S. African unions getting more political

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Cyril Ramaphosa, general secretary of South Africa's black National Union of Mineworkers, is a soft-spoken man not given to rash statements or action. Yet he has pitted his fledgling union against the country's two most powerful institutions -- a bold and risky decision that analysts say reflects the increasingly militant stance of South Africa's emerging black trade unions. Mr. Ramaphosa has threatened the government with a black boycott of white businesses unless Pretoria lifts by today its state of emergency. And he has told the Chamber of Mines, which represents the mining companies, that black miners will strike Aug. 25 unless the chamber impr oves its wage offer.

In the years following the legalization of black unions in 1979 the unions avoided politics. Now they are edging into the political arena. The unions have been caught up in the cycle of unrest that began last year. The rank and file is pressing for a more militant stance by their unions.

Ramaphosa is by no means assured of success. His union has a paid-up membership of about 100,000, making it the largest of the emerging black unions. But it is less than three years old and does not even have a strike fund to tide over its members for the strike that may lie ahead.

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One reason for the politicization of unions, says Ramaphosa, is that black political leaders have been immobilized, either by being indicted with treason or by being detained. In the absence of functioning popular political organizations, blacks increasingly look to trade unions to express their political grievances and aspirations.

At present 49 blacks are charged with treason in South Africa; 38 of them are political leaders of the United Democratic Front. The UDF is one of the most prominent legal black opposition groups in South Africa.

The trial of 16 of the 38 UDF leaders is being heard in the South African Supreme Court in Maritzburg, in Natal. Counsel for the defense, Ishmail Mohamed, tried to persuade the court to quash the indictment on the grounds that it had improperly linked the 16 accused and that the charges were too vague. It was ruled, however, that the state had provided sufficient details.

The first clear sign that the black unions were moving in a political direction came last November. The two largest black union federations, the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) and the Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA), backed a general strike by black workers in support of demands for the withdrawal of police and soldiers from black townships, for the release of prisoners held without charge, and for a freeze on the rents on township houses.

Union backing for the November strike was in clear contrast to the early refusal of unions, particularly those in FOSATU, to involve themselves in wider community issues. The unions' policy had been to concentrate strictly on factory floor and industrial issues of direct interest to their members.

Since November, however, black unions have increasingly moved to the front of the political battle against apartheid, South Africa's policy of strict racial segregation. The one-day strike in May in protest against the death in detention of a trade union leader, Andries Raditsela, is one example. Another was the presence of trade union members, clad in T-shirts proclaiming their union affiliations, at the funerals of unrest victims.

The emergence of black unions -- there are nearly 500 registered black unions and nearly 300 unregistered unions -- as vehicles for political expression comes as unity talks among the unions themselves reach a critical phase. The talks started four years ago and have dragged on ever since. The objective is the creation of a super trade union federation that would unite all the emerging black unions under a single umbrella.

Further unity talks are scheduled to take place in Soweto today. But the signs for unity are not auspicious.

CUSA has withdrawn, while the Azanian Congress of Trade Unions, a pro-black-consciousness group of unions, has not been invited because of its refusal to endorse the principle of a racially open membership.

However, the National Union of Mineworkers has disaffiliated from CUSA and thrown its full weight behind the move to create the new super federation. Charging CUSA with not approaching the quest for unity seriously, the NUM has resolved to press for the formation of the new federation by the end of the year.

[In developments related to the continuing unrest in South Africa's black townships, Reuters reports that police hurled tear-gas grenades into the home of black leader Winnie Mandela and arrested 30 people Tuesday.

[A lawyer representing Mrs. Mandela said she was not at home at the time. She is the wife of imprisoned black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela. The lawyer said Mrs. Mandela's sister was among those held.]

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