AFTER decades of industrial and political conflict, South Africa's powerful black trade unions and captains of industry have begun forging a new style of labor relations in a climate of economic recession and political transition.In several recent landmark wage pacts, trade unionists have acknowledged the developmental demands of the post-apartheid South Africa - and the need to sustain economic growth during political transition. The agreements - in the mining and steel industries - represent a departure from the previous trend of wage settlements and the highly polarized atmosphere in which bargaining had been conducted. "We've agreed for the first time to share in adversity, and we've set parameters for sharing in prosperity," says Adrian du Plessis, industrial relations manager at the Chamber of Mines. Mr. Du Plessis, who is chief negotiator for South Africa's powerful mining houses at the annual wage negotiations, was referring to a landmark deal reached July 31 with the 250,000-member National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The historic deal followed weeks of negotiations between an NUM delegation headed by former NUM General-Secretary Cyril Ramaphosa - now the secretary-general of the African National Congress (ANC) - and a delegation of mine bosses headed by the Anglo American Corporation's Bobby Godsell. The talks were held against the backdrop of a crisis in the gold industry brought on by rising costs and a sluggish gold price. In the agreement, the mineworkers accepted a low increase in the basic wage, bonuses linked to the faltering price of gold, and productivity agreements that still must be negotiated at individual mines. The agreement also incorporated a charter of industrial conduct that seeks to end violence in industrial disputes, entrenches trade-union rights, and gives workers a greater say in the management of their living conditions. A narrower bonus-related deal reached in June between NUM and the Anglo American's Ergo mine, which was faced with closure because of the low gold price, prepared the ground for last week's industry-wide deal - the first national wage agreement based on productivity bargaining. "For the first time the union has formally acknowledged the crisis in the gold industry," Du Plessis says. "The compromise we have reached is that the union has agreed to sacrifice present earnings against the promise of future earnings." But Du Plessis cautions that the new maturity that characterized wage talks in the mining industry does not mean an automatic smooth ride. The agreement was forged out of economic necessity and because the union had taken a realistic view of the industry's plight. This did not mean that partnership between capital and labor was imminent in a broader context, he says. Nevertheless, the agreement raises the possibility of moving towards a broad partnership between capital and labor closer to Japanese and German models. "If it proves successful, it will provide a model for the future and could become a turningpoint in trade union relationships in the country," Du Plessis says. Also on July 31, four black trade unions reached a key wage agreement with the metal industry that will secure wage increases of between 13 percent and 15 percent for some 350,000 metal workers. The agreement also included, for the first time, union cooperation in coordinating training in the industry and in investigating strategies for promoting economic growth and creating jobs. But a 10-day strike in the automobile industry also illustrates that the transition to a less adversarial style of labor relations that acknowledges the crucial role of productivity in economic growth will not come easily. Some 25,000 workers of the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (Numsa), which surpassed the mineworkers as the largest union last year, are taking part in the strike. That bitter dispute has already cost the weakened auto industry $110 million in lost output and threatens to cut total production this year. But the new mood in the trade- union movement was reflected at the conference last month of the ANC-aligned Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the largest union federation. Until the ANC was legalized last year, Cosatu spearheaded anti-apartheid resistance against the Pretoria government because it was never fully outlawed and its leaders were able to use the workplace to mobilize politically. Now Cosatu has begun to redefine the role of labor during economic and political transition. Union leaders insist that the unions will continue to play a political role until black liberation is achieved, but concede that unions will confine themselves to narrower involvement in the debate about restructuring the economy and placing worker demands on the political agenda. At the conference there was open criticism of the ANC's high-handed style and soul-searching about Cosatu's future relationship with the ANC and the South African Communist Party. Still, Cosatu opted for a more rigorous and assertive partnership with the ANC rather than an independent stance. The conference was unanimous in asserting that a future constitution should guarantee trade-union independence, the right to strike and organize, and the accountability of a post-apartheid government. "We all see the ANC as the vehicle for achieving political power in South Africa," said Jay Naidoo, Cosatu's general-secretary, in a recent interview. "But we are saying that it is the job of the unions to see that the ANC election manifesto includes worker demands. If we agree on the manifesto, we will call on workers to vote for the ANC." Jeremy Baskin, author of the recently-published "Striking Back - A History of Cosatu," says the major task facing Cosatu is the restructuring of the country's industrial-relations system, which will mean a shift from the center of the political stage to a more background role. "The present system acknowledges the union movement grudgingly," Mr. Baskin says. "A new system must accept unions as necessary social institutions."