January 9th 2021 marks 48 years since the 1973 Durban strikes, also dubbed the ‘Durban Moment‘, began with 2000 workers from Coronation Brick and Tile going on strike. They demanded that their wages be increased from R8,97 to R20 a week. This initial strike was followed by larger ones across the city, and by February 1973 over 30 000 workers from diverse industries – cleaning, transport, mining, and textiles – were making their voices known. This mass action marked resurgence of union activity that culminated in the creation of trade unions. These unions would become critical institutions in the dismantling of the apartheid system and lead to the formation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in 1985.
When reflecting on the significance of the Durban strikes, John Morrison, co-editor of the Wage Commission publication, noted that “it was a pivotal fulcrum around which the most significant changes in South Africa occurred.”
The Suppression of Trade Unions and Spontaneous Action
South African workers had been organising themselves into unions since the 1800s and by the early 20th century there were a number of small unions dotted around the country. The South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) was one of the most notable. It chose Lakhani Chambers as its base when it formed in March 1955. SACTU argued that the fight for economic and political rights “were one and the same” and campaigned for an increase in the national wage. However, by the early 1960s, 45 of their staff members – alongside staff from 36 other organisations – were listed in a government order which banned 432 individuals from holding office. Despite its continued operation, albeit clandestinely, SACTU eventually dissolved in the mid-60s and it seemed as if the apartheid state had once again succeeded in quashing their opposition.
By 1971, the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) and Dave Hemson from the University of Natal had created the General Workers Beneficiary Fund and a project called The Wage Commission in order to study the impact of unionisation in South Africa. The mass strikes across the city marked a clear departure from research and formal funds. Perhaps most significant of all was the ability for the strikes to reignite a “spirit of rebellion.” They also highlighted the pertinent role that working-class communities could play in the fight against apartheid:
Above all, the strike signalled the central role of working-class organisations in shaping the ideology, strategy and tactics of the struggle against Apartheid and racial capitalism…
A question that remains is why these strikes occurred in Durban rather than Johannesburg. One theory is that the concentrated nature of industries in Durban, especially the textile industry, resulted in a sense of solidarity between many workers. Another was that many of them were supported by the Inkatha movement which, for political aims, promoted a unified Zulu history and people. Added to this was the important work of the Wage Commission, which highlighted the dire economic situation for workers in the city and made their plight known.
Although the strikes and work stoppages that occurred in January of 1973 did not result in dramatic financial gains for the workers, it certainly gave them an unequivocal psychological boost. It also highlighted the importance of trade unions so that workers could express their struggles and access support in a variety of ways. Almost 50 years later, trade unions are still a prominent part of the South African labour landscape and workers are still expressing their concerns in both organised and more spontaneous ways. As researcher, Christopher Merret, reflects:
Trade unions provide protection for workers threatened by exploitative global capital and their roots can be seen clearly in Durban in early 1973. But this is not just a matter of history. A look at [2012’s] strikes in the mining and agricultural sectors provides distinct echoes. Workers are again making demands to address 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.
The Durban Moment was thus a turning point in the fight against apartheid and illuminated the power of working-class communities and their ability to come together to fight for their rights.