The event that signalled the end of apartheid

Posted on March 22, 2023


This month (March) 50 years ago, the trigger — and the underlying power — that brought an end to apartheid erupted in Durban when nearly 100,000 workers were out on strike.  This view of the crucial role played by the labour movement after a decade and more of relative quietude, is now being increasingly recognised.

With it comes the realisation that it was not the ANC and its armed struggle, let alone any foresight or goodwill by the last apartheid president FW de Klerk that saw the end of formal racist oppression.  Nor, certainly, can the reformist pressure exerted, largely after 1977, by big business take credit for ushering in a non-racist parliamentary democracy.

All of these elements played parts in the demise of apartheid, but are now widely seen as reactions to the prime driver:  internal, and often deeply democratic, worker organisation and mobilisation, both on the shopfloor and in communities that created the conditions for change.  The confidence this inspired undoubtedly helped fuel the student rebellion of 1976 along with some of the reactions internally of various role players, some of which designed to deflect, or to capture and control, such mobilisation.  

That reawakening of labour power is now often referred to as the “Durban Moment” that burst fully onto the scene in March 1973 and began on January 9.  This anniversary was celebrated in Durban in January this year at a gathering that brought together worker and community activists across the generations.  Fittingly, the event was arranged by Omar Badsha, artist, photographer, historian and veteran of those momentous days of 1973..

But this was not a journey into nostalgia, it was three-days of debate and discussion looking at the past, the present and the future of worker action and the role it played in the defeat of apartheid.  All against the backdrop of the turbulent events in Durban half a century ago.

Why then?  Why Durban?  What influences were in play?  And what does it all mean, now and in the future?  These and other questions, doubtless accompanied by speculation, some finger pointing, accusations and confirmation of facts, will hopefully continue in the years to come.  However, the focus for the Moment remains January 9.

The bare events seem clear enough:  hours before dawn on that Tuesday morning in 1973, a small group of men walked quietly from hostel to hostel that housed the workers of the Coronation Brick and Tile company outside Durban. They brought a simple message:  no work today.  Instead we will march together to meet at the nearby stadium to tell the company we need more pay.

Who they were and what, precisely, inspired them to call for a mass protest meeting and collectively demand to be paid R30 a week we may never know.  But they were clearly motivated by weekly pay that fell well below the poverty datum line of R18 a week and were determined to do something about it.

So, as dawn broke, what must have seemed a nightmare to many of Durban’s white commuters, driving in to work, the traffic was held up as 2,000 singing, chanting workers marched to their gathering on a local  football field.  In front of the march was a man carrying a red flag.  This might have stirred anti-Communist paranoia. but, as author Steven Friedman pointed out, it was “meant to keep the early morning traffic away, not to proclaim the strikers’ political sympathies”.

Some idea of the political sympathies of the strikers may be judged by the fact that although they demanded a minimum wage of R30 a week, they settled, after two days, for R2 more — R11.50 —after the intervention of Zulu king Goodwill Zweletini.  They were reportedly not happy with the deal, but accepted it so as not to “offend the king’s dignity”.

That mass walkout from the Coronation hostels was unannounced and generally unexpected, although there had been earlier stirrings of disquiet on the labour front , not least on the Durban and Cape Town docks.  There was also a good  example of a strike in Johannesburg in June 1972 that indicated how the industrial and economic climate had changed over the past decade and more and how this may have added to worker power.

Putco bus drivers provided the example.  The buses they drove were the crucial commuter service bringing black workers from the far flung township to work in the factories and white group areas.  When the drivers walked out, demanding more than double their weekly wage, they were threatened with immediate dismissal.  The police were brought in and 300 strikers were arrested.  The strike collapsed.  

But it is the aftermath that provided the lesson:  the company dropped all charges against the arrested drivers, provided a pay rise and the Putco service resumed.  It was a point not lost of a growing army of workers with often scarce skills:  there had simply been no ready replacements for the striking drivers.  

This clearly underlined the fact that the attempt by the apartheid state to create a vast reservoir of continually dispensable and replaceable manual labour — the Biblically justified “hewers of wood and drawers of water” —  had no future.  It had paid dividends in the immediate post World War 2 years, especially on farms and mines.  It no longer did.  A modernising economy needed experienced, skilled and semi-skilled workers and there were not enough white workers to fill available posts.

As a result, employers began to ignore job reservation rules and the state mostly turned a blind eye to such breaches.  By 1971 there were no more labour colour bars introduced and the government was increasingly granting exemptions to employers who applied for them, often to employ formerly racially barred workers at lower rates of pay. .

Shopfloor lessons had also been learned from reports of other strikes, especially in Namibia, and memories remained of the police repression of the early 1960s .  As a result, strikers tended to speak as a collective or would refuse to give names when telephoning demands to management.  This led to the widely believed story of bosses deciding that they had to agree to recognise unions because “we can’t deal with anonymous calls from tickey (call) boxes”.

Most were also probably aware that it was nonsense from government that agitators — supposedly part of an international conspiracy — were promoting the militancy.  What happened in South Africa before, during and after the Durban Moment was a totally homegrown rebellion.  It had its roots in a history of struggle, often driven by memories that remained after the leadership of that struggle had been banned and jailed or had departed into exile.

The SA Congress of Trade Unions, affiliated to the ANC, was not banned, but also chose exile..  Established in 1955 by the SA Communist Party that was formed underground two years earlier, the Sactu/SACP leadership decreed that South Africa was a fascist state.  As such, internal trade unions would either be crushed or subsumed by the state.

So Sactu in exile continued to claim to be the “sole legitimate representative of South Africa’s workers” while, on the ground, in the country, dealing with reality, workers began to build their own, often highly democratic structures.  As academic Mahmood Mamdani, has written, this “dramatically shifted the locus of struggle from exiled professional revolutionaries to the communities of South Africa”.

Here workers were assisted by the few veteran trade unionists such as Harriet Bolton who remained active on the ground and, very importantly, the support of a new generation of radical young students and academic activists.  It was they who set up wages commissions and advice centres in Durban and in other cities.

Perhaps the best-known of the Durban group were sociologist Rick Turner and then medical student Steve Bantu Biko, both of whom were murdered.  Their deaths, in 1977 and 1978, were stark reminders that, although the economic landscape was changing and a more confident working class was exploiting reformist gaps forced on employers and government, the iron fist remained.  

But the tide had turned, more unions were formed, along with the Federation of SA Trade Unions (later Cosatu) and links with communities and radicals calling for an end to “apartheid capitalism” grew.  Government responded by legalising trade unions while continuing a bloody crackdown and the private sector launched initiatives such as the Urban Foundation.

This liberal think tank and housing developer was established in 1977 by mining companies Anglo American and Anglo Vaal, along with the Czar of Afrikaner capital, Anton Rupert.  Brought onto the board was former Turfloop student and detainee, Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa.

Externally, pressure from anti-racist worker and student groups, together with various anti-apartheid organisations, encouraged largely by the exiled ANC, pushed governments and corporations to introduce sanctions and divestment.  Campaigning by these external activists, combined with the growing pressure of internal worker mobilisation, saw 125 of the more than 350 US-based companies in South Africa adopt the “Sullivan principles” also in 1977.

These  “principles” were a code of practice that promised no racial discrimination and equal pay for equal work in US owned companies.  They were named after the Reverend Leon Sullivan, who is usually described simply as a leading anti-apartheid activist.  Perhaps just as importantly, he served on the board of General Motors that, in 1977 was quite dominant in the SA auto market.

But while developments such as Fosatu had made Sactu irrelevant, there existed no agreed, let alone coherent, programme or plan for the future.  As one veteran of the 1960s noted, it was a case of “good revolutionaries desperately looking for a party’.  And the only game in town was the ANC and the allied SACP which was regarded with suspicion by a considerable number of the new trade unionists.  

The scene was set for talks with the ANC that culminated in the Codesa negotiations.    The fierce independence of the new unions had also faded by 1991 when a motion by the metalworkers that Cosatu should not align with the ANC in government sin e it would then become “one of the biggest employers” was lost.

An echo of those Durban Moment demands for real change also disappeared in 1996 when the united labour movement put forward an interventionist macro-economic programme.  It was ignored.

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