After more than two months of labor unrest at one of its four motor car assembly plants, Ford Motor Co. of South Africa has agreed to reinstate several hundred striking black employes it had fired, giving the workers a moral as well as a political victory.
The decision was a reversal of a statement from Ford's management in late November that Ford would rehire the strikers only as new employes and thus would hold a veto over their readmittance to the plant as well as force them to lose accumulated benefits. In addition, the strikes forced Ford to close for its extended Christmas holidays with 2,000 fewer Cortinas ready for the showroom than planned, according to Ford's industrial relations director, Fred Ferreira.
The troubles of the subsidiary of the giant U.S. car firm were part of a wave of a wildcat strikes involving some 1,500 workers that hit two other large firms in the dingy, industrial town of Port Elizabeth, giving South Africa its worst industrial unrest since 1973. These small-scale but widespread work stoppages around the rest of the country point to a growing militancy of black workers whose grievances include low wages, summary dismissals for complaining lack of bonuses and job advancement, and "rudeness" from white supervisors.
This militancy comes at a time when the South African government has launched a new deal for black workers aimed at eliminating discriminatory employment practices, accelerating the training of blacks to fill skilled positions and giving blacks an increased say in labor-management negotiations through recognized black unions. Multiracial unions still are illegal except by express permission of the labor minister.
Named for its principal architect, Nic Wiebahn, the new labor dispensation is a fundamental aspect of Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha's reformist program which is meant to stimulate economic growth and defuse black discontent by opening up opportunities in the social and economic spheres.
Many observes see the Port Elizabeth labor unrest as a preview of a volatile industrial scene in South Africa in the 1980s as the government's new labor policies threaten the job security of whites and heighten the job expectations of blacks who are prevented from voicing normal political expression in their communities by police activity.
Police arrested about 20 of the striking workers, one of whom is a leading political activist in Port Elizabeth. And two weeks ago, a number of other Port Elizabeth activists were arrested after refusing to call off a demonstration protesting the forced eviction of residents from a long-established black townships.
Such actions are likely to cancel out any goodwill the government was gaining by its reformist labor program, which many politically aware blacks in any case regard as a step by the government to stimulate productivity and economic growth rather than move toward a more just-dispensation in the workplace.
Blacks now constitute 77 percent of the new annual entrants into South Africa's rapidly industrializing labor market and will increase to 83 percent by the turn of the century, according to official figures. With only 10,000 new white workers entering the labor force each year and 26,000 skilled positions to be filled, blacks must close the gap, acording to Africaner economist J. L. Sadie of Stellenbosch University.
The Ford unrest is the focus of special interest from industry and labor leaders because the American-owned company, which has been in South Africa more than 50 years, generally is regarded as having "progressive" employment practices at its four plants. It put itself a cut above most other companies in South Africa by recognizing the black United Automobile and Rubber Workers' Union (UAW) two years ago when government policy was still to discourage black unions. The UAW now represents about 65 percent of Ford's 1,100 black workers, Ferreira said.
Even UAW organizer George Manase calls Ford a "first class, good company." He says the trouble at Ford was caused by "some illiterates who don't want to change their principles. They still want to follow separate development." Manase made it clear he was talking about Ford's 700 white employes.
The troubles were triggered when Thozamile botha, a 31-year-old trainee engineer at Ford who also leads the black consciousness-oriented Port Elizabeth black civic association, resigned Oct. 30 claiming he was giving an ultimatum to cease his outside political activities or resign. Hundereds of workers staged a walkout in support of Botha, and his return was negotiated with the company, which denied the ultimatum. The workers took up their toils again.
But two weeks later, the conservative white union at Ford threatened to strike over a series of grievances. Using a strategy which had worked in the past, they accused management of giving in to unreasonable black demands and complained about blacks' misusing the toilets, cafeteria and lockers that were desegregated early this year. They charged Ford's program of racial integration caused racial friction.
Unlike past incidents, the blacks reacted angrily to these accusations, however, threatening another walkout if the white union didn't make a public apology. Ford attempted to negotiate directly with the blacks through mass open-air meetings. But the impasse couldn't be resolved when whites refused to apologize and blacks added other complaints such as the absence of any black security guards to check identification cards and the rudeness of white supervisors.
Ford finally outlawed any more mass meetings and said anyone who walked off the job would be considered fired and would have to reapply as a new employe. Next day, 700 blacks, including Botha, walked out. Two days later, 625 black workers of General Tire and Rubber, now a wholly-South African-owned company, went out on strike with their own grievances, clearly inspired by events at Ford.
In the face of a continued stayaway by its employes, Ford reversed its decision Jan. 7 and agreed to reinstate the striking workers.