South African Black Workers Strike Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When South Africa’s newly formed black trade unions staged massive strikes, they shook the nation’s apartheid-based economy and had a vital psychological impact on the oppressed majority black population.

Summary of Event

Although South Africa in the 1980’s resembled other capitalist societies in terms of its economic structure, it had one glaring difference: In South Africa, the majority of the industrial working class was denied, on the basis of race, the most basic human rights—rights that generally existed to some extent even under dictatorships. South African society was strictly divided into various “nations” by race. This policy of segregation, or apartheid, had vast social and economic impacts on the black majority, particularly on industrial workers. In some ways, the destruction of black trade union organizations had always been one of the most important goals of the apartheid system. This is hardly surprising, as the apartheid system held that the only reason for a black person to be present in a white area was for the performance of labor. Apartheid;resistance and protest Labor strikes;South Africa Labor unions;South Africa South Africa;human rights abuses [kw]South African Black Workers Strike (1987) [kw]Black Workers Strike, South African (1987) [kw]Workers Strike, South African Black (1987) [kw]Strike, South African Black Workers (1987) Apartheid;resistance and protest Labor strikes;South Africa Labor unions;South Africa South Africa;human rights abuses [g]Africa;1987: South African Black Workers Strike[06330] [g]South Africa;1987: South African Black Workers Strike[06330] [c]Business and labor;1987: South African Black Workers Strike[06330] [c]Trade and commerce;1987: South African Black Workers Strike[06330] Botha, Pieter W. Mandela, Nelson Slovo, Joe

During the 1960’s and early 1970’s, the South African economy grew rapidly, mainly on the basis of increased use of black labor. This gave black workers increased power, as they became indispensable in many sectors of the economy. For the first time, blacks were recruited into semiskilled and even skilled trades, as a white labor shortage made necessary the relaxation of numerous “job reservation” rules. When a wave of strikes involving sixty thousand workers hit South Africa in 1973, the response by companies and the government was relatively mild. In addition, legislation was submitted to South Africa’s parliament to give black workers the right to strike.

As the potential power of the black working class grew in the mid-1970’s, white corporate South Africa was forced to watch as its power was increasingly challenged from below. Although unrecognized by most employers, black unions grew in membership despite their semilegal position. Real wages for black workers rose more rapidly than did those for white workers. The struggles were not purely economic, as millions of working days were lost to political strikes protesting the continued imprisonment of African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela and to South African Communist Party-sponsored May Day celebrations that drew huge crowds.

By 1986, more than 1 million days of work had been lost because of economic strikes, while another 3.5 million strike days could be attributed to political protests. The following year, however, was to see an escalation of the strike wave to historic levels. On May Day alone, 2.5 million working days were lost. More than 6.6 million days were lost in the year as a result of wage disputes. Further, the strikes in 1987 tended to last three times longer than those of the year before and were accompanied by massive membership growth for black trade unions.

This strike-filled year began with more than ten thousand retail workers out on a ten-week work stoppage that began in February. Of even greater significance were a forty-six-day strike against Mercedes-Benz and four different disputes involving postal workers. The former was important given the economic role and high profile of the auto company in the heavy-industry sector of the South African economy; the latter had decidedly political overtones, as the postal strikes signaled the spread of union activism to the public sector.

A strike by twenty thousand railroad workers that began on April 22 and lasted until June 5 was yet another indication of spreading labor unrest among black workers. Perhaps the most notable struggle was that undertaken by the National Union of Mineworkers National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Gold mines accounted for almost half of South Africa’s foreign earnings, and the mining industry had always attempted to prevent, or at least limit, union organization among miners, particularly black miners. During a strike in August, 1946, seventy-five thousand mine workers were forced back to work at gunpoint; at least twelve deaths and more than a thousand injuries resulted.

In later years, the right-wing Mineworkers’ Union Mineworkers’ Union represented white miners and attempted to preserve their privileged position in the mines. The cozy relationship that existed between the all-white union and the employers meant that black miners received low pay and were excluded from many more-desirable mining jobs. This relationship was shaken by the emergence of the NUM, the first black mine workers’ union, in August, 1982. Although most workers were hesitant to risk their relatively well-paid positions by joining the new union, the NUM made significant inroads within the first two years after its formation. It was even able to gain official recognition at some mines.

Members of the National Union of Mineworkers, the first black mine workers’ union, strike in August, 1987.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Still, when the NUM led South Africa’s first legal strike by black miners in 1984, it fought stiff resistance from mining companies that resulted in the deaths of a number of strikers. Despite a difficult, uphill struggle, the black trade union was able to continue to combine growing industrial muscle with political opposition to the apartheid system. When on October 1, 1986, 250,000 black miners went on strike to mourn victims of a mining disaster, thousands of workers outside the mining industry joined the strike in sympathy.

The NUM launched its first campaign for a national wage agreement in 1987. The resulting strike, which lasted from August 9 to August 30, involved at its peak 340,000 workers. Again, employers mustered bitter opposition, and after 60,000 workers were fired in retaliation, the NUM was forced to accept an only slightly improved pay agreement. Still, the emergence of a national trade union for black workers in such a key sector of the economy clearly worried employers and the South African government alike.

When challenged by a railroad strike, the government of Pieter W. Botha attempted to denounce the struggle as part of a revolutionary strategy devised by Joe Slovo and the South African Communist Party. By September, 1987, the Labour Relations Amendment Bill Labour Relations Amendment Bill (South Africa, 1987) attempted to ban sympathy strikes. Although the counteroffensive by white business interests and government officials helped to contain the growing black trade union movement, the movement was not crushed. In fact, most observers conceded that the struggle was over the content of labor agreements with black workers and not an attempt to return to the days of refusing to bargain at all.

The new, independent black unions were not limited to a few isolated industries whose workers they represented. By the end of 1985, thirty-four of the most important black trade unions had united to form the Congress of South African Trade Unions Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which claimed 450,000 members. Formed in late November, 1985, the COSATU was influenced by the exiled leadership of the African National Congress and by the NUM, the most powerful of the industrial unions. From the beginning, the new trade union federation was overtly political in orientation. At the COSATU founding congress, there were calls for the nationalization of the mines and other key industries as well as for support for the international campaign encouraging disinvestment in South Africa. Whether judged from a purely trade union standpoint or from the broader view of political opposition to apartheid, the formation of the COSATU was a historic achievement.

The COSATU’s National Living Wage Campaign, which began in April, 1987, was a focus for wage-centered strikes and political agitation against the repression of black workers under apartheid. This labor offensive was turned back by massive resistance from employers and repression by the government, which invaded union headquarters and arrested labor leaders. In addition, many unions were drawn into factional warfare with more conservative black organizations, particularly the moderate United Workers Union of South Africa. United Workers Union of South Africa Despite these defeats and difficulties, the strike wave that swept over South Africa in 1987 was certainly a turning point in the struggle for human rights in general and workers’ rights in particular.


The peculiar nature of apartheid-based oppression in South Africa had its origin, in large measure, in the white minority’s desire for unlimited, cheap, and powerless black African labor. The tremendous prosperity of many white South Africans and the huge profits of industrial corporations depended on the existence of a black working class forced to work under conditions and for wages that recalled the worst abuses of the early Industrial Revolution. Thus, whatever racial or cultural prejudice contributed to the brutality of South Africa, there was a powerful economic incentive to continue to deprive black Africans of their human rights. Therefore, when hundreds of thousands of black workers struck in 1987 for better wages or out of political sentiment, their actions constituted an attack on the heart of the apartheid system.

The fact that black trade unions, independent of governmental control, established themselves in South Africa was a change that severely undercut the very foundations of apartheid. On a day-to-day basis, almost all black laborers were powerless, but strikes and the unions that led them gave the workers a collective expression of power. This experience had a vital psychological impact on the black masses, and its practical significance was likewise great. The strikes of 1987 proved to both white employers and black employees that the old system of treating blacks as less than human was dying.

Even the clashes that took place over the largely symbolic observation of May Day illustrated this change. Although the South African government and employers had always scorned May Day as a “socialist holiday,” by 1987 black workers were walking off the job on that day to express their belief in a better, postapartheid future. These walkouts were more than mere expressions of abstract sentiment—they were expressions of the newly gained rights of black workers. The reality was that many corporations were unable to stop May Day observations. Although this was of little significance in and of itself, it was an important sign that the complete control once exercised over the black labor force had been weakened.

The 1987 strikes in South Africa were more than the usual kind of labor-management conflicts that occur in many nations; the South African strikes represented long-oppressed people demanding not only better wages but also human dignity and freedom. That so many of the major unions and the COSATU were sympathetic to or linked with Mandela’s banned African National Congress and even Slovo’s outlawed Communist Party was in itself a challenge to Botha’s South African regime.

Perhaps the most meaningful aspect of the strike wave was that it presented a powerful potential alternative method of liberation that avoided the passivity of peaceful protest and the recklessness of armed guerrilla warfare. It opened up the possibility of a transition to a new South Africa that would grant all citizens the same human rights and dignity, as was finally realized in the early 1990’s with the repeal of apartheid. Apartheid;resistance and protest Labor strikes;South Africa Labor unions;South Africa South Africa;human rights abuses

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Callinicos, Alex. South Africa: Between Reform and Revolution. London: Bookmarks, 1988. Openly partisan in approach but provides excellent insights into the nature of the antiapartheid movement, with particular emphasis on labor. Includes bibliographic notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cohen, Robin. Endgame in South Africa? The Changing Structures and Ideology of Apartheid. London: J. Currey, 1986. Presents a brief but informative treatment of the role of ideology in the apartheid system. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guelke, Adrian. Rethinking the Rise and Fall of Apartheid: South Africa and World Politics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Discusses the nature and significance of South African apartheid and the reasons the apartheid system ended, with particular attention paid to the international antiapartheid movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holland, Heidi. The Struggle: A History of the African National Congress. New York: George Braziller, 1990. Chronicles the ANC’s history from its formation in 1912. Very useful resource for readers who wish to go beyond Mandela and study the organization he led. Includes bibliographic notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leach, Graham. South Africa: No Easy Path to Peace. London: Methuen, 1986. Lively, very readable work by a South African correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corporation provides an excellent introduction to the topic of apartheid. Includes select bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Magubane, Bernard. The Political Economy of Race and Class in South Africa. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990. Shows the interconnection between racial oppression and the growth of capitalism in South Africa. Both readable and scholarly. Includes bibliographic notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Minter, William. King Solomon’s Mines Revisited: Western Interests and the Burdened History of South Africa. New York: Basic Books, 1986. Presents a revealing examination of the role Western interests played in the creation and maintenance of the South African apartheid system. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thörn, H �kan. Anti-Apartheid and the Emergence of a Global Civil Society. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Sociological study examines the power of collective action and places the antiapartheid movement within the context of global politics.

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Categories: History