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South African blacks pull off national strike

More than a million black South African workers staged a nationwide strike yesterday, defying restrictions of the state of emergency. The generally peaceful strike was in response to a call for a three-day protest issued by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the biggest black labor federation. The action was to protest new labor laws, which could curtail Cosatu's power, and the effective banning of 17 antigovernment groups.

Cosatu did not call specifically for a stay-away, which is illegal under the government's two-year-old state of emergency. Still, black workers stayed away in droves, especially in the Johannesburg area, where the Federated Chamber of Industries estimated 90 percent were out.

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The normally jammed streets of downtown Johannesburg were quiet today. In Soweto, Johannesburg's huge black township, schools were shut and the roads almost deserted. Except for an occasional armored vehicle, there was little evidence of heavy security.

Elsewhere, worker stay-aways shut down the entire automobile industry in Cape Province, said the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers. It said the absence of about 25,000 workers closed all seven key plants.

A National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) official says the strike was widely observed except in the gold mines. (Mining is the nation's biggest hard-currency earner.) He estimates that 60 percent of the other miners stayed away, while less than 10 percent of gold workers did.

Cosatu estimates that about 3 million people stayed away from work. That estimate, based on passenger statistics provided by bus and railroad companies, could not be independently confirmed.

Pietie du Plessis, Minister of Manpower, has warned that any stay-away is illegal and workers could be dismissed.

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