© Master Builders KwaZulu-Natal 2017

 

Business organisations are an accepted part of modern life. They provide essential services to their members and society in establishing and maintaining harmonious relations by attempting to ensure that differences may be settled by negotiation.

Successful collective bargaining brings about mutual recognition of the views of all. It cannot be denied that the present complex labour market would not run smoothly without responsible business organisations representing its members.

Individuals of vision, imbued with new ideas have found throughout time, that the forces of prejudice and distrust were allied against them. This was particularly so in the industrial life of the late nineteenth century in the building industry in Durban when any attempt to organise employers into an association for mutual benefit and protection was feared as the first step in managing individualism into the anonymity of the mass.

Such thinking was foreign to the employers of the times. Most felt that they could manage their own enterprises and any suggestion that they should organise was viewed with suspicision.

The organised building industry in Durban was born among the potted palms of the Victoria Café corner of Gardiner and Pine Streets. The man responsible was James W. Reid who saw turn of the century Durban building contractors embattled in individual struggles against the demands of militant trade unionism. He was convinced that only similar organisations on the part of the employers would enable business to deal on equal terms with labour.

Assisted by Percy D. Ridgway, Reid advertised in the local press and went on a personal canvass of friends and competitors. Despite many rebuffs, he succeeded in getting 34 building contractors together on Friday evening, 1 February 1901.

In the main it was a sceptical gathering. South African employers at the end of the Victorian era were hard-headed individualists, confident of their ability to handle their own affairs and resentful of any attempt to restrict their freedom. The night was hot and humid as they waited for the meeting to begin in the genteel atmosphere of the venue. Occasionally, the more restless pulled aside the net curtains on the windows to watch their fellow citizens, untroubled by the affairs of the building industry, on their way to the evening breeze and cold beer to be found on the water- front. Others talked in hushed voices of the recent death of Queen Victoria whose funeral was to be held in far-off London on the following day. In other parts of South Africa a major and bitter war was still to rage for another fifteen months.

Reid was elected to chair the meeting and quickly gauged the mood of his audience. Eloquent and persuasive, he expatiated on the benefits of an organisation. "The unions have learned that unity is strength," he said, "and we will be taking a great risk if we do not learn the same lesson. If we do not come together and stay together we will all go down under the tide of constant wage demands and rising costs."

Those present were persuaded and the Durban Builders Association was formed by unanimous vote. A working committee was elected to prepare rules and completed its work in less than three weeks. At a second meeting held on 20 February, the rules were approved and the first office bearers elected. They were:

  • President J.W. Reid
  • Vice-President A.F. Turner
  • Hon. Treasurer B. Finch
  • Secretary P.D. Ridgway

Reid served the Association as President during 1901 and 1902, continuing as Vice-President the following two succeeding years.

On 4 November 1904, at a special general meeting with which a smoking concert was combined; he was presented with "a purse of gold and an illuminated address" in appreciation of his services. After this, Reid gradually disappeared from the scene. Reid resumed business in Durban in 1923 and, in November of that year, was elected a Life Member of the Association. He died in 1925.