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A Paradox of Victory
COSATU and the Democratic
Transformation in South Africa

Sakhela Buhlungu


Preface and Acknowledgements . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . vii

Abbreviations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . x

Chapter 1
Introduction: Labour, Liberation and Development
in Africa . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1

Chapter 2
Fighting for Survival: Union Organisational Models
and Strategies after 1973 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21

Chapter 3
Fruits of their Labour: Unions and the Democratic
Transformation in South Africa . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 57

Chapter 4
Union Organising and Global Economic Restructuring. . . . . . . . . . . 79

Chapter 5
A Changing Workforce, a New Generation of Union
Members . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 99

Chapter 6
Comrades, Entrepreneurs and Career Unionists:
Union Leadership in Transition . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 117

Chapter 7
Many Shades of Black: Intra-black Relations in
Trade Unions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 139

Chapter 8
Gaining Influence and Losing Power: COSATU’s
Contested Future . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 157

Notes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 179
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 189
Index . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 201

Labour, Liberation and Development in Africa 1

Chapter 1

Labour, Liberation and Development
in Africa

In his classic study of African trade unions published in 1966, Ioan Davies
made a key observation which remains apposite today. He argued that ‘at
every turn African unions find themselves deeply involved in politics – a
fact as true today as it was under the imperial administrations’ (Davies
1966: 11–12). This argument is in stark contrast to one made around the
same time by Berg and Butler (1964), who claimed that unions in Africa
had failed to become politically involved in the colonial era, and that
after independence their role in politics remained negligible. Even in
those cases where unions did become politically involved, argued Berg
and Butler, their political impact was insignificant. The approach taken
in this book challenges the position taken by these latter authors, and
argues that union organising in Africa has been, and continues to be, a
political act whose implications go well beyond the workplace and the
economic sphere. Taking the Congress of South African Trade Unions
(COSATU) as a case study, I am interested in explaining why these unions
maintain a keen interest in politics, specifically the politics of liberation
and development. My central argument is that because of the particular
configuration of social, political and economic structures in colonial and
post-colonial Africa, labour organising is a complex process of mobilisation
which entails the following related dimensions:
• resisting economic exploitation at the level of the workplace;
• fighting to achieve political reform (liberation and democracy); and
• promoting economic development and social reconstruction.
2 A Paradox of Victory

This means that in addition to resisting the economic exploitation of

their members, unions in Africa have also been agents of liberation and
development. These latter concerns have set African unions apart from
their Northern or developed society counterparts. A critical difference
here is the experience of colonial domination, which relied on the use of
coercion to exclude workers and the majority of the population from
social and industrial citizenship. This theme is developed further below.

Labour regimes and trade unionism in Africa

The concept of ‘labour regime’ is crucial for understanding the suggested
reconceptualisation of trade unions in Africa and the rest of the developing
world. Beckman and Sachikonye use the concept to refer to ‘the complex
of institutions, rules and practices through which relations between labour
and capital are regulated both at the work-place as well as in society at
large’ (2001: 9). They note that a labour regime is also about the ways in
which the state and organised interest groupings become involved in and
shape these relationships. Finally, they observe that labour regimes operate
within different and interconnected ‘arenas’ such as the workplace, the
industry, the local area, the region and the national economy. An important
point to be made about labour regimes is that not only are they shaped by
interest organisations that exist at specific historical moments, but they
in turn shape the character, orientation and role of these organisations.
This includes shaping the choice of strategies and how they are applied in
practice. Thus a historical experience such as colonialism has a profound
impact on the character of labour organisation that emerges.
With reference to Africa in general and South Africa in particular,
three kinds of labour regimes can be identified. The first, which I term
the colonial labour regime, operated at the level of the national economy as
well as within individual workplaces; it was characterised by the use of
coercion, violence and the subjugation of indigenous populations. In
addition, this labour regime had the effect of restricting the participation
of the dominated population in the national economy and stunting their
social and economic development. The unions that emerged under this
regime developed an enduring interest in the related themes of liberation
and development, in terms of both their rhetoric and their practice. Indeed,
the emergence of unionism itself cannot be seen as a purely economistic
impulse, as it represented a challenge to a labour regime which was
intrinsically political. In this regime the distinction between the economic
Labour, Liberation and Development in Africa 3

and the political was blurred by the fact that capital accumulation was
almost entirely dependent on the continued existence of a despotic political
system. In addition, opposition to the colonial labour regime implied, as
a minimum, the search for an alternative development trajectory.
The second type of labour regime was the statist developmental labour
regime, which also operated in the different arenas such as the workplace
and the national economy. This regime emerged in the immediate post-
independence period and was characterised by an authoritarian state which
played an active role in the economy with a view to achieving social
reconstruction and accelerated economic development. The authoritarian
character of the regime was often masked by the fact that the system was
based on a tacit compromise or trade-off between the state and labour in
a context in which the entrepreneurial class was relatively small. The state
provided a social wage in return for labour quiescence, particularly in
relation to political and macroeconomic issues. In general the compromise
held because of labour’s enduring interest in liberation and development,
which the new state was assumed to champion.
The third and final kind of labour regime, which has become hege-
monic following the collapse of the developmental regime in the 1980s,
is the market or neo-liberal labour regime. This regime is linked to global
forces of economic liberalisation which advocate a shift from social or
state regulation towards market regulation (Standing 1997). An important
change here is the predominance of market despotism and a relative
relaxation of state authoritarianism.
All the societies and countries of Africa have gone through these
different labour regimes. However, each country had its own specificities,
and there are continuities as well as discontinuities. In addition, in some
countries some of these processes took place over a longer period of time
than in others. For example, in Zambia the developmental regime operated
for almost 25 years, while post-apartheid South Africa’s experimentation
with developmentalism was short-lived.1 Below I discuss the implication
of these changes for trade unions in southern Africa.

Trade unions and liberalisation in southern Africa

Southern African countries offer a variety of examples of union engagement
with the politics of liberation and development. Union movements in
at least three of these countries – namely, South Africa, Zambia and
Zimbabwe – have a history of engagement going back to the colonial period.
4 A Paradox of Victory

All union movements in the region, however, have throughout their history
shown an interest in working towards the achievement of a democratic
dispensation. The results of the first experience with political liberalisation
as represented by the achievement of independence were disappointing
for labour and other activists. This prompted one scholar to refer to the
subsumption of workers’ interests under ‘nation building’ as ‘the tragedy
of Africa’s mode of decolonization’ (Cooper 1996: 468–9). Indeed, it was
under the guise of nation building that authoritarianism emerged during
the era of the developmental labour regime. Examples that come to mind
here are Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The crisis of developmentalism in the 1980s and 1990s eroded the
basis of the trade-off between the state and labour, and exposed the
authoritarian character of the post-independence state as it battled to
survive. All the older countries in the region faced this crisis and wit-
nessed the emergence of new movements for political liberalisation or
democratisation. Ironically, it was labour organisations that came forward
to spearhead these new movements. Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia and
Zimbabwe are good examples of this trend. Meanwhile, in the other recent
cases of democratisation, such as Namibia, Mozambique and South Africa,
there has been a trend towards labour movements splitting along the
lines of support for, and in opposition to, governments which are in-
creasingly perceived to be undemocratic and anti-labour.
The new wave of democratic struggles is a global phenomenon that
has coincided with the emergence and increasing hegemony of the neo-
liberal or market labour regime which advocates economic liberalisation.
Economic liberalisation is essentially about the withdrawal of the state
from the economy and the freeing of the markets such that regulation is
left to market forces. If the tragedy of the early post-independence period
was the subsumption of workers’ interests under the rubric of nation
building, the tragedy of the new wave of struggles for democracy is that
democracy is often the Trojan horse which brings the unbridled market
into society. In other words, the stated benefits of democratisation are
often negated or overshadowed by the negative effects of economic liberal-
isation. Under these conditions, labour movements whose leading role in
struggles for democratisation is well known often end up as marginal
players. In the region, Zambia is a classic case of a union movement which
sponsored the formation of a new party but which ended up marginalised
Labour, Liberation and Development in Africa 5

once the new party was in power (Mosoetsa and Vlok 2001; Sachikonye
2001; Webster and Mosoetsa 2001; Rakner 2003).
The fate of union movements after they have successfully mobilised
for the election of labour-friendly parties has been examined in Murillo’s
(2001) study of three Latin American countries (Argentina, Mexico and
Venezuela). Murillo shows that labour-based parties often face more
pressure than other parties to show their commitment to the market in
order to attract investment. In the context of southern Africa, a region
with a majority of extremely fragile economies, this means that these parties
often choose to disown labour and embrace capital in the hope that this
will bring in new investment. However, the examples of Swaziland, Zambia
and Zimbabwe show that this outcome does not always materialise.

Dilemmas facing unions in southern Africa

The above discussion points to a paradox facing unions in southern Africa.
These unions find themselves caught between the two evils of state
authoritarianism and market despotism. Discussing the upsurge of political
protest and growing demands for political liberalisation in Africa in the
period 1989–91, Kraus has observed that workers and trade unions were
‘often among the earliest and most energetic demonstrators’ and that
they have been among ‘the most crucial groups demanding and forcing
authoritarian regimes to liberalize political life’ (2007: 1). Most of these
protests and struggles against authoritarianism have given rise to a liberal
democratic dispensation. In turn, the advent of democratic dispensation
almost inevitably paves the way for market liberalisation, which weakens
labour in a variety of ways such as job loss, membership decline, work
insecurity and informalisation. Thus, in the region unions are champions
of democratisation, but the irony is that democracy is a harbinger of
unregulated markets. Mobilisation against the market often spawns new
movements and parties, but unions are incapable of maintaining political
control over these parties once they are in office. It appears that this
paradox is a function of the weakness of most economies of the countries
in the region. At this stage it remains unclear how unions in southern
African can get out of the vicious circle of mobilisation, victory, marginal-
isation, and mobilisation all over again.
Below I outline common issues and problems confronting unions in
the region.
6 A Paradox of Victory

Economic liberalisation
The liberalisation of economic relations following the collapse of post-
independence, state-led developmentalism has presented unions in southern
Africa with some of their most intractable challenges. In particular, the
shift from state to private ownership of large sections of the economy has
led to large-scale loss of jobs in these enterprises in the lead-up to the sell-
off of the corporations. As a consequence, many services that were
previously provided or heavily subsidised by the state are now provided by
private corporations or by state institutions on a cost-recovery basis. Given
that in the majority of these economies the state sector, including the
civil service, was the largest employer, privatisation has had an extremely
negative impact on trade union strength.
An important dimension of liberalisation is labour market flexibility.
In a context in which countries in the region are in desperate need of
investment to kick-start their economies, various forms of flexibility have
been implemented, starting at the workplace, where new forms of flexible
work organisation have emerged. Casualisation and outsourcing are some
of the most prevalent forms of flexible labour in the region. In addition,
some countries have established export zones – flexible labour manufac-
turing enclaves that do not create many jobs as they are often small-scale
and capital intensive, but that present all kinds of problems for unions,
including poor working conditions, low wages, and both subtle and overt
restrictions on worker organisation.

Unilateral adoption and implementation of macroeconomic policies

One area where all trade union centres in the region lack voice and
influence is macroeconomic policy. Notwithstanding the fact that at least
eight countries – Botswana, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, South
Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe – have at one point or another
established corporatist institutions, many of these are extremely weak and
are used as consultative forums when governments deem it necessary to
consult. Even in the case of South Africa’s National Economic Develop-
ment and Labour Council (NEDLAC), which has some decision-making
powers, the government has tended to bypass or ignore the institution on
matters of macroeconomic policy.
In the last two decades or so, macroeconomic policy formulation and
implementation in the region has been concerned with the dismantling
of state control of the economy and the removal of various forms of
Labour, Liberation and Development in Africa 7

regulation. It is no wonder, then, that governments resort to unilateralism

and that macroeconomic policy differences are the main trigger of conflict
between the state and trade unions.

Weak unions and national federations

In general, union structures in the region are extremely weak, under-
resourced and vulnerable to the vagaries of market liberalisation. There
are many reasons for these weaknesses, but chief among them are the
weak, small and fragile economies of the region. South Africa (and until
recently Zimbabwe) is the exception. Economic liberalisation and such
aspects of it as privatisation, deregulation and labour market flexibility
have left many unions in dire circumstances as their memberships have
dwindled dramatically over the last two to three decades.
Another cause of weakness is that some unions and federations were
established at the behest of the ruling parties, and many have found it
extremely difficult to extricate themselves from the clutches of the parties.
Even in those cases where a union federation formed by the ruling party
successfully asserts its independence, such as in Zambia and Zimbabwe,
such developments are often followed by acrimonious splits between those
who want to stay aligned with the ruling party and those who want to go
it alone. Similarly, in the case of Namibia and Mozambique, the main
federations chose to stay aligned with the ruling parties while significant
groups split away and set up independent federations. In most cases the
split occurs for one or more of the following reasons:
• the split is orchestrated by the state;
• there is internal union disagreement over strategy and tactics in the
face of neo-liberalism;
• a new federation is formed to shed the stigma of having been associated
with a discredited authoritarian regime.

All the above contributes to the further fragmentation of unions in the

region. However, it is necessary to note that this fragmentation affects
unions differently in different countries. The weakness of the unions and
federations makes it difficult to build regional links, even though there is
a trend of growing integration of capital across national borders. To make
matters worse, the Southern African Trade Union Coordination Council
(SATUCC) is organisationally weak and politically ineffectual. SATUCC and
several of the unions and federations in the region are heavily dependent
on donor funding.
8 A Paradox of Victory

The contribution of South African unions towards strengthening

unions in the region remains limited and uneven across the different
industries. The most active union in terms of building regional solidarity
has been COSATU’s affiliate, the Southern African Clothing and Textile
Workers’ Union (SACTWU). Some of the global union federations, such
as the International Metalworkers’ Federation, are also active in building
links within the region.

Union–party relations
All union federations in southern Africa, like their counterparts in the
rest of the continent, continue to grapple with the way in which they
should relate to political parties, particularly those that are in power.
While some choose to remain aligned with the ruling party even in the
face of splits (for example, the National Union of Namibian Workers and
the Organização Trabalhadores Mozambicanos), others have moved full
circle, from alignment to independence. An example of this latter group
is the Zambian Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), a federation established
by the state through an Act of Parliament in 1965. For many years the
ZCTU backed the then-ruling United National Independence Party (UNIP)
as the only ‘progressive’ party in Zambia. However, in the face of economic
collapse and the untold misery of its members, it broke away and spear-
headed the formation of the Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD)
in 1991. It has since taken a more autonomous stand from the UNIP.
In South Africa the largest union federation, COSATU, has an alliance
with the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Com-
munist Party (SACP) – known as the Tripartite Alliance – and prefers to
contest the ANC from within. The other large federations – the National
Council of Trade Unions (NACTU) and the Federation of Unions of South
Africa (FEDUSA) – are politically non-aligned but also work closely with
the government. In November 2007, NACTU and FEDUSA merged to form
the South African Confederation of Trade Unions (SACOTU).

Labour relations reform

Since 1992 at least seven countries in the region have introduced labour
relations reforms which offer more opportunities for union organisation.
Some of these reforms are, of course, relatively limited when one compares
them to, say, South Africa’s labour relations regime. These countries
are Madagascar, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and
Labour, Liberation and Development in Africa 9

Zimbabwe. Labour relations reforms can have a tremendously positive

effect on union organisation in that some obstacles to union organising
are eliminated. But it can also be a double-edged sword for unions,
particularly those who previously enjoyed a monopoly of representation.
One of the consequences of the liberalisation of labour relations is that it
creates opportunities for the emergence of new unions and new federations.
The issue of splinter unions and federations as discussed above is a good
example in this regard.

Loss of union leadership to party, politics, business and the civil service
We have seen the loss of union leadership in the region, particularly in
Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Although this is
often justified on the basis that union leaders move into a party or politics
and other arenas to promote or advance worker and working-class interests,
the outcome is often that these former unionists eventually cut all ties
with unions and, in some cases, become extremely anti-union in their
politics and practice. In South Africa, there has also been a significant
exodus of union leaders and workplace activists into managerial positions,
business and the civil service.
Observers of the labour movement have tended to regard union
responses to these and other dilemmas as irrational ‘non-working-class’
actions or, worse still, as examples of how union leaders have ‘sold workers
out’ (Marais 2001; Ngwane 2003). Union–party alliances in particular
have attracted criticism and even condemnation from many scholars and
other observers. While some of the criticisms are valid, it needs to be
pointed out that many of the critics are often too hasty to judge labour
movements and their leaders without bothering to understand the mo-
tivations and objectives of these movements and leaders.

Labour, liberation and development

In this section I seek to shift the debate away from advocacy and self-
righteous criticism which fails to take the study of the labour movement
seriously. I also wish to make a strong case for the importance of historical
and comparative evidence in the debate.
Earlier in this chapter I suggested that labour movements in Africa
(and other developing countries) have been actively involved in mobilisation
to pursue their interests in three different but related arenas. First, from
the earliest days of the colonial labour regime, workers and their unions
10 A Paradox of Victory

have been engaged in various forms of mobilisation and resistance against

economic exploitation at the level of the workplace. To a very large degree
this form of traditional mobilisation by workers was learned from others,
chiefly the small but powerful layer of white workers and colonial civil
servants. In many instances the European model of union organisation
was transferred lock, stock and barrel to the colonies, including the specific
roles for different members of the union. Today one is likely to encounter
‘shop stewards’, ‘fathers of the chapel’, ‘general secretaries’ and ‘presidents’
in Africa playing the same roles as their counterparts in European unions.
In view of this transfer and similarity in trade union structures and the
roles of activists within them, some have assumed that labour movements
play similar roles across different national contexts.
Second, African workers and unions, fighting alongside other move-
ments representing different social groups, have mobilised to fight for
political reform, specifically for liberation and democracy. This mobil-
isation took different forms and differed in its intensity in different
countries. Even in those cases where there was no evident collective action
on political issues, workers and union activists retained a keen interest in
political developments related to the national liberation struggles of their
countries. There is ample evidence to show that in virtually all African
countries individual union activists were active in political movements,
and some of them went on to become leading political figures in the post-
independence dispensation. The interest of these activists in liberation
and democracy derived from their collective and individual experiences
under the colonial labour regime discussed above. Under this labour
regime, workers experienced their subjugation in two ways: as an exploited
class and as dispossessed and rightless subjects under a despotic system of
foreign domination. The consciousness of the workers was thus shaped
by the experience of economic exploitation and political subjection, more
so because the two often appeared fused under an omnipotent system
that was not accountable to local interests. Indeed, during the colonial
labour regime, labour matters were managed under the rubric of ‘native
administration’ because this was the only way to manage the affairs of
rightless subjects (Orde-Browne [1933] 1967). Liberation and democracy
were therefore expected to result in the dismantling of the colonial regime,
the inauguration of a democratic system and the inclusion of Africans as
citizens. In this way rights and dignity would be conferred on all.
Labour, Liberation and Development in Africa 11

Third, for unions, like their political counterparts the liberation

movements, liberation and democracy were understood as means to an
end rather than as ends in themselves. The expectation, therefore, was
that liberation and democracy would lead to social reconstruction and
economic development, and thus to an improvement in the material
conditions of the indigenous population. This expectation was, and still
is, shared by all labour movements on the continent and it informs their
political strategies regardless of how liberal or conservative they are.
Furthermore, different movements pursued different strategies to achieve
these ends. In some cases they formed alliances with liberation movements
during the liberation struggle, and with ruling parties after independence.
Others formed alliances with opposition parties, and yet others remained
non-aligned. It is important also to note that in the post-independence
period labour movements changed strategies depending on their experi-
ences with the new liberation-movement-led regimes.2
Too often the literature on labour movements fails to understand the
connected nature of the engagement by African labour movements in
these three arenas of mobilisation, and the strategy of ‘social movement
unionism’ often ascribed to black unions in South Africa is seen as an
exception. Yet there are many examples that could be drawn from to show
that what one author has called ‘the “political unionism” that so often
characterizes the labor organizations of most of the newly liberated and
developing nations’ is not a new phenomenon that is unique to a few
cases (Beling 1965: 3).
One scholar who succeeds in making the connections between the
three arenas I discuss here is Willard A. Beling (1965), who, in his examina-
tion of the Tunisian case, argues that the evolution of unions in developing
countries was shaped by ‘the overriding issue of nationalism’. He then
identifies stages of development for nationalism, the first being the pre-
independence period, where nationalism is directed against the colonial
power in a struggle whose aim is to attain independence. The second
stage is the post-independence period, where nationalism is ‘directed
against backwardness – with rapid modernization as its goal’ (Beling 1965:
12). Beling argues that while some social groups become disillusioned in
the post-independence period, labour does not become despondent but
continues to play a role in nation-building processes. What makes it
relatively easy for labour to play this role is the fact that it is often the
largest and best-organised associational interest group. Having examined