American television viewers rarely get an opportunity to meet people such as Phillip Dhlamini, a black South African who was imprisoned last year and reportedly tortured for exercising rights that he doesn't have in his country.
Dhlamini is a trade unionist, but many aspects of unionism are illegal for blacks in South Africa. They can be imprisoned if they picket, or strike, or even gather in groups of five -- unless they have the permission of white magistrates. And yet the black labor movement in South Africa grows, flourishing with more than a half million members.
"Leading the Way: Black Trade Unions in South Africa" (on Channel 32 tomorrow at 10:30 p.m.) provides a brief glimpse of the black miners, auto workers, textile workers and laborers who fuel their nation's economy and yet are denied basic rights of citizenship. These are the workers who risk all in the illegal "stay-away" strikes and other mass protests.
Produced by the AFL-CIO's video arm, the Labor Institute for Public Affairs, the half-hour includes some genuinely moving moments that are unfortunately buried after the less-moving introductory scenes, which focus on the AFL-CIO's involvement in the protests at the South African embassy here. The program was originally produced as an in-house video to be shown to union audiences, and therefore it suffers a bit in its transition to television. But it nonetheless tells us some things we didn't know about South Africa.
Dhlamini looks weary and battered on-camera as he tells us: "We have stayed months and years without pay. We have seen our children in the hospital for malnutrition, but that won't stop us . . . That won't take away our commitment." And we know he believes it when he speaks of his mission: "We know that the burden is ours. God appointed us to lead our people to freedom."
Narrated by the silky strong voice of Academy Award nominee Howard Rollins Jr., the story of the history of black unionism is illustrated with visits to the hellish "homelands" and with rare footage of black union-organizing efforts that began in 1918. Unfortunately for the blacks, however, white workers organized unions then too in South Africa and pressured the government to declare the union activities of blacks illegal.
It was not until the 1970s that blacks won the right to belong to unions. But that victory has been largely meaningless, and will continue to be, unless Americans help, Dhlamini tells an American audience. "Brothers and sisters," he says, "we need your help . . . without you, our struggle will take another 200 years."
Somehow, despite all the oppression, the final victory of black South Africa seems inevitable when we see a throng of black workers raise their arms, singing a haunting workers' anthem: "We are the workers. Workers of Africa. Stand up all you workers. We are marching forward to Africa."