The early 1970s was a watershed period in the factories of South Africa. After the ‘silent sixties’ black labour suddenly hit back at apartheid through strikes, starting in present-day Namibia – then South West Africa – in 1971–1972 and culminating in a wave of strikes in Durban in 1973. At the lower end of the labour market wages were abysmally low. In the early 1970s a fifth of the workers in Durban and other cities received less than R10 per week at a time when the monthly subsistence level stood at just under R80. A worker told a reporter: ‘When we asked for increases our boss gave 55 cents. I would like to give my boss 55 cents and ask him to buy his children a piece of meat for 55 cents.’
On the mines and farms the position of black workers was, if anything, worse. Real wages in these two sectors had not improved since the early decades of the century. By the 1970s the average farm wage (not including food and housing) was only a third of the manufacturing wage. In the early 1970s the government still pledged to reserve the skilled, better-paid jobs for whites and in other ways preserve white dominance.