Johannesburg — South Africa's emerging black trade union movement may have issued its first serious challenge to the political order in this country. And the unions will be hard to deter as they go from strength to strength despite the country's severe economic recession, labor analysts say.
The opening clash between the unions and the government appears to have taken place Nov. 5 and 6 when an estimated 500,000 black workers refused to go to work in the economically vital Transvaal Province over political and economic grievances.
The government's response has been a combination of threats and action that seems to underscore the seriousness it attaches to the growing involvement of key black unions in political issues.
The government has detained seven people believed to be connected with the strike, including Chris Dlamini, president of the large black Federation of South African Trade Unions, and the members of the Transvaal Regional Stay-away Committee (TRSC), which was the prime strike organization.
Two of the TRSC members picked up by the security police had union connections. They are Moses Mayekiso, an official with the Metal and Allied Workers Union, which is an affiliate of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU), and Themba Nontlantane of the Municipal and General Workers Union of South Africa.
At the same time the security police searched the offices of FOSATU, the multiracial United Democratic Front, and the Media and Research Services, a UDF affiliate.
In the wake of the two-day general strike, the government acknowledged the seriousness of the situation. Minister of Law and Order Louis Le Grange said in a speech that current black unrest in South Africa was more serious than the 1976 uprising because it involved more adult blacks.
And the minister of home affairs and national education, F. W. de Klerk, warned black unions against political involvement.
It was perhaps significant that Sasol, South Africa's large synthetic fuels producer, abruptly fired 6,000 black workers who joined the two-day strike. Some believe that since Sasol has strong government connections (most of its directors are appointed by the state), the government was behind the hard-line stance.
Black unions were not solely responsible for the strike. Indeed, the strike was apparently initiated by black youths. But labor analysts say the involvement of the unions was critical to the strike's effectiveness.
Union involvement, or more specifically black worker involvement, may also have been a watershed for black protest. The strike involved an alliance of workers, community leaders, and students that has not worked this well since the 1950s, some political analysts say.
Youth protest has been gathering steam since early this year. But the government has repeatedly stressed that there was a large element of intimidation behind the protests. A few radical students were intimidating large numbers of fellow students to boycott schools, the argument went.
It is difficult to quantify the extent of intimidation. But the involvement of adult black workers in the strike suggests that the ongoing black unrest in South Africa has broad roots and is not purely a youth phenomenon.
FOSATU is regarded by many labor experts as the strongest black union in South Africa, partly because of its solid organization at the grass-roots level. FOSATU strongly supported the two-day strike, which seemed to indicate that black workers were not only willing to make a political statement, but also were eager to do so.
Sasol workers, for instance, were adamant about joining the strike, even though their union, the Chemical Workers Industrial Union, sought an exemption from the general strike call. Rodney Compton, the union's general secretary, says the black workers at Sasol felt ''a need to express their enormous political frustrations.''
The emergence of black trade unions as an increasingly overt political force follows the remarkable growth of the black union movement itself.
The South African government granted black unions legal recognition in 1979. The membership in independent black unions has rocketed from about 100,000 in 1979 to about 400,000 today, according to Edward Webster, a professor of labor sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
What makes the growth all the more noteworthy is that for the past three years South Africa has gone through its severest recession in modern times.
Professor Webster says South Africa is one of the few countries in the world experiencing growth in trade union membership. He attributes this to the huge pent-up demand for black unions that existed prior to 1979.
Black trade unionism scored a major gain this year when the black national union of mineworkers went on strike and for the first time ever won a concession for black miners from the mining industry.
It has been an open question since 1979 when black trade unions would begin to flex their muscles in the political field. The unions have been cautious, building strength among workers and focusing on factory issues.
But meanwhile, the unions have forged closer links with community and student organizations. And those links bore fruit during the recent two-day strike.
Beyers Naude, a prominent critic of the government, says what is happening in the black trade unions is nothing short of a ''silent revolution'' within South Africa. In the unions, blacks are learning what democratic rights are all about. And Mr. Naude says the unions could play host to a ''process of democratization which could be the foundation of a future government.''