Union Activism in South Africa

Tuesday 13 January 2004, by Cameron BAUGHEN

Since 1994 South Africa’s largest trade union federation COSATU, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, has been in a tripartite alliance with the African National Congress Party (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). With the ANC commanding a majority of seats in the national government and most provincial and municipal governments in South Africa, this alliance has mainly served to help legitimize the current government as being the champion of the poor and working class.

Yet even with the involvement of these leftist organizations, over the last decade the government has dogmatically implemented the neo-liberal policies of structural reform, privatization and cuts to social services. Since 1996, under the pretext of making South Africa more globally competitive in attracting investment capital, the industrial and public sectors have seen large layoffs stemming from government downsizing and increased international competition. Instead of improving the levels of employment, as proponents of these policies projected, there has been a continuing loss of jobs and a widening of the gap between the poor and rich through out South Africa. Over the last 10 years thousands of union jobs have been lost especially in the public service and textile sectors.

Representing over a million members COSATU began in 1985 as a vehicle for South Africa’s militant trade union movement. From inception COSATU fought against racist Apartheid policies and pushed for the social and working rights of black and coloured workers. The tripartite alliance arose from the need for a peaceful transition from Apartheid as the multi-racial ANC, lead by Nelson Mandela, offered the surest path to true democracy. In return for COSATU supporting the ANC, and not forming it’s own workers party which could have split the essential 1994 end of apartheid vote, the alliance presented a unified front for the new South Africa that seemed to allow labour unions a powerful voice in government.

Instead of becoming more powerful unions have actually become meeker while in power. COSATU has not taken any real sustained action against the implementation of neo-liberal policies in South Africa. The actions that COSATU have taken, including strikes and public denouncements, have always been conducted within a strict, and somewhat nonsensical, framework of unwavering government support.

In their defence COSATU’s official reasons for allegiance to the tripartite agreement stem from an appeal to loyalty to the ANC. A heavily quoted explanation expounds that the ANC lifted South Africa out of apartheid and therefore it deserves a grace period to act without criticism. The second argument asserts that abandoning the alliance would mean abandoning the ANC making it become a party solely for anti-labour "bourgeois" interests.

Ighsaan Schroeder of Khanya College in Johannesburg believes the ongoing strategy of compliance with the ANC mandate goes well beyond these official explanations and exposes both the right wing shift within COSATU as well as the shaping of unionism in post-Apartheid South Africa. From his experience this shift runs systemically throughout the structure of the union movement.

A major reason he cites arises from the lack of employment opportunity in South Africa. Unemployment in South Africa is conservatively estimated at 40% causing a growing economic disparity between the employed and the unemployed. Many employers eagerly want to exploit this labour surplus as a means to lower wages and working standards. With such a high demand for work, being in bed with the government offers greater protection for comparatively well paying union positions. In a well-publicized recent strike involving unionized casual workers the government pressured the company to settle the strike primarily in the workers favour.

Beyond job protection, the union structure has become a means of career advancement and social mobility.

"Rising from shop steward to organizer to union management can mean a lucrative pay rise for many workers." Schroeder states. "Beyond the benefits within the union, officials also see that union advancement has been beneficial to landing jobs in companies, in political parties such as the ANC and in different levels of government service."

Social activism, or in this case biting the hand that feeds you, becomes frowned upon in this environment.

In 2002 COSATU leaders began striking against leftist elements within their organization. A discussion paper, put forward by a group of union organizers raising the issue of the COSATU/ANC alliance, resulted in the forced dismissal of the originators of the paper. For John Appolis, one of the dismissed union organizers and chairperson of the Anti-Privatization Forum, the increasingly top down structure of the union body stifles questioning within the labour movement.

"I know there exist workers within COSATU opposed to the alliance. The leadership of the unions heavily support the alliance and they will not allow groups to organize against them."

During COSATU’s recent national congress, the Central Executive Committee of COSATU unveiled the working framework for the next decade called the 2015 plan. This plan, which received little opportunity for debate, re-affirmed and strengthened COSATU’s role in the alliance until 2015. Voices within and outside of COSATU have come forward denouncing this out right capitulation to ANC policies.

Without drastic change, the tripartite alliance looks fit to stand in the upcoming 2004 National and the 2005 Provincial/Municipal elections. Already most people have conceded that the popular and well-organized ANC party, with the backing of COSATU and the Communist party, will be swept back into power allowing them to continue their neo-liberal agenda.

Most labour activists believe the opposition movements within COSATU are nowhere near strong enough or organized enough to threaten the status quo. As yet, no viable socialist political parties have been formed, leaving a political vacuum in a country where there are incredibly deep and historical economic divides. Several organizations including the Landless Peoples Movement and segments of the Anti-Privatization Forum are calling for a boycott of the elections to de-legitimize the ANC mandate. Whether organized labour can become a political force for the poor and working class in South Africa remains in question.


The author is an alternative media intern at Alternatives. He is now in South Africa.

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