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Black Trade Union: “Catalyst that Ended Apartheid in South Africa”

U.S. Foreign Service Officer John Dinger arrived in South Africa to serve as a regional trade officer at the time when Frederik Willem De Klerk was elected as the president of the country. De Klerk’s election in 1989 promised to bring apartheid to an end. Yet, as Dinger faced during his service, tense situations were still prevalent in South Africa: labor movements, the ban of the African National Congress, the anti-apartheid struggle, “necklacing” (punishment to black people by their community for perceived collaboration with the apartheied government), distrust in white people, and the spread of communism.

Necklacing |  Snapflu | Reddit
Necklacing | Snapflu | Reddit

Black workers formed the backbone of South African industry. But soon white managers at mining and manufacturing plants would find no black person working for them. Rising worker discontent led to the creation of a new commission to allow black workers to organize. This decision led to the first (and, at that time, only) Black South African labor union. Soon, labor unions formed in different sizes: Mineworkers, Metalworkers, and The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) among others. Apartheid was nearing its demise.

Another concern, however, was the expansion of communism. In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, we see that, as a regional trade officer, John Dinger focused on getting trade unionists’ perspective on democracy, despite a lack of interest on the part of the trade union representatives to engage with the U.S. government. Overcoming the challenges of gaining trust, meeting with labor union representatives, and facing the tirade against the U.S. government, Dinger encouraged unionists to join the international dialogue and an international labor organization.

John Dinger’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on March 4, 2013.

Read John Dinger’s full oral history HERE.

Read more Moments about Nelson Mandela HERE and HERE.

For more Moments on the End of Apartheid click HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Drafted by Bagul Mammedova

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“My fingertip got a blister from dialing.”

Tens of thousands marched in the streets of the nation's major cities on Wednesday in a national strike called by Cosatu, the powerful group of trade unions (March 7, 2012) | Sibeko/Reuters New York Times
Tens of thousands marched in the streets of the nation's major cities on Wednesday in a national strike called by Cosatu, the powerful group of trade unions (March 7, 2012) | Sibeko/Reuters New York Times

White Antipathy and Necklacing: My big difficulty was overcoming the suspicion of the black trade unionists. Many of the leaders didn’t want to meet with me. I would phone union offices to make an appointment to visit. I called over and over, and they didn’t return my calls. I had a dial telephone. My fingertip got a blister from dialing. Some people advised “Just show up at the door.” I never felt comfortable doing that. When I managed to see black trade unionists, it got more interesting. It was common for it to be me, a white guy from Iowa in a coat and tie sitting on one side of a table, and on the other side sat four or five black guys in T-shirts picturing a clenched fist or a hammer and sickle talking about the anti-apartheid struggle. They couldn’t meet with me one-on- one. They told me they were afraid that their colleagues in the union might see them and think they had sold out. Those were days of “necklacing” in South Africa. If they weren’t careful, they might end up with a car tire around their neck filled with flaming gasoline.

“The [Berlin] Wall fell, communism was discredited, and apartheid ended.”

Everything was Unbanned: Mandela’s colleagues were released first, shortly after I arrived. I attended a big rally welcoming their release in a stadium in Soweto. When Mandela was released in February of 1990, I was in Japan getting married. I watched it on TV. After I got back, things were loosening up. About a year later the government suddenly unbanned the ANC and other organizations. I remember the day it happened very vividly. I commuted on a little 50cc motor scooter. That day as I passed through downtown Johannesburg on my way home someone had draped a communist flag from a window. It was illegal before. It was remarkable.

Among English-speaking whites there seemed to be a fair amount of support for the changes. Because they opposed apartheid from their homes with swimming pools in wealthy suburbs, some called them “swimming pool liberals.” Afrikaners saw that their world was at serious risk. They disproportionately benefited from apartheid. The atmosphere during my three years in South Africa was highly charged politically. I never experienced the like before or after. There never seemed to be an occasion or event that wasn’t about politics and apartheid; not a play, a concert, or social event. It was all political, all the time.

After the restrictions were lifted, I’d go to rallies in a big soccer stadium in Soweto. There would be only a handful of non-blacks, two of which were my wife and I. Tens of thousands of black South Africans sang songs that were riveting. Often men sang one part, women sang another, back and forth around the stadium. It was an amazing experience.

“They muttered, ‘One settler, one bullet,’ aimed at our ears.”

John R. Dinger | Wikimedia Commons
John R. Dinger | Wikimedia Commons

“Night of Long Knives:” The ANC, led by Mandela, said the right things. In contrast, a less influential group, the Pan-Africanist Congress, had a slogan, “One settler, one bullet,” which is what you’re talking about [Night of Long Knives]. It was painted on walls. I remember a couple of occasions when my wife and I went to a rally or visited Soweto. As we walked by a group of black South Africans, they muttered, “One settler, one bullet,” aimed at our ears. It was a little unsettling, but not common. The mainstream of the ANC didn’t telegraph that attitude. It also had white members.

He [Nelson Mandela] and De Klerk are examples of what two individuals can do as leaders. There was every reason to think that South Africa would descend into chaos and interracial strife, but it didn’t. I’d meet trade unionists and activists, and they’d say, “I spent eight years on Robben Island with Mandela,” or “Police killed my brother,” or tell me other horrific personal stories. And yet, Mandela led black South Africans away from revenge. When I see examples in the world where it looks like things might descend into chaos and violence, I think what a difference the right leadership makes.

“They would flood out of the hostels in the middle of the night into non-Inkatha neighborhoods and slaughter people.”

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) | Wikipedia
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) | Wikipedia

Post-Apartheid Violence: There was an incredible amount of black on black violence, particularly between the Zulu connected to Inkatha and the Xhosa connected to the ANC. My understanding is that there was long-standing rivalry between the two tribes. As apartheid ended, it became about power. I visited the aftermath of some of the violence. Inkatha supporters often lived in hostels, huge dormitories for single laborers. They would flood out of the hostels in the middle of the night into non-Inkatha neighborhoods and slaughter people. It was horrific. I went to, I think it was Phola Park outside Johannesburg, after one attack. I talked to the people who were attacked. South African Police vehicles called Caspers were patrolling up and down the streets.
Johannesburg had a lot of crime. My wife and I lived in a rooftop apartment in a nice area of Johannesburg called Killarney. We didn’t feel too threatened. Many staff lived in single-family houses. They enjoyed having a pool and tennis court. Most of them also wanted a high fence and a big dog for security. They had safe havens, so if somebody invaded their home they could bar themselves in a bedroom. They had panic buttons that called private security firms.

Virtually everybody in the consulate was robbed while we were there. We only lost a car radio, we were never personally robbed. My colleague who was a wonderful Foreign Service Officer, Ron Trigg, lived within walking distance of the consulate general downtown. He was robbed so many times walking to work that he started carrying his stuff in a plastic grocery bag. He got tired of losing briefcases.

At work I parked on the street outside the consulate general. If I stayed late, the first thing I did when I left for home was see if my car was stolen. The second thing was to see if anybody suspicious was in sight. Then I’d dart to the car. If I stopped at a traffic light downtown, I always kept my foot on the clutch to be ready to escape a carjacking. Many white South Africans were armed. I saw guns drawn on the street a couple of times, both involved confrontations between an Afrikaner and a black crowd.
Not fun, a little scary, but also fascinating. I recall that when we left Johannesburg after three years and the plane lifted off, I gave a sigh thinking, “Whew, I made it.”


BA in Political Science, University of Northern Iowa 1970–1974
Joined the Foreign Service in 1974
Johannesburg, South Africa—Regional Labor Officer 1989
Tokyo, Japan—Consul General 1998–2000
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia—Ambassador 2000–2003
Washington, D.C.—Deputy Director for Counterterrorism 2003–2005