Johannesburg — Black power has challenged white power - and lost. This is the main significance of yesterday's decision by the National Union of Mineworkers to end the longest, largest, and costliest strike by black laborers in South Africa's history. The NUM called its 300,000 striking members back to work on terms virtually unchanged since before the three-week walkout began.
The NUM's retreat has major implications - for the black-union movement and for black politics as a whole. The lengthy strike and the settlement terms offer a dramatic reminder of both the strength and vulnerability of the black unions. The effect will be to convey a sobering, and embittering, lesson to black politicians at a time when non-union militancy is tightly controlled under a 13-month-old national state of emergency.
Perhaps the most significant, and still open, question raised by the mining strike is its effect on government policy toward the black unions. So far, officials have stressed privately that there is no intent to roll back the legislation recognizing black workers' right to organize and to strike.
The NUM's setback follows a year-long series of successful strike actions by other black unions, which were legalized in 1979. The most hard-fought, and surprising, union victories came against the OK Bazaars, one of South Africa's largest department-store chains, and against the state-run railroad system.
The miners' union, the country's largest, did score some victories in the strike. It sustained the walkout far longer than the mine owners, the government, and even the NUM leadership believed was possible.
The union also secured provisions for vacation pay, increased death benefits, and the reinstatement of some 40,000 fired workers.
But from the start, the NUM had insisted that there could be no settlement without management concessions on the strike's central issue: a scrapping of the 15-to-23.4 percent wage increase offered before the strike got under way. The NUM wanted at least a 27 percent increase.
The owners' offer was well above the average increase in other sectors of the economy. But it was also virtually identical to the hike won in last year's annual contract negotiations. Because mine profits were up this year - and the gap between black and white mine wages is still vast - union leaders argued that the owners could afford much more.
The mine owners refused to budge on the wage issue, even when the huge black labor federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), of which the NUM is the flagship member, hinted at calling a national strike to support the miners.
For nearly three weeks the NUM held firm. Late last week, it claimed near-unanimous backing from the strikers for rejection of the latest management offer. In a phone conversation between a top union figure and a management official - overheard at NUM headquarters shortly after the vote not to settle - the union leader said, ``I can't see how there can be a settlement unless you agree to discuss the wage issue.''
But with some 20,000 strikers fired in the past few days, and the threat of some 19,000 further sackings set for today, the union apparently felt it could not hold on. This seemed particularly true given the ready availability of black labor from tribal homelands and nearby states - and the knowledge that the mine owners, who export about half of the Western world's gold purchases, could hold out almost indefinitely if they so decided.
The settlement seems unlikely to slow the trend toward increasing assertiveness and political militancy in the black labor movement. Indeed, the fact that the mining houses in effect managed to break the strike could leave a legacy of bitterness and encourage strike action in economic sectors which lack the mine-owners' financial reserves. Strike action, moreover, seems likely to remain a prime outlet for black political activism at a time when the nation's black majority still lacks a voice in central government, and militant opponents of the present political system are barred from most forms of public protest.
NUM leader Cyril Ramaphosa told reporters late yesterday that his union had emerged organizationally stronger from the strike, adding, ``We see this year's strike as a dress rehearsal for future action'' in next year's contract talks.
But the settlement does offer a dramatic reminder of one inherent weakness in the black unions that transcends the mining sector. This is the fact that there are limits to how long most black workers can afford to strike. Often, they are supporting five or six relatives in an economy where black unemployment in some areas runs above 50 percent.
The legislation legalizing black unions has proven the most durably successful of President Pieter Botha's gradual retreats from the apartheid system of white-dominated racial separation.
The government has come under growing pressure from the far right to clip the black unions' wings. Encouraging the right-wing outcry has been the increase in the number of black workers striking and the growing economic costs of such strikes.
Also angering Pretoria's right-wing critics, and some government officials, has been the increasingly vocal role of black unions on general political issues. Cosatu, following the lead of a number of black unions, recently gave formal endorsement to the 1955 Freedom Charter of the outlawed African National Congress, the most prominent group fighting to topple the government.
But some officials note that the unions have helped keep most strikes short-lived, and provided room for negotiation, compromise, and settlement.
Journalists in South Africa operate under official press restrictions.