A strike wave began in Durban in 1973 involving nearly 100,000 workers. It shook the racist apartheid regime (where only the white minority could vote) that had ruled for 25 years. Students played an important role too, calculating cost of living indexes and doing research for workers.
From the early 1980s, there was a massive upsurge in working class struggle. On 1 May 1986, 1.5 million workers “stayed away” from work to demand an official May Day holiday – the largest strike in South African history.
The strike wave swiftly made organisational gains. The COSATU trade union federation, formed in 1985, claimed 795,000 workers in 23 unions with over 12,000 shop stewards. By 1994 union membership was 3.5 million – a density of 26%.
These struggles made the apartheid regime untenable. The AWL believes that if COSATU and other workers’ organisations had formed a political party, they could have won power in their own right. Instead, most subordinated themselves to the Mandela’s African Nationalist Congress and the Stalinist South African Communist Party, which came to power in 1994.
The AWL supported the workers’ movement against apartheid, making direct links between workers in Britain and their sisters and brothers in South Africa. We advocated an independent workers’ party and backed the socialist candidate Neville Alexander who stood against Nelson Mandela in the 1994 elections.
What’s happened since has vindicated our approach. Workers are still savagely exploited and oppressed a decade after the fall of apartheid.
But they remain the force to challenge the ANC government. There are signs that South African workers are again stirring. In August 2001 two million workers went on a national strike against the ANC’s privatisation programme. And in June 2005 two million took part in a national strike against poverty and unemployment.