Forty years ago during January and February 1973 mass strikes by African workers in Durban broke out in protest against low wages. In total 61,000 workers went on strike. The strikes were relatively peaceful with only two major confrontations between police and workers. No-one was killed. However, without the strength of unions behind them, workers struck for short periods. Three quarters of strikes were less than three days and the longest one lasted 7 days.

The Durban strikes constituted a defining moment in South African history. It shattered the industrial peace that had existed since the banning of the ANC, PAC and Communist Party of South Africa and the crushing of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). What made the Durban strikes a turning point in South African history was that the incipient African trade union movement that existed only in embryonic form at the time managed to turn the temporary mass action of workers into a permanent trade union movement that became very powerful. They eventually grew into some of the major unions in COSATU such as NUMSA, SACTWU, CEPPWAWU and SATAWU.

So how did the incipient unions manage to do it? They did it by adapting their organisational strategies to the circumstances they faced. Straight after the strikes, when worker consciousness was high and workers realised the need to belong to trade unions to become powerful, they poured into the unions founded shortly after the strikes took place. But towards the end of 1974 workers started dropping out of the unions because the unions failed to deliver concrete gains. As Halton Cheadle, organiser of the textile union at the time, said, ‘We were just going factory by factory like a wind – just blowing through them leaving them no better off.’

The leaders of the unions realised they had to change their organisational strategy. They realised that, besides leadership, unions needed to be democratic to ensure that they represented their members’ interests. Unions also needed to acquire power in order to wrench gains for workers from management. So the strategy that the leaders developed was to build trade union power by means of democratic workplace organisation based on elected worker representatives, the shop stewards. Shop stewards met regularly with workers in their departments to find out what their grievances and demands were. The shop stewards would then present management with these and endeavour to gain recognition for the union from management so that the union could negotiate with them.

It was a long and hard struggle for the unions before they finally managed to gain widespread recognition from management. It was only after the government accepted the Wiehahn Commission recommendations in 1979 to give African workers the same rights as White, Coloured and Indian workers that African trade unions gained widespread recognition and rapidly grew in size and power.

In the four years from 1979 to 1983 African union membership country-wide grew more than fourfold from 70,000 to 300,000 while the number of recognition agreements shot up from 5 in 1979 to 406 in 1983. The unions registered and started joining industrial councils, at first as junior partners, but rapidly grew into the dominant unions on the councils.

A new era commenced at the end of 1985 when COSATU was established. The formation of COSATU led to a complete political realignment of the trade union movement in South Africa. Whereas FOSATU, its major precursor, was an independent trade union movement with the explicit aim of eventually building a working class movement distinct from the ANC, COSATU openly aligned itself with the Congress Movement from the outset. In addition the Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA) was founded in 1986. Its political orientation was Pan-Africanist and Black Consciousness, but it never attained the same size and influence as COSATU.

COSATU rapidly established itself as the most powerful organisation in the Mass Democratic Movement and effectively led the popular opposition and mass action against the apartheid regime during the second half of the 1980s. After the unbanning of the ANC, PAC and SACP in 1990 COSATU entered into a Tripartite Alliance with the ANC and SACP. It played an important role through mass action during the CODESA negotiations over the Constitution and Bill of Rights for the new democratic South Africa that came into being on 27 April 1994.

A new phase commenced after this with COSATU being in an Alliance with the SACP and the ANC, the ruling party in government. This provided the trade union movement with political power it did not have before. Consequently the Labour Relations Act (LRA) passed by the ANC government in 1995 is extremely trade union-friendly. Although it does not impose a duty to bargain on employers, it grants numerous organisational rights to trade unions at workplaces. It also extends the same collective bargaining rights as those in the private sector to the public services including the formation of bargaining councils (the new name for industrial councils). The right to strike, entrenched in the Constitution, is only prohibited for essential services that are narrowly defined as services where the life, personal safety or health of the population is endangered.

The LRA promotes majority trade unionism. Section 18 of the Act enables a union with a majority of members to sign a collective agreement with employers that establishes a threshold of representativeness required by other unions before they can obtain organisational rights such as access to a workplace or stop-order facilities to collect members’ dues. Unions below the threshold are excluded from the bargaining table where wages and working conditions are negotiated.

The LRA of 1995 and COSATU’S membership of the Tripartite Alliance contributed to what subsequently went wrong with employment relations in the country. Other developments also contributed. Eight major factors can be identified.

First, the entrenchment of majority unionism has led to major conflict. It played a central part in the conflict in the platinum mines that ended in the tragic death of 44 people. Because NUM and the companies enforced the majoritarian right to exclude unions below the threshold, significant groups of unrepresented workers and another significant union, AMCU, were excluded from the bargaining table. This led to anomalies when management started to deal with unrepresented workers thereby creating enormous frustrations and finally strikes that turned horribly violent.

Second, at the other extreme, where it is hard for unions to organise workers, such as on farms, the LRA does not specify a level of representativeness at which a union has to be recognised and enter into negotiations. Consequently, it is left to a power-play between the workers and farmers. In the case of the Western Cape farm strikes the lack of representative unions with negotiating rights at the commencement of the conflict resulted in the absence of recognised institutions and procedures through which the conflict could be resolved peacefully.

Third, a significant number of companies in South Africa have lost the skill and art of employment relations, conducting negotiations with trade unions, and dealing with workers at the workplace. The outcome of these lost skills is strikes that often deteriorate into violence.

Fourth, elitism and oligarchy have set in among the large established unions in COSATU, especially NUM. The result is that their officials, organisers and even shop stewards have become removed and remote from workers whom they are meant to represent. As a result workers have even turned extremely hostile towards their erstwhile union.

Fifth, the Tripartite Alliance is itself a structural cause for the deterioration of employment relations. The Alliance has given COSATU excessive political power in that they can effectively veto policies of the ANC government with which it disagrees. The effective scuppering of the youth wage subsidy is one example. The back-down of President Zuma from declaring education an essential industry that would prohibit strikes is another. The Tripartite Alliance also undermines the social partnership that NEDLAC strives to create. When COSATU cannot get what it wants on NEDLAC it approaches the ANC through the Tripartite Alliance to achieve its own ends.

Sixth, the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council is too large and unwieldy a forum for collective bargaining. Instead, it is necessary to develop appropriate bargaining units for each of the professions so that teachers, police, nurses, and so on, can negotiate separately and their special interests and needs be taken into consideration.

Seventh, in South Africa we have developed a culture of violence. Its roots go far back in our history, but it has now become endemic as a way of raising collective problems. The hundreds of service delivery protests over the years which disrupt lives and frequently destroy property bear testimony to this. The recent extremely violent protests in Sasolburg provide a clear example. Within three days after the violence erupted the authorities had given in to the demands of the protesters. This reinforces the message that it is only violence that is effective in getting demands met.

Finally, the extreme wealth and ostentatious lifestyles of the elite in the midst of dire poverty of the overwhelming majority of the population generate deep anger and resentment. Much of the inequality is generated by systemic injustice, but the anger is fuelled when the wealth is accumulated through corrupt practices, whether by members of the private or public sectors.

Since the Durban strikes of 1973 South Africa has come a long way in building up institutions through which democracy and social justice can be achieved. However, there are many flaws that have both been inherited and created subsequently. None of them are irresolvable, but they require concerted efforts on the part of all South Africa’s residents to resolve.

Johann Maree is chairperson of the Western Cape Branch of the Industrial Relations Association of South Africa (IRASA).