Black unions tread high wire in S. Africa. Movement seeks activist role without angering members or Pretoria

South Africa's black labor unions face a series of delicate challenges that hold implications for the country's overall political climate. The unions, thrust into an increasingly political role by a state-of-emergency clampdown on other black antigovernment groups, are grappling with how to exercise that role without risking either a split in their own ranks, or government moves to curb their activities.

Even as the largest black union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) convened its annual congress in Johannesburg this week, the government stepped in to stop a strike by the Cosatu-affiliated National Union of Metalworkers.

The action was in contrast to the government's tendency to stay on the sidelines during a series of successful black-union strikes in recent months. It also came amid mounting criticism by the extreme-right Conservative Party, the official opposition in the white chamber of Parliament, of alleged government weakness in the face of the growing militancy of black unions.

At least two key tests of union strategy lie just around the corner:

The metalworkers' union, while directing some 60,000 striking members to return to the job, has vowed to raise a court challenge to the government's halting of the strike.

The government stopped the strike by extending a year-old overall industry-wide wage accord with the metalworkers. This is permissible under South African law. But union leaders argue that the government violated the spirit of the labor legislation. Union sources indicate they have not cancelled the strike - called to press wage demands - but merely suspended it pending the outcome of their court case.

The National Union of Mineworkers, the country's largest union, says that it has received a near-unanimous endorsement for strike action against gold and coal mines in a secret ballot of its nearly 300,000 black members. NUM leaders are holding that weapon in reserve, however, by declining to say when a strike would be called.

The vote was held after the breakdown of wage talks with the mining houses. Initially, the NUM had asked for a 55 percent across-the-board hike in miners' wages. During talks, the union reduced that demand to a differentiated hike of between 30 and 40 percent; but the mine owners' final offer was one of between 17 and 23 percent. On average, the mineworkers earn about $220 a month.

Twice, since its launching in 1984, the NUM has called strikes. Both led to clashes with police. But during the past year, the union has grown in size, internal coherence, and militancy. At its own congress earlier this year, the union signed on to the 1955 ``Freedom Charter'' of the outlawed African National Congress. The ANC, banned since 1960, is waging a campaign to overthrow the present, white-dominated political system.

Cosatu - which claims an affiliated membership of some 700,000 workers - is widely expected to follow suit this week by endorsing the ``Freedom Charter,'' which advocates multiracial ``people's power'' and nationalization of key industries.

Adopting the charter could stir political differences within the black-union movement, which includes a ``black consciousness'' minority that opposes ANC support for an anti-government alliance with whites. It would also likely anger the South African government, and redouble right-wing pressure for curbs on black-union activity.

The government of President Pieter Botha is also in a delicate position. His legalization of black unions in the late 1970s is the most durably important of his race-policy reforms.

Officials - and employers - feel the union reform has generally succeeded in bringing stability to the country's labor relations, and keeping wild-cat strikes to a minimum. The legalization of black unions in effect co-opted a sudden surge of freelance worker militancy - especially in Durban - in the early 1970s. This militancy was a precursor to the general unrest that erupted in Soweto in 1976.

But since the state of emergency was declared in June 1986, black unions have become more assertive in their demands for better pay and working conditions.

In strikes during the past year - against a retail-store chain, the government-run transport network, and, most recently, the country's beer producers - the unions have marshaled newly cohesive worker support, in effect forcing managers to meet key demands.

A mineworkers' strike - if, indeed, one is called - could apply this growing union power to the single most important sector of South Africa's economy. Mining provides most of the country's hard-currency earnings.

Journalists in South Africa operate under official press restrictions.

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