Black trade unionism appears on the verge of what may be one of its most important victories yet in white-ruled South Africa. Union organizers are at last being allowed to recruit blacks in the mines, and to the surprise of many, they are having a fair degree of success.
The development is important in both political and economic terms. It raises the possibility of growing black worker muscle in one of the most crucial sectors of the South African economy. It also sets the stage for a possible clash between the rising demands of blacks for equality in the workplace and the overt, entrenched discrimination that still exists in the mines.
An important upshot of the success some unions are already having in organizing blacks is that for the first time this year blacks in some mines will negotiate their own wage increases, rather than leaving it to the unilateral decision of their employers.
The gates of South Africa's military-style mining compounds began opening to black union organizers in 1981, but the only real successes have come since late in 1982. The relatively small Federated Mining, Explosives, and Chemical Workers Union has been granted the right to represent some nonwhite workers in two mines this year.
And now, the much larger National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is close to being recognized by the Chamber of Mines to represent black workers in certain categories in four mines for this year's wage negotiations. The chamber represents most of the major mining companies and in the past has set wages unilaterally for black miners. (The salary of the best-paid blacks has always been lower than that of the worst-paid whites in South African mines.)
''Our key aim right now is recognition. We want to get our foot in the door, '' says Cyril Ramaphosa, general secretary of the NUM. Johann Liebenberg, labor consultant for the Chamber of Mines, says it is almost certain the NUM will be granted recognition for the 1983 wage negotiations.
The NUM has made substantial progress in organizing black miners. Mr. Ramaphosa says the union has a membership of some 18,000 in 11 mines. Mr. Liebenberg agrees that the NUM is having ''much more impact among black workers'' than previous efforts to organize blacks in the mines.
The NUM's success has surprised many observers who have long felt that black mine workers were too transitory and from too many backgrounds - many are migrants - to be interested in joining unions. But Mr. Ramaphosa says the union ''serves to unite them.''
Also, he says, more blacks ''see mining as a career,'' which increases the appeal of trade unionism. Indeed, statistics show the tenure of blacks in the mines has been lengthening.
The unionization of black mine workers has been made possible in part by a change of attitude of both government and the mining companies, which have traditionally opposed any organizing of black workers. The government gave legal sanction to black unions in 1979 and by 1981 had extended trade union rights to all black mine workers, including migrant workers.
The Chamber of Mines has been softening its requirements for allowing unions access to mines for recruiting purposes. A key change has been the chamber's dropping of a requirement that to gain access to workers, unions must be registered with the government.
The chamber is acting out of self-interest, according to Mr. Liebenberg. Unionization of black mine employees is an ''inevitable development,'' and most mines would prefer to work with the budding unions to ''jointly set the rules for future industrial relations at this stage while that is still possible,'' he says.
Ramaphosa says the mines are simply responding to the pressure from workers to allow them access to unions. ''And if the miners are organized without (the mine employers voluntarily granting) access, the workers will be embittered.''
Also, employers may be hoping to avoid the kind of disturbances that led to riots and deaths of some black miners last year when workers were dissatisfied with the level of wage increases. Unions might reduce the workers' frustrations by giving them more of a voice in their own wages.
One of the key issues the NUM hopes to tackle is the policy of ''job reservation'' in the mines, which allows only whites to hold certain jobs.
As to the stance of the government, Ramaphosa says there is still official hostility to the NUM's efforts. ''The government is now trying to move in and harass our organizers,'' he claims.
At least one government official, however, has pushed for labor reforms that would benefit blacks and will face a stiff challenge in May elections because he has done so. Manpower Minister Stephanus P. Botha, who has agreed to register black trade unions and who has said the government is ready to remove the color bar in mining, faces a strong white right-wing effort to unseat him from his Soutpansberg (Pretoria) seat in Parliament.
The Herstigte Nasionale Party has agreed to bow out of the race for the Soutpansberg seat so that Mr. Botha's right-wing opponents can rally around one challenger, Conservative Party candidate Tom Langley. (The Conservative Party was formed last year out of opposition to the government's plan to broaden the role of some nonwhites in government.)
Some analysts say that a Botha defeat would have severe repercussions - possibly to the point of creating a need for general elections.