COSATU President’s Address: Durban 1973 Strike – 50th Anniversary

Programme Director,

The National Office Bearers of COSATU and our Affiliates,

Deputy President of the ANC and the Republic, cde. Paul Mashatile,

Veteran of the SACP and COSATU, cde. Willies Mchunu,

Members of the Federation of Elijah Barayi and workers across South Africa,

Good morning comrades,

2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the historic Durban strike that shook the nation on the 9th of January 1973.

This was not any ordinary strike at a clothing factory or a municipality, nor did it take place in times that could be said to be normal.

The Durban 1973 Strike took place during the darkest times of the apartheid era, when African workers were not legally recognised as workers or entitled to any legal rights, when Black workers did not have the right to form trade unions, to collective bargaining or to strike.

The strike took place when Black people knew the penalty for protesting against racism, exploitation, poverty wages and the most brutal forms of oppression were dealt with swiftly, and with the utmost violence. 

Let us not forget that a mere 3 years after the 1973 strike, hundreds of young learners were shot down in cold blood in Soweto and many other townships across the country for protesting against the imposition of Afrikaans in township schools.

The strikes took place against the backdrop of a lull in trade unionism.  For many years, activists from the ANC and Communist Party, had gone factory to factory, farm to farm, conscientizing, engaging, recruiting and mobilising workers to unionise. 

Comrades like Ray Alexander, Oscar Mpetha and Nana Abrahams had worked day and night to build unions where none existed.

With the banning of the Communist Party and later the ANC, many unions as well as the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), were forced into underground, exile and effectively dismantled and destroyed by the apartheid regime.

The 1973 strike came about in protest against the poverty wages workers were paid in the clothing and textile industries as well as the construction sector and even municipalities.

It came about to protest against the prohibition on the right of Black workers to unionise, to collective bargaining, to strike or protest against the abuses they experienced on a daily basis.

It started off with workers in a few factories and rapidly grew across Durban and surrounding areas in the then Natal Province.  The numbers of workers grew from a few thousand to an estimated 100 000.

It started on the 9th of January and was maintained by workers who refused to be intimidated or to backdown until a settlement was reached by the end of March.

It showed the power of workers when they are conscientized, when they are united, are organised, are militant and are led.  Workers in such conditions cannot be defeated no matter how forceful, brutal or cruel their opponent is.

The success of this strike was not only to conscientize these workers and improve their wages.  It was also to ensure that society at large from other workers across the country but also that the media, and the entire nation has heard their plight.

It showed that workers across racial and ethnic lines, irrespective of gender, face the same brutal exploitation and need to organise and unite.

These acts of bravery forced the mighty apartheid regime to recognise that African workers are employees and have the right to unionise, to have elected shop stewards, to sit on workplace councils, and even to strike.  These were not easy victories and were not won overnight.

These strikes ultimately laid the foundation for FOSATU and CUSA and then in 1985, COSATU.  It is not an exaggeration to say that it was a turning point in the struggle against apartheid and the democratic breakthrough of 1994.

It laid a foundation for our democratic Constitution which enshrines the right to strike and collective bargaining, for our progressive labour laws, including the right to national minimum wage, and the prohibition of unfair discrimination and other forms of abuse and exploitation.

So comrades, does the Durban Strike hold lessons or relevance for workers and unions today?  Yes, it does. 

Workers today, in South Africa and across the world, continue to remain under siege.  They are indebted because of poverty wages, they struggle for the right to a living wage, to take care of their families, to feed and educate their children, to provide a decent home for their families, to afford quality healthcare, to retire in comfort.

Workers are all too often intimidated and told not to join unions or risk being dismissed.  Workers are told they will be dismissed if they strike.  Many workers in the public sector are prohibited from striking due to their being classified as essential workers.

Workers’ rights to collective bargaining and to collective agreements are often undermined by employers, in both the public and private sectors.

Workers are often divided along racial and ethnic lines.  Workers are increasingly divided from migrant workers who employers often prefer to employ knowing that they are easy to exploit and abuse given their desperate circumstances.

Yet we all too often witness unions and workers struggling to respond to these challenges?  Why?

How is it that we struggle in a democratic state where the Constitution and our labour laws recognise our rights as workers?  How is it when unions are allowed to operate freely that only 27% of workers are unionised?  How is it that when we have passed the National Minimum Wage Act that 45% of employers are allowed to ignore it?

Why are we still accepting to lose a mine worker or a police officer every week during the line of duty?  Why do we allow women to be paid less than men?  Or Black workers to still suffer from racial abuse?

Why are some unions very effective and doing excellent work in defending their members, workers and their families and others are struggling to defend workers?

Why are some unions preparing for the 4th industrial revolution, yet others failing to pay attention to the dangers this poses to members’ jobs and ability to remain employed?

Comrades I have traced the history of the 1973 strike to show what workers are capable of achieving in the most brutal of times.  I am reminding ourselves that whilst we have won massive victories and made real improvements in the lives of workers, much remains to be done. 

I am reminding all of us, that we now have the tools of organising, of the law, the state and countless resources to do so.

The challenge is are we willing?  Are we willing to engage and conscientize workers, to recruit and unionise them?  To build and maintain strong trade unions?  To fight shop floor, bread and butter, socio-economic, legislative and political battles for the working class? 

Are we willing to lead?  To be sober, to be honest, pragmatic and to negotiate?

Or are we content to sit, to lament, to complain, to sloganeer, to outsource and to spend our time lamenting our sorrows and issuing slogans?

The challenges are real, workers are struggling and they are looking to us to lead.  It requires all of us to lead.  From Shop stewards to Organisers.  From members to Affiliates’ leadership.  From COSATU to our Alliance Partners.  From Nedlac to Parliament, from the ANC to government. 

If we are willing to work, then we can continue to build upon the legacies of 1973.  If we prefer to take pity on ourselves and to hide from solutions, then we must not expect miracles.

If there is one simple lesson that we must learn from the generation of 1973, it is the importance of unity.  If we are united as workers and trade unions, then we can win our battles.  If we are divided, and spend our time insulting each other, then how do we expect to win anything?  Employers are not asleep.  They are watching and when we are divided, then they will take advantage of our divisions.

Unity is not a slogan.  It must be based upon the principles of working-class struggles.  It must be a two way street where we engage, listen and hear each other.  How will we convince employers to agree to our demands, if we cannot even convince each other on what our demands are?

If we think that by dividing ourselves as the working class and trade union movement, that we will achieve anything besides the destruction of trade unions, then we are fooling ourselves.  No sober trade union leader can seek to divide workers.

If we fail to lead, then workers will leave us behind and find those willing to champion their struggles.

As COSATU we are determined to continue to champion the struggles of the working class.  We cannot afford to fail workers.