Last Wednesday, thousands of workers took to the streets as part of the SAFTU (South African Federation of Trade Unions) organised national strike. The union was protesting against the proposed R20 per hour national minimum wage that is currently being tabled.
Throughout history employees have used their power of withholding labour in order to improve their working conditions, with varying degrees of success. In January 1973, a march of 2000 workers from Coronation Brick and Tile to a nearby soccer field marked the start of the historic Durban strikes, that have come to be known as the ‘Durban Moment’. The Coronation workers were requesting a wage increase to R20 a week, seemingly a massive ask given the minimum wage of R9 at the time, but not unreasonable considering that the poverty level was set at R18. In fact, public opinion appeared to be on the side of the strikers, with relatively little force being used by the police during the strikes, and opinion polls reflecting that the majority of white people were shocked by the low wages, and supportive of the work stoppages.
After two days of striking the Coronation workers returned to work for a measly R11,50, but the tide was turning as workers began to recognise the power that collective action could have, even in the midst of the oppressive apartheid era. Over the course of the next three months some 61 000 workers went on strike in Durban, compared with a national total of 23 000 in the six years between 1965 and 1971. The textile sector, which was infamous for paying staff rates far below a living wage, was hit with 26 strikes, with the metal industry experiencing 22 strikes. In total 150 firms in Durban were affected by industrial action.
There is some debate as to why previously unheard of mass action of this scale took place in Durban, and not Johannesburg. At the time most Durban workers weren’t members of trade unions, and while the Black Consciousness Movement and the associated Black Community Programmes were very involved in many of the strikes, a lot of the work stoppages were small-scale and not linked to any particular organisation. In fact, the lack of strike leaders made it difficult for management and government to intimidate workers, and some academics believe that it was precisely because the strikes weren’t subordinated by broader community or political aims, that they were successful.
Other contributing factors included the relatively short-lived stevedores’ strike that had taken place at the Durban docks the pervious year; the concentration of industry in Durban; the proximity of Umlazi to the CBD which meant that workers weren’t affected by the pass laws limiting their movements in other cities; and finally the work of the University of Natal-based student wages commission, which had highlighted the atrocious wage levels.
While the mostly illegal strikes took place over a number of months, the industrial action marked a turning point for labour, and thus is an important ‘moment’ in South African history. The Durban Moment not only reestablished the industrial relations framework that had been destroyed by the government in the 1950s and 60s, but also led to the rebirth of the black trade union movement, with the establishment of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in 1985.
Note: South African activist and academic, Tony Morphet, coined the term the ‘Durban moment’ in his Rick Turner Memorial lecture at the University of Natal on the 27th September 1990