Johannesburg — The onset of this Southern Hemisphere spring found several hundred black dock workers crammed into a rundown union hall in this hilly port city.
The warming climate belied the inner chill felt by these workers as they sang songs of solidarity and prayed they would get their jobs back.
They had been fired Sept. 1 in a labor dispute that exemplified the season of labor confrontation that is buffeting South Africa. And without work the laborers probably will be deported to the Transkei and Ciskei, the so-called black ''homelands'' to which the government has assigned them.
Two factors seem to be propelling South Africa into greater labor strife, and they are both evident here in Port Elizabeth, a bellwether of labor relations for this country.
First, rising demands from black workers who, while denied meaningful rights in other spheres of white-ruled South Africa, tend to focus grievances of all kinds on the workplace.
Second, with the prospects of no growth in the economy over the next 18 months, businesses in South Africa are in no mood to make the kinds of concessions to workers that they did just a year ago.
The South African government is clearly concerned about the level of labor strife both for its economic consequences and as a source of possible instability in the black community. The number of strikes is again on the rise this year, threatening to exceed the high level of labor unrest in 1981.
The government recently decided to allow black unions that refuse registration with the government to participate in the official system of settling disputes. In the past these unregistered unions, considerable in number , were denied use of official government-sanctioned bargaining apparatus. The government hopes that by bringing these unions into the system, more strikes can be averted at the negotiating table.
But Pretoria also shows signs of getting tougher on labor unrest. The black dock workers were fired by the government's own South African Transport Services (SATS) for seeking outside union representation and engaging in a work slowdown to force SATS to talk about that demand.
SATS permits internal staff associations to represent workers, but most of the dock workers in Port Elizabeth apparently saw their association as a tool of management, and not representative of their interests.
SATS is the republic's largest employer. Its rigid refusal even to consider opening its door to outside trade unions was seen as harmful to labor relations by both unions and representatives of the private sector. SATS refused to meet with black workers to discuss their desire for representation by the general workers' union. Brian Matthew of the Chamber of Industries in Port Elizabeth commented: ''We don't feel (SATS) is playing by the rules. You have to talk, it's the only alternative to confrontation.''
General Workers' Union general-secretary David Lewis said SATS's unwillingness to talk and the sacking of workers ''shows we must be totally cycnical about so-called labor reforms.''
South Africa's minister of manpower, Fanie Botha, whose portfolio includes SATS, has recently begun urging the business sector to get tougher with unions and stop ''bowing backward to the dictates of outsiders and militants.''
Port Elizabeth is also host to a serious dispute that has festered in the motor industry for weeks. The National Automobile and Allied Workers' Union (NAAWU) showed strong, perhaps unprecedented, black union muscle in stopping production at three plants simultaneously in July.
Although work has resumed, both sides in the wage dispute are expecting further strike action. The union wants a minimum wage of about $2.18 (US) and the auto manufacturers - Ford, General Motors, and Volkswagen - have granted about $1.90. NAAWU is particularly upset that the $1.90 minimum was enacted unilaterally without coming to agreement with the unions.
The government has shown increased concern about this labor dispute. Minister Fanie Botha has announced the establishment of a huge fund of some $1.7 million that the government will dole out to auto workers who refuse to strike.
Black unions see the move as direct state interference in the labor sphere that will benefit mostly the higher-paid, skilled white workers who have not been part of the strikes by unskilled and semiskilled blacks.
For Port Elizabeth, the deteriorating labor situation is particularly worrisome. The region has a reputation for being on the cutting edge of black labor militancy. That tendency has now run head-on into regional economic difficulties. Major employers in the motor industry are cutting back their work forces and shelving expansion plans, while black unemployment in the region is already estimated at over 25 percent.