Black workers join wave of protest in South Africa

The wave of black protest that began in South Africa two months ago appears to have graduated from being primarily a student initiative to one now bolstered by the country's emerging black trade union movement.

The result this week was one of the most successful general strikes ever waged by black workers - a development that must send shivers down the spine of the South African government.

''This strike invoked the kind of alliance the government has always feared, '' said Edward Webster, a labor sociologist at the University of the Witwatersrand. The alliance included black trade unions, community organizations , and student groups.

On Monday and Tuesday blacks staged a massive work ''stayaway'' in the Transvaal Province, where roughly two-thirds of South Africa's industry is located. The Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce estimated that at least 50 percent of the black work force in the Johannesburg industrial region, stretching from Pretoria in the north to Vereeniging in the south, did not show up for work. That would mean hundreds of thousands of black workers honored the strike call.

The general strike was accompanied by violence in several black townships in the Johannesburg area leaving at least 16 people dead. There was also substantial property damage.

The latest wave of unrest flies in the face of recent assurances by the South African minister of law and order, Louis le Grange, that black unrest is ''calming down progressively.''

The South African Institute of Race Relations says the current cycle of black unrest stretches back to school disturbances in February and had claimed 134 lives prior to this week's events.

Aside from the impact of the strike on industry, it also had an influence on the lives of whites that was far more direct than anything felt as a result of violence in the black townships.

On Monday and Tuesday service at many supermarkets and gas stations ground to a virtual halt because of a shortage of black labor. Many whites were forced to provide transporation for their domestic servants who were afraid to be seen taking public transportation to work.

In central Johannesburg, about 30 percent of the retail work force stayed home, estimates Nigel Mandy, chairman of the Johannesburg Central Business District Association. The strike made clear, says Mandy, that ''there is hardly a business that could work without blacks.''

The violence that accompanied the strike followed a familiar pattern of blacks attacking government-run buses and trains, administration buildings, and the homes of local black officials. At the onset of the strike police maintained a heavy presence in many townships and erected roadblocks in some. Blacks have frequently charged that police enflame black sentiment by maintaining such a heavy presence in the townships.

The week's strike action, like the unrest that preceeded it, appears to have its roots in a restive black youth. Earlier this year a growing number of blacks began boycotting schools. Unrest in the schools was followed by protests over economic issues, such as increased rents and a higher sales tax. These measures angered many blacks already hard hit by the country's severe recession.

The Congress of South African Students (COSAS), representing black students below the college level, seems to have been the prime mover behind this week's strike.

However, the success of the strike was probably due to the much wider support given the COSAS initiative. Days before the strike, a wide range of black organizations supported the initiative. These included the United Democratic Front and two major black trade unions, the Federation of South African Trade Unions, and the Council of Unions of South Africa.

As Webster puts it, the strike was initiated by students, but it was ''co-directed'' with organized labor. He sees the black union involvement as highly significant.

For instance, during the Soweto uprising of 1976, black trade unions were ''weak and small,'' says Webster. Today they are ''strong and confident,'' he adds. Black trade unions were legally sanctioned by the government in 1979.

Many analysts here see the present incorporation of workers in a mass protest as similar only to the black protest movement of the 1950s, led by the African National Congress. Calling for workers ''stay-aways'' was a common tactic of the ANC. But in 1960 the ANC was declared an illegal organization.

This week's strike was called by an ad-hoc organization called the Transvaal Regional Stay-away Committee, comprised of many student, community, and union organizations.

Those calling for the strike made several demands on the government, including the withdrawal of police and Army units from black townships and the redress of a number of student and worker grievances.

On the academic front, students want to elect their own ''student representative councils'' and they want the age limit applied to each grade level scrapped. Pretoria has made concessions on both issues. Yet students do not appear satisfied.

In the economic sphere, there were demands for a stop to bus fare increases, a rollback in the general sales tax, and a reduction in rents.

There were also broader political demands, including the release of all political prisoners.

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