employers, the antagonism of white workers and the ferocious arm of the law.

Many unsuccessful attempts were made to form a trade union prior to 1941. But in that year, on 3 August, a very representative miners' conference was called by the Transvaal Provincial Committee of the African National Congress. The conference was attended not only by workers from many mines, but also by delegates from a large number of African, Indian, Coloured and white organisations, as well as representatives from a number of black unions. Some white unions gave their moral support and even the Paramount Chief of Zululand sent an encouraging message. A broad committee of fifteen was elected to "proceed by every means it thought fit to build up an African Mine Workers' Union in order to raise the standards and guard the interests of all African mine workers."

From the first the committee encountered innumerable obstacles. The miners were ready to listen to its speakers, but the employers and the authorities were determined to prevent organisational meetings. Speakers were arrested and meetings broken up.

Another serious obstacle was the wide-scale use of spies by the mine owners.

Time and again provisional shaft and compound union committees were established, only to end in the victimisation and expulsion from the mines of the officials and committee members. Nevertheless, the organising campaign progressed steadily and the stage was reached where a very representative conference of mine workers was held. The Conference formally established the African Mine Workers' Union and elected a committee under the presidency of J. B. Marks, who soon thereafter was elected President of the Transvaal African National Congress as well.

Last updated : 05-May-2017

This article was produced by South African History Online on 21-Mar-2011

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