For the first time, black trade unionism appears to have established a solid, irreversible presence in South Africa's critical gold mining industry. But wildcat strikes and the death of seven black miners this week demonstrate that the relatively new National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) still has a long way to go in the mines.
The vast majority of South Africa's 460,000 black gold miners are not unionized. For these miners, violence is often the only method of voicing dissent with wage increases that are imposed by the mining companies, labor analysts here say. It was on a nonunionized gold mine near Johannesburg that serious violence erupted, taking seven lives Tuesday.
The wildcat strikes and violence have marred what is otherwise a week of achievement for some black miners.
Through long negotiations with the Chamber of Mines, which represents the gold mining companies, the NUM worked out the first negotiated agreement on wages and work conditions for any black miners. The agreement affects black miners on 8 of South Africa's 34 gold mines.
But for both black miners and the mining companies, the agreement is a significant departure from past practices. Most analysts say the union is poised to grow over time, meaning negotiation could become the rule rather than the exception.
Some mining companies say unioni-zation is good for the gold mining industry in that it opens a channel for black grievances. In the past these grievances have often exploded into violence.
Anglo American Corporation owns 7 of the 8 mines on which the NUM has gained recognition. The chairman of Anglo's gold division said the agreement with the NUM was a ''milestone in South African industrial relations history and a victory for responsible collective bargaining.''
Cyril Ramaphosa, general secretary of the NUM, said in a phone interview the Chamber of Mines should have settled far earlier and wanted a ''showdown'' with the union. The agreement gives the black miners represented by the NUM an improved holiday pay allowance plan, on top of a 14 percent wage increase that the Chamber of Mines has implemented for all gold miners. Mr. Ramaphosa said he thought the agreement was a ''fair one.''
The NUM began a ''legal'' strike Monday but accepted the Chamber of Mines' offer Tuesday. Meanwhile wildcat strikes have broken out.
The most serious mine unrest occurred on a gold mine owned by Johannesburg Consolidated Investments, near Johannesburg. Police said black miners went on the rampage on the closely guarded mining compound Monday night. Police were called in. The police say seven miners were killed, although not all of them by police, and 89 people were injured.
Some mining company officials concede privately that there is a ''strike mood'' among many blacks and that further strikes and unrest are possible.
Some officials fear the agreement achieved by the NUM could actually cause unrest on other mines where black workers have not received a similar hike in holiday pay allowances.
Ramaphosa said he thought the wildcat strikes were a result of other miners wanting the same benefits won by the NUM. He said he phoned Consolidated Investments offering to intervene on their troubled mine, but ''they hung up on me.''
The NUM is two years old and was recognized by the Chamber of Mines as the voice of black miners on eight mines in '83. Blacks have been allowed to join miners' unions since 1981. The NUM has access to all gold mines but says its recruitment is sometimes hampered by management. Ramaphosa says the union has 90 ,000 members in 23 mines.