general strikes in south africa

map of south africa

1997, june 2 - more than 2 million answer cosatu strike call
more than two millions workers responded to the call by the congress of south african trade unions (cosatu) for a 24 hour general strike in support of demands for better conditions of employment. in nearly all cities and towns, workers also attended marches and rallies, except in kwazulu natal where a stay away was called. reports thus far indicate that well over a quarter of a million attended rallies and marches to hand over memoranda to business south africa (bsa) and its affiliates. most of these workers come from within the ranks of cosatu and the national council of trade unions (nactu), or are unaffiliated and unorganised. these are the people who work between 45 hours and 60 hours a week, enjoy very little or no parental rights and whose basic conditions will be varied down if the current bill was to be passed as is.

this strike is the third since the 1994 elections. all of them have aimed at forcing employers to accede to the humble demands of workers on legislative issues pertaining to improvement of working conditions and worker rights. these previous general strikes focuses on the incongruence between corporate and government practices and both the labor relations act and the national consitution. in each instance, employers have advanced positions that stand in the way of democratic transformation, including the extension of democracy in the workplace.

the african national congress (anc), cosatu and the communist party have supported the need for the broadest mobilisation of workers in support of the need for progressive legislation. in a move that stunned political commentators, president mandela marched with workers in support of a revamped labor relations act. he also led unions in their meeting with business to press home their opposition to the lock-out during the drafting of the constitution. legislative proposals by the government at the urging of cosatu, nactu, anc and others, are aimed at correcting the imbalances and injustices of the apartheid era, including working hours, maternity leave, variations, sunday work, overtime pay and child labor.

1996, april 30 - nation-wide general strike to protest anc's attempt to curb trade union power

a 24 hour general strike was held on the 30th april in protest over the african national congress's attempt to include the bosses' "right" to lock-out and because of a clause protecting private property in the new constitution. the lock-out is a strategy that bosses use to undermine workers' power by locking striking workers out of the factory/ plant/ shop and hiring scabs. while the right to strike is included in the constitution, workers felt that it was unfair if the lock-out was also included. the "right" to lock-out, further extends bosses' power by directly undermining strikes.

in the case of the property clause, workers felt that as long as private property was protected under the constitution, land re-distribution would be undermined as land would have to be bought on the market or the owners compensated at a market price. it has been estimated that up to 90% of workers in some areas participated in the strike, which demonstrated organised workers' continued willingness to take up the fight against both the bosses and the state (itself a large employer). while workers won their main demand for the lock-out clause to be dropped from the constitution, they lost their demand for the private property clause to be dropped.

more coverage is available from the irish times.

1961, may 29 - 31 - nation-wide general strike to protest anc's attempt to curb trade union power

in may [of 1961] a general strike was called. in the history of our country no strike has ever been organised under such formidable difficulties and dangers. the odds against us were tremendous. our organisations were outlawed. special legislation had been rushed through parliament empowering the government to round up its political opponents and to detain them without trial. one week before the strike ten thousand africans were arrested and kept in jail until after the strike. all meetings were banned throughout the country and our field workers were trailed and hounded by members of the security branch. general mobilisation was ordered throughout the country and every available white man and woman put under arms. an english periodical described the situation on the eve of the strike in the following terms:

in the country's biggest call-up since the war, scores of citizens' force and commando units were mobilised in the big towns. camps were established at strategic points; heavy army vehicles carrying equipment and supplies moved in a steady stream along the reef; helicopters hovered over african residential areas and trained searchlights on houses, yards, lands, and unlit areas. hundreds of white civilians were sworn in as special constables, hundreds of white women spent weekends shooting at targets. gun shops sold out of their stocks of revolvers and ammunition. all police leave was cancelled throughout the country. armed guards were posted to protect power stations and other sources of essential services. saracen armoured cars and troop carriers patrolled townships. police vans patrolled areas and broadcast statements that africans who struck work would he sacked and endorsed out of the town.
this was the picture in south africa on the eve of the general strike, but our people stood up to the test most magnificently. the response was less than we expected but we made solid and substantial achievements. hundreds of thousands of workers stayed away from work and the country's industries and commerce were seriously damaged. hundreds of thousands of students and schoolchildren did not go to school for the duration of the strike.

the celebrations which had been planned by the government to mark the inauguration of the republic were not only completely boycotted by the africans, but were held in an atmosphere of tension and crisis in which the whole country looked like a military camp in a state of unrest and uncertainty. this panic stricken show of force was a measure of the power of the liberation movement and yet it failed to stem the rising tide of popular discontent.

how strong is the freedom struggle in south africa today? what role should pafmeca [pan-african freedom movement of east and central africa] play to strengthen the liberation movement in south africa and speed up the liberation of our country? these are questions frequently put by those who have our welfare at heart.

the view has been expressed in some quarters outside south africa that, in the special situation obtaining in our country, our people will never win freedom through their own efforts. those who hold this view point to the formidable apparatus of force and coercion in the hands of the government, to the size of its armies, the fierce suppression of civil liberties, and the persecution of political opponents of the regime. consequently, in these quarters, we are urged to look for our salvation beyond our borders.

an exerpt of an address by nelson mandela on behalf of the anc delegation to the conference of the pan-african freedom movement of east and central africa

statement by nelson mandela on behalf of the national action council following the general strike.

the world : africa : south africa