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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

3. The racial workplace

Racial and gender discrimination in the workplace

Employers and workplace discrimination

     The ideology of white superiority: This meant that no white person should work under the guidance or supervision of a black person. The effect of this was to keep black workers in perpetual subordination to anybody who was white and to relegate them to second-class occupational status in the workplace. Von Holdt's research on workplace politics in South Africa revealed the pervasiveness of apartheid in the workplace.

     Mechanisms of control: The use of black labour in South Africa has always been characterised by the use of what Eddie Webster termed "racial despotism". This has taken various forms at different stages of South Africa's economic development. Mining is notorious for some of the most extreme measures of control, eg. forced recruitment, the compound system and the migrant labour system in general. However, other sectors of the economy also used control of different kinds in which supervisors and other layers of line management performed a crucial function. Surveillance by management, including the use of spies and the use of electronic bugging devices, played a central part in ensuring the success of these measures of control. The existence of racial discrimination in the workplace, coupled with the use of these measures led von Holdt to characterise these mechanisms as the "apartheid workplace regime".

     Denial of trade union and collective bargaining rights: This strategy was pivotal to the strategy of ensuring the cheapness and servility of black labour. Although white workers have enjoyed these rights for almost a century, employers continued to resist their extension to black workers until recently. Even when these workers finally got these rights recognised by law, employers continued to resist collective bargaining and trade unions for black workers. The phase of union growth since 1973 was characterised by fierce battles for recognition against employer resistance. The Heinemann struggle of the mid-1970s is but one of countless battles by workers for the recognition of these rights.

An injury to one... is an injury to all!

     The use of coercive measures to ensure compliance: A central feature of the control discussed above was the used of coercion and violence against black workers. Although many employers worked hand in glove with state agencies in this, it is possible to identify an independent role which employers played in violating the rights of their employees. This often took forms such as assaults, dismissals, threats of dismissals and failure to pay workers' wages.

     Lack of training for black workers: Capital have always been opposed to the training of black workers. Where such training took place it was one of promoting the ability of blacks to serve the white baas effectively in line with their "thata lapha, beka lapha" syndrome. Up to today, personnel and human resource policies are oriented towards tightening the above-mentioned mechanisms of control and to ensure that the price of labour remains as cheap as possible. Thus training for black was remain very limited and in most cases non existent. It is not surprising that the 1995 and 1996 World Competitiveness Reports ranked South Africa very poorly in human resource development.

     White workers and workplace discrimination: The role of white workers in promoting racial discrimination while not central to the commission hearings, it should be noted that racial discrimination made it possible for white workers to remain a privileged elite enjoying many privileges and rights which were denied to black workers. On many occasions they resisted attempts to allow black workers into occupations reserved for them, even though black workers were to receive lower wages in those jobs.

     The state and labour market discrimination: Up until recently, many black workers have held the view that the South African state is working hand in glove with employers. This view comes from the fact that various governments were seen to be promoting the interests of employers through measures such as the migrant labour system, pass laws, the suppression of trade union activity and job reservation. Women workers who up to today remain oppressed, were excluded from the labour market or placed in low paying and often repetitive jobs with very little regard to their health and safety.

Women's employment under Apartheid


Table 2

Source: O'Reagan and Thompson, ILO Equality for women Project, 1993


Table 3

Source: O'Reagan and Thompson, ILO Equality for women project, 1993


Managerial positions

Table 4

Managerial and supervisory percentage by race and gender (1990)



















Coloured & Asian










Source: Agenda No. 24, 1995

Sexual harassment

Apartheid wages

Table 5

African wages as a percent of white wages


Wage Gap











Table 6

Economic Outcome to Be Explained

Explanatory Variables


Wage Gap



Operating Surplus




Employment Ratio




Health and safety and compensation

     " ... a society that cannot summon up the sense to protect the lungs and the lives of its workers cannot hope to protect the lungs and lives of its other citizens, including its children... " (See footnote)

The Kinross disaster

Profits vs safety standards

(See footnote)

(See footnote)

(See footnote)

(See footnote)

International standards

The extent of accidents

(See footnote)

fatal accidents which resulted in claims for compensation:

Table 7


Fatal Accidents

















(See footnote) The carnage can be expressed in other ways. In 1974, for example, it was estimated that 100 000 hands, 50 000 feet and 40 000 eyes were badly injured; 31 000 men and women were permanently maimed; several hundred were injured severely enough not to be able to return to work, and 2284 were killed. (See footnote)

     "In 1993 out of every 100 000 gold miners 113 died in accidents, 2000 suffered a reportable injury, 1100 developed active tuberculosis and of these 25 died; in 1990 about 500 were certified as having silicosis." (See footnote)

(See footnote) This focus has at times served to obscure the poor health and safety records other sectors of the economy impose upon workers.

Table 8


Disabling Injury Frequency Rate













Building and construction






Glass, bricks and tiles



Iron and steel



Food, drink and tobacco



Food, drink and tobacco



Printing and paper



All industries






Agriculture and forestry



Occupational health

Generally speaking, industrialists in the Republic and the Territory of South-West Africa spend very little money on and do not devote much time to or organise for the prevention of occupational diseases. This poor showing can be attributed to indifference on the part of industry, which is to be seen in the small numbers of industrial health staff employed, the failure to use protective equipment, the absence of warning signs and preventive measures, a lack of knowledge of the products handled, and scant guidance. There is a lack of standards and norms." (See footnote)

     "... the Commission's own findings frequently reveal extremely dangerous working conditions and a high increase of occupational disease. Torn between the need to exonerate industry from any ill will and the belief that the incidence of occupational disease is unnecessarily high, the concern on the part of the industry as mere neglect rather than a necessary concomitant of the economic system." (See footnote)

recent research by the Department of Community Health at UCT quantifying the extent of lead exposure in South Africa. This showed disturbingly high levels of kidney dysfunction and other health consequences among workers exposed to increased levels of lead absorption. The study revealed a need to reconsider the current regulations on the use of lead as well as the need for education on health and safety measures among lead users and for improved national surveillance. The problems identified by the study are prevalent both in the formal sector and in the informal sector (in establishments such as informal battery repair shops).

(See footnote)

(See footnote)

"The data available on the time taken to acquire certifiable dust related disease indicates that although this has decreased steadily for white miners, it has not changed for black miners. The explanation for this is probably that white miners are now in supervisory positions and therefore less exposed to dust, whereas workers in the stopes are exposed to the same dust levels as in the past."

article, Dr Neil White, a prominent academic expert in respiratory disease who made extensive representations to the Leon Commission, makes the point that the focus of medical attention on black miners by the mining industry was on the detection and repatriation of those miners who were unfit to work, primarily those with pulmonary tuberculosis (PTB). From the turn of the century until 1985, thousands of black miners were sent home every year after having been diagnosed with PTB on the mines or by labour recruiters. In a well-documented process, repatriation of sick miners over the years contributed to the transformation of rural labour reserves from areas where PTB was unknown to endemic hot spots where the incidence of PTB is among the highest in the world.

(See footnote)

Management attitudes

However, the recurring management apology, when paraphrased, claims that 'the systems in place are fine and the accidents are due to human errors'. There is no moral basis for this excuse. The theoretical solutions are relatively obvious, but difficult and slow to implement in practice. Management must engineer the systems so as to minimise the opportunity for human error, and train all ranks of the workforce to act in accordance with the sound procedures in place." (See footnote)

"In order for employees to be the root cause of poor safety performance, both the technical programs used to control risks and the management systems used to manage risks would have to be mature and effective. Our findings concerning the degree of maturity of the technical programs and the effectiveness of the management systems show us that employees are not the root cause of the poor performance. Unsafe employees are a reflection of a weakness in the safety management systems, particularly in the area of assigning and clearly communicating responsibility and accountability, and in the employee training programs..."

Our society springs from an authoritarian mould and as a result undue emphasis is placed on 'finding the guilty party' and liability considerations (often a reason for doing superficial internal investigations of accidents). This pre-occupation with punishment rather than prevention was reinforced by legislation." (See footnote)

a contributing reason to the fatality and injury rates in South Africa is what may be termed an ideology of misadventure held by the mine inspectorate." After analysing a series of statistics published by the Department of Mineral and Energy Affairs up until 1983, he concludes:

Two features stand out. Firstly, the analysis implies that the majority of fatalities (about 90%) were unavoidable and simply 'part-of-the-job' since they were due to "danger inherent to work or misadventure". Secondly, personal responsibility in relation to accidents - where it was assigned - was to the greatest extent blamed upon the injured worker. Management, whether at a higher or lower level, was apportioned only a small proportion of the blame." (See footnote)

The compensation system

resulted in the systematic transfer of costs from industry to the State (especially to Welfare and to a lesser extent to Health). The compensation system broke down completely in rural areas; rural families and communities bore the burden of diseases and disabilities incurred in the urban workplace which should have been compensated for by employers." (See footnote)

It is not known how many workers fall into this category. With the single exception of the Rand Mutual Assurance Company Ltd, which pays certain benefits to mineworkers employed by mines belonging to the Chamber of Mines who suffered a 100% disability prior to 1977, no employer has to our knowledge sought to remedy this gross inequality.

So, even though there is some compensation for people who are disabled through accidents at work, the money which they receive is in most cases inadequate to meet their needs and does not compensate for the loss of their job or their poor job prospects for the future." (See footnote)

(See footnote) Where workers contracted diseases with long latency periods, their compensation was based on their earnings when they contracted the disease which in the case of work-related cancers can be as long as 30 years.

"I used to be an operator at the furnace which has a high temperature. I sustained burns on the left hand side of my body. There was no safety material to protect the body. The temperatures changed often from high to low. I ultimately became sick and got pains in my stomach. I also suffered exhaustion due to the heat and my whole body swelled up. I went to several doctors. One doctor applied to the employer for me to be transferred away from the furnace to a place with a normal temperature. I was transferred. I went to Sebokeng Hospital and then to Baragwanath where I was treated for 3 weeks, and at this time I am attending Baragwanath for monthly treatment. I was advised by a private doctor to do this because the doctors at Sebokeng are not good and there are no specialists available. My kidneys are not functioning properly - they work on and off. They have given me drugs to make my kidneys work, but I am told that I will probably be put on a machine to purify my kidneys. I have been re-employed but I am doing strenuous work and the employers have reduced my wages. They want to fire me because they say I am lazy. If I pick up something heavy it affects my kidneys, and if the temperature is high, I feel weak. I was given no compensation and I paid for my own hospital treatment. At Baragwanath I had an operation, a renal biopsy. I pay R2,00 every time I go to Baragwanath and R7,00 for transport. Also, I am not paid for the day's work. I have to miss each month (to go to hospital). I earn R1,64 per hour (he thus loses R20,00 each day he goes to hospital)."

Apartheid benefits

Medical aid


Migrant labour

"We get lower jobs than township people. In those plants where workers are gently treated we are not needed. We are only needed in those places where there is rough work."

Racially segregated recruitment policies

"Its provisions are exacerbated by the increasing use of coloured and white labour as scabs during strikes. Reports from our unions are that management's are regularly threatening to replace African workers - even in non-strike situations - with coloured and white workers, saying that 'Africans are always on stay aways'."

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.