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COSATU Today | COSATU Speeches
Address by Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of the COSATU to the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, District Six Museum, Cape Town
5 November 2011
As with all other aspects of South African life – political, social, economic – the life of a worker (and the working class) in apartheid South Africa was determined by that worker’s “race”. Workers were privileged or disadvantaged depending on the racial classification they were given by the state. While the entire working class was exploited by White capital, Black workers were discriminated against while white workers were a labour aristocracy with a range of rights that were denied their Black counterparts. And, among Black people, “African” workers were more disadvantaged than “coloured” workers who were more disadvantaged than “Indian” workers.
It must be remembered that the exploitation of Black labour in South Africa depended not only on the exploitation of the individual Black worker but of the entire Black working class. Thus discrimination and disadvantage permeated the Black working class as a whole. The Group Areas Act of 1950, Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act of 1951, Bantu Authorities Act of 1951, Native Laws Amendment Act of 1952, Bantu Education Act of 1953, Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953, Natives Resettlement Act of 1954, Natives (Prohibition of Interdicts) Act of 1956, Extension of University Education Act of 1959, Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act of 1959, Urban Bantu Councils Act of 1961, and the Bantu Homelands Citizens Act of 1970, all targeted the Black working class in its entirety in order to keep it subservient, exploited and subjugated. These laws did not apply directly to the White working class.
Palestinian workers do not fulfil the same purpose for apartheid Israel as Black workers did for apartheid South Africa, and they are not exploited in the same manner as Black workers were. Nevertheless, Palestinian workers and the Palestinian working class are, as Black workers and the Black working class in South Africa were, oppressed and exploited simply because of their “racial” and “ethnic” background. As apartheid South Africa attempted to do with the Black working class, apartheid Israel too seeks to humiliate and degrade the Palestinian working class, robbing it of its dignity and attempting to beat it into submission to a cruel, racist system. There are two major differences between the situation we faced under apartheid, and that which Palestinian workers and the Palestinian working class face under Zionist Israel. First, that while the South African apartheid state and White capital remained till the very end entirely dependent on Black labour, the Israeli state and Israeli capitalism have divested themselves of this dependency. Second, and following on the first, is that while in apartheid South Africa the state attempted to keep Black people “in their place” so they could be pliant workers that were easy to exploit, the apartheid Israeli state wishes to ethnically cleanse the Palestinian working class and the Palestinian people more generally.
Allow me to turn now to some of the specific ways in which Black workers were oppressed and exploited in South Africa on the basis of their “race”. As mentioned, the conditions for Black workers were highly discriminatory, disadvantageous and degrading. The apartheid government ensured – through the institutionalisation of racism and with the active complicity of White capitalists – that Black workers were allowed only certain types of labour intensive jobs or low level clerical positions, paid a menial wage, and not allowed to be promoted to higher positions which were reserved for Whites.
The apartheid workplace was highly racialised and politicised, and employment conditions – in both the public and private sectors – were dictated by the colour of one’s skin. The experience of the apartheid workplace regime was one punctuated by unfair dismissals, abuse and beatings of both parent and children by bosses, discrimination and humiliation of the young and old alike. In the farms, there was a life of hunger in the midst of plenty. Racial divisions and a racial hierarchy among workers were reinforced by repressive laws such as the job colour bars and the Industrial Conciliation Act of 1956. The latter excluded Africans from the definition of “employee” under the law. The act also regulated trade unions, banning non-racial unions and requiring unions to have all-White executives, with separate branches for Black workers. It legalised the reservation of skilled jobs to White workers only, as the Bantu Building Workers Act of 1951 had done in the construction trade. Thus a white worker earned more than a black worker with the same skill level and the same job description.
We can highlight five elements of the apartheid workplace that made its experience unique: the racial division of labour; the racial segregation of facilities; the racial structure of power; the migrant labour system; the pass laws; the colour bar; the Group Areas Act and the Bantu education system. Understanding these elements of labour segregation is important to understand the role and impact apartheid had on the working class and Black South African in the workplace.
The racial division of labour meant black workers were restricted to menial jobs, and were assistants to white artisans, even if the former were more skilled. White workers monopolised more skilled operating and artisan jobs and mid-level and senior managerial positions. This gave birth to a grading system based on colour and ethnic lines where workers were paid and positioned within the work environment according to their skin colour.
Another key defining feature of the apartheid workplace was the racial structure of power in terms of which a Black person was, by definition, a servant of a White man no matter what position she/he held in the formal hierarchy. Any White worker had the right to issue instructions to any Black worker, thus blurring the line of managerial authority or demarcation. Black workers thus often had to do work that was not part of their job description, e.g. make tea or buy cigarettes for White workers. This structure of power also had a strong gender dynamic. Black women were rarely able to hold even basic clerical or desk jobs. In the manufacturing and most other sectors, they were paid less than a man for the same work.
Another characteristic of the apartheid workplace was the segregation of facilities. This characterised the mining, manufacturing and service industries where Black workers were excluded from certain benefits and basic facilities. Separate amenities for Black and White workers included separate canteens, change houses and toilets. This form of segregation was legislated under the Factories Act, and underpinned by the Separate Amenities Act of 1953.
Entrenching racialised labour practices was the migrant labour system which further differentiated between Black migrant and urban workers. These two categories of workers were allocated different positions in the workplace. Migrants from the Bantustans were preferred for the most dangerous and heaviest unskilled jobs, while local, urbanised Blacks were recruited for “softer jobs”. The migrant labour system disrupted the social fabric of many rural societies, and forced young men from these areas to the city in search of employment. Many of them ended up in the mines. The result was that African men were forced to live away from their families except for three weeks in a year, and to live in under-developed, over-crowded single-sex hostels. Migrant workers were regarded as “foreign labourers”, and were harshly treated and exploited – even more so than Black urban workers. The entire system was designed to ensure that the “White economy” was sustained through a massive pool of cheap labour.
The Natives (Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Documents) Act of 1952, commonly known as the Pass Laws Act, made it compulsory for all Africans over the age of 16 to carry a “pass book” at all times. This dompas, as it was known, contained its carrier’s employment details and other identification information. Employers often entered behavioural evaluations on the passes. The pass also documented permission requested and denied or granted to be in certain areas and the reasons for seeking such permission. The humiliating practice of the pass laws represented an immense obstacle in terms of employment. The livelihoods of many Black South Africans were dictated by the pass laws which thus played a crucial role in segregating the South African population and severely restricting the movement of Black – especially African – people. Africans were required to carry pass books when outside their “compounds” or “designated areas”. Any White person could ask an African person to produce their pass, and failure to do so often resulted in arrests.
This law formed an important pillar of what was called “influx control” which strictly and harshly regulated the movement and settlement of especially African people in urban areas. The effect was not unlike that faced on a daily basis by Palestinian workers whose movement is restricted and curtailed through the much cruder checkpoints, apartheid wall, road closures, curfews, and so forth.
The Group Areas Act also helped regulate the lives of Black workers and the Black working class more generally. This legislation assigned different “racial” groups to different residential and business areas. The purpose was to exclude Blacks from living in the most developed areas, which were reserved for Whites only. It had serious and profound implications for Black workers, causing them to travel long distances from their homes in order to work. Blacks were regularly forcibly removed for living in the “wrong” areas. The Group Areas Act, together with the various acts that established the Bantustans and forced Africans to be “citizens” of those Bantustans, ensured that Whites owned 87 percent of the land in South Africa and Black people owned only 13 percent. The comparison with Palestinian Bantustans which are defined by Israeli settlement infrastructure and Israeli military control is not misplaced here. Of course, in the Palestinian case there is the more insidious objective of forcing the indigenous people to leave the land completely, thus cleansing it of their presence.
One of the most important instruments of apartheid that had deep long-term objectives and effects was the Bantu Education Act of 1953, which was the foundation of the apartheid system. It aimed to keep Black South Africans “uneducated”. Its major provision was the enforced separation of races in all educational institutions. The policy of Bantu education was aimed at directing Black – particularly African – youth to the unskilled labour market, and to provide a large pool of labourers at low cost to South African capitalists.
The Nationalist Party regarded education as a key element in its plan to create a segregated society. Apartheid’s architect, Hendrik Verwoerd, made this clear when he said:
There is no place for the Bantu in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour ... What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd. Education must train people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live.
The apartheid government ensured that by giving Black students inferior education, in a language not their own, White South Africa would be supplied with a continuous pool of cheap labour, workers willing to do menial jobs for low salaries, and fulfil the needs of White citizens, the apartheid state and White capital.
In essence, blacks and whites under apartheid lived separately and unequally. Black children grew up in terrifying conditions, in townships where tarred roads and electricity were a privilege, where a pit latrine was normality and only had the most dilapidated and resource strapped schools to attend and hospitals to go to.
This separate and unequal development is demonstrated by the simple fact that my late father and mother and my eleven siblings do not know their exact birthdays. I also do not know exactly when I was born. At my baptism, the priest took a guess and gave me the birth date of December 20, 1962. To this day, my family doesn’t celebrate birthdays because we never knew when we were born. This experience is one that is shared by many black South Africans born under apartheid.
Meanwhile, our white counterparts stayed in secure suburbs with big houses and big yards, attended the best schools with all types of sporting codes, had access to the best healthcare facilities and more opportunities of attending some of the country’s good universities.
The precious gift of childhood innocence was robbed from us as black children growing up in the Bantustans and various townships across the country. By the 1980’s, military vehicles and soldiers armed with heavy artillery had become an integral picture of township life. Under the state of emergency, gunshots and police invasions into our homes substituted the lullaby. The loss of innocence and childhood pleasures by black children in South Africa is similar to the experience of Palestinian children growing up under occupation, with constant sight of military vehicles and heavy weapons. The ears of Palestinian children have become accustomed to sound of bombs and grenades from the Israel army.
Clearly, apartheid was a well-planned and oiled machine of racial segregation, designed from the very beginning to oppress, exploit and dehumanise Black South Africans, especially Black workers and the Black working class. While there are a number of differences between the situation of Black South African workers and Palestinian workers, the oppression and exploitation faced by the Black South African working class and the Palestinian working class resemble each other in many respects, while the Israeli Jewish working class resembles the White labour aristocracy in South Africa.
We will not forget that the Israeli trade union federation Histadrut, which serves the racist Israeli state and the Jewish working class like White trade unions in South Africa served the racist state and the White working class, actively collaborated with the South African apartheid state. Iskoor steel company, 51 percent of which was owned by Histadrut’s Koor Industries and 49 percent by the South African Steel Corporation, for example, manufactured steel for South Africa’s armed forces. Partly finished steel was shipped from Israel to South Africa, enabling the apartheid state to escape tariffs. Other Histadrut companies such as Tadiran and Soltam were equally complicit in supplying South Africa with weapons. Histadrut also helped build the electronic wall between South Africa/Namibia and neighbouring African states in an attempt to keep our liberation fighters out. This wall was, in many ways, a precursor of Israel’s apartheid wall.
Black South African workers – especially a mine-worker like myself – who bore the brunt of South African racial capitalism, and understood the purposes and mechanisms of apartheid, know that when we talk about the conditions faced by our Palestinian comrades we are talking about apartheid; when we see the controls on the movement and residence of Palestinians, it reminds us of group areas and Bantustans; when we see the elaborate Israeli attempts at humiliation of Palestinians, it reminds us of the daily humiliation and assault on dignity that was our lot – every day of our lives. That is why we know that the South African working class will never be free until the Palestinian working class – and that of the rest of the world – is liberated.
Phindile Kunene (Shopsteward Magazine Editor)
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