This paper was submitted to the 1973 Durban Strikes Celebrating 50 Years Conference

The Durban strikes of 1973, and the subsequent struggles waged by workers, led to the formation of workers’ structures and trade unions that sought to challenge apartheid and the cheap labour system. Shop stewards, particularly those who generally operated according to workers' mandates and control, became a vital feature of the workers’ movement in the 1970s and 1980s. This cycle of struggle, which began with the Durban strikes of 1973, was led by blue-collar workers employed primarily in the manufacturing sector of the South African economy. However, due to changes in the social composition of the workforce, this cycle of struggle came to an end. In 1994, 60% of the membership of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) was unskilled and semi-skilled workers, most of whom were active in the manufacturing and mining sectors. However, in 2004, this was reversed with 60% of its membership being from the skilled, supervisory and clerical job sector. The decline of the manufacturing sector can explain the changes in the trends as a result of restrictions in the economy, a massive entry of public sector workers into COSATU, and the inability of COSATU to organise workers who work under precarious conditions. With the manufacturing sector's decline, these blue-collar workers lost their influence as a political and social force in the union movement. In post-apartheid South Africa, public sector workers tend to have higher formal education and those who can be regarded as lower sections of the middle class tend to play a dominant role in COSATU. Another indicator that workers have entered a new cycle of struggle is the rise of precarious workers who are generally not unionised and are, therefore, insecure. In 2018, about 40% of workers were involved in precarious forms of employment, so considering precarious conditions atypical is incorrect, especially since there is substantial evidence supporting the high preponderance of precarious work. What is often missed when discussing the rise of precarious forms of work is the fact that permanent workers who face work reorganisation and technological changes in production processes are also precarious and insecure, largely because retrenchments and the lowering of labour standards remain a threat to their permanent work and their conditions of existence as workers. Therefore, the new cycle of struggle that characterises work and workers in post-apartheid South Africa features the dominance of public sector workers and the generalised rise of precariousness with black women being the face of precarious work. 

Mondli Hlatshwayo

Centre for Education Rights and Transformation

University of Johannesburg


Mondli Hlatshwayo is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation of the University of Johannesburg. He has published numerous peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters on the following topics:  xenophobia and trade unions, football world cup and stadia, education and immigrant learners, and trade unions and technology. He is co-editor (with Aziz Choudry) of the forthcoming Pluto Press book, Just Work? Migrant Workers, Globalization and Resistance.