IT all began with a march of 2 000 workers from Coronation Brick and Tile to a nearby football field. In the van was a man with a red flag. This was not the start of the revolution; just a thoughtful warning to traffic. The date was 9 January 1973, the start of the Durban strikes – sporadic, small-scale and illegal – that in the view of political commentator Steven Friedman changed South African factories forever. John Aitchison, then banned and restricted to Pietermaritzburg but who co-edited the Wages Commission newspaper Isisebenzi with John Morrison, describes the ‘Durban moment as a pivotal fulcrum around which the most significant changes in South Africa occurred. It was far more important than the ANC’s activities in exile.’

Technically, they were not strikes but work stoppages in support of higher pay. African workers were prohibited by law from striking and picketing so they turned up at factory gates and refused to work, which made their protest highly visible. At Coronation the request was for R20 to R30 a week, a massive increase on the minimum wage of R9, but not unreasonable given the poverty datum level of R18. After two days and the persuasion of Zulu Paramount Chief Goodwill Zwelithini, the workers returned to work for R11.50.

But a spark had been ignited, most significantly on 25 January at Frametex in New Germany with a R20 per week demand that soon spread to all factories in the Frame Group, notorious for low wages, involving 6 000 workers. A rumoured train boycott heightened the tension and in early February, 16 000 Durban municipal workers, African and Indian, were out demanding R13. This particular wave of strikes lasted until March, a three-month period in which 61 000 African workers went on strike compared with a national total of 23 000 between 1965 and 1971. Twenty-six strikes hit the textile sector and 22 the metal industry, affecting 150 firms overall.

Given the era, at the very height of apartheid, the reaction was unexpected. The police maintained a low profile and publicly thanked workers for their conduct. Police intervened only twice, baton charging and tear gassing marches, but turned a blind eye to many illegalities, although their heavy presence, including reinforcements from Pretoria, was intimidatory. This provided a strong contrast to police brutality towards university students in Cape Town the year before. Opinion polls showed a significant number of whites shocked by low wages and supportive of the stoppages. The press, including some Afrikaans titles and even the South African Broadcasting Corporation, reflected these sentiments and was particularly critical of the Frame Group.

Only factory management seemed out of tune, claiming they had no inkling of a problem that had clearly been simmering for years. A textile worker complained that he could not afford the blankets he made and wages in the textile sector were 20% lower than the average factory rate, yet only 10% of the workers were unskilled. Weavers’ pay had risen 90 cents over six years. Those on piece rates were hampered by stoppages caused by inferior yarn and some women workers took home as little as R3.50 per week. And even limited rights such as notice pay were flouted. Locked in a paternalist mind-set and contemptuous of collective worker action, manufacturers inevitably blamed communists and outside agitators whose presence not even the police special branch could detect. The extent of worker exploitation was confirmed by the fact that modest wage increases awarded had no effect on profits. A Natal Witness leader spoke of company ‘avarice’.

Why Durban? This is a question that has never been conclusively answered, although there are a number of partial, contributory explanations. There is no evidence that wages (R13 average) were significantly lower than elsewhere. But the previous year an unsuccessful and short-lived stevedores’ strike had hit the Durban docks. Industry in Durban was highly concentrated, particularly in textile manufacturing, there was a marked degree of ethnic solidarity from workers supported by the Inkatha movement, and most strikers lived in adjacent townships that were part of the KwaZulu homeland. The work of the University of Natal-based student wages commission had shown up poor wage levels. More significantly, some of those involved (Halton Cheadle, David Davis, David Hemson and Rick Turner were ultimately served with banning orders by the government) were recruited by Harriet Bolton of the registered (white) Textile Workers Industrial Union, which supported the strikers.

From a worker perspective, the material gains were marginal, but the psychological boost was considerable. Workers had shown that shop floor solidarity, including co-operation across the African-Indian race line, at a time when industry was short of labour and job reservation was beginning to crumble could be translated into power. The strikes were largely spontaneous and apparently leaderless, so management and the Department of Labour could not intimidate. One worker with 35 years’ service earning R9 a week sought a theological explanation: ‘This thing comes from God.’ And the ambitious demands, although not met, were salutary and showed worker awareness that their wages were in real decline measured against inflation. In other words, these were offensive strikes designed to challenge structural poverty. A parliamentary investigation in London subsequently produced a critical and influential report on wages and conditions offered by British firms operating in South Africa.

Industrial action by African workers was not new, but in the past it had all too often been subordinated to broader community or political aims. The Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) had been a mass movement in the 1930s; Communist union leaders had parallel agendas; and the South African Congress of Trade Unions became a recruiting ground for Umkhonto we Sizwe in the 1960s.

Important tactical lessons were learnt in 1973, from which the unions never looked back. There were, however, to be setbacks. The government immediately amended the legislation with the Bantu Labour Relations Act of 1974 replacing the Masters and Servants Act. Both the Department of Labour and industrialists focused on communication, not worker rights. Liaison committees were added to works committees and in very limited cases these allowed worker input to wage negotiations at industrial council level. Perhaps the most important outcome of three months of industrial action was a new-found pragmatism in which workers sought any opportunity in the system to promote their cause. It was in this spirit that worker benefit societies, which had developed out of wages commission work, emerged as the independent unions while the Federation of South African Trade Unions was established in 1979.

Forty years on, trade unions provide protection for workers threatened by exploitative global capital: their roots can be seen clearly in Durban in early 1973. But this is not just a matter of history. A look at the strikes of 2012 in the mining and agricultural sectors provides distinct echoes. Workers are again making demands to redress their subordinate position in the economic order through offensive strikes, doing so on their own initiative workplace by workplace, and with a degree of spontaneity that bypasses official structures including dominant unions.

And in Pietermaritzburg in 1973 John Morrison recalls that the wages commission on the university campus was highly successful and its benefit societies operated in a number of local factories, including Scottish Cables and Alcan. Jeanette Cunningham Brown was banned for this activity and the commission’s car, funded by Peter Brown and Mamie Corrigall, was stolen and vandalised, possibly by the police. But the city’s work stoppages were short-lived and limited to Alex Carriers and Goodhope Pipes. At Sarmcol in Howick workers forced a R1 increase upping the minimum wage to R12. And the municipality pre-empted a stoppage by raising its minimum likewise. In 1974, the first independent union, the Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU), was established in Pietermaritzburg at the Lay Ecumenical Centre.   

This article was first published in The Witness on 18 March 2013 and entitled ‘Durban’s crucial labour moment’.

Further reading: Sakhela Buhlungu, A Paradox of Victory: COSATU and the Democratic Transformation in South Africa (Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2010); Steven Friedman, Building Tomorrow Today: African Workers in Trade Unions, 1970−1984 (Johannesburg: Ravan, 1987); Eddie Webster, Cast in a Racial Mould: Labour Process and Trade Unionism in the Foundries (Johannesburg: Ravan, 1985).