No proper machinery existed that black workers could use to negotiate better wages. There were industrial councils or conciliation boards where employers and white unions bargained collectively for wages and investigated labour disputes, but black unions were prohibited from participating in these so there was no legal way for them to bargain collectively or to strike legally. Blacks were not considered employees according to the law.
On 9 January 1973 some 2 000 workers in the Coronation Brick and Tile factory in Durban struck for a wage of R30 per week after the employers had rebuffed them. Other workers followed. Suddenly workers all over Durban demanded higher wages and better working conditions.
Particularly hard hit was the British-controlled Frame group with several textile plants. In Britain a growing anti-apartheid lobby seized upon the extremely poor wages and the victimisation of workers to demonstrate the iniquity of the system.
The Afrikaans paper Rapport reported: ‘Most whites silently sympathised with the workers with their low wages, but very few whites did anything about it.’ Vorster said in Parliament that the strikes were a lesson to all – one he was prepared to learn. The worker was somebody with a soul and normal needs and not a mere unit who had to labour so many hours per day. Employers, Vorster said, were ready to criticise the government, but they were unaware of the beam in their own eye.
The police kept a low profile. The most senior police offi cer in the region, Brigadier Bisscoff, declared that the police ‘have nothing against people asking for higher wages’ although he added that the strikes were illegal. The employers did not victimise strikers: during the whole of 1973 only 3% of the Durban strikes ended in dismissals. The head of the local security police force claimed that he could fi nd no evidence of an organisation behind the strike.