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South Africa

Labor and Politics

Even before apartheid restrictions were imposed during the 1950s, government policies, rather than market principles, determined many aspects of labor-management relations. From the 1950s until the early 1990s, black workers suffered systematic discrimination. Apartheid legislation authorized the "reservation" of many skilled jobs and managerial positions for whites; qualified blacks were legally excluded from most senior-level jobs, but black education standards were so inferior to those for whites that few blacks were qualified for well-paid jobs. Even in equivalent job categories, blacks received lower wages than whites. Although white workers were divided in their racial attitudes throughout the apartheid era, they often opposed benefits for black workers that could threaten their own economic standing.

Throughout South Africa's industrial history, workers of all races organized to demand better wages and working conditions, but through the early 1980s, almost all union leaders were white. This was true in part because some employers refused to negotiate with black representatives and because of legal restrictions on black labor organizations. The Industrial Conciliation Act of 1924, which governed many aspects of labor relations, redefined the term, employee , to exclude most blacks; the definition was amended by the Native Labour (Settlement of Disputes) Act (No. 48) of 1953 to exclude all blacks, thereby depriving them of any labor law protection.

A century of South African industrial development had relied on an abundance of low-wage labor in order to ensure profits. But as the economic and social problems associated with implementing apartheid emerged, and as new technologies were developed during the 1960s and the 1970s, many industries chose to increase their capital stock--investing in sophisticated machinery and employing a few skilled technicians--rather than adopt labor-intensive methods that would require training and managing a large work force. This trend toward capital-intensive operations probably resulted in lower labor costs and increased productivity. At the same time, it contributed to the country's soaring unemployment and spreading poverty, which fueled resentment and raised the costs to the government of preserving apartheid.

Increasing poverty among blacks, along with entrenched workplace discrimination and the marginalization of blacks from national politics, caused black workers' organizations to become increasingly politicized in the 1960s and the 1970s. They provided a legal arena in which political grievances could be aired. By the early 1970s, there were twenty-four African workers' organizations with a combined membership of nearly 60,000. Their increasing militance and a series of strikes that began in Durban in 1973 finally persuaded the government to begin reassessing its restrictions on black labor.

The government-appointed Commission of Inquiry into Labour Legislation (Wiehahn Commission) recommended the legal recognition of these fledgling unions, in part to exercise stronger control over black workers. As a result, Parliament enacted the Industrial Conciliation Amendment Act of 1979, recognizing black unions and extending labor law protection to them for the first time.

Under this legislation, many black workers had the legal right to bargain collectively with their employers in the 1980s, and, when legally required mediation procedures failed, they had the right to strike. They exercised these rights aggressively, using both legal and illegal labor actions to press their workplace demands and to protest against apartheid. Black union membership of about 500,000 in 1980 grew to more than 2.5 million in 1990. By the early 1990s, almost 70 percent of all union members in South Africa were black, and more than one-third of all employees in mining, industry, and commerce were union members.

The largest organizing effort among black workers resulted in the establishment of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in 1985. An umbrella organization of more than a dozen unions, COSATU had a total of 1.3 million members by 1990. COSATU affiliated with the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), both of which were banned. In addition to winning major financial concessions for its members, COSATU became the effective mobilizing arm of the ANC and the SACP. COSATU's two largest labor rivals were the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), a blacks-only confederation that rejected multiracial membership, and the United Workers' Union of South Africa (UWUSA), which was affiliated with the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).

Union militancy contributed to labor successes. Real wages for black manufacturing workers rose an average of 29 percent between 1985 and 1990. Overall wage increases, outside agriculture, rose by 11 percent during 1985 alone, and this annual rate of increase accelerated to 17 percent in 1990.

By the early 1990s, however, both labor and government leaders were alarmed over the violence that had erupted during some labor actions. Violence had been part of labor's history of confrontation; some employers used force to suppress labor militancy, and strikers often used violence against nonstriking workers. But the scale of labor violence increased sharply, and the often-repressive police response also contributed to the destruction. In one of South Africa's most violent strikes--at a gold mine near Welkom, in the Orange Free State--more than eighty miners died in clashes between strikers and nonstrikers in 1991. Like many other violent strikes, this clash initially concerned economic issues, but it escalated because of political, ethnic, and racial grievances.

In the early 1990s, COSATU's largest and most militant unions were the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), each with more than 300,000 members. NUMSA's actions cost automobile manufacturers and related industries more workdays than any other union in 1993 and 1994. NUMSA threatened even more costly labor actions in the future if auto workers' wage increases did not accelerate.

Three other large unions led the labor movement in the number of strikes called during the early 1990s. These were the National Education, Health, and Allied Workers' Union; the Transport and General Workers' Union; and the Food and Allied Workers' Union. Even workers in small companies were becoming more militant; during the early 1990s, more than 40 percent of all strikes involved 200 or fewer employees.

In 1994, with 194 legally recognized labor unions in the country, the government extended labor law protection to domestic workers for the first time. Initially, this meant recognizing their 70,000-member domestic workers' organization as a union and granting its members rights such as sick leave and on-the-job lunch breaks for the first time. Several COSATU-affiliated unions launched membership drives among domestic workers in 1995 and 1996, and they promised to work for the introduction of a legal minimum wage and access to literacy classes and other forms of vocational training for the large domestic work force.

Business and labor leaders agreed that confrontations with labor contributed to rising business costs during the 1980s and the early 1990s. The number of workdays lost to work stoppages rose from 175,000 in 1980 to 5.8 million in 1987. Lost workdays per year declined in the late 1980s, but labor actions still extracted high costs from business by slowing operations, by intimidating investors, and by destroying property. Among the most costly actions were those by transport workers, whose services were vital to all sectors of the economy. South Africa's ability to compete globally was also affected by labor militancy, in part because, officials estimated, a worker's cost to employers in 1994--including wages and benefits--averaged US$5 an hour in South Africa, or double the average labor costs in Mexico or Brazil and more than five times the average labor cost in China.

Data as of May 1996

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