HOW DID THE END OF APARTHEID affect South Africa’s white workers? An excellent question. And the answer can go a long way towards explaining some of the more virulent politics evident today. But the question is rarely asked because – so the assumption goes – there are hardly any white workers in the true sense; South Africa’s working classes are black. The historical privileges of race continue to shape the contours of the country’s social and economic landscape. They mean that whites were never subject to the exploitation and precarity suffered by their black compatriots. Right?
Race and class
How race colours class has long been a hot debate. In the 1970s and 1980s, leftist academics and labour activists reflected on the prospect of a workers’ revolution in apartheid South Africa and why it was unlikely white workers would support such action. They concluded that those whites working in mines or factories weren’t workers at all – rather, they were a “labour aristocracy” in alliance with the bourgeoisie. They were a “nonworking class”, detached from the bulk of South Africa’s proletariat by the elevated status they enjoyed in exchange for their support for the racial state and the interest of capital.
In the 1990s and 2000s, with labour movements across the globe in retreat, a more nuanced take emerged. While white workers’ privilege was certainly real compared to the black working class – it was now argued – this privilege was non-existent relative to wealthy whites.
Origins of white workers’ privilege
To understand where this would leave white workers in 1994, we must understand how this came about in the first place. It goes back to the birth of industrial capitalism, amidst South Africa’s mineral revolution of the late 19th and early 20th century. The mining industry is where the foundations of South Africa’s racial capitalism and its concomitant labour policies and social relations were laid. This is also where impoverished, landless, unskilled whites, leaving the countryside in the wake of the South African War and the ravages of the rinderpest, entered the mines and became proletarians.
To be sure, this was a white man’s state, built on the exploitation and economic vulnerability of African migrant workers. But it did not automatically translate into security for white workers. The compound system, labour migrancy and the pass laws rendered black labour much cheaper and more easily controlled than white labour.
This gave capital every incentive to seek to substitute black workers for white. In addition, mining interests dominated the state. This context of intense class struggle was fundamental to the formation of white working-class identity: white workers, Jeremy Krikler has argued, came to define themselves in relation to what they were not: rightless, wageless, racially-despised, unfree blacks.
The 1922 strike
The perpetual threat of displacement animated conflicts between white workers, capital and the state in the first decades of the 20th century. It came to a head in 1922. In response to moves by the Chamber of Mines to replace 2,000 white miners in semi-skilled work with cheaper black labour, a major strike broke out in the gold and coal mines. It was soon backed by a general strike throughout the Transvaal. The strike turned into an armed revolt as 22,000 workers challenged the power of mine owners and the legitimacy of the state that supported them. Prime Minister Smuts deployed the army against the strikers and battles between armed strikers and state forces took place throughout central Johannesburg.
At its height, aerial bombardment, machine guns and tanks were deployed against the workers. By mid-March, the eight-week strike was crushed. Over 200 people had been killed, 600 wounded, thousands arrested and four hanged for treason. The white labour movement was defeated. But in the 1924 general election, white workers used their political power to oust Smuts and install a labour-friendly government. The same year, it passed South Africa’s first Industrial Relation Act. This enshrined an industrial colour bar and race-based job reservation, higher “civilised” wages for white workers, and an industrial conciliation system which expressly excluded black workers and their unions.
This reconfiguration of relations between the state, capital and white labour saw white workers much more thoroughly incorporated into the ruling social alliance than before. But the wages of whiteness they now enjoyed came at a price: the 1924 Act placed controls on organised labour, notably by limiting strike action, and led to the bureaucratisation of trade unions. White labour was effectively co-opted into state-controlled structures of power and the working classes even more firmly divided along racial lines, diffusing challenges to the interests of capital.
Workers co- opted into a ruling alliance
Is this starting to sound familiar?
When the National Party came to power with its apartheid policy in 1948, race-based policies were intensified. The powerful social and economic engineering of the state, the suppression of black resistance, and steady economic growth during the 1950s and 1960s were, in Dan O’Meara’s words, “good for every white’s business”. Some whites certainly moved up and out of the working class.
It was from this view that scholars in the 1970s concluded that white workers no longer existed. Yet the actual material advantage of the NP’s pro-white policies was spread very unevenly. Apartheid’s major beneficiaries were a new class of urban Afrikaner financial, industrial and commercial capitalists. In fact, the 1950s and 1960s saw inequality within the white Afrikaans-speaking population grow. Blue-collar workers remained a relatively stable section of the Afrikaner labour force at around 40%, with about 400,000 or 29% of South Africa’s economically active white population organised in unions. And while on the surface it might have been all bonuses and braais, race-based status in fact simply masked workers’ class-based insecurity. Especially, less skilled white workers or those protected by job reservation were rendered vulnerable and dependent on the racial state.
This was dramatically revealed in the 1970s. Stalling economic growth, skyrocketing inflation and, from 1973, the potency of African labour discontent saw the NP suddenly develop a willingness to compromise. Then came the Soweto uprising of 1976, and the reality of labour turmoil spilling over into the political sphere. Desperate to forestall this, the government announced its intention to reform (even as it sharpened its repressive tactics).
In July 1977, a commission of inquiry into labour legislation was appointed to investigate and make recommendations regarding all existing labour legislation. After a protracted process, the Wiehahn Commission, as it became known, reservation and the legalisation of black unions. To be sure, government still sought to control these unions through tight regulations. But it had set in motion a process it could not control. New black and multiracial unions grew rapidly, and in 1985 Cosatu was formed and embraced liberation politics. The balance of power had been dramatically inverted.
What did black unions mean for white workers?
For white workers, the Wiehahn reforms marked the withdrawal of state protection in the labour arena. They stripped away the veneer of their race-based status and privilege to expose their class-based insecurity. Since 1924, their position and identity had relied on the exclusion of Africans from the privileges of industrial citizenship. Labour reform ended this.
Of course, the workplace did not change overnight. But black workers started to advance into jobs once reserved for lesser skilled whites, and training for skilled work opened up to black apprentices. Some whites embraced multiracial unionism, and this was successful in some industries. But the majority of established white unions collapsed as employers opted instead to bargain with black unions representing much larger sections of the workforce.
Meanwhile, reform had little impact on the position of middle-class and professional whites, and political apartheid continued. The NP hoped it could restrict reform to the industrial sphere and depoliticise the struggle. So it effectively threw its working-class supporters under the bus in order to safeguard white rule for the rest. Of course, the whole scheme in time proved futile.
To start to answer our opening question: for white workers, therefore, 1994 was not the turning point – Wiehahn was. They were confronted with democratising change more than a decade before the official end of apartheid. The redesign of labour relations started to unravel their privileged position – both in the workplace and in their relationship to the state and the broader white body politic. Moreover, this coincided with the introduction of neoliberal policies which have since impacted white and black workers alike. Take the example of Iscor. Amid its economic struggles, the apartheid the bus in order to safeguard white rule for the rest. Of course, the whole scheme in time proved futile. To start to answer our opening question: for white workers, therefore, 1994 was not the turning point – Wiehahn was. They were confronted with democratising change more than a decade before the official end of apartheid. The redesign of labour relations started to unravel their privileged position – both in the workplace and in their relationship to the state and the broader white body politic.
Moreover, this coincided with the introduction of neoliberal policies which have since impacted white and black workers alike. Take the example of Iscor. Amid its economic struggles, the apartheid state privatised the steel giant in the late 1980s. Under the ownership of the multinational Mittal Steel, the labour force was systematically downsized until its Pretoria West work – historically run by white labour – was closed down entirely in the mid-1990s.
This had detrimental knock-on effects for other industries in the city. In the space of a few years, 15,000 white workers were left unemployed by this reduction in industrial activity. More were made redundant from state employment, and the introduction of employment equity policies often made finding alternative work difficult. Recent research has followed the fortunes of blue-collar white men in Pretoria as they sought to find work or navigate unemployment.
The Mineworkers Union
Indeed, labour and later political reform sent white workers in search of new ways to safeguard their interests in a rapidly changing world. An organisation that I’ve studied closely is the Mineworkers’ Union. Founded in 1902, the racially exclusive MWU, for most of its history, represented white miners at the lowest end of the skills hierarchy. These workers were heavily dependent on state protection from competition from black labour. Hence the MWU vigorously defended job reservation and supported the NP. Its representatives in turn enjoyed direct access to ministerial offices and even the Prime Minister.
This changed with the Wiehahn reforms. The MWU slammed the NP for its “treason of the white worker” and called a strike in defence of job reservation. This came to nought. Next, the union shifted its support to the newly-established opposition Conservative Party and other right-wing organisations. But when the CP refused to participate in the 1994 elections, white workers were again left high and dry. Once more the MWU changed tack. It appointed a new leadership from outside the mining industry which set out to rebrand, reorganise, modernise and expand the union.
Today the MWU is stronger than ever – though you may not immediately recognise it. In 2002, it was renamed Solidarity and became the founding organisation of what is today the Solidarity Movement, an ever-expanding conglomerate of some 18 organisations, which includes AfriForum.
While built on working-class foundations, the Solidarity Movement is certainly not a working-class movement. It is a populist right-wing alliance which promotes white autonomy in a variety of spheres and seeks to undermine majority rule. It mobilises around a myriad of issues, from affirmative action to farm murders. It appeals internationally to everyone from the UN to Fox News, and it potentially threatens democratic consolidation and social cohesion.
To be sure, Solidarity is not the full answer to the question about white workers after 1994. Other research shows that many have opted for economic and social pragmatism, embracing cross-racial support and intimacy. But Solidarity with its Movement is, unfortunately, by far the most prominent. It sees working-class interests once more usurped into a broader nationalist agenda.
Once again class is obscured by race and culture. This should be a warning for all labour organisations that are cosy with those who have broader ambitions.
Danelle van Zyl-Hermann is a historian at the University of Basel. She is the author of the book Privileged Precariat: White workers and South Africa’s long transition to majority rule (2021).