Historical Overview of South Africa’s Industrial Relations

Published: 2021-07-18 16:20:06
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Category: Justice, South Africa

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South Africa reflects a diverse country, rich in history and encourages “ubuntu”. This philosophy encompasses the spirit of community which summarises the extent to which everyone is connected to one another. However controversial issues were prevalent during South Africa’s industrial relations history. Issues which stood out were Apartheid; which segregated the South African society by race and class, as well as political and labour conflict were also highly controversial issues during the past. South Africa’s industrial relations history and workers rights is complex.
Therefore it is necessary to view South Africa’s industrial relations in terms of an industrial evolution and economic overview in order to fully grasp it effectively. As understanding South Africa’s industrial historical significance is crucial as it ultimately shaped the labour laws which currently exist. This essay will investigate the historical overview of South Africa’s industrial relations highlighting the most significant events which occurred within South Africa’s industrial history, in particular, the hey-day of the Apartheid era (1949-1973).
The focus on this particular period will demonstrate the significance and impact it had on labour legislation and the industrial relations system in South Africa at that time. The National Party (NP), a new party within the South African government in 1948, institutionalised Apartheid as a central plank of South African government policy(Van Den Bergh& van Niekerk, 2009:55). Yet in the same year the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was formed by the United Nations General Assembly.

Even though South Africa was a United Nations member they continued to pursue their newly institutionalised government policy, Apartheid. The international community made efforts to persuade the South African government to adhere to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but their efforts were ignored. During the Apartheid era the National Party used its repressive legislation to legally enforce racial segregation. This was an attempt to protect the minority which existed in South Africa, white South Africans. Government had to find ways to handle the conflict.
During the early days of Apartheid there was generally dissatisfaction among South Africans of all races. This was mainly due to the fact that jobs were scarce, and there was a high influx of black people in urban areas which caused unrest in the townships (Bendix, 2010:68). Therefore the Commission argued that if black people were able to have party representation it would ultimately lead to equality amongst races within South Africa. However this went completely against what the government believed. If government followed through with what the commission recommended it would be putting the white superiority at risk. The impact the Botha Commission had on labour legislation in South Africa The government ignored the Botha Commissions recommendations which included freedom of association and trade union rights. Therefore government passed two labour legislations to give effect to the Botha Commission. Firstly, to reinforce the governments Apartheid policy the Industrial Conciliation Act was passed. The Act was the final part to the government’s racially exclusive industrial system. The Act established racial divisions amongst workers which meant that there could not be trade unions which represented a variety of races.
In addition trade unions with a variety of races had to divide their members by race then locate them in different trade unions according to their race. Furthermore certain work was reserved exclusively for workers of a particular race. This was known as job reservation. This meant labour market was being manipulated in such as a way that advanced white people in order to maintain their supremacy. Secondly, government went against the recommendation that stated that black workers should be allowed regulation of rights. Government believed that this would encourage black trade unions.
Therefore they implemented the Native Labour of disputes Act No. 48 of 1953. Later the Act was name changed to the Bantu Labour of Disputes Act. This Act ultimately aimed at prohibiting strike action by black workers. It repealed the War Measure 145; which banned black workers from taking part in strike action. In this way black workers had no way to resist the demands laid down by employers.
The State is referred to as a self-governing political entity. In this case the South African State consisted of the National Party. The State facilitates the employment relationship between employers and employees. The state is also regarded as the employer. In this case the state had to improve the economy as job was scarce. The government had to use the recommendations of the Botha Commission to improve the labour relations situation at that time. The Commission’s recommended that if black workers were granted representation of black workers in trade unions equality amongst races would take place.
South Africa’s exclusion from the British Commonwealth 1961 marked the first diplomatic defeat against the Apartheid government. The government justified their actions by the possibility of black violence that could have sparked. South Africa was later sanctioned. The event was the reason public meetings were banned after that dreadful day, the 24th March 1960.
Conflict could not be resolved during this period by bargaining. Drastic measures were taken by international countries as they tried to stop the Apartheid regime. The Apartheid Government was exploiting the black workers and black people in general. The incidents that took place at Sharpeville were an example of how crimes against humanity were being made. The changes government made regarding who the employers can hire and where employers could work demonstrated the drastic steps taken by the government to keep their power and continue racial segregation.
In 1973 bodies were being established which aimed for promotion of black workers interests. However the momentum towards dispention was mainly due to the Natal Strikes 1973. During 1973 an estimated 61 000 African and Indian workers in Natal took it upon themselves to go on strike. The strike took place in various industries and ultimately the industry was brought to a standstill. The strike began at the Coronation Brick which spread to the textile industry and later other industries as well as the Durban municipality. The strikes were purely coordinated by the workers themselves and not by any formal organisations.
The workers were generally unsatisfied with their wages. This was mainly due to the fact that inflation was rapidly increasing at that time. The significance of the Natal strikes 1973 The strikes were significant as it marked the first time workers embarked on such a large scale strike without the coordination of any formal organisations. Therefore this event demonstrated the actual power the workers possessed as a united force. This power meant that they could apply pressure on government on labour issues, such as employer-employee relations and minimum wages.
Once the strikes ended black workers organised themselves into trade unions. These unions were separate from the trade unions which existed at the time. The trade unions which existed were mainly dominated by white workers. Therefore the newly formed black unions were referred to as “independent trade unions”. Although the strikes were illegal according to the labour legislation at the time, there were no arrests made. The large number of workers that participated in the strike action made it difficult for employers as well as the police to punish them for their illegal strikes. The impact the Natal strikes had on labour legislation in South Africa Due to the Natal strikes black workers new found power led to them being recognised as a force to be reckoned with. Therefore government responded by passing the Bantu Regulations Act of 1973. The Act was passed to regulate the procedures for establishing labour committees and disputes amongst employers and employees. This was crucial for government as the joint power of the workers put pressure on government and employers to accommodate them.
During the Apartheid era the National Party government used repressive legislation to legally enforce racial segregation. This was an attempt to protect the minority which existed in South Africa, white South Africans. There were key events during Apartheid such as the establishment of the Botha Commission, Sharpeville Massacre and the Natal strikes of 1973. Within the time periods these key events occurred white workers prospered under the rule of the National Party government whereas non-white workers were excluded. The government used the labour force to further racially divide South Africans.
Therefore equality amongst the races did not exist which was their aim. However tension escalated within the country. As a result, strike action and protests soon persisted and government had to find ways to handle the conflict. Hence the use of labour laws as controls mechanisms by government. As Apartheid reached its boiling point the economy suffered and the government had to start considering the inevitable, democracy.
Researching the labour history made it abundantly clear that clear that there needs to be understanding of the country’s history, in particular the labour history, not for hatred, but to avoid repetition of the imbalances of the Apartheid era. In contrast with the Apartheid government, the present government has made large strides in creating a country which exudes freedom, equality and non-discrimination. The research conducted not only gave me the opportunity to broaden my knowledge of labour history and improving my researching skills, but it gave me a new appreciation for the county’s government, laws and labour legislations.
Sometimes it is easy to criticise the government, yet no thought is spared for those political figures, leaders and employees that fought for what ultimately exist today, in particular the labour laws which aim at protecting the employee. Focusing on the Apartheid era (1949-1973) I have come to understand that the labour market had fallen prey to the Apartheid government, and that we are still experiencing the effects of the Apartheid government’s actions. Labour legislations in today’s time are aimed at eradicating the imbalances of the past.
Therefore as a potential Human Resource Manager understanding the realities of what occurred and how it impacted the labour market in the past remains of curial importance. The National Party wanted supremacy yet they did not realise their actions would have major consequences. I view this as an example of how power used for greed and personal gain has tremendous consequences for all parties involved. Therefore as I have learnt these mistakes made in the past demonstrates how it can be used constructively as a point of reference when dealing with labour legislations to avoid the mistakes which were previously made by the Apartheid government.
Although we do not face the same repressive laws as in Apartheid we should always aim Researching the past has made it clear that our diversity needs to be embraced, not frowned upon because we need to be united and not divided as we were in the Apartheid era. Although we do not face the same repressive laws as in Apartheid we should always make sure our diversity is represented in our labour laws. Most importantly not being able to understand our past labour history we will not fully understand why they exist.

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