Johannesburg — The confrontation between the South African government and black trade unions continues to escalate. Amid strong hints that key black unions are considering backing another temporary general strike over political and economic grievances, the government has rounded up a larger number of political opponents, including union officials.
Meanwhile, certain black townships continue to simmer, providing a volatile backdrop to the growing conflict between the government and the black unions.
South Africa's three major national business organizations - the Federated Chamber of Industries, the Afrikaanse Handelsinstituute, and the Association of South African Chambers of Commerce - took the unusual step this week of jointly criticizing the government. The organizations said the detentions without trial of black unionists was a ''precipitous step'' that could only ''exacerbate a very delicate situation.''
Most recently detained was Pirshaw Camay, general-secretary of the Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA), representing a black membership of some 140,000. Last week Chris Dlamini, president of the other major black union federation, the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) was also detained. At least four other trade unionists are believed being held by the police.
The government action against the black unions follows the key involvement of FOSATU and CUSA in the general strike on Nov. 5 and 6 in South Africa's industrially critical Transvaal Province. An estimated 500,000 black workers participated in that strike, making it one of the most successful in the country's history.
2 The strike was considered significant because it lent black worker support to growing youth and community-based black protest.
Meanwhile, the townships continue to simmer and the government now has resorted to the routine use of the Army to quell black unrest. This week the South African police, which in the past handled black unrest by itself, used the Army in a joint security operation in the Tembisa Township northeast of Johannesburg. There was widespread violence and rioting in Tembisa during the Nov. 5 and 6 strike.
The government's actions against the black unions is rapidly souring the sphere of black labor relations, where even the government's critics concede there has been genuine reform since blacks were granted the right to have registered unions in 1979.
Johan van Zyl, executive director of the Federated Chamber of Industries said major employer organizations have met in recent days with key black union officials in hopes of dissuading them from taking part in another general strike. ''We were making good progress,'' he says, until the detentions began.
Government interference has bedeviled the talks and put in question ''the whole credibility of the industrial relations framework,'' says Dr. van Zyl. In his opinion, the question of a black strike should be left as a matter between workers and their employers.
Business leaders are worried that the government's action against black unionists may prompt union participation in another general strike.
FOSATU has already called for a ''black Christmas'' in protest against the government's detentions and the firing of 6,000 black workers by Sasol, the synthetic fuels corporation with strong government links. FOSATU is urging consumers to buy nothing but the essentials.
The government has also jailed Kate Philip, president of the National Union of South African Students, an organization of white university students. The Detainee's Parents Support Committee says more than 220 people now are being detained without trial.