The birth of the black unions

Hermann Giliomee writes on how SA's industrial relations system was de-racialised

Naas Steenkamp, who died on 20 December last year, was one of the chief architects of the new statutory system of industrial relations introduced in 1979-80 after the publication of five reports by the Wiehahn Commission. He was a member of the commission and the main intermediary between the two factions on the commission that initially proposed starkly different solutions to address the increasingly fraught labour relations of South Africa.

But while the Wiehahn Commission was undoubtedly the central event in Steemkamp’s career at the mining house Gencor his life was about much more than that. His first job was as that of a diplomat, which stimulated a hilarious memoir of his experiences at the South African embassy in London. He was a chairperson of the South African National Parks Board and co-founder of PEN Afrikaans , which, along with PEN branches across the world, fight against censorship and other threats to the survival of public languages and the interests of writers.

Forced to retire from the diplomatic service Steenkamp joined General Mining Corporation (Gencor) where he came to attention of Dr. Wim de Villiers, who as chairperson of the mining house’s board, was keen to find a solution to simmering troubles on the mines before they got out of hand.

In 1973 the apartheid system r experienced a major shock when thousands of textile workers in Durban went on strike against abysmally low wages. International pressure against the lack of workers’ rights for black workers also mounted. Prime Minister John Vorster concluded that the existing legislation favouring white workers above other workers no longer stabilised the workplace. He was concerned about the fact that bargaining increasingly occurred outside any legal framework.

The debate in parliament displayed the divisions within the NP. There was deadlock between those intent on coming down on the strikers with the full might of the law and those who realised that white power had to meet the reasonable demands of the black workforce. In the former camp was the minister of labour, who railed against the ‘inciters and the people who are behind the agitators’ whose objective was ‘to cause chaos’ in South Africa.

By contrast, Vorster did not once refer in his speech to agitators. He declared: ‘I do want to say at once that the events there contain a lesson for us all …We would be foolish if we did not all benefit from the lessons to be learned from that situation.’ He also appealed to employers in the private sector. Too many of them ‘saw only the mote in the Government’s eye and failed completely to see the beam in their own’. They should see their workers not only as units producing so many hours of service a day for them; they should also see them as ‘human beings with souls’.[1]

What did Vorster mean by learning lessons from the Durban strikes? Perhaps his instincts told him that starvation wages for workers were detrimental to state security. At the very least his words meant his government would not stand in the way of attempts by workers to improve their wages through collective action.

But the Vorster government initially wanted only to only tinker with the system. It passed a law that encouraged black workers and their employers to establish either works committees or liaison committees. Works committees were factory-based bodies for which workers elected representatives. They had limited rights of consultation with employers.

Much weaker were the liaison committees, which most employers preferred, with a 50/50 workers/management representation that was largely decided by management. Both works and liaison committees fell far short of recognition of black unions, which were still excluded from the industrial councils, where effective bargaining took place.

Vorster first mooted the idea of major reforms in mid-1975, in informal conversations with a cabinet colleague and friend Fanie Botha, who he would appoint as Minister of Labour early in 1976.[2] The two politicians envisaged a scheme that would combine limited reform with strict government controls. The government would recognise black unions and allow them to participate in the bargaining councils that covered an entire industry, like the gold mining industry. However, they were intent on permitting only so-called ‘insider blacks’ (blacks who had acquired a claim to permanent residency in the so-called white urban areas) as members of these unions.

From the start Botha turned for advice to Wim de Villiers. After completing a doctorate in engineering at the University of Cape Town, De Villiers accepted an offer from Anglo-American Corporation to become general manager at Rhokana mine in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), one of the largest copper mines in the world.

He was appalled by the extremely low wages the corporation paid its black workforce. ‘It is not much more than the wages the mines paid in the time of Paul Kruger. It is a crying shame,’ he told his wife.[3] De Villiers firmly believed in the right of all workers to strike but he was firmly opposed to the British system of an industry-based industrial relations system that he encountered in Northern Rhodesia. In this system bargaining over wages took place in a council. The wages agreed upon here then covered an entire industry regardless of the ability of smaller firms to afford it.

Instead De Villiers favoured a decentralised system with unions based on companies and the bargaining taking place between the company’s management and the company union. He was particularly interested in a system that had developed in Japan. De Villiers deplored the closed shop and firmly supported the right of workers to strike and to bargain over wages but he looked for a system that would better reconcile the rights of workers and employers than was the case in the highly centralised system used in Britain and South Africa.

De Villiers firmly rejected the British system for bargaining in the workplace. But his own plan had a fatal weakness: white workers in South Africa had effectively been using the British system in South Africa of industry-based bargaining for the preceding fifty years. There was no reason to assume that black workers would settle for a different system

In 1974 Harry Oppenheimer publicly pledged Anglo American Corporation’s support for the recognition of black trade unions. He strongly supported the British system of industry-based unions and bargaining in industry-based councils. In his company he was strongly backed by Zac de Beer, Alex Boraine and Sam van Coller.

At the same time De Villiers established a group at Gencor that worked on a model that would transform labour relations in a way that suited South Africa’s particular conditions best.

When De Villiers discovered that the literature on the most suitable system for industrial bargaining was extremely limited he called in Steenkamp and gave him this instruction. “Go abroad and have a look at what they are doing in other countries, especially Japan. When Steenkamp replied that he was no expert on industrial relations De Villiers answered curtly “become one”.

Although several people later claimed that they were responsible for the idea of commission and the new labour dispensation there is little doubt that the key person was John Vorster, the prime minister. When Steenkamp asked Fanie Botha about it in 2008 he said. “Wim de Viliers was the catalyst but John Vorster was the father of the idea of a commission. Even after leaving politics he continued to inquire about it in the chats we had .P.W. Botha showed much less interest and often complained to Fanie Botha about the proliferation of strikes.

As a member of the Wiehahn Commission appointed in 1977 Steenkamp played a key role in breaking the deadlock between two camps. On the one hand there were those Steenkamp called the progressives. They favored the principle of freedom of association and the right to trade union membership, which is recognized universally in the major countries in the Western world.

On the other hand were the reformists who went along with the progressives on some core issues but wanted to make restricted eligibility for membership a core issue. This would provide the mechanism which would enable the government to exclude migrant workers whose putative homeland had opted for independence. This was also the intention of John Vorster and Fanie Botha.

In a memoir that Steenkamp wrote in 2011 he describes in a dramatic fashion the way in which this issue was resolved in the former’s favour. This document of 66 pages is kept in the Manuscripts Collection of Stellenbosch University Library.

The swing vote, Steenkamp explains, was that of Arthur Grobbelaar, representative of the Trade Union Council of South Africa (Tucsa), who had previously attended many International Labour Organisation (ILO) meetings. He had to move cautiously because his federation included unions that favoured the recognition of black unions in the hope of controlling them, while others wanted to squash them. Nic Wiehahn adopted the stance of impartial chairman and was not keen to use a casting vote.

Initially the commission debated the topic under the agenda item ‘Eligibility for trade union membership’. Such a formulation implied that certain workers would not be eligible. During the first year of deliberations it looked as if there was a majority for making only the black insiders eligible and deferring a decision on the eligibility of migrants and commuters until negotiations between the South African government and the various homeland governments had taken place. This would give the homeland governments a major say in whether their workers could become unionised. Such a measure would be unacceptable to the unions and clashed with the principle of freedom of association. The balance of power changed dramatically in the closing stages of the commission’s work when Grobbelaar joined the camp of the progressives.

Although Steenkamp never claimed credit for it he was probably the person that broke the deadlock in the commission over the issue of all workers being eligible for trade union membership. Steenkamp recounts a private meeting on a Sunday morning at which Grobbelaar finally agreed to accept the principle of freedom of association as the core element of the new order. Steenkamp drove home and drew a line through the words ‘eligibility for trade union membership’ in the commission’s draft report and wrote over them ‘freedom of association’.[4]

In its first report, tabled on 1 May 1979, the majority recommended acceptance of the principle of freedom of association in line with ILO requirements. All workers should be free, irrespective of race, colour or gender, to join any union of their choice, and unions had to be free to admit or bar any individual. It strongly rejected the view of the minority: ‘The phasing in of migrants and commuters into trade union membership implies that there will be an unspecified period of time during which [their] trade union membership will be prohibited and subjecting the question of membership to “negotiation” implies the possibility that in some instances membership will be absolutely prohibited.’[5]

The commission also dealt with a range of other issues. It recommended the United Kingdom’s framework of provisional and final registration of employer organisations and unions. It proposed abolishing the principle of statutory work reservation and recommended that the Department of Labour should consult interested parties about phasing out the practice. Any person should be eligible for apprenticeship. It proposed an industrial court to deal with undesirable labour practices and with unilateral changes in labour practices. The government accepted most of these recommendations.

Soon after the submission of the commission’s report Steenkamp met a young Cyril Ramaphosa whose wife worked at the same place as Steenkamp’s wife. Ramaphosa was working for the Council of Unions of South Africa.

When Steenkamp asked him what he did for a living Ramaphosa replied: “I am organizing an African mineworkers’ union”. Steenkamp’s replied: “Good luck to you, my friend. No reason not to try the impossible.” Ramaphosa himself had his doubts about this project. As late as 1985 he told the South African Institute of Race Relations that “organizing workers in the mining industry in South Africa is the art of the impossible.”

Steenkamp worked for 27 years for Gencor and served as President of Chamber of Mines in the late 1980s. At this point Ramaphosa was elected as general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers. Steenkamp and Ramaphosa tried to facilitate a settlement in one of the most bitter and violent strikes on the gold mines in recent times. On several occasions they met all by themselves in a safe house.

In the early 1990s Ramaphosa was elected as secretary general of the African National Congress. At the farewell dinner organized by the Chamber of Mines Steenkamp made a brief speech “I would like to say only two brief things about Ramaphosa: He never told me a lie and he never went back on his word.” When he sat down Nelson Mandela leaned over to Steenkamp and said: “That is what every trade union leader wants to hear.”[6]

Hermann Giliomee’s new book “The Rise and Demise of the Afrikaners” (Tafelberg) is scheduled to appear in February.


[1] House of Assembly Debates, 9 February 1973, col. 346.

[2] Interview with Fanie Botha by Naas Steenkamp, 4 August 2008.

[3] Interview with Francie de Villiers, Wim’s wife, 10 October 2010.

[4] Interview with Naas Steenkamp, 25 May 2011.

[5] The Complete Wiehahn Report, p. 45.

[6] Naas Steenkamp to Hermann Giliomee, private communication 23 March 2018.