It was day 18 of a cold and hungry strike, haunted by death. At Western Holdings, an Anglo American mine in Welkom, in the Free State province of South Africa, the mood of the penniless crowd threatened to turn ugly; many were angry and wanted to go back to work.

To make matters worse, the news had broken that the mining companies had begun firing workers over the strike for a 30% pay rise. In two turbulent winter weeks of 1987, police had shot and beaten strikers to death; along with worker kangaroo courts, for strike breakers, it brought the death toll to nine. The first flexing by the new National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) proved painful.

Into the eye of this angry storm stepped fresh-faced strike leader Frans Baleni to address 50,000 strikers at Western Holdings.

“I was 27 years old. I was very nervous, I was shaking, I was not sure what was going to be the reaction,” he recalls nearly 30 years to the day.

“I told them we had two choices: stay out, or go back to work and forget the people who died. I said if you don’t accept this, kill me.”

There was deafening silence for a few seconds and then a chant of: “Amandla (power to the people).”

“All of a sudden, I was in the sky. The crowd had picked me up and were carrying me, singing, to the beer hall about 800 meters away. I was not sure whether I was going to fall. When we got there they bought me a drink!”

‘It’s a Shambles’

The joy was short lived. The mining companies threatened to fire 50,000 miners and on the 21st day the strike caved in. For current South African deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa – the lawyer who founded the NUM in 1982 – it must have been a bitter blow made worse by the fact he heard the news, not from the employers, but from a journalist. Many years ago I interviewed an activist who went with Ramaphosa on an early appeal for union recognition at one of the big mines in Carletonville, west of Johannesburg, one rainy afternoon. They had to use the backdoor and were forced to stand, soaking wet, before the seated bosses in the boardroom.

The first strike ended in defeat, but Baleni, who went on to head the NUM in 2006, believes it was worth it.

“We didn’t get a pay rise but it saw the birth of the provident fund that is now worth R27 billion ($2 billion)!” chuckles Baleni.

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Baleni also believes the strike opened the way for black workers to be trained for whites-only jobs. He helped the employers to select candidates, but his activism saw him fired in 1988 and he never was trained himself.

One of the chosen was Senzeni Zokwana, who trained as a shift boss and safety specialist at President Steyn Gold Mine in the Free State. In 2000, he became president of the NUM and in 2014 he became probably the first minister of agriculture in South Africa’s history to hold an underground blasting license.

Out of three weeks of misery and violence sprang some good.