The railway strike of 1987 was a turning point in terms of how the state dealt with COSATU.
In April 1987, the police placed COSATU House, the headquarters of COSATU, under siege. All the people who were in the building were held hostage while the police ransacked the building.
The state also used the strike as a platform to begin a massive propaganda attack on COSATU. The aim of this campaign was to undermine COSATU. The state distributed ‘dirty tricks’ pamphlets and posters which discredited COSATU. For example, in May 1987 COSATU House was rocked by two large bomb blasts. The damage was so bad that the building was declared unsafe. The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) then launched a campaign declaring that the bombing was done by COSATU itself. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Adriaan Vlok, who was the Minister of Law and Order came forward and sought amnesty for his role in the bombing.
Despite detentions and bannings, COSATU continued the fight for workers’ rights. In August 1987, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the largest affiliate of COSATU, launched a strike against the gold mining industry. Despite the great wealth generated by the mining industry, mine workers did not receive a living wage. Gold mine workers earned R230 a month on the gold mines and R355 a month on the coal mines.
340,000 mineworkers went on a strike which lasted for 21 days. It was the most dramatic and largest strike in the history of South Africa. Both management and the state reacted with extremely harsh measures. Union officials were prevented from entering the mines and workers were threatened with dismissal and eviction from hostels. The police were called in and fired on mineworkers.
Matters came to a head, when management sent in ‘hippos’ – armoured trucks and workers were fired upon. Anglo then fired 10,000 workers who were sent back to the homelands. All in all, about 50,000 workers were dismissed. NUM felt it had no choice but to accept a dissatisfactory wage offer on behalf of the workers.
Exhibitions in the classroom
Visualising the past:
Examine the photograph of people under siege at COSATU House. Imagine that you are one of the people being held hostage. Write a diary entry at the end of the day, highlighting what happened and how you felt about the events of the day.
Look at the figure of the mineworker in the poster. What does this image make you feel? Do you think it is a good representation of a mineworker or not? Explain your answers.