Frontline South Africa 1973: mass strikes and beyond

This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the wave of mass strikes of 1973 in Durban, South Africa. Early that year Coronation brick workers followed on the dock strike of October 1972 and unleashed a movement of one strike rolling on to the next. One of the major activists of the strike wave, David Hemson, writes on a human wave that arose from the depths of the apartheid barracks, factories and mills; spontaneous, irrepressible, powerful and momentous. The challenge of 1973 has yet to be fulfilled.

By David Hemson

This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the wave of mass strikes of 1973 in Durban in conferences, workers meetings and exhibitions. Early that year Coronation brick workers followed on the dock strike of October 1972 and unleashed a movement of one strike rolling on to the next. By April that year 61,410  black workers were recorded as striking in 146 workplaces, the number of strikers rising to well over 100,000 by the years end. No workplace in the region and beyond was unaffected.

Breaking through the darkest days of apartheid when repression led to the African National Congress being regarded “almost dead”, this uprising for wages burst against the cheap labour system of barracks, police, passes and short term contract labour in an explosion of resistance with far-reaching impact.

This rising struggle has still not set, as the living wage with permanent decent work sought has yet to be achieved.

These Durban strikes arose as part of a regional movement of workers’ resistance to apartheid. In a galvanizing strike in Namibia in late 1971 to early 1972 against the apartheid contract system led the way. In response wages in some sectors were raised 60% from desperately low levels.

Strikers in Durban demanded immediately double or treble their existing wages and equal wages for women. This was a concrete vision for society not in the platform of any liberation movement. Anticipating victimization, workers refused to elect representatives as demanded by employers, instead they shouted demands, raised their hands in a “high five” for a Rand-5 increase and jeered down concessions until employers conceded more.

This improvised strategy protected the leadership from below and demonstrated public bargaining with a collective voice and a veto from workers. As in all strikes there was a limit to resistance in hunger but also unprecedented opportunities.

While many were flash strikes, many lasted longer and grappled with power: some 23% of the strikes lasted a day or less, 34% continued between more than 1 day to 2 days and a further 23% struggled over 3-7 days.

David Hemson speaking at a mass meeting of textile strikers in 1973.

Strikers ignored or repudiated the formidable array of apartheid laws prohibiting strikes, spontaneous demonstrations and picketing; those of “riotous assembly”, “Bantu labour regulation”, “public disturbance”, “industrial conciliation”, pass laws regulations as well as the security legislation on sabotage, terrorism and other repressive laws.

Racing from the docks to the brickyards, then to textile mills, small companies, metal foundries, transport companies, sugar mills and onwards, the shifting terrain and momentum disoriented the police. There were rumours of a rail boycott and the police raced at dawn to the township stations; then of textile workers marching down Umgeni Road and the police then rushed there too.

The police were armed and widely present; additional militarized police with battle experience in the then Rhodesia were flown in as reinforcements. Some marches were baton charged, others teargassed, some arrested and charged but over time the police were paralyzed by the human wave of strikes and abandoned enforcing the anti-strike laws.

Although termed the ‘Durban strikes’, the movement swirled inland to Pietermaritzburg, up the coast to the aluminium smelters of Richards Bay, on to textile mills in East London and then again to the Rand gold mines. Wave swept over wave as strikes overlapped, reaching a peak in February but driving outwards and deeper into the sugar plantations, into every workplace in the region and to many beyond.

Within spontaneous action, incipient organization grew. Reciprocal relations developed between the young union leadership experienced in wage agitation from the student Wages Commissions and the rising “illegal” mass action out of the frame of industrial conciliation.

As a union official organizing textiles I compiled a list of 15 demands (for an immediate wage increase, ending sexual abuse, yearly bonus, etc.) from a meeting with miserably oppressed black women mill workers in January 1973 and placed these before the notorious cheap labour textile monopoly, the Frame Group.

Mr Frame, the textile magnate, was derided for making riches from cheap labour.

When organizing then at this Consolidated Woolwashing and Processing Mill, the workers from Smith and Nephew across the road demanded we come and organize them too. Both sets of their demands were reinforced by strike action.

Unorganized and organized workers, African and Indian, poured into the union Bolton Hall in spontaneous strike meetings to have free ranging discussion away from the gaze of the armed police. There was an outpouring of consciousness of capitalist exploitation: “We cannot afford the blankets we weave”.

There was strategic value in moving from spontaneity to organization and then back to spontaneity; the aura of spontaneity was a stimulus unifying action in depth and hardening a new worker leadership. To employers faced with unpredictable spontaneity it drove home the historical necessity of recognition of officially “unauthorized” organization.

These strategies led on directly to unionizing the mass of African workers in clothing and textiles, the abattoir, docks, metal and chemical sectors.

The strikes made immediate advances in wages; in some 70% of the strikes, unplanned increases were forced from employers. Wages were increased by fractions not the 100% demanded in virtually all strike-bound workplaces. There were expectation of more to come.

The experience of brutality of the barracks combined with growing confidence in their own concentrated power in the docks, brickyards, massive textile mills and transport hubs. When a Coronation worker confidently took up the red flag used to ease a truck into the traffic and led a march down the streets, in response, a traffic policeman held back the traffic. Migrant workers were key to the port’s operations and municipal engineering and in other sectors.

They had growing awareness of their productivity and specific weight in production and services and of the growing crisis of capitalism as economic conditions worsened. This consciousness combined with a sense of the sharp increase in inflation in food, rail fares and necessities drove workers into action and then to organization.

The mass action impacted other classes. The strikes swept up a new mood in society, winning support for their action and shame to the despised the Frame group company for their ultra exploitation. Even the brutal Prime Minister John Vorster felt compelled to make the declaration that black workers should be treated as “human beings with souls” not as “labour units”.

The force of a powerful non-violent movement brought sections of white society to the side of the workers: 88% blamed low wages and 65% felt black workers were entitled to organize trade unions.

Instead of a predicated racial war there was the social mobilization of tens of thousands which not only succeeded in raising wages, forcing public collective bargaining and also winning over sections of the white population.

The counterattack – the bosses, the state and Chief Buthelezi

Employer organizations rallied the capitalist class with advice on how to resist the pressure of strikes and hold the line against granting wage increases. The Natal Employers Association (NEA) flourished in holding the line against concessions.

Behind the liberal rhetoric in calls on the regime to allow black unions to be legalized was a bitter counter-offensive. Employers combined to hold the line against giving recognition to black unions and breaking rank. Leading shop stewards and strike leaders were eventually identified and rooted out of the factories.

Capitalists drew on the state to effect control. In round after round of banning orders, the regime had organizers house arrested and prohibited from union work or writing; there were police raids on their homes and union offices. Employers used “liaison committees” of workers and managers to try to seal off workers from unionization.

In the docks, Chief Buthelezi’s uncle and personal representative, the reviled “welfare officer”, J.B. Buthelezi succeeded in weeding out militant workers. They were taken off ships during working hours, fired, and using pass laws, immediately deported from the dockyards and Durban itself.

This repression forcibly “neutralized” much of the new leadership but also hardened resilience. Despite wave after wave of bannings which tended to break up the developing cadres of leadership and accumulated collective learning, the unions survived and developed structured defenses such as union locals.

Repression was anticipated and union cadres regarded themselves as expendable and replaceable; forced out of union offices they supported the resistance from the shadows. Unions grew more slowly as international labour solidarity faltered in Britain and Europe and was stifled in the USA.

The period also saw new forces brought to bear. The Wages Commissions were particularly effective in publicizing the appalling wages of black workers in the wattle plantations who were earning Rand 1 a week and a handful of maize meal as their wages. This research became front page material of the Guardian’s exposé of wages paid by British companies and led on to a Parliamentary enquiry.

The Guardian carried headlines about the Wage Commission research on starvation wages on British owned wattle farms.

Rising militancy

The young organizers understood the organic connection between capitalism and the elaborate state apparatus of passes, police, officials and chiefs. The facts showed this was monstrously effective: on the mines research had shown this apparatus and monopoly power had kept black wages lower in 1973 than they were in 1911, reaping massive profits to Anglo American and local capitalists.

State intelligence feared this rise of Marxism and a subsequent workers’ revolution.

The Schlebusch Commission which investigated and coordinated the onslaught on the open legal resistance characterized the rising union and student leadership as follows: “They are opposed to the entire existing order in South Africa, including …the capitalist system, existing moral norms and any form of relationship of authority…they reject liberalism as a political approach.”

The state feared that wage agitation would be the fuse igniting the power of black workers to revolution.

The fear was well founded. The strike movement was essentially the opening of the social revolution in South Africa; forcing the urgent social demands of the black majority on the political agenda of the regime and liberation movements. Among union leaders this was envisaged as the strategy to achieve liberation and socialism. The foundations of a workers’ movement were being built to form a mass workers party and a socialist revolution, as feared by Schlebusch, was what was intended.

The mass strikes established the industrial centres and working class communities as the Frontline of resistance to apartheid. While the guerilla movement was struggling to “reach home”, mass strikes demonstrated the struggle was already maturing in the industrial centres “at home”.

The working class had spontaneously moved into action despite the South African Communist Party (SACP) abandoning economic exposures, wage agitation and unionization in the 1960s and beyond to focus solely on a guerilla strategy which was not succeeding. In addition, mass strikes in the strategy of the ANC adopted in Morogoro in 1969 had been ruled out because they would be “suppressed with the utmost vigour”, three years later they were now rolling.

These strikes continued beyond 1973 pounding as the basis of the cheap labour system and fighting and driving back the militarized police trained for guerilla warfare. Black working class cadres of resistance were rising through the unions; June-Rose Nala, Wiseman Mbali, Gugu Biyela, Isabel Shongwe, Rossina Phiri, Bhekisana Nxasana, Alpheus Mthethwa, Thizi Khumalo and others unrecorded in histories. Many would be banned and detained and struggle to maintain themselves and their families.

June-Rose Nala (now Nala-Hartley) was a weaver, then general secretary of the textile union, a lecturer and later founded the Workers College in Durban.

For me, a young activist, the strikes confirmed the line of advance from fruitless student protest to the agitation of the Wages Commission and then on to the formation of mass independent unions and the opening to a party built on this foundation.

The mass strikes were the dramatic propaganda of the deed, of successful defiance of oppressive laws on a mass scale and an opening to organization which laid the basis for the insurrectionary youth and worker movement of 1976 continuing into the 1980s and still not dead today.

A generation had learned the skills of trade unionism by reading Marx in a focused manner and then the voluminous details of wage and labour law, forcing concessions and a range of new technical and political skills.

For me the challenge then became political; how to survive and grow when we faced the state, employers and Buthelezi?

Learning from the struggle

We faced a curriculum that no university in the world could set and teach and a demanding field practice. Reading on the shop stewards movement in Britain and the upsurge in the workers and youth movement internationally gave certainty we were not isolated.

I shed tears of rage when banned from the union offices and the first creative political work in my life but was still young and buoyed by the “very heaven” of breaking through the barriers of race and language and organizing the energy of the class.

Hemson picking up the glove covered stone used to smash his car, late 1973.

The incapacity of the racist regime to enact reforms drove the idea that the unions would be in a constant state of radicalism and could not slide into bureaucracy and reformism. With police at the door and facing hostile employers, we were building a union movement under the control of members, training shop stewards and a black leadership to take the workers movement forward.

Along with survival and the unions’ progress we still needed to link in the demands of working class communities and set out the political tasks involved in preparing a workers party in conditions of ruthless repression.

I was optimistic our rising cadre could manage these tasks.

David Hemson is a socialist, a researcher and a social historian. He founded the student Wages Commissions in South Africa in 1971, wrote on the national strike in Namibia 1971-72 and edited research bulletins and workers’ newspapers. He actively participated in the Durban mass strikes in 1973 and addressed mass meetings of strikers. He organized African and Indian workers and helped found the unauthorized non-racial textile, furniture, dock and metal unions before being banned and house arrested in February 1974. In exile he wrote on racial capitalism with Martin Legassick and pioneered the slogan: ‘Sanctions against Capital, Solidarity with Labour’, when the rising unions and strikes had little support from anti-apartheid movements and the ANC.  

Featured Photograph: The mass of assembled strikers at Coronation Brick and Tile factory in early 1973. Note that the copyright for the images used in this blogpost lies with the copyright holder David Hemson. Please get in touch for permission to use any of the images.


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