South Africa pushes to end discrimination on the job

The South African government has introduced legislation in the all-white Parliament that could lead to radical labor reforms. It explicity prohibits discrimination against workers on the basis of sex, race, or color.

The highly critical main opposition party in Parliament, the Progressive Federal Party, says the proposals should change "the entire working pattern" in South Africa. It also says the Cabinet minister responsible for the new laws, the tall, rather ponderous minister of manpower utilization, S. P. "Fanie" Botha , is "courageous" to introduce them.

While the new labor legislation amounts to a radical contradiction of orthodox apartheid, the government shows no signs of easing its rigid stance on what it regards as illegal migrants in white urban areas. South African police raided a black squatter camp near Cape Town Aug. 11 and torched it hours before it was to be visited by an American congressional delegation.

At the same time the proposed labor reforms are a striking contrast to the seemingly dead-end debate in Parliament last week during which Prime Minister Pieter Botha and his colleagues backed hard-line apartheid, a policy of forced social, economic, and political racial segregation.

The new legislation throws out moldy books of old laws that placed restrictions specifically on black workers, and that provided for arbitrary government controls and little freedom of association or proper free-market bargaining opportunities.

Instead, the blacks are now being given the same rights as whites to be full-fledged members of trade unions. This applies also to black migrant workers, something that was strenuously opposed by some white conservatives at first.

All reference to race--which was cardinal in earlier legislation--is studiously eliminated in regulations that will now govern bargaining procedures, registration of unions, and procedures for settling strikes and other disputes.

Some more militant black unions are opposed to certain restriction on "illegal" strikes and disabilities that "unregistered" unions will suffer under the proposed new laws.

But the overriding advance is that the same provisions apply to all workers, regardless of race, and this is considered a remarkable adjustment in government thinking.

Indeed, it is exceptional to read legislation in South Africa that is peppered with a literal "prohibition" on racial discrimination.

Most of South Africa's more contentious laws go out of their way to enshrine racial discrimination, not eliminate it.

Minister Botha, a thorough, patient man, has worked long and hard to get his proposed new laws to Parliament.

Instead of putting Nationalist apartheid ideology first, Mr. Botha set up two commissions headed by respected Afrikaner academics to try to establish the facts of the South African labor scene.

They soon reported back that there was no way to unscramble the country's economic egg. Whatever the theory might be, the economy was not only racially integrated, but it would have to become increasingly dependent on blacks.

Clearly it was past time to abandon the fiction that there could be one set of labor laws for white workers, and a completely different set for blacks.

But it took long and laborious negotiations before Mr. Botha could convince some of the more conservative white trade unions that it was in the best interests of all to legalize economic integration.

Some white unions are still objecting, but they are in the minority.

Almost as important as the labor reforms themselves are the social and political implications they are likely to have.

Observers point out that black workers who will not only become used to working side by side with whites, but accustomed also to voting together in the same unions, earning the same wages, and so on, are not likely to accept political discrimination for long.

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