Metal that will not bend

An extract from the history of Numsa: 1980–1995 by Kally Forrest
In the 1970s trade unions were not recognised by the National Party government and were excluded from the collective bargaining structures of the Industrial Conciliation Act and other labour laws.

Capitalizing on their shadowy status, many employers refused to deal with them. Working-class power was also weakened… by the migrant labour system and racial cleavages in the workplace and the labour movement.

The docile, bureaucratic white unions tolerated by the government either ignored black labour or exercised paternalistic control over ‘parallel’ organisations for black workers. The political unionism which arose in the 1950s had been smashed by a ferocious state onslaught on the ANC’s labour ally, the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu), after the banning of the ANC in 1960.

The first stage of struggle

The rise and fall of Sactu formed an important ideological backdrop for the early metal unionists of the 1970s. Underpinning Sactu’s relationship with the ANC, and their joint political campaigns, was the theory of ‘internal colonialism’ formulated by the SACP chair, Michael Harmel, which came to dominate left thinking.

This held that South Africa consisted of a former settler, now permanent, white middle class which exploited the mass of rightless, indigenous black people. The first stage of struggle was to eliminate racial oppression through a national struggle waged by a class alliance.

After the defeat of the white minority government, working-class interests would diverge from those of the black bourgeoisie and a new stage of working-class struggle would begin.

Trade unionism was thus important, but secondary to liberation politics. As a result, the slow, painstaking construction of workplace democracy was neglected by the Sactu unions.

Shop steward committees were rare and in the main workers had little factory power. National solidarity was also poorly developed, and when the state, armed with new powers of detention without trial, cracked down on Sactu and drove its leadership into exile, the latter’s affiliates were severely weakened.

The 1960s came to a close in a way that presented formidable obstacles for trade union organisation as worker power was at its lowest ebb since the onset of industrialisation… White and black workers were polarised; African, Indian and coloured workers had been forced apart by differing organisational rights and urbanisation policies; and African workers were divided from each other through differential rights to reside in urban areas. …race was not the only basis for divisions within the working class. Skill had a major impact on wages and trade union organisation…

New possibilities

Yet new possibilities were taking shape. The growth in all sectors, the emergence of many semi-skilled Africans and the development of monopoly capitalism had brought large numbers of workers together in production. These conditions would provide an organisational basis for the unions that would emerge in the 1970s….

In April 1973, the Metal and Allied Workers Union (Mawu) was launched with 200 members from two factories, Alcon and Scottish Cables. ..
Fierce debate went into the formation of unions like Mawu, and the principles and strategies that emerged underpinned these unions in the future. Central to their strategy was that only an accumulation of worker power could bring meaningful change.

Their abhorrence of racism and their socialist sympathies led them to a long-term vision of a united working class in a democratic South Africa (non-racialism meant that unions were open to all workers, but in practice Africans made up the mass of members).

Also central to their vision was the formation of industrial unions where a strong worker unity and identity could be forged: workers would initially press for power in their factories; then, through the development of a working class consciousness, they would come to identify with workers across their industry; the next step would be a union federation and the exercise of joint power with workers from other sectors, and, indeed, with workers across the globe…

There were other unions too in the metal sector, which were to have a significant impact on Numsa’s accumulation of power in the 1980s. Rooted in a different tradition, they emerged from conservative, registered unions affiliated to Tucsa.

Three of them, the coloured National Union of Motor Assembly and Rubber Workers of South Africa (Numarwosa), its African parallel United Automobile Workers (UAW), and the Western Province Motor Assemblers Workers’ Union (WPMawu) were launched in the Eastern and Western Cape in the 1960s and early 1970s…
A presence in every major company

During the 1960s, office bearers (of Numarwosa) had been elected in poorly attended meetings in a venue removed from factories, but now office bearers and shop stewards were elected on the factory floor and by 1979 the union could claim a presence in every major automobile and tyre company…
…Numarwosa, UAW and WPMawu merged in October 1981 to form the National Automobile and Allied Workers Union (Naawu)….

In May (1984) the Motor Industry Combined Workers Union (Micwu), Naawu and Mawu came together to ‘explore ways and means of developing greater cooperation in their organising work. The unions had overlapping interests in the motor industry and were often confronted with jurisdictional disputes with no forum in which to resolve them….’

“There was strong resistance to the merger within our union, especially those who had been in the union for a long time. The choice we had was this: did we stay as Micwu but die in the long term through a long and destructive process? Or did we more actively start talking seriously about a merger?” Des East, general secretary of Micwu.

They kept unity talks in perspective by focusing on the conditions of workers. As East relates, ‘We tried to keep worker rights as the prime issue. In the end that argument won the day. If we can build on our strength, reduce conflict between workers that employers are using, and then let’s go for it.’

Numsa launched
…Numsa was launched in May 1987 at a three-day congress in Crown Mines, Johannesburg at the height of the state of emergency… opening the congress (Naawu’s vice president, John Gomomo) declared that metal workers were under attack as never before, that tens of thousands had been retrenched in the previous five years, that key union leaders had been detained, and that organisers had been killed in attacks on Cosatu in Natal.

He reminded delegates of the recent bombing of Cosatu’s Johannesburg headquarters, Cosatu House, and of the police siege of the building earlier that year when documents and correspondence dealing with union activities were ransacked and destroyed.

‘The only guarantee for the safety of our movement,’ Gomomo concluded, ‘is strong structures and workers’ control of our organisation.’

Win a copy of The metal that will not bend

Numsa turns 25 in May this year. To give you some history about Numsa, we will bring you extracts from Kally Forrest’s book in the next few issues of Numsa News.

If you want to share a memory of Numsa and its past, or some of your old photos of important meetings or strikes, please write to Numsa News, PO Box 260483 Excom 2023.

The best story sent will be included in the next Numsa News and will receive a copy of Kally Forrest’s book.


Numsa News No 1