S. African strikes cross racial lines

Gold miners accepted a settlement Thursday, ending their largest action in 18 years.

It's strike season in South Africa and the country's workers are out in force. An estimated 110,000 gold miners have downed tools in the industry's largest industrial action in 18 years. Municipal workers across the country have taken to the streets, strewing trash and tearing down traffic lights. Even the country's tax collectors are threatening mass action.

South Africa has a long history of labor activism and strikes here are an annual tradition.

But while this year's strikes have been particularly disruptive, they are noteworthy for another reason. In a country that shed apartheid just over a decade ago, white and black workers are beginning to fight together for the first time - transcending race to join forces through common economic interests.

"For the first time, labor is talking as labor. It's not a race engagement. It's a class matter," says Moferefere Lekorotsoana, a spokesman for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which represents largely black unskilled miners but is this year negotiating jointly with Solidarity, a union representing more skilled workers, most of whom are white and Afrikaans.

Eleven years into the new South Africa, the country's economic prospects are positive. The economy has bounced back from the sanctions and economic stagnation of the last years of apartheid and is now growing at more than 4 percent a year. International investors, like the British bank Barclays, are returning, and the country's currency is strengthening, giving South Africa greater power in the international market.

Widening wage gap

But many workers here feel that the benefits aren't trickling down. This year's strikes have been harder fought, and in some cases more violent, than in the recent past.

Workers complain that the wages of executives and top management are skyrocketing while ordinary workers, many of whom support large families, are struggling to get by on wages whose real value is shrinking. At least one mining executive, unions point out, makes more in one day than most workers make in a year. Gold miners typically make about $388 a month.

"The social economic conditions of our members have, by and large, deteriorated over the last three years," says Roger Ronnie, general secretary of the South African Municipal Workers' Union (SAMWU), which has more than 100,000 members striking across the country, shutting down city buses, trash collection services, and many government offices.

"Government has knocked back inflation. But that hasn't [been reflected], for example, in the area of food prices, in the area of transport costs," he says. "And obviously, with growing unemployment and that sort of thing, money has to be spread much further."

Government and labor

South Africa's labor movement has long been closely tied to the liberation struggle, sharing many of its goals and methods.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions, the country's largest umbrella movement which includes the NUM, is still an official ally of the governing African National Congress, although there have been recent signs of increased tension between government and labor.

White workers had their own unions, like Solidarity, but they rarely resorted to the same types of mass action that was the traditional stock of black labor movements. Solidarity gold miners, for example, last struck in 1978.

But white unions say their members are becoming increasingly radicalized and willing to resort to mass action. In one recent case, white Solidarity metal workers even voted to strike over a deal that black workers had accepted.

Solidarity and the NUM still have philosophical differences, says Dirk Hermann, a spokesman for Solidarity.

But they're also increasingly discovering that they have many common interests. The current gold-industry negotiations are the first time the two unions have bargained together.

"We have differences in our economic philosophy. We are a free-market trade union, while they are more socialistic," says Hermann. "And we have differences over things like [racial] transformation programs. We also come from a Christian base, and that also makes a difference. But there are a lot of things of mutual interest for workers. And we've succeeded to set those differences aside."

Mining negotiations

The new alliances between white and black workers are most obvious in the mining industry.

The Chamber of Mines, which represents employers, offered pay raises of between 6 and 7 percent Wednesday. Solidarity and the NUM accepted the offer Thursday, ending the five-day strike. The strike was estimated to cost about $20 million a day in lost production.

But there are glimmers elsewhere that a new class consciousness among South Africa's workers is beginning to supersede the country's old racial divides.

When employees at South African Airways, the national airline, went on strike last month, stranding thousands of travelers around the world, white workers could be seen "toy-toying" - dancing to protest songs - alongside black workers.

And a union representing largely white municipal workers for the first time ever joined SAMWU, whose members are largely black, on one day of the current municipal strike.

While unified, multiracial unions for South Africa may still be a long way off, many labor activists here see current events as a positive, and perhaps inevitable, step in the right direction.

"I think it's inevitable that as the society deracializes, divisions between employers and employees will taken on a more class content than a racial one," says Mr. Ronnie.

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