This paper was submitted to the 1973 Durban Strikes Celebrating 50 Years Conference
Students played a notable role in the Durban strike wave by publicizing workers’ sub-poverty wages. In a period of intense political repression, students at the University of Natal and the University of Cape Town formed Student Wages Commissions in 1971. Soon they were collating survey data, distributing fact-sheets, encouraging dockworkers to attend Wage Board hearings, and citing the Poverty Datum Line (PDL). After January 1973, multinational companies and the financial press devoted new levels of attention to what household surveyors said about the minimum needs of the average urban family. Paradoxically, this reduction of “the Durban moment” to statistics added to its dynamism and its lasting impact. With references to poverty wages and household subsistence becoming ubiquitous, debates ensued about the varied meaning of poverty, inequality, and apartheid as a cheap-labor system. Overall, students and public intellectuals helped to spark the Durban strike wave as well as narrate its underlying causes, contributing to the overall reframing of the poverty question by the end of the 1970s.
Grace Davie is Associate Professor of History at Queens College, City University of New York. She is the author of Poverty Knowledge in South Africa: A Social History of Human Science, 1855-2005 (Cambridge University Press, 2015), as well as essays in The Journal of Southern African Studies and Politique Africaine. Her second book, “Webs of Power: Labor Union Corporate Campaigns and the Long Civil Rights Movement” is forthcoming from UNC Press in late 2023. Grace’s new research explores the economic pressure campaigns of the global anti-apartheid movement. Her PhD is from the University of Michigan.