Strike seen as lesson for South Africans. Blacks and whites learned to deal with each other, labor expert says

For Nic Wiehahn, the most heartening thing about the recent bitter black miners' strike was what didn't happen: The South African government didn't succumb to political pressure to try to force the strikers back to work. Professor Wiehahn has never worked in a mine, much less owned one. Yet few South Africans can have followed the country's longest-ever black labor stoppage with a more keenly personal interest. It was Wiehahn who formed and headed the government inquiry commission that led, in 1979, to the legalization of black labor unions.

Most local analysts, including other labor-relations experts interviewed after the settlement, saw the strike as a defeat for the National Union of Mineworkers, the nation's largest black labor group. Though the NUM surprised even itself by sustaining the walkout for nearly three weeks, and won new fringe benefits for the strikers, the union was ultimately forced to settle without winning any concession on its key demand for greater wage hikes than the mine owners had offered.

The analysts interviewed were concerned that the outcome could lead in the long run to generally heightened labor tension in the critically important mining sector, all the more so in light of a still unexplained explosion at a gold mine yesterday.

The explosion, which left nearly 100 miners trapped in an elevator at time of writing, seemed certain to rekindle longstanding NUM demands for tighter mine safety.

But Wiehahn, and other analysts interviewed, foresaw potentially positive effects from the strike. ``The negative aspects are painfully evident,'' said Wiehahn, a one-time railway worker who now heads the graduate business school of the University of South Africa in Pretoria.

``First of all,'' he said, ``there was the terrible, tragic cost in human life'' - nine people died in the mining dispute. ``Also, it is regrettable that miners were fired during the conflict, and that generally the dispute tore at the fabric of the working relationship that had grown between the mine management and the NUM over the past several years.''

But the importance of the mine strike transcended the mining sector.

The walkout represented the most difficult test to date of the reform statute legalizing black unions, and black strikes.

This test, moreover, came at a time when many whites, especially but not only on the political right, had begun to press for Pretoria to rein in the increasingly assertive and politicized black unions.

In that sense, Wiehahn feels certain that the settlement was a victory for all South Africans seeking to build a political system in which blacks and whites share equally.

Specifically, says Wiehahn, the outcome of the strike seems likely to dampen pressure for what he terms an ``unrealistic ... and morally wrong'' bid to retreat from the 1979 labor-policy reforms.

``In a country like ours at a time like this, the temperature is high,'' he said. ``John Public on the streets is politicized. The churches are politicized. How can one imagine that unions will not be politicized?''

For Wiehahn, this is one lesson that management, and white South Africans in general, had to learn during the strike.

The union, for its part, learned equally difficult lessons: ``a sense of limits, of supply and demand, ... and that the whites simply can't be swept aside in a new South Africa. What we have seen is a demonstration of power sharing, consensus politics, in real practice.''

Wiehahn says it was fortunate that the strike ended when it did. The government, in recent days, began auditing foreign financial contributions to the NUM - sparking union charges that this, and police action during the strike, placed Pretoria squarely on the side of management.

But Wiehahn feels certain that, had the dispute dragged on, the government would have come under steadily growing political pressure for more overt and muscular intervention.

As it turned out, the labor-relations system that Wiehahn helped inaugurate - posited among other things, on a sideline role for government - has survived. ``This is important not only for the labor sphere. In our country, the unions are a laboratory for wider political compromise, consensus, co-determination.

``Through it, we whites - the traditionally paternalistic side of the equation - have had to learn the power of the black unions ... and the need for true institutional parity between management and genuinely representative union leaders.

``The unions have become better organized, more self-confident, more aware of their powerful place in the economy - but have had to learn that there are limits to their demands.''

Journalists in South Africa operate under official press restrictions.

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