A last desperate, but futile, attempt to shore up the industrial pillars of apartheid: the miners’ strike of 1979 and the impact of the Wiehahn reforms on South African labour


1 January 2013


Volume 1 – Number 2

How to cite

Wessel Visser



In February 1979 a strike by members the white South African Mine Workers’ Union (MWU) broke out on an obscure copper mine at O’Okiep in the interior of South Africa. But by March this wildcat strike has escalated into a country-wide strike involving 9 000 members of the union on 70 platinum, gold and coal producing mines. The pretext for the O’Okiep strike was the appointment of non-white artisans in positions previously held by white miners, thus the regulation of industrial white job reservation was transgressed. The ulterior reasons for the nation-wide MWU strike, however, was a test of strength between the union executive and the government’s resolve to implement the recommendations of the so-called Wiehahn commission of inquiry into South African labour legislation. Among others, the commission recommended that black trade unions be legally recognized and that statutory job reservation for white workers be abolished. The chapter will analyse the failure of the 1979 strike as a last futile attempt by white miners to thwart the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa’s labour structures. Thus the Wiehahn recommendation would become a catalyst for the eventual abolishment of political apartheid in 1994.


South African Mine Workers’ Union, O’Okiep strike, Wiehahn commission of inquiry, White workers vs. black workers, Apartheid