The great mineworkers’ strike: 30 years on

Published in Business Day on 8 August 2007, under the title, ‘When mineworkers changed the course of SA history’. Anthony Butler

Exactly twenty years ago [now a little over thirty], the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) launched the most staggering industrial action of the apartheid era. On the evening of 9 August 1987, the night shift of gold and coal miners refused to enter the cages that normally hurtled them deep into the ground. On 10 August, as an unprecedented 300 000 mineworkers downed tools, the great mineworkers’ strike had begun.

The strike took place at a political turning point. The exile ANC was wedded to a purely symbolic “armed struggle”, and Oliver Tambo had conceded that victory could only come from “the people inside South Africa … as a result of their reliance on themselves.” A wave of popular discontent was sweeping across the country to which government had responded with a national state of emergency. The leadership of the United Democratic Front that coordinated domestic opposition was harassed and detained.

Trade unions were increasingly acting as surrogate vehicles for attacks on the regime. NUM general secretary Cyril Ramaphosa explicitly linked industrial and anti-apartheid protest, telling Anglo American patriarch Harry Oppenheimer to his face that the mining industry was “the furnace in which race discrimination was baked” and still relied on “the exploitative migrant labour system and police oppression”. The NUM adopted the Freedom Charter, elected Nelson Mandela honorary president, and marched under banners reading “The Year Mineworkers Take Control”.

Responding to the union threat, Minister of Law and Order Adriaan Vlok determined that COSATU House, where NUM was housed, was fostering a “revolutionary climate”. He engaged Security Branch Unit C1, also known as Vlakplaas, to “neutralise” the problem. On the night of 7 May, a team of 16 Vlakplaas operatives equipped with silenced AK-47 rifles and explosives destroyed the building with two massive blasts. When NUM workers came to work the following morning, they found their third-floor desks in the basement.

Meanwhile, subterranean power shifts at the Main Street headquarters of Anglo American were also propelling the company towards a showdown. Anglo’s earlier embrace of “modernised” labour relations and voluntary union recognition agreements had resulted in high unionization but brought few corresponding benefits. Mine managers complained to their bosses on Main Street that they were losing control of “their mines” to the NUM.

Meanwhile, all the big houses were running out of mineable gold and the gold price was plummeting dramatically. Mines would soon have to close and low grade ore would have to be left in the ground, implying that any show-down with the NUM would not merely be about one year’s wage increases. NUM had to be decisively defeated if the company was to control the rationalisation process head. Many Anglo executives even wanted to wipe out the union.

The industry had sufficient lead time to build up gold and ore stockpiles, recruit vigilantes, and plan for mass recruitment of strike-breakers from neighbouring countries. As the strike unfolded, striking mineworkers were subjected to violence from police and mine security forces equipped with armoured cars and surveillance helicopters, but the strike dragged on improbably into a third week.

By then, the strike had to be brought to a rapid end one way or another if mining house assets were not to be destroyed. Deep-level mines operate under unimaginable geological pressures, and depend for survival on the regular maintenance of mine supports, roofs and walls. Despite internal rifts among bosses, the Chamber of Mines and Anglo refused to offer any concessions on headline wages that NUM leaders could sell to their members. They opted for a strategy of mass dismissals and reprisals against organisers, an approach that had the potential to destroy the union. By 27 August, 50 000 workers had been dismissed, and NUM leaders discovered that Anglo was planning to escalate dismissals. Representatives of the regional strike committees took the heart-rending decision that the union should not be sacrificed in a dispute they could no longer win, a decision some ignorant outsiders misinterpreted as a betrayal of the workers. On the evening of 30 August, the mineworkers returned to work.

In narrow industrial relations terms, the mining houses had demonstrated their greater power. Anglo had curbed union protest and it was able to manage a major labour downscaling on the gold mines over the next decade largely on its own terms.

However, the significance of the strike was human and political as much as it was industrial. Mineworkers had been victims of a brutal system that left them ashamed of their work. They had been forced to wear a belt with their personal number stamped on it, and they would have to remove this belt whenever they left their mine compound for fear of ridicule or assault. After the great strike, underground work became a badge of masculinity and strength.

The strike shook government ministers, including a young deputy minister of police responsible for coordinating strike policing, Roelf Meyer. Politically, it marked the turning point between abstract discussion “regime vulnerability” and concrete planning for the end of the old order. The NUM and the Congress of SA Trade Unions which it had helped form soon joined the UDF is a Mass Democratic Movement that redoubled pressure on the regime.

In retrospect, it was probably disorganized local protest and “ungovernability” that represented the worst fears of government. After the great strike, however, organised domestic activists, led by the union movement, played a decisive role in bringing the regime to the negotiating table.



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