Durban Harbour in the 1960s. Picture: Transnet Heritage Library Photographic Collection
Durban Harbour in the 1960s. Picture: Transnet Heritage Library Photographic Collection

Dock workers won’t be contained

By Duncan Guy Time of article published Nov 1, 2020

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Durban - Dockworkers – the very first labour activists in Durban – should continue to be vital in spite of automation that has seen huge cranes replace labour gangs since the onset of the containerisation revolution.

This is according to Peter Cole, professor of history at Western Illinois University in the US and author of the award-winning Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area.

“However, how many workers are part of logistics is an open question,” he said.

“The statistics are clear: global trade has increased exponentially in the past few generations. There’s little reason to believe that will change.”

He said when the revolution hit South Africa’s shores in 1977, containers caused a drastic plunge in the number of dockers.

“In Durban, for instance, half of all dockers were retrenched inside of three years and although worker productivity soared, not a single penny of those gains went to workers.

“Of course, it was the height of the apartheid era and Durban’s dockers were all black.

“Fast-forward to 2020, global shipping corporations continue pushing for more automation.”

Why, when the productivity gains now are minuscule?

Professor Peter Cole came from ‘Dar to Durban’ after a stint at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

“The answer is corporations generally fear and loathe worker power. Imagining an industry – or world – in which ever-fewer jobs exist is an existential crisis of the first order,” he said.

“How South Africa and the world respond will say much about what happens for the rest of the century.”

On to the title of Cole’s book: what would bring Durban and San Francisco together in a book about dockworkers?

“Believe me, there are many similarities that make a book like mine legitimate,” he said.

“Indigenous peoples lived in both areas for many centuries before being displaced by Europeans: the English to Durban and Spanish to San Francisco followed by (European) Americans.

“These ‘first peoples’ in Durban included those who came to identify as Zulu and the Ohlone in the San Francisco Bay area, which the Spanish called Yerba Buena before it was renamed again.”

Both ports have long been central to their cities in terms of the diverse peoples, centrality to the economy, and cultural identity of residents.

“In fact, the primary reason that the English, Spanish, and Americans wanted to control these places was their wonderful natural harbours, protected from the sea.

Dock worker protests in San Francisco.

“Both Durban and San Francisco were their country’s closest ports to the goldfields – on the Rand and in the Sierra Nevada mountains of interior California – which meant the booming mining industry quickly became linked to these coastal port cities.”

Finally, because of the nature of shipping, the local populations became quite diverse. In Durban, Zulus were joined by Pondos and other native Africans, Indians, English and Afrikaners. In San Francisco, Spanish and Anglo-Americans were joined by Chinese, Italians, Mexicans, Portuguese, Irish, Germans, African-Americans and other ethnic groups.

“This incredible diversity is quite common in port cities. Alas, while proximity to diverse groups breeds familiarity, it hardly guarantees everyone gets along. And, yet, in contrast to more homogeneous, provincial rural areas, there generally comes to be a cosmopolitan cluster of port city residents who form alliances and friendships across ethnic, national and racial lines.”

In Durban and San Francisco, dockers were among the first workers to organise to protect and improve their lives.

“The first recorded strike of black workers in Durban, in 1879, was of Zulu dockers. Subsequently, no group of workers in the city striked more and had more influence. So, too, in San Francisco where dockworkers became incredibly powerful, militant and radical in their politics.”

He added that no US trade union proved more committed to the struggle against apartheid than dockworkers.

“This boycott of South African cargo probably was the first such action in the United States.”

Durban came into US born-and-bred Cole’s life when he was “blown away” by the city on a visit in 2007 after teaching for a semester at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

“Sure, South Africa had plenty of problems, but it was just 13 years into the post-apartheid era and I found the people so fascinating and warm. Like many others, I was deeply inspired by the long struggle against apartheid,” he said.

“I also wanted to figure out how I could globalise my research and teaching. The world is rapidly changing as we become ever more interconnected; while we may think of smartphones and WhatsApp, a lot has to do with the containerisation of cargo that drastically expanded global trade over the past 60 years.

“Plus, I wanted to go beyond studying the US, because far too many people study history within the narrow confines of a single nation when, in fact, connections between peoples, economies and governments are so vital and explain so much.”

Cole said he desperately wanted to stay away from Cape Town.

“Way too many folks from the northern hemisphere, including scholars, fixate on Cape Town, but the truth is that the port of Durban is far more important in the 20th and 21st centuries. Once I started digging, I quickly learned how central dockers were to the city’s history – which paralleled the story I was exploring in San Francisco.”

Cole said the way Durban’s port activity reacted to containerisation by moving from the Point to Durban Bay was similar to San Francisco moving to the port of Oakland, which sits on another part of the San Francisco Bay.

“The reason was containerisation required far more space than the densely populated, geographically small, peninsular city of San Francisco could handle. Plus, the old-style ‘finger piers’ that typified shipping around the world could not handle the ever-larger container ships. Hence, the industry literally picked up and moved to a neighbouring municipality that had the space to build out a huge harbour.

“The same process occurred in Durban, albeit within the same city: going back to the mid 19th century, the port was at the Point. Since that area could not handle the large cranes and did not have the wharfside space to store countless thousands of containers, the shipping industry ‘simply’ was moved to the southern part of Durban Bay where it remains.”

Cole said Durban’s Point and San Francisco’s waterfront neighbourhoods, massive gentrification had occurred.

“Most of the world’s great cities were port cities, and their oldest neighbourhoods were where dockers and sailors and all the other peoples associated with the shipping industry worked, slept, drank, ate, had sex and did business.

“In port city after port city, such neighbourhoods have been repurposed. While it’s utterly horrible when such transitions displace existing residents, it is unsurprising that these areas are changing.”

Turning to the future of the two ports, he expected both would remain important harbours.

“But more so for Durban. Durban has been the busiest port in South Africa for more than a century and I don’t envision that changing.

“All the infrastructure and businesses that are clustered around Durban, including the vast petro-chemical industries, cannot simply move up to Richards Bay or down to Ngqura. Within South Africa, Durban has the best transport links to Gauteng.

“By contrast, the Port of Los Angeles surpassed the twin ports of San Francisco-Oakland some time in the 1970s.”

No other US trade union proved more committed to the struggle against apartheid than dockworkers.

The Independent on Saturday

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