The Sweet Workers’ Union (SWU) originated as an offshoot of the short-lived Women Workers’ Union, founded by Fanny Klenerman in the mid-1920s, when that organisation fragmented as a result of its failure to comply with the legal definition of “trade union” as determined by law (Berger, 1992). The SWU, by 1941, was a fairly “weak and ineffective” organisation despite several years of organising efforts. Nevertheless, the wartime cost of living increases propelled the SWU toward greater activity, resulting in a prominent strike in the autumn of 1942 (Scanlon, 2007).

Ephraim John Burford, secretary of the SWU in 1942, helped to organise the workers across racial lines, resulting in the African Sweet Workers’ Union (ASWU) coming into being. Sweet workers were divided equally between Afrikaner women and African men. Within a few months of organising under Burford, about 80 percent of the women had joined the union. As a newcomer from England lacking prior experience of South Africa’s intense racial divisions, Burford had first intended to organise the black and white workers into a single union (Scanlon, 2007). Once he became aware of the difficulties inherent in this strategy, he formed instead the African Sweet Workers’ Union with its own organiser and worked diligently to keep the two groups on an equal footing.

Burford ensured constant communication between the two groups, organizing them simultaneously, in order to keep them on an equal footing. The SWU strike of 1942 resulted in even greater cooperation between blacks and whites, men and women, with no complaints from the white faction – as occurred in the case of the Garment Workers’ Union (GWU). The solidarity experienced in the SWU strike allowed Burford – as revealed in an interview with Berger – to conclude: “…with proper leadership the black-white barrier could [have been] broken down and a great measure of mutual understanding reached although the gulf was enormous.” (Berger, 1984)

This joint activity continued during the 1943 strike, with no friction and no complaints from whites. Black and white committee members met daily to coordinate activity and to make decisions on such issues as strike pay and emergency allowances, and the women agreed that the Africans should receive their full wages as strike pay, although a shortage of funds meant that the white female workers received only half of their normal wages (Scanlon, 2007). Nightly marches to the City Hall steps reflected the separate, collective identities of the groups—Burford at the head, the women workers in the front ranks, and African workers at the rear.

The strategy and concerted efforts of Burford in the SWU to maintain equality across racial lines succeeded, although a segregationist tactic was employed for this manoeuvre. The solidarity between racial groups in the SWU was evident in the united success of the 1942 strike, although Burford admitted to things going back to their old ways post-strike. However, certain cooperative behaviours remained, and the Johannesburg branch was able to revive other branches in Cape Town, eventually forming a national union (Berger, 1992). Pauline Podbrey was the local secretary and national president of the SWU.


Berger, I. 1984. “Sources of Class Consciousness, South African Women in Recent Labour            Struggles”. International Journal of African Historical Studies Vol. 16, No. 1.

Berger, I. 1992. “Threads of Solidarity”. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Scanlon, H. 2007. “Representation and reality: Portraits of Women’s Lives in the Western            Cape 1948-1976”. HSRC Press: Cape Town.

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