South Africa's transition: unions and foreigners can help

SOUTH AFRICA's legalization of labor unions has produced what may prove a major player in bringing about civilian adjustment to meaningful governmental power sharing by blacks. The player: the two-year-old Congress of South African Trade Unions, Cosatu. The event: the congress's formal adoption last month of the political program of blacks fighting to end apartheid and white rule; these include groups that condone the use of violence in that effort and advocate a plan of moderate socialism for a desegregated South Africa.

History shows the importance unions have placed on their demands that business and industry recognize and foster the growth of humanitiarian values. The freedom to negotiate thus requires recognition of the dignity of the human being.

Many South African blacks see organized labor as the tool to get the results they desire; as they see it, something, right or wrong, is being done to improve their lot. Principle is not as important to them as what can be done today.

Legislative action to diminish legalized union activity in South Africa is likely. If there is no change in attitude by the black unions or the white South African government, more violence could ensue. But if the white government adhered to the request of both union and company management that government stay on the sidelines, it is possible that violence can be forstalled.

In labor negotiations, the greater the respect for the absence of violence, the larger the long-term rewards to labor and business and industry.

An impressive indication of growing popular support for union activity is Cosatu's reported 50 percent increase in membership during the past 18 months. Its total membership now exceeds 900,000, providing funds for desirable union results.

White South Africa is economically dependent on black South Africa. A movement to translate that economic dependence into mutual political dependence is on the horizon.

The position of unions in South Africa was strengthened when Pretoria abolished the ``pass laws,'' a system of day-to-day control of the black population.

More-aggressive labor unions are in evidence. In early April some 4,000 postal workers stopped work in Soweto and Johannesburg to express solidarity with a 26-day-old strike of the nation's more than 14,000 railwaymen. Another example is the lengthy August strike between South Africa's black mine owners and white mine owners.

Because employee and employer interests must be in reasonable balance for economic success, an increasing number of foreign business leaders, from Asia, Europe, and the like, say they see an advantage in endorsing reform activity to advance black political rights. For example, Shell Oil's president in South Africa, John Wilson, prepared - with the South African Federal Chamber of Industries - a business charter of social, economic, and political rights. It is a clear human rights document challenging the government on apartheid and on human and political rights. A delegation of 44 businessmen from the Republic of China is similarly making its presence felt as a result of a recent tour in South Africa to explore business opportunities.

Foreign businesses in South Africa can be a helpful tool in supporting the momentum of blacks in their effort to achieve political and economic power sharing, while averting any slowdown in humanitarian advances.

The efforts of the far right in South Africa to convince the international community that progress has been made beyond ``the old ideology of apartheid'' must be diminished, according to one South African newspaper. Also needed, it says, is to defuse the picture the extreme left is painting of revolutionary forces poised to make the final assault on apartheid and ``ensconce'' the African National Congress (ANC) as a government returned from exile.

Within the unions, more actions are needed to accompany the transition to black and white power sharing. These actions could take place simply because more whites are likely to play a major role in reform and because more white leaders from different backgrounds are joining together and want their efforts to succeed.

For instance, in July some 40 prominent South Africans, including academics, businessmen, writers, clerics, and sportsmen, met in Senegal with top members of the exiled ANC, the main guerilla group opposing apartheid in South Africa.

These union actions, drawing on the expertise of the whites from the new reform movement, could include additional training, education, and experience for blacks. Blacks with expertise in a variety of fields, such as commerce and politics, will have to play a role in this training process. There are many who are now qualified to do so.

Such an opportunity exists in the case of Prof. Pothinus Mokgokong, who is about to make history as head of the first black-owned company to be listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. His Lebowa Bakeries Ltd. has an interracial staff of more than 700; blacks hold many of the top management positions. In competition with six white-owned companies, the Lebowa Bakeries' market share of bakery sales is 60 percent in Lebowa, a designated tribal homeland. The company is highly profitable.

For all these reasons, Western nations have an opportunity, from outside Africa, to contribute to self-determination for black South Africa. They can do it by watching closely, recognizing, and actively seeking openings that can be exploited to move toward humanitarian goals during the transition.

These ideas and experiences offer South Africa hope and the possibility of a less bleak future. Western nations and involved businesses need to focus on providing united support for South Africa's labor unions and their economic centers.

Robert Phinney served as US ambassador to Swaziland from 1982 to 1984.

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