Black trade unionism has scored an important breakthrough in South Africa. It is further evidence that while blacks here remain severely restricted in the political sphere, new opportunities are opening up to them in the labor field. The main reason is basic shifts in this country's white-controlled economy that in some respects are overpowering government ideology.
For the first time, an independent black trade union has moved legally into South Africa's crucial mining sector. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) signed an agreement June 9 with the main mining employers' body, the Chamber of Mines.
The agreement means this year wages for black workers in eight gold mines will be negotiated, as they are routinely for white mine employees. Wages for black mine workers have in the past been set unilaterally by the mining companies. The recognition agreement includes only a small portion of the black mining work force, but wages won by the NUM will probably affect all blacks in the mines.
One cause of the liberalization of labor policies towards black mineworkers is the increasingly critical need for black skilled and semi-skilled workers - a need being sharply felt throughout the South African economy. As has happened in many other industries, the mining companies are granting more rights to black workers as fears of a white manpower shortage grow.
As the Chamber of Mines has explained, the opening up of the tightly controlled mining compounds to black unions is simply a recognition that the status and demands of black workers are rising. It is in the employers' interest not to resist the ''inevitable,'' notes a spokesman for the chamber.
The new recognition agreement could be a milestone for black trade unionism in this country. The mining industry has been more resistant to black labor advances than any other major industry.
One reason for the mines' reluctance may be the critical importance of the mining sector to the South African economy. South African mines employ over 700, 000, account for over half the country's export earnings, and contribute nearly 20 percent to the nation's gross domestic product.
There is an international dimension as well. South Africa is keen to maintain stability and control of its mining sector because it produces a number of strategic minerals vital to the West. And the West's dependence on these minerals provides South Africa with a counterweight against an inclination among Western nations to shun the country for its racist policies.
South Africa's white government has been gradually granting more rights to blacks in the labor field. In 1979 the government allowed blacks to legally organize independent trade unions. Some restrictions on how these unions must operate have been eased, as have some discriminatory laws prohibiting blacks from holding certain jobs.
The mining industry has dragged its heels through most of these changes. The mines are still permitted legally to practice job reservation, excluding blacks from certain higher-paying job categories.
One roadblock to reform of discriminantory practices in the mines is the powerful white mine workers union. It fears the position and pay of whites will deteriorate with black advancement.
Growing black union muscle on the mines could produce friction. NUM General Secretary Cyril Ramaphosa has said that the question of job reservation is a ''burning issue'' with black miners.
However, there is also hope that black unions will lend some stability to the mining industry. With the Chamber of Mines setting wages unilaterally, black mine workers have in the past resorted to violence to show dissatisfaction with pay levels. Last year, frustration with the wage increase brought widespread unrest, resulting in 10 deaths.
Mining officials hope that unionization and bargaining will give black mine workers an orderly channel for voicing demands.
The mining industry's resistance to black unionization began crumbling in 1981 when organizers were allowed in some mines. The relatively small Federated Mining, Explosives and Chemical Workers Union won the right to represent some non-white workers on two mines last year, although that union is not considered ''independent'' since it was formed by an established predominantly white union. There are now five unions attempting to recruit black mine workers.
The efforts of the NUM have been most significant. Only recruiting since last October, the NUM already claims a signed-up membership of some 20,000.
The NUM's success belies conventional wisdom that South Africa's black mine workers could never be organized because of their short tenure in the mines, and their varied backgrounds as a mainly migrant work force.
The developments in the mines are clearly part of a broader phenomenon of increasing black power in the labor field in South Africa. And this phenomenon has gathered such momentum that many labor analysts see further advances ahead.