The 1970s are widely recognized as an important turning point for apartheid South Africa. The decade saw post-war economic growth grind to a halt, resulting in spiking living costs and unemployment. As this hit the disenfranchised African population hardest, enduring discontent about race-based exploitation and subjugation erupted in large-scale industrial action and popular revolt. In the midst of economic crisis, the black population rose to demand rights and political freedoms.
As with European colonial powers earlier in the century (see for instance Cláudia Castelo’s piece in this series), these developments provoked a crucial shift in the white regime’s rhetoric and strategies of dominance. Even as the National Party government sharpened its repressive tactics—pumping money into defense and counterinsurgency—the realization dawned that stability and economic growth could not be restored through repression alone. Reform was needed.
Labor was the obvious starting point for forestalling a full-blown crisis. In July 1977, a commission of inquiry into labor legislation was appointed to investigate and make recommendations regarding all existing labor legislation in South Africa. On Labor Day 1979, the Wiehahn Commission—known after its chairman—presented its report to Parliament. In a historic move, it recommended the abolition of race-based job reservation and the legal recognition of African trade unions. This amounted to the dismantling of the apartheid labor dispensation.
Yet local labor observers, and scholars subsequently, were quick to point out that the reforms presented thinly-veiled efforts to safeguard continued white power. The commission recommended strict controls on African unions, and the state envisioned granting labor rights only to African workers in the cities while continuing to exclude the bulk of the labor force seen as migrant workers from the homelands. It was hoped that redefining the status of urban Africans by granting them industrial citizenship would secure their allegiance to the state and divide the black population.
This reading of late-apartheid politics assumes that all of white society stood to benefit from these reforms: for white elites, it would imbue the state with legitimacy and secure continued political dominance; for white capital, it promised the return of labor stability. Ordinary white citizens do not feature in these accounts—they are assumed to have been securely middle class, supportive of state policy, and oblivious to shop-floor unrest and black political demands.
Such interpretations overlook the experiences and interests of South Africa’s white working class—those whites uncomfortably far removed from elite white policymakers and uncomfortably close to the politicized black workforce. Although they formed a minority of the industrial labor force vis-à-vis African labor, these whites represented a crucial and historically powerful part of the workforce: they held the majority of supervisory and skilled jobs, as well as a significant proportion of semi-skilled positions, and effectively controlled the organized labor movement. In the racial state, they were also the only workers with political rights.
By the 1970s, some 400,000 white workers—29 percent of South Africa’s economically active white population of 1.4 million—were organized in trade unions. The South African Confederation of Labour (SACLA) was the largest white-only labor federation, representing some 200,000 white workers. It represented racially exclusive industrial unions in older industries, such as mining, steelworks and the railways, as well as construction and state employment. These workers were historically most invested in South Africa’s racial order. Their inclusion in the white body politic as citizens secured them privileged employment opportunities, bargaining power and wages.
For SACLA members, labor reform had dramatic implications. In testimony to the commission, SACLA and its affiliated unions drew a distinction between white workers, as citizens entitled to state protection and privilege in their own country, and Africans as gasarbeiders—temporarily employed guest workers or foreign labor without any claim to rights or residence. This did not amount to discrimination, SACLA’s affiliates argued, but reflected the principles of separate development as set out by the government. If Africans would be granted labor rights, “we will become gasarbeiders in our own country,” the president of the Mineworkers Union warned. Similarly, other white trade unionists insisted that race-based job reservation was a matter of the principle of the “self-preservation of the white worker in his own country,” protecting whites from replacement by cheaper labor. Reforms, they warned, would plunge many white workers into poverty.
These arguments demonstrate the entanglement of race and class in white working-class subjectivities. Labor reforms raised fears of impoverishment, rightlessness and exploitation—that is, the relegation to social positions associated with blackness. Such class fears were expressed in terms of race and citizenship. Indeed, industrial citizenship for Africans called the established convergence between race and rights into question: if blacks could be given rights, whites could have them taken away. For white workers, the uncoupling of race from rights implied their potential exclusion from racial citizenship in a context in which other classes of whites would retain their privileges in the racial state.
Moreover, white working-class testimonies highlighted the contradiction inherent in attempts at labor reforms, namely that African workers could be granted industrial rights without political citizenship. The SACLA workers were the only group to impress upon the commission the potential political ramifications of this strategy: granting Africans labor rights would offer avenues for demanding and seizing full citizenship—precisely the strategy that the workers’ movement with COSATU would take in the 1980s. Hence Attie Nieuwoudt, SACLA’s president and member of the Wiehahn Commission, implored his fellow commissioners to consider “where are we going with this fatherland of ours?” But white politicians paid no heed. Following the Wiehahn report, the NP scrapped job reservation and legalized African unions. The rest is history.
The testimony of SACLA workers before the Wiehahn Commission shows that this section of white society clearly did not support labor reform as a means to secure continued white dominance, but regarded it as an onslaught on white workers’ rights as citizens and a threat to the racial state itself.
Indeed, if reform constituted a redefinition of the status of African workers, it follows that this would also entail the redefinition of the status of white workers, whose very position relied on the exclusion of Africans from the privileges of industrial citizenship, and whose identity was intimately bound up with the rightlessness of blacks. Labor reform marked the withdrawal of state support for working-class whiteness. As a scheme to ensure continued white dominance, it did not include white workers.
These findings necessitate a rethinking of interpretation of late apartheid politics of inclusion and exclusion. Contrary to existing understandings, it reveals white workers’ precarious position in the racial state and their often hostile relationship with white elites. Contestations around reform and citizenship in the late apartheid period was not just between the white state and African masses. Rather, white workers’ experiences and interests show that class position colored racial standing and attenuated citizenship in the racial state, even at the height of apartheid.