South Africa in the 1970s

During the early 1960s, civil society was disempowered and social movements were repressed. Although the capacity for social movements to impose change appeared to be impossible, this dyer situation spawned a movement which forced the apartheid regime to the bargaining table. Richard Turner inspired students who used the integration of Christian ethics and Marxist theory to demonstrate how the vision of the historical Jesus centred on a notion of the intrinsic value of the person. This discourse became influential in workers politics and students.

Students became inspired by a new working class politics founded on a vision of a democratic and participatory socialism. This cultural change intersected with a new independent organisation of workers, which gained further momentum from this ferment. Workers were coming in numbers to Bolton Hall to join the GFWBF Within six months, 9,000 workers had been recruited expanding to 27,000 inside a year, figures which give an indication of black workers’ mood. In February 1973 mass strikes erupted impacting across the city as workers abandoned factories, marching impi-like down the streets of the industrial areas, singing and chanting.

Webster, Turner and others in IIE were committed public intellectuals who sought to ensure that ideas were not dormant in libraries. Because of his banning, Turner remained in the background and Webster, Erwin and others were involved in a series of seminars at Red Acres farm, a Catholic Church property near Howick where these ideas were presented and debated with factory workers. The group also became involved in the establishment of the South African Labour Bulletin as a vehicle to advance these leadership ideas. The Bulletin became a forum research on the democratic labour movement. By 1975, momentum built on all these fronts: workers were being organized into new unions through the GFWBF and these emergent organisations were being shaped by these new ideas transmitted though seminars.

The state was not a passive onlooker and as things got tight In the midst of this revival of organised labour from the nadir of the repression of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) in the early 1960s the African National Congress (ANC) and South African Communist Party (SACP) stepped up their underground activities. Reflecting on the tensions and contradictions of above ground organising work and an underground armed struggle campaign, Webster assessed the situation

The ‘Durban moment’ also reflected a profound political change generated by the renaissance of Marxist theory. This included a critique of structuralist Marxism. Marxism had to be reinterpreted to create space for human agency.  These theoretical developments were connected to a social and political engagement with the working class. This was central to Rick’s political philosophy. During this period it was acknowledged that Ideas needed to be connected to action. This was inspired by utopian thinking. It created such a feeling of personal liberation. There was a profound feeling of personal liberation being able to explore all these ideas and connect with them in a very action oriented way.

Another defining characteristic of the ‘Durban Moment’ was the commitment to a Gandhian inspired non-violent resistance. Rick was strongly opposed to the ANC/ SACP armed struggle campaign. The alternative he argued for was a conception of people coming together in the exercise of power through strategically withdrawing their labour power. There was a Gandhian punch to this. Building on Gandhi’s notion of passive resistance, workers simply stopped work, folded their arms and stood unmoved at the machines. This was a very powerful idea – refusing to work.

Based on Barret & Mullins during the 1970s the modern trade union movement was formed in South Africa. Organizations which were referred to as advice centres grew and these centres evolved into trade unions, which led to a series of strikes in 1973 in Durban. By 1976 there were 174 registered trade unions. The majority of them were White, Coloured and Indian races. In 1976 the government on its effort to study burgeoning labour problems, established an independent commission headed by Professor Nic Wiehahn. As the result of the commission, in 1979 amendments to the labour Relations Act were made which later resulted to the establishment of Industrial Court and the concept of unfair labour practices, it also granted black unions a degree of freedom to organize legally for the first time.

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. A Second tradition was national democratic tradition and they 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 organizations. The Third tradition developed from Black Consciousness and Africanist movements. This category demanded black leadership within the Unions.  

January 1973 marked the beginning of the Durban strikes. About 1200 night-watchmen downed their tools; they demanded a wage increase for R10 a month. Few days later on the 9th January 1973, 2 000 Coronation Brick & Tile workers also went on strike; they were demanding a minimum wage of R30 a week. A day later 10 January 1973 another strike broke out at A.J. Keeler Transport Company, the workers demanded a wage increase of R2 a week. Another strike broke out at a tea company, T.W. Beckett & Company, where workers were demanding a wage increase of R3 a week. Police were called by the Management and 100 workers were dismissed when they refused to return to work; but later reinstated after the employers accepted their demands. On 15 January 1973, workers at J.H. Akitt & Company also downed tools. On 22 January 1973, drivers at Motor-Via in Pinetown, near Durban, picketed for wage increases and from 22 to 24 January 1973, 275 long-distance truck drivers also joined the strike, demanding R40 a week.

British owned Frame Group of Companies at the New Germany industrial was the strike that involved the largest number of workers, more than 7000 workers downed tools demanding an increase in their basic wages, which stood at R6 a week at the time. The strike later spread to other plants of the Frame Group in New Germany and Jacobs, south of Durban. More than 10 000 workers also joined the strike by the end of January 1973. During the next few weeks, factories as far away as Hammarsdale, Pietermaritzburg, Tongaat and Charlestown were also hit by industrial action. By April 1973 industrial strikes had erupted at the Mandini and Richard’s Bay industrial areas.

1973 experienced a wave of strike which spread to other industrial centres in the country 14 On 11 September 1973,  Mine workers at Western Deep levels, were short by police while protesting, these mine workers were on strike against poverty wages.  12 were killed and 38 were wounded. In 1969 about 1 000 casual dockworkers embarked on a wildcat strike in Durban which led to their dismissal. “Official reports put the number of industrial strikes in 1970 at 63. They involved approximately 3 210 African workers. A further 22 workers were allegedly involved in lockouts during the same year. Official statistics put the number of strikes involving African workers in 1971 at 22, whereas Ray Alexander (writing as E.R. Braverman) noted that there were approximately 86 industrial strikes in South Africa in 1971.”

List of 1970's strikes

Coronation Brick and Tile Factory

The 173 strikes were prompted by wage demands. The strike started by the brick workers at the coronation Brick and Tile factory in Durban. These strikes were organized by black workers. These strikes swept throughout the country. On the 12 January 1973 more than 100 factory employees employed by T.W Beckett and Co. Ltd in Durban were paid off after they had stopped work after their request for higher wages was refused. The workers claimed that the management had told them that it was not prepared to give them the raise. They were given 10 minutes to make a decision either to work of be paid off. Only about 15 men remained in the factory. Men were paid R10.54c a week and some men worked for the company for 10 to 20 years. Armed police, some with dogs were present to control the crowd. 3 days later the dismissed employees were called back for a possible reinstatement, later more than half of the company’s 150 employees were sacked. The company was under staffed, other machineries were shut down and this led to the reinstatement of 56 from the 91 that was sacked. On the 24 January an increase of R3 a week was announced after a meeting between the company’s management.

Ships Painters and Cleaners

On 15 January about 100 ship painters and cleaners went on strike outside Point Road offices of JH Skitt and Co. they were demanding 30c raise. Police were deployed, they refused to disband as they demanded a report from Mr. Skitt before they could move, however no one came from the company to address them. It was confirmed by Mr. Skitt that there was a strike in the previous week which resulted in an immediate 30c raise but denied any promise had been made. The workers claimed that they were lucky if they got three days work every week and Mr. Skitt promised to raise their present wage of R2, 60 to R3, 50.

Convoy Drivers Strike: Motorvia, Pinetown

On 22 January Convoy drivers at Pinetown’s Motorvia company demanded   R40 a week salary, they argued that they could not meet the cost of educating their children on a R5 a week income. They produced a school’s information pamphlet in support of their demand, the pamphlet listed school’s requirement for the Mqhawe Secondary School. The pamphlet had school fees including a development fund which amounted to R5 a year, Books which were R20 a year and uniform as well. Workers claimed that a week could pass without a job becoming available. Permanent drivers were set to get a basic wage of R13 plus the R5 trip wage. The workers demanded that all black employees of the company to join the strike, police were called to the scene and there were no incidents reported. They were promised 75% increase on each trip. Bleomfontein branch drivers were called to replace the Pinetown drivers, instead they refused and joined the strike. Workers claimed that they had contracts with the company which guaranteed them a minimum of R15 a week but they often got less. 275 Black drivers were sacked when they rejected a compromised wage increase, minutes after the dismissal; an increment by 75c a trip to Johannesburg was made. The employees refused the offer and demanded a guaranteed wage of R15 a week plus a minimum of R5 a trip. Later the company offered an increase for a trip to Upington by R3 bringing it up to R12. The pay for taking a car to Port Elizabeth was also increased by R2 to R8 and to Johannesburg remained unchanged.

The Frametex Mill Strike- New Germany  

On 25 January 1973 hundreds of disgruntled workers laid down tools demanded for increased wages. They demanded a weekly salary of R20 for men and R14 for women. Several Indian were assaulted by striking black workers and were instructed not to come back until the wage demand were met. The workers from Framtex marched and sang outside the factory’s gates and were later joined by workers form Saltex, Nortex and Natal knitting Mills. The number of strikers went up to 2500. Police with dogs stood by and there were no incidents reported. “the cries of: We are no a united nationand Usutu. They banged against parked vehicles and jeered at police cars. Some bottles were smashed on the road and few stones thrown at the factory fence. They however refused to elect a negotiation committee.” These were their grievances (a) that the basic wage was between R5 and R8 a week but their rent alone was as much as 12 a room. (b) Bus fares cost anything from 8 to 54c a day. (c) they were not provided with uniforms. (d) R1.50c was deducted for late coming and R4 for absenteeism. € Medical certificates were not recognized. (f) Transkei citizen claimed that they were promised an increase every three months but never got it. As the result of the strike an increase was given to 7000 workers at the consolidated frame cotton corporation which brought to an end the four day strike. An increase ranging from R1, 75 to R3 a week was announced.

S. Pedlar and Co.

On 29 January women employed by S. Pedlar and Co. brought the factory to a standstill when they went on strike. Their starting wage was R4, 50 a week and demanded an immediate R10 a week increase.

Sugar Cane Workers

On 29 January, the sugar cane workers were on strike. The strike was by 180 Pondo workers, they demanded a basic wage of R15 a calendar month, they were paid R15 for 30 working days with the addition of cane cutting bonuses and many of them were getting about R60 per month. As the results of the strike, the workers got a 20% wage increase; they were also additional benefits such as free housing, rations and medical attention.

The Natal Canvas Rubber Manufactures Ltd

On 29 January, 650 African and Indian workers staged a strike, the strike was sparked by 3 to 4 cents a week deduction from wages for sick benefit funds. The workers later demanded an increase. They were offered pay for the time they had been on strike with additional R1 wage increase. They refused the increase wage offer. On the 31 January they accepted the R1 increase offer and returned to work.

Consolidated Woolwashing and Processing Mill-Pinetown

On 29 January, an estimated number of 300 African and Indian women sorters rejected a pay rise announced, and they were sent home after their job cards were collected. They were earning R6, 35 a week and offered 21c increase. There were claims of agitation but the company denied those allegations.

Hume Ltd

Hume Ltd was the second company to close down on the 29 of January in Gllits Roads. More than 600 African workers rejected a 90c a week increase. The employees left their work after they rejected the offer, but were later advised by the management that their demands would be discussed when they return to work. On the 31 January they returned to work and negotiations went on.

The Consolidated Textile Mill – Jacobs

On 31 January about 100 African and Indian workers were locked out after they had refused to elect a committee to negotiate their demands with management. There were no clear demands that were made. They rejected an appeal by the department of labour’s Bantu Labour Officer Mr. J Skene.

The Afritex Mill-Jacobs     

On 31 January workers were sent home after a negotiating committee refused to encourage striking workers to return to work while wage talks continued. The strike committee which was elected at the Afritex Mills rejected appeals Mr. Skene and the Mills management to get workers back inside the factory with an assurance that wage negotiation would then continue.

National Chemical Products

On 31 January this company was brought to a standstill when about 300 African workers downed tools and walked out, they demanded higher wages. They demanded that their weekly wages be increased by R10.

Other strikes that took place on the 31 January 1973

1.      United Oil and Cake Mills Ltd

2.      Bakers Ltd, Durban

3.      Defy Industries

4.      Polycrafe (Pty) Ltd

5.      Glen’s Removal and Storage Ltd

6.      Congella Eretion Co.

7.      Cupercola Ltd

8.      J. Wright and Sons

9.      Tri-Ang Pedigree

Colgate – Palmolive Ltd Boksburg

On 1 February 1973 the company dismissed the entire African staff in its laboratory and quality control departments after they stopped work in support of demands for higher pay which was an increase of 20c per hour.

Elgin Metal Products – Jacobs

On the 1 February more than 200 African workers went on strike, they downed their tools after their 9am tea break and called the management to give them higher wages. They gathered outside the company’s offices and refused to return to work unless they were given increase. Police were called, it was unknown exactly how much they demanded.

Bakie Johnstone – Jacobs

On 1 February 1973 hundreds of workers gathered in the street and refused an appeal to elect a strike committee.

Falkirk Iron Company

Several hundred of African workers went on strike. They demanded an increment, they refused to elect a committee to negotiate with the department of labour.

General Chemical Corporation (coasted) Ltd

On the 2 February it came to a standstill when most of its workers downed tools and the police were called to manage the crowd.

Dunlop (SA) Ltd – Durban

On 2 February 1300 workers downed tools and left the factory. They gathered in groups outside the factory, they refused to nominate a spokesman and went home.

Ropes and Mattings

The factory closed down when 2800 workers refused to return to work after negotiations failed. The production came to a standstill.

Crossley Carperts

It was a subsidiary of the giant Feltex group, it closed down and there were partial stoppages at other factories in the group.

Consolidated Textile Mills  

More than 1000 employees walked out forcing the management to close one section of the factory. They had asked for an increase in their weekly wages which ranged from R3, 80c to R5, 50c for women and R6,50c to R7, 50c for men, they demanded a minimum wage of R15.00.

Other work stoppages were in the following factories

1.      Hart Ltd – 700 worker demanded higher pay

2.      Phil Williams Pty – 400 workers went on strike

3.      Enso Plastic Pty – 50 worker went on strike

4.      Airco Engineering Ltd

5.      Consolidated Fine Spinners and Weavers

6.      Natal Underwear Manufactures

7.      Pinetown Engineering

8.      Madadeni Transport

9.      Timbrick Model Homes

Wanted, A Living Wage: The Durban Strikes of 1973

In January 1973 South Africa witnessed a momentous chain of events in its political history. The Durban Strikes were a turning point in the confrontation between the country's minority rulers and the worker majority. Motivated by material need and underpinned by principles of democracy and equality, the strikes conjoined academics, workers and political leaders among others, in a struggle that was to redefine the South African political landscape in the years to follow.

The decade before the strikes saw Black Nationalist organizations banned along with their members, who were either imprisoned or forced underground. The onslaught by the state soon had the African trade union movement crushed or exiled and by the mid 1960s there were only a handful of conservative White unions in existence. Worker resistance was almost non-existent in the face of the tightening of the job colour-bar and harsher pass laws, whilst employers were free to run their factories as they chose and to freely determine the pay of their African workers. The growth of industry at the end of the 60s, underpinned by the exploitation of African workers, consolidated a honeymoon period between the state and the employers, whilst the plight of African workers worsened.

On the morning of 9 January 1973, 2000 workers from the Coronation Brick and Tile Works marched to a nearby football stadium chanting "filumuntu ufesidikiza" (Man is dead, but his spirit lives). Severe repression by the state in the 60s had seen the death of African unionism, but the actions of the Coronation workers in their quest for higher wages, were to revive this spirit in the chain of events that followed. The next day there was a stoppage at the A.J. Keeler transport company, spurring stoppages at other factories. By 14 January, the strikes were still fairly small and scattered, but they gathered momentum as workers from Pinetown/New Germany and Jacobs/Mobeni industrial complexes demanded higher wages. By 26 January all of Durban 's major industrial complexes were faced with a wave of strikes as factory after factory downed tools. By early February, some 30 000 workers, including Durban 's 16 000 municipal workers, had embarked on strike action demanding higher wages and better working conditions.

Durban strikes

The waves of strikes that hit Durban, and the pace at which they mushroomed revealed a new force for which many employers had not been prepared. Wide media coverage of the striking workers caused an outcry from various quarters including the White public, and government at the shockingly low wages being paid to workers. In what was seen as an about turn on the part of government, Prime Minister Vorster called on employers to see their employees as "human beings with souls". Even more unusual, was the reaction of the police to the strikes.They exercised restraint and even seemed sympathetic to the plight of African workers.

It is unclear what sparked the strikes but the wave of worker action was an unmistakable signal to employers and government that a new order was emerging and it simply could not be ignored. In a change of tactics the government ordered an investigation into wage levels, amended legislation to give African workers the right to strike, albeit with severely restrictive conditions, and the opportunity to attend, though not to vote, at Industrial Council meetings. Though these reforms were mere window-dressing on the part of the state, they symbolized for the first time the recognition of the right of African workers to withhold their labour, as well as giving access to channels that were previously the sole domain of government, employers and White trade unions.

Immediately following the strikes in 1974, a study by the Institute for Industrial Education found no plausible or immediate cause and concluded "the strikes were a series of spontaneous actions by workers, which spread by imitation". This raises a number of questions such as: What caused the strikes to snowball in the way they did? Why did workers at other factories down tools and also demand higher wages? When one examines the context from which the strikes emerged, it becomes apparent that there existed in workers a heightened consciousness of their plight. This consciousness was due in part, to the work and advocacy of the Wages Commission, an organization founded by White students at the University of Natal. Garnering the resources of the academic world, the students lobbied the government Wages Board for changes to minimum wage levels, using quantitatively researched evidence. Though they were largely ignored by the Board, their definitive research into the poverty datum line (PDL) as a yardstick for setting minimum wage levels drew widespread support from Black workers. Workers often used the PDL when making demands for higher minimum wages.

Wages Com link above new Chrono NUSAS Wages Board

At the time of the strikes, the Wages Commission together with over 2000 textile workers had successfully launched the General Factory Workers Benefit Fund as a cautious alternative to starting up a union which would attract immediate state oppression. Similar structures were set up in Johannesburg and Cape Town and a common thread between them was their commitment to democratic grassroots unionism. However many of the leaders such as Rick Turner Halton Cheadle, David Hemson, Neville Curtis, Paula Ensor, and David Davis were banned soon after the 1973 strikes. This marked a turn in the tide for growing African unionism as membership dwindled to a little over 2000 in 1974 from a zenith of some 40 000. This slump was prompted by a spate of bannings, as well as an economic recession that allowed employers, in a labour-buyer's market, to retrench 'problematic' union members.

In a somewhat prophetic sense, a journalist covering the stevedore strikes in Durban in 1972 remarked that the pressure coming from Black workers, "will not be temporary this time but will go on growing irresistibly, slowly at first, then rapidly later. And as it does so the processes of change will begin to move again".

Two months later Durban had erupted in strikes on a scale which had never been seen before. Whilst workers had not achieved their demands for an initial increase of R20, and then later R30, most did receive increases in their weekly wages. Of significance in this context was that few workers were fired during the strikes. Growing international pressure on foreign firms saw a large percentage increase being given to their lowest paid workers, and local firms soon followed.

The Durban strikes had instilled in workers a new sense of power. Workers learnt that by striking 'the sky would not fall on their heads'. The bureaux set up by the Wages Commission began to organize more effectively and yet could not cope with the numbers of joining workers. Such resulted in the launch of several unions of workers from the metal, chemical, textile and furniture industries. Access to the government's Industrial Council via the factory-level Works and Liaison Committees, enabled activists to concentrate on building unionism factory by factory. It also provided a foundation that allowed them to survive the 1970s as well as a platform from which to challenge government's bargaining system in the 1980s.

In the more than thirty years since the strikes of 1973, South Africa, has witnessed three major shifts in the history of the labour struggle:

  • the emergence of the labour movement rooted in the strike action of 1973,
  • the consolidation of trade union power in the 1980s the securing of labour rights in the new Constitution,
  • with the advent of a democratically elected government in 1994.

Today the right to strike is guaranteed under the law and is seen by unions, workers, employers and government as a measure of last resort. Though labour dispute mechanisms prescribed by the Labour Relations Act are in place, the work of trade unions in educating and resourcing their members remains a challenge, to sustain the labour movement in the newly democratic South Africa.

Last updated : 27-Jan-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 15-Aug-2012