JOHANNESBURG, AUG. 9 -- Black miners went on strike at 46 of South Africa's gold and coal mines tonight to support their demands for a 30 percent pay increase and demonstrate the growing political and economic power of the black unions, labor leaders reported.
The strike, the biggest test of strength yet between the National Union of Mineworkers and the South African Chamber of Mines, began as most workers on the overnight shift at 28 gold and 18 coal mines reportedly did not go to work. A union spokesman said that 75,000 of an expected 200,000 were already off the job and that the struck mines would be completely shut by Monday morning. The spokesman said 45,000 gold miners and 30,000 coal miners had gone on strike.
As many as 100,000 other miners were expected to join the strike at perhaps 30 other mines where the five-year-old union has not yet won management recognition.
A lengthy strike would seriously affect the South African economy. Last year, the 51 gold mines produced 640 tons of gold, worth $9 billion, and more than half of its foreign exchange earnings. The 56 coal mines produce most of the fuel for electric power stations as well as large quantities of coal for export.
The strike, if prolonged, would also pose a political challenge to the government of President Pieter W. Botha. After permitting black workers to form unions and bargain collectively, the government has become uneasy over their growing power and their willingness to use it for political goals.
"This is the big one," said Cyril Ramaphosa, the mineworkers' general secretary. "If we win this strike, it is going to be a significant motivation for all other workers to continue with their own struggle for a living wage. If we lose, it will have a devastating effect."
James Motlatsi, president of the 320,000-member union, predicted that the strike could be long and bitter, if the union is to achieve its wage demands and to win industrywide recognition.
"We should be prepared to spend a long time on strike until we have won our demands," he told 3,000 miners at a rally near Kinross, a mining center 65 miles southeast of Johannesburg. "We must be prepared to stay out even as long as 12 months. We must not be discouraged. We must be prepared to fight the chamber for what belongs to us."
Johan Liebenberg, the Chamber of Mines negotiator, said he expected the strike to last two to five days at most. He warned that employers might begin firing the miners, as permitted by South Africa's labor laws, if the strike continued any longer.
While union officials said that the strike had begun as planned, company spokesmen maintained that most miners on the overnight shift had reported for work; only the giant Anglo American Corp. acknowledged "a varying degree of strike action" at a number of its mines.
The Chamber of Mines, which groups South Africa's major mining companies, offered -- and then unilaterally implemented -- pay increases of 17 to 23 percent, bringing the average black miner's wages to about $253 a month. The union is holding out for a 30 percent increase as well as danger pay and additional paid vacation. Negotiations broke down last month, with each side accusing the other of refusing to bargain in good faith.
"What we have already given is all that there is," Liebenberg said, declaring that the companies were resolved not to buckle under strike pressure.
But Ramaphosa said that management's "patronizing and arrogant" attitude toward the union was now as much of an issue as wages. "We will continue this strike for as long as it takes to make them resume negotiations," he vowed. "They will pay for their arrogance."
Tens of thousands of the miners are expected to leave their hostels at the mine compounds Monday and Tuesday and return home. The union, saying that it feared violence by the police and the mines' own security forces, announced plans to arrange transport home for miners wherever tensions rise. Dozens of miners died in clashes during smaller strikes in 1984 and 1985.
"We have given these instructions to our members for fear of losing their lives, being starved to death or being attacked by security forces," Ramaphosa said. "The only way we feel we can have a peaceful strike is if the workers go home."
Ramaphosa said the union had earlier sought guarantees from the Chamber of Mines that the mining companies would not use their security personnel or police to try to crush the strike, but they received no assurances. He said the companies had also not responded to a union demand that they not cut off food, water and other utilities to miners remaining in the hostels.
The 712,000-member Congress of South African Trade Unions, a predominantly black labor federation to which the mineworkers belong, has promised to back the miners and threatened a general strike if violence erupts on the mines.