The 1973 Durban strikes and the workers movement to end apartheid

The politics that gave rise to the 1973 Durban strike. Illustration by New Frame.

The author argues that the Durban strikes not only resulted in the development of union structures, better working conditions, and salary increases, they also became a significant force in the liberation movement.

The Sharpeville massacre in 1960 was followed by unparalleled repression of anti-apartheid and anti-capitalist organisations. This cleared the ground for South Africa’s economic expansion and the rise of monopoly capitalism in the 1960s. The emergence and domination of manufacturing in South Africa in the 1960s was linked to the expansion of monopoly capital. The sector’s contribution to South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) expanded considerably in the 1960s. Manufacturing, for example, increased its GDP contribution from 21.3% of total GDP in 1962 to 23.4% in 1970.

Manufacturing boosted the size of the workforce by constructing large factories and purchasing machinery that required a large number of people. According to Innes (1984), the number of manufacturing workers increased by 63% between 1960 and 1970. The rise of the manufacturing sector resulted in the increase of the industrial working class, increased urbanization of the black working class, the creation of townships, and urban schooling, all of which sowed the seeds of major resistance in the 1970s and 1980s.

Despite repression and the banning of liberation movements in 1960, some strikes occurred in the 1960s and early 1970s. In other words, the 1960s were not without class struggles, as popular opinion frequently portrays. The 1960s and early 1970s also witnessed the formation of organisations that would later be vital in the development of resistance. Members and leaders of the South African Students’ Organisation (Saso) and the Black People’s Convention (BPC) in the late 1960s, many of whom were deeply influenced by the writings of Black Consciousness ideology and Paulo Freire, were actively involved in non-formal education, establishing the Black Workers Project in 1972.

The Urban Training Project (UTP), founded in Johannesburg in 1971, quickly expanded to include branches in numerous other cities (Durban, Port Elizabeth, Vereeniging, Pretoria and Klerksdorp). White students and intellectuals were also active in the work of pay commissions and workers’ benefit funds, which helped to organise some trade unions following the Durban strikes.

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In 1972, over 20,000 mining workers went on strike in Namibia. In the same year, bus drivers at the Public Utilities Transport Company (Putco) in Johannesburg went on strike in support of their demand for higher wages. Workers at the Coronation Brick and Tile factory outside Durban went on strike on January 9, 1973, kicking off the Durban strike wave. Workers at Frametex Textile Company went on strike on January 25, and were joined by workers from other Frame group enterprises, totaling around 6,000 workers. The inclusion of textile workers in the Durban wave of strikes indicates that women played an important part in the workers’ movement.

Numsa members during the national strike in 2021 where they were, in addition to an 8% wage increase across the board, demanding paternity and family responsibility leave. Archive Photo by Mzi Velapi

By the end of March 1973, about 100,000 mostly African workers had gone on strike, accounting for roughly half of all African workers in Durban. Trade unions like the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) can trace their origins back to the 1973 Durban strikes. The Metal and Allied Workers Union (Mawu) was founded in Pietermaritzburg in April 1973, and merged with three other unions to create Numsa in May 1987.

The Durban strikes not only resulted in the development of union structures, better working conditions, and salary increases; they also became a significant force in the liberation movement. Democratic traditions based on worker control and democracy got developed, becoming a cornerstone of the workers’ movement in the workplace and townships. However, there have been occasions where union leaders have undercut worker power and democracy. In the 1980s, for example, workers did not discuss or debate how the workers’ movement should relate to the African National Congress (ANC) nor the formation of an alliance between Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the ANC.

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Different political currents debated the role of the labour movement in the liberation struggle. However, the formation of Cosatu in 1985 signified that Congress organisations and leaders linked with the ANC had captured the labour movement, albeit with some internal contestations. Despite these developments, which later proved to be a factor in the labour movement’s eventual defeat, trade unions made significant contributions to building the structures that confronted the apartheid regime in the workplace and in working-class communities. However, with the advent of democracy in 1994 and the end of legal apartheid, the labour movement and the working class in general were further marginalised.

Saftu general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi and Numsa’s general secretary, Irvin Jim at a happier time in their relationship, in 2015, outside the Durban City Hall. Archive photo by Sharon McKinnon.

Many labour leaders were co-opted into government and business. Many of these erstwhile trade unionists, brazenly pursued neoliberal policies that decimated the manufacturing sector, particularly the textile industry. The Marikana massacre revealed unequivocally that those who formerly led trade unions during the apartheid struggle and are now politicians and business leaders are willing to go so far as to kill workers for demanding a living wage.

The ANC’s leadership actively pursued policies to re-organise labour into forms of precarious work in both the private and state sectors. Some scholars suggest that what were once considered exceptional kinds of precarious labour have now become common, with precarious employees displacing permanent workers who were once considered the core workforce. In the sense that these workers receive low wages and have little or no benefits, precarious work undermines the fights won by workers since the formation of the modern trade union in 1973. Business unionism, corruption, and union investment firms have shattered trade unions’ facades of worker control and democracy. Having said that, not all is lost, as workers, precarious workers, and non-governmental organisations are resurrecting worker resistance, albeit in the context of poverty, unemployment and inequality.

Mondli Hlatshwayo works for the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation (Cert) at the University of Johannesburg and is also the chairperson of the WWMP board.  

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