The Soweto Uprising of June 16, 1976, in which, according to official estimates, 176 people were killed, had a profound impact on the trajectory of South Africa’s political history.
Most importantly, the atrocity served to further inflame the already seething frustration of the country’s discriminated majority and prompted them to embark on an unprecedented and long-enduring wave of protest action. Indeed, from the late 1970s, students and workers, men and women, the educated and uneducated, all became involved in efforts to liberate the country from the tyranny of apartheid.
However, the National Party government took no heed of such protests, nor of international diplomatic efforts and sanctions, and stubbornly refused to modify its discriminatory policies. Thus, as the years wore on, protests gained in both number and ferocity. Moreover, from the beginning of the 1980s, trade unions, with their more robust organisation, became increasingly involved and central to the nationwide protest movement and the political struggle against the apartheid regime.
Such was the trade unions’ contribution to the struggle that in 1986 alone an unprecedented 1.3-million work days were lost to strike action. In response, government applied a state of emergency between July 1985 and March 1986 in many parts of the country. However, the political unrest only intensified and, as a result, on June 12, 1986, government proclaimed what became a yearly renewed, indefinite, nationwide state of emergency.
It was in that context of popular discontent and nationwide political protest that South Africa’s largest-ever mineworkers strike took place. Indeed, mineworkers, a large percentage of whom were South African by birth, were also parents, consumers and political activists, and it was inevitable that they would bring the deepening political conflict into the mine compounds.
It was at that crucial stage in South Africa’s political history that a new trade union movement, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), was founded in 1982 to act as a collective bargaining agent for disenfranchised miners, particularly in the gold and coal sectors. The NUM, which was led by the charismatic and indomitable Cyril Ramaphosa, won bargaining recog- nition from the Chamber of Mines (CoM)in 1983 and rapidly gained in membership, to the extent that, within four years, 344 000 mineworkers had signed up to the union.
Ramaphosa, who was a shrewd political activist and bargainer, aimed to harness the discontent of his members to both improve their work and living lot and, more importantly, to also challenge the apartheid regime. It was on that basis that, at the union’s fifth annual congress, in February 1987, the NUM adopted the slogan ‘The Year the Mineworkers Take Control’. Justifying such a slogan, Ramaphosa argued that the State had been decisively weakened by the wave of mass protest and that, with the aid of worker agitation, a ‘dramatic transformation’ was on the cards.
A few weeks after that congress, the NUM put its slogan into action when it presented the CoM with a list of demands, which included a 30% wage increase for 1987/88, the abolition of the migrant labour system and improved hostel accommodation.
However, the chamber ignored that initial set of demands and formal wage negotiations only got under way on May 15, almost two months later.
As the chamber had ignored its first set of proposals, the NUM unrealistically bolstered its list of demands during the first round of formal negotiations. Specifically, it demanded a 40% to 55% wage increase, concessions concerning holiday leave, danger pay and death benefits, and that June 16 be declared a paid holiday. The chamber responded with a 12.5% offer. The gulf between industry and labour was wide, and there was little likelihood of a compromise.
As the NUM made little headway during the formal negotiations, it decided to ballot its members on whether to engage in strike action. The ballot of 210 000 mineworkers, taken on August 2, 1987, indicated that 95% supported the strike. Thus, with the overwhelming support of its members, the NUM called for a general strike, beginning the following Sunday evening, August 9.
On Monday August 10, the first official day of the industrial action, an estimated 340 000 people came out on strike, which represented more than 70% of all black coal and gold miners.
As had been the case with many preceding miners’ strikes, the 1987 strike was brutal and intensely violent.
According to political scientist Anthony Butler, the worst of the violence was inflicted by the NUM’s own members. “Strikers assaulted nonstrikers and strike breakers with unprecedented viciousness. In some compounds, armed workers set up kangaroo courts and strikers received death sentences for betraying their comrades,” he observes.
Moreover, fearing that the strike might drag on, managers tried hard to break it quickly and, as a result, mine security employed viscous tactics to compel strikers to return to work. While such tactics did encourage some to return to work, it is estimated that 250 000 miners stayed out for the duration of the strike.
Such was the intensity of violence that, after three full weeks of strike action, nine mineworkers had been killed, 500 injured and about 400 arrested.
Although the NUM and the chamber held a number of talks and attempted to negotiate a resolution to the dispute, the gulf between industry and labour remained too wide and the impasse persisted.
It was only when, after three weeks of industrial action, Anglo American threatened to dismiss its entire striking workforce that the NUM was forced into submission. While 50 000 workers had already been dismissed, if Anglo went ahead with such a threat, the union stood to lose more than four-fifths of its entire membership.
Faced with this real possibility, the NUM had little option but to concede to the will of industry and end the strike. Thoroughly defeated, miners returned to work on August 30.
Although the NUM failed to win any improvement in wages, or working and living conditions, it was quite an achievement that a five-year-old union had been able to conduct a three-week-long strike in such an authoritarian society without destroying itself.