JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFIRCA — JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Millions of black workers crippled the South African economy yesterday with a nationwide strike to protest the government's economic policies and their -- impact on the nation's black majority.
Hundreds of businesses shut down and major urban areas were virtually deserted as an estimated 3.5 million workers observed the first day of a two-day strike.
Fifteen people were killed in clashes between strike supporters and opponents at a gold mine in the conservative town of Welkom in the Orange Free State. Two others were killed in unrelated incidents. Forty-four people were injured, most of them in the mine incident.
The strike was called specifically to protest a new sales tax, which opponents say will fall most heavily on poor blacks, but the roots of the demonstration go much deeper. Black opposition groups are worried that the white government, while embracing political reform, is pursuing economic policies that will entrench the current situation of white wealth and black poverty.
The government supports reforms aimed at giving blacks a vote in the nation's political affairs for the first time in history, but the vote would be meaningless unless it could be used to eliminate )) inequities caused by decades of legalized racial discrimination.
The black political groups that expect to be in power in a few years are struggling now to make sure their hands are not tied by the present white government in a way that makes real change impossible in the future.
The work stoppage yesterday was a demonstration of the political power still in the hands of South Africa's black trade unions, which played a pivotal role in protest politics until opposition groups were legalized last year.
It also was an expression of frustration with the government of President F. W. de Klerk, which is moving ahead full steam with a program to reshape economic policies and government spending programs before it hands over political power to a black-dominated government.
"A referendum was held on the streets of the country today, and the result was a devastating vote of no-confidence in this government . . . and its insistence on unilaterally restructuring the economy," said Jay Naidoo, general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).
He said that about 3.5 million workers observed the strike, called mainly by COSATU and its influential ally, Nelson Mandela's African National Congress.
The relatively conservative black Inkatha Freedom Party opposed the strike, arguing that it would only increase unemployment.
Mr. de Klerk's government has been holding negotiations for the past year and a half with Mr. Mandela's organization, which had been banned for three decades until Mr. de Klerk legalized it in February 1990.
The negotiations are aimed at ending apartheid, the system of racial discrimination and repression under which 5 million whites have run the country and 26 million blacks have been denied the vote.
Marches and rallies were held around the country yesterday amid fears that violence would break out between blacks who support the strike and those who oppose it. But police said the demonstrations were relatively violence-free, given the level of political violence that has plagued the country for the past year.
In addition to the violence in the Orange Free State, at least 19 other blacks died in scattered incidents across the country Sunday and yesterday, Reuters reported. It could not be determined whether the deaths were linked to labor unrest or to the continuing political fighting that has claimed more than 3,000 lives in black townships in the past year.
South Africa has been plagued by factional fighting between various black political groups since the government lifted the tight lid under which it held political opponents for years.
The legalization of black political opposition groups was the first phase in a major reform process that is changing the face of South Africa.
Mr. de Klerk already has repealed all the major apartheid laws, and he says his government is prepared to negotiate a new constitution that would give all South Africans an equal vote.
But his political opponents suspect he is trying to negotiate a deal that would give whites veto power over the black government that would inevitably result from democratic elections.
They also think he is trying to entrench the inequities that apartheid created between blacks and whites by restructuring the economy before blacks take power.
The strikers are not specifically opposed to the idea of a new tax. But they argue that there should have been more consultation, and they want to exempt food, medical care, electricity and water utilities.
The new 10 percent value added tax replaced a 13 percent sales tax. It puts a 10 percent charge on a product at each stage, from the time it comes off the production line to its retail sale.