The100-year mark of the first violent clashes between workers and security forces in South African history on 5 July almost slipped by unnoticed. However, there are frightening similarities between 1913 circumstances and those underlying present-day labour turmoil. There are also some important lessons to be learned from that period which culminated in the March 1922 armed uprising by miners in what is known as the Rand Revolt or Red Revolt.
There is a widely held perception, perpetuated by most official and trade union publications during recent years, that South Africa’s trade union history only really started at best during the 1970s. Fact is however, that the first unions emerged in South Africa – originally as social movements – after the discovery of gold and diamonds during the late 1800s and the industrialisation that followed.
Throughout the years labour movements in the country have gone through cycles of organisation and disorganisation often caused by changing external political, economic and international circumstances. It happened with the election of the so-called “pact government” in 1924 and again with the rise of the apartheid state after 1948.
Although the first black trade union, the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union (ICU) ,was founded during the 1920s, black trade unions because of their close affiliation to the liberations movements were largely disrupted when these movements were banned in the 1960s.
The ICU disintegrated during the 1930s when it failed organisationally to adapt to a massive growth in members and to organise itself into smaller industry-based unions. As is the case with some present-day unions, it was also plagued by internal corruption and bureaucratisation, accusations that are also now being levelled at some unions in South Africa.
In the wake of the 1922 “revolt” South Africa became one of the first countries in the world to adopt an Industrial Conciliation Act in 1924, which laid the foundation for what we still have today. In a dissertation submitted for a master's degree at the North-West University, D.S. Harrison notes: “Although industrialisation commenced only at the end of the 19th century,
South Africa had an Industrial Conciliation (Labour Relations) Act long before Great Britain had any comprehensive legislation governing labour relations. “South Africa was also one of the founder members of the International Labour Organisation, but was later expelled for its apartheid policies.”
Before the ground-breaking work was achieved with the enactment of the 1924 Industrial Conciliation Act, things went horribly wrong for South Africa on the labour relations front during the period between 1913 and 1922.
The most crucial factor during that period was arguably that a situation was allowed to develop where there were deep divides and clashing interests among the fast-growing industrial workforce along racial, skills and even language lines. These divides could develop to the point where some sections of the workforce saw militant strike actions and even violence as the only instruments left with which to fend for themselves.
While in 1913 it was skilled workers who first resisted attempts to replace them with unskilled and cheaper labour as a cost-saving mechanism by employers representing capital's aims to ensure maximum profit, by 1922 the race divide became the issue.
To place, especially 1922, in full historical context it is important to take note of developments world-wide. In the wake of a world-wide post-World War I recession the gold price nose-dived during most of 1920/21 and mine managements feared that unless costs could be reduced, most producing mines would be running at a loss leading to the discharge of 10 000 white miners and many thousands of blacks.
The Chamber of Mines planned to reduce labour costs by removing the colour bar so as to increase the ratio of cheaper black labour to mere expensive white labour. At the same time post-war inflation and inadequate wage increases between 1918 and 1920 accounted for widespread labour unrest country-wide in more sectors than just mining.
It was also a time when world-wide worker militancy was modelled on the1917 Russian revolution. Even in the United States there was a waveof strikesespecially at coal mines between1919 1922. Fast forward to the mine violence of 2012 and the clash between the police and striking miners at Marikana and again there are deep divisions between sections of the labour force because of the way smaller unions are side-lined by a “majoritarian” legal framework, labour unrest and resentment about possible mine closures, high rewards for mining bosses, and cost and profit pressures on mines and other industries in the face of a global economic crisis.
And now, towards the end of the second decade of the previous century, inflationary pressures are on the up, according to the SA Reserve bank.
While the relationship between trade unions and politics in the United Kingdom is presently being reformed the ruling African National Congress and the country’s largest labour formation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) seem not to have come to terms with the changed post-1994 political reality. Due to the formal relationship between the two and increasing numbers of union leaders taking up positions in government and ANC structurism, Cosatu is losing some of its characteristics as a social movement.
On the other hand it also hampers and/or compromises government policies and programmes like the National Development Plan and e-tolling. When the previous National Party government landed in a dangerous cul-de-sac in its relationship with trade unions and rolling labour unrest in the late 1970s it appointed the Wiehahn-commission, which led to breakthroughs such as: Granting freedom of association to all workers irrespective of race and status as migrants or commuters; autonomy of unions in deciding membership criteria (as a consequence mixed unions would be allowed); apprenticeships to be open to all races; appointment of a National Manpower Commission to serve as an ongoing monitor and study group of the changing labour process; and restructuring of the previous Industrial Tribunal into an Industrial Court to adjudicate on disputes of rights or interests and to create a body of case law.
To further complicate the scene, trade union leadership and administration has become a cozy career option and in some instances, making some of its members suspicious, the dividing line between unions and the corporate world has blurred. This happened as some unions have developed investment arms. Maybe it is time again for a comprehensive and holistic review of labour relations in the country.
In a recent article on the website History Matters Dr Rodney Warwick wrote: “Senior ANC government members should put aside their well-thumbed official party-line versions of 'South African liberation history' and read about 1922, while asking themselves some important questions about this country’s future and where their fissured, imploding ANC ‘broad church' is taking us".