From the Archive | 1972, a year of strikes

An overview of some of the strike action across South African industries in 1972 provides a glimpse into the lives of the men and women fighting for better wages and conditions.

According to Mamphela Ramphele, the 1972 Black Review was initiated by Steve Biko in response to a need for alternative publications and public voices. A host of volunteers contributed to the research and writing, but Biko was the publication’s only full-time staff member. This edition of Black Review was published in early 1973 and officially billed as edited by Bennie Khoapa, after Biko’s banning order prohibited him from participating in publications of any kind.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from a section of the 1972 Black Review titled Black Workers.

Some incidents among workers

Recent developments in the labour sector indicate that the black worker is increasingly becoming impatient with South Africa’s discriminatory labour laws. Lack of proper machinery, such as trade unions, led the workers to seek and act upon whatever remedial methods they deemed fit in order to have their voice heard and their grievances re­dressed. This can be illustrated by some of the notable incidents which occurred during 1972.

Putco bus drivers strike

A number of Putco (Public Utilities Transport Company) bus drivers from Faraday, lkhwezi, Kliptown and Martindale depots held a meeting with the management at the Faraday Depot on 2 June 1972, and demanded an increase in their wages. The starting wage for drivers was R27.26 a week, and it reached a maximum of R36.77 after 26 years of service. If a bus inspector found a passenger without a ticket, R5 was taken off the driver’s wages for 26 weeks.

The drivers demanded R60 per week and this demand, according to Mr TH Frith, managing director of Putco, was totally ridiculous, un­realistic and unjustified and therefore could not be met. When the management failed to satisfy the demands of the drivers, one driver stood up and announced that as from that moment, the drivers were on strike. The Putco officials took this lightly stating that such a thing had never happened in the history of Putco. The drivers then posted some men at the entrances and no buses were allowed to leave the depot. By three o’clock in the afternoon there were no more buses travelling, except a few from the Alexandra, Pretoria and Edenvale depots. Meanwhile the number of drivers at the Faraday depot had swelled to more than 300, and at 6pm the drivers dispersed after agreeing to return the following morning.

On Saturday 3 June 1972, the strike spread to all depots, except Pretoria. The drivers from Faraday, lkhwezi, Martindale and Kliptown, and a few from Evaton had reassembled at Faraday. At about 10am, police swooped on the strikers and arrested more than 300 men and took them to John Vorster Square, Johannesburg. Other drivers who had arrived later with the intention of attending the strikers’ meeting de­manded to be detained as well. Relatives of the arrested drivers were re­fused permission to bring the prisoners clothes and food.

In the meantime, Putco officials, labour department officials and the police started negotiating with the other drivers and appealed to them to abandon their demands. This appeal by officials fell on deaf ears. On Sunday, dozens of the striking drivers in a demonstration of solidarity with their 308 arrested colleagues arrived at John Vorster Square at various times and asked to be locked up. The drivers said that they were off duty on Saturday when their colleagues were arrested. “We want to be with our brothers,” said one driver. “We asked the police to lock us up, but they would not. They said they did not know what to charge us with.” Reacting to Mr Frith’s threat that if the drivers did not go back to work they would be fired, the drivers retorted: “He can fire us. We are fighting for our rights.” The drivers held on up to Sunday night. On Monday morning, 5 June 1972, Putco officials, with members of the South African Police, raided the private hostels (rented by Putco for their workers) in Alexandra and Thembisa townships, and forced drivers back to work. Others were rounded up from their homes and hordes of police were stationed at bus stops and police cars patrolled the bus routes after the buses had started operating.

At about 8am, crowds of wives, relatives and friends of the arrested drivers started gathering at John Vorster Square. These people, who at one stage numbered about 500, stood there the whole day without food, and police vans and riot trucks waited nearby. At 1pm, Mr Frith announced that the strike was over and that the drivers would be released. About 100 policemen crowded the entrance to John Vorster Square as the last batch of drivers was released at 8pm, the first batch having been released at about 6.15pm. The drivers had, however, been charged under the Riotous Assemblies Act and were out on bail of R5, which was paid by Putco. The released drivers were scheduled to appear in batches in the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court on 3, 10, 17 and 24 August 1972. All charges were subsequently withdrawn against the drivers. Three drivers failed to appear at the last hearing and warrants of arrest were issued against them for contempt of court.

Results of the Putco strike

The strike affected about 120 000 commuters and cost Putco between R40 000 and R45 000 per day. Factories throughout Johannesburg nearly closed as a result of this strike. On 9 September 1972, Mr Frith announced that an increase for Putco drivers and all its black staff, would cost the company R1 500 000 in the next year. This increase became effective as from 6 September 1972. Starting wages for new drivers were lifted from R27.26 to R35 a week and the ceiling was lifted from R36.77 to R45 a week. Drivers would reach the maximum rate after 10 years instead of R26 years.

The pay raise for Putco men followed a fare increase at the beginning of September. The people who were hardest hit were the people using the Johannesburg-Evaton route. These people paid, as a result of the fare in­crease, 40c instead of 25c per single trip. Commenting on the fare in­crease, Mr Frith said: “We are not being unkind. People must under­stand that the price of oil, petrol, spares and tyres has gone up. My staff need increases too.”

The most significant result of the Putco bus drivers’ strike can, perhaps, be seen in the decision by the drivers to form a trade union. The move to establish a trade union by a group of drivers was motivated by the realisation of their insecurity as workers and the lack of proper machinery that would make representation to the management on their behalf.

According to Mr John Nhlapo, chairman of the drivers’ committee that was formed in May, the news of their intention to form a union was not received happily by Putco management. He and several members of the committee were summoned before Mr A Carleo, a director and major shareholder in Putco, and told that unless they abandoned this idea, they and about 40 others would be fired. Mr Carleo sub­sequently denied this allegation to newspaper reporters. The drivers had meanwhile sought legal advice and established that such an act by an employer constituted a lock-out and was forbidden by law. They there­fore resolved to proceed with the formation of a trade union. In addition to a union, the drivers decided to apply for the establish­ment of a statutory works committee through which the union leaders could put their case to the management with the help of the Department of Labour.

Dockworkers strike

On 23 October 1972, more than 2 000 African stevedores in Durban went on strike for higher wages and better working conditions. This strike brought work in the harbour virtually to a standstill as 20 ships lay idle. The strike was precipitated by a new five-day working week that had been introduced a week earlier. On the 23 October more than 2 000 workers crowded the street outside their employers’ offices, the Durban Stevedoring Labour Supply Company in Southampton Street, and de­manded an opportunity to air their grievances. Among other grievances, they claimed that their basic wage of R8.40 per week was not enough. Their new working hours were too long. They worked 12 and a half hours per day with only a break for lunch between 12.30pm. and 1.30pm. They did not know how much was deducted from their wages each week for income tax and compound fees as they did not get pay slips. Many of them had to work seven days a week for months on end without a full day’s break. They received only R6 leave pay per year.

The stevedores demanded a minimum basic wage of R18.50 per week. The manager of the Durban Stevedoring Labour Supply, Mr WS Dreyer, addressed the angry workers and appealed to them to return to their jobs. The workers fired questions at him and, among other things, they demanded to know why it was taking the Wage Board so long to decide on their wages since it had heard evidence on salaries in July 1972; why the salaries had not been increased when working hours were lengthened; and, why their pay envelopes did not contain payslips.

After failing to be convinced by Mr Dreyer’s replies, the workers refused to return to their jobs. On the second day of the strike, the workers were told by Mr Dreyer that his company could not accede to their demands and that a new wage determination was being considered by the Wage Board. He gave them the ultimatum that they either return to work immediately or collect the pay owing to them and leave. A large contingent of police stood by watching the situation very closely. Fourteen men chose to collect their pay and belongings and leave. A rail­way bus provided by the company took them to the Durban station. Within a period of two weeks after the strike, more than 15 stevedores were dismissed by the Stevedoring Labour Supply Company. The men told the Natal Mercury that their dismissal was directly connected with their having given evidence at the Wage Board hearing. This was denied by a spokesman for the company.

Expulsion of workers from a Benoni factory

On 26 October 1972, a Benoni textile factory, Fibres, Spinners and Weavers (Pty) Ltd, fired more than 150 of its workers. According to one of the men, Mr Joseph Matsobane, this expulsion was the result of the workers refusing to work longer hours. Mr Matsobane in­formed the press that workers used to get R 13.00 a week for working from 7.15am to 4.30pm. In June 1972, the workers asked for more wages and in mid-October 1972, they were granted an increase of Rl.30 but a change was introduced in the working hours. The workers were told that they would have to work from 6am to 6pm. Several hundred workers refused to work the extra hours but most of them were persuaded to do so by the factory officials. More than 150 workers were, however, adamant in their resolve not to work for 12 hours.

The result was that the factory decided to fire more than 150 of its em­ployees. The workers preferred to lose their jobs rather than be forced to work for 12 hours a day. The factory manager declined to comment on this matter. He would neither confirm nor deny the workers’ allegation. All he would say was “we’ve had no trouble. And there’s no comment”.

The diamond mine strike

The Sover Diamond Mine near Windsorton was a scene of unrest on 25 October 1972 when 142 miners downed their tools. The miners stopped working because they were dissatisfied with their bonus payments. They demanded more attractive bonus payments and the resignation of the mine manager, Mr PJ Nel. They also demanded the cancellation of their contracts.

Despite repeated appeals by the mine authorities to go back to their jobs, the miners held on to their strike and on 27 October, police walked onto the scene and arrested 20 workers. The compound manager, Mr PI Swanepoel, later claimed that these 20 workers were the main troublemakers. On 6 November 1972, the 20 miners appeared in the Barkly West Magistrate’s Court and were convicted. They were all sentenced to 80 days’ imprisonment each. Their contracts were cancelled and after serving their sentences, they would be repatriated to Mozambique.

The African Bus Services strike

About 200 drivers employed by the African Bus Services stopped work on 5 December 1972. Trouble started when the drivers demanded that an inspector of the company, who had been involved with a driver in a fight, be dismissed. On 21 December, the same problem arose at the company’s Boom Street depot. About 150 bus drivers stopped work. The drivers demanded the immediate dismissal of an inspector. The men were addressed by the Department of Labour officials as well as by the District Commandant of police, Colonel Buurman van Zyl, and the head of the flying squad, Lieutenant-Colonel AJ Wandrag. About l00 drivers returned to their posts. When the rest refused to do so, 57 drivers were arrested under the Riotous Assemblies Act. They were taken to a police station in three car loads. By December 1972, the case was still proceeding.

Soweto doctors walk out in protest

During October 1972, 10 African doctors employed by the Johannesburg City Council in Soweto clinics, without warning staged a walk-out protest against low salaries. The doctors were being paid R1.30 per hour, as opposed to their white counterparts who received R4.98 per hour. The African doctors maintained that they would not not return to their jobs unless they received equal pay with whites. On 30 October, Mr Monty Sklaar, Chairman of the Council’s Health Amenities, after a special meeting, announced that black doctors would be paid the same as white doctors. Needless to say, this move by the black doctors had dealt a crippling blow to the City Council’s health services in Soweto.


The protests by black workers quoted above should not be construed as the only protests. Perhaps to get a better view of the picture, statistics on strikes and work stoppages, given by the Minister of Labour in Parliament on 13 April 1972, should be considered. The Minister disclosed that during 1970, 28 strikes by Africans occurred, 10 of which were caused by dissatisfaction with wages. During the same year, there were 35 work stoppages involving Africans. During 1971 there were, according to the minister, 22 strikes and 42 work stoppages involving Africans. It is significant that eight of these strikes were caused by dissatisfaction with wages.

Further information on the question of strikes by blacks was given by the Minister of Police in Parliament on 26 May 1972. According to the minister, during 1970, 70 Africans were arrested for striking and during 1971, 250 Africans were arrested. According to the Minister of Justice, the Department of Statistics gave the following information: during 1969-1970, 34 Africans were charged with illegal strikes and related conduct, and only one African was convicted. During 1970-1971, two Africans were charged with similar charges and both of them were convicted.

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