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S. Africa unrest spreads to Port Elizabeth black unions

South Africa, already shaken by civil disturbances, is now facing a wave of labor unrest in one of its key industrial centers. Epicenter of the latest rumblings is the windswept city of Port Elizabeth, on South Africa's south-central coast. A reported 10,000 workers there are out on strike, and some 16 firms -- many of them American-owned -- have been affected.

Wage demands appear to be the key reasons behind the work stoppages. But Dr. Marianne Roux, a sociologist at Rhodes University in nearby Grahamstown, said the strikes -- although aimed specifically at getting better pay -- were a manifestation of black unions' growing awareness of their own collective power.

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A key test of that power could come this week, when some firms -- notably the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company -- threaten to fire workers who refuse to return to work.

Last week, police were reported to have used buckshot and tear gas to disperse crowds in Uitenhage, a neighboring city to Port Elizabeth. Police have banned photographers from the areas affected by the strikes, and allow reporters in only with police permission and, at times, under police escort.

Consequently, it is difficult to determine the extent of the unrest, although police claim both Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage were quiet this past weekend.

The area is the center of South Africa's automotive industry. The Volkswagen assembly plant at Uitenhage now is shut down, its 3,500 workers demanding a minimum wage of about $2.50 an hour. Workers at two American-owned assembly plants in Port Elizabeth -- Ford and General Motors -- reportedly have told management they support the striking Volkswagen workers, raising the possibility that the strikes could spread.

Other industries hit by the strikes range from wool-processing plants to construction firms. Resolution of the workers' grievances is made more difficult by a government-imposed ban on meetings "of a political nature" involving more than 10 persons. Labor leaders say this has made it impossible to communicate with the rank and file.

Port Elizabeth has long been a seedbed of black political movements in South Africa. Not coincidentally, security police in the area also have a reputation for being among the toughest in the country.

Predictably, South African government sources suggest that "outside agitators" are behind much of the unrest. One report in the Johannesburg newspaper Beeld, a mouthpiece of the ruling National Party, said:

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"It has been known for some time that the American State Department has been meddling intensively in South Africa's labor matters. Recently there have also been increasing signs of the hand of Britain behind incitement in the labor field."

But even if the government is correct in blaming "outside agitators" rather than domestic discontent for mounting unrest, that offers scant comfort for the future.

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