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Name: Bafana Kubedi

Labour Movements and Political mobilisation in South Africa: Contested



The defeat of apartheid and South Africa’s transition to democracy was

fought on many fronts, and as such has many claimants. The role of the

ruling African National Congress (ANC) as the eminent National liberation
movement is putative and beyond contest. However the narrative of
South Africa’s ‘patriotic history’ is a tapestry of coalescing organisations
and movements which pivoted chiefly on the defeat of Apartheid,
notwithstanding their varying interests and methods.

South Africa’s transition in 1994, has to be considered in view of global

events, particularly the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 and the
subsequent emergence of US hegemony. This period saw the
democratisation and re-democratisation of Africa, Asia, Latin America and
Eastern Europe, along US influenced liberal democracy and free market
ideals. Although arguably this process started decades before, the details
of which extend beyond the scope of this project, suffice to say, this
period was a major watershed, precisely because of the collapse of the
USSR as major sponsors of an economic and political alternative

Apartheid as a policy of separate development under the National party is

preceded by many centuries of colonial segregation which disrupted
precolonial societies, undermining established modes of production and
social relations. Apartheid’s racist ideology and the colonial segregation
that preceded it have justifiably been the focus of analytical accounts of
South Africa transition, to the neglect or relegation to ancillary role the
major motivation of these developments, which was the economic
imperative and the advancement of capitalism.

The aim of this essay is to offer an analysis of the Labour movement’s role
in South Africa’s liberation to democratic rule and it’s contradictions as a
partner in the tripartite alliance with the party in government, the ANC. In
drawing out the labour movement’s account, I will consider some analysis
of South Africa’s historical economic development as a motivation for
racial segregation and the post –apartheid economic realities.

Capitalism and Segregation

The racial ideology of apartheid is considered a vulgar exaggeration of

colonial racial segregation and fundamentally about the political
domination of Africans.

Wolpe (425. 4.1972) argues that the essential differences between

Apartheid and earlier segregation can be explained by the changing
relations of capitalist and African pre-capitalist modes of production.
According to Wolpe, the existence of the two modes of production in the
colonial period would give rise to conflict, with the dominant capitalist
mode of production dissolving the pre-capitalist mode.

The dislodging of pre-capitalist social and economic modes of production

by capitalist development was observed earlier by Karl Marx in the
Communist Manifesto. Marx noted how the capitalist class would brutally
revolutionise the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of
production, and with them the whole relations of society. In South Africa,
the delineation of capitalist and pre-capitalist society was along race, with
Africans as the dominated class.

The African pre-capitalist modes of production involved communal

ownership of land for subsistence, worked by social units based on familial
ties where the product of labour was distributed along kinship. The
parallel mode of capitalist mode of production necessitated the
destruction of pre-capitalist society towards a single, capitalist mode of
production in which African labour is dispensed to capitalist production.
Wolpe observes that, the pre-capitalist subsistence economy was
presented as stagnant and inferior to capitalism. The relations between
the two were reduced to the provision by the ‘backward sector’ an
unlimited supply of labour to the ‘advanced sector.’ In explaining why the
Africans, who were in possession of agricultural means of production
would enter wage employment in the capitalist sector, Wolpe suggests
that wage-labour was a means of supplementing insufficient income
derived from agricultural production because of inefficient farming
methods and the introduction of Western consumer goods. Because the
migrant labour still had access to means of subsistence, capital paid the
worker below the cost of his production, thus it became possible to fix
wages at the level of subsistence for the African worker, explaining the
basis of cheap African labour. This analysis suggests that it was to the
benefit of capitalist mode of production to maintain some semblance of
the pre-capitalist society in as far as it made the cheap labour available
because of the reciprocal obligations between the migrant and his family
in the African reserves.

The Native Lands Act 27/1913 (wolpe: 436.4. 1972) classified certain
areas as African Reserves and laid down that no African could purchase or
occupy land outside the Reserves and prohibited whites from acquiring or
occupying land in the Reserves. Wolpe argues that this was done to
remedy the shortage of African labour on White farms and to prevent
Africans from re-purchasing European owned land which had been
acquired by conquest. The Reserve economy provided a major portion of
African labour employed in capitalist production in the early periods of
industrialisation in South Africa, thus the function of the policy of
segregation was to maintain the productive capacity of the pre-capitalist
economies in order to supplement the means of production for the
migrant workers, yet not high enough to negate the imperatives of
migration, thus ensuring a constant supply of cheap labour.

As the social and economic conditions of Africans worsened, the

increasing population size and inefficient farming methods led to a decline
in production and the consequent impoverishment of the African people to
a point of starvation and malnutrition, while at the same time South Africa
was undergoing rapid industrialisation with the discovery of gold. The
result was that the Reserves were no longer a viable means of
subsistence to the migrant and his family leading to the permanent
urbanisation of workers. With rapidly advancing capitalism, the process of
secondary industrialisation and the development of the tertiary sector
occasioned an increasing, permanently urbanised industrial proletariat.
Wolpe notes that percentage of the African population in the urban areas
increased from 12.6% in 1911 to 23.7% in 1946 and by 1971, it was
approximately 38% (Wolpe 443.4.1972).

The decline in the productive capacity of the Reserves threatened the

equilibrium rationalised by capitalist access to cheap African labour and
the subsistence provided by the Reserve economies. This posed a threat
to capital because of the resultant pressure on wages and drop in profits.
The migration to urban areas also saw the intensification of urban poverty
and the spectre of African vagrants and social bandits. Capitalist
development had to contend, not just with conflict around wages but
sought a solution towards the wide social structure. By the 1940’s, South
Africa witnessed a variety of industrial and political conflicts during which
a new force of militant African intellectuals emerged, heralding a growing
assault on the whole society established by the capitalist state. On other
fronts early industrial unions such as the South African Mineworkers Union
(SAMWU) had been formed which specifically excluded African workers
from membership. As the South African economy advanced to
manufacturing multi racial unions emerged led by members of the
Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) which was formed in the 1920’s,

which had Africans, Indians and Coloureds such as Thibedi and Kadalie
(Ness I (ed) 3091. 2009).

Apartheid South Africa

In 1948, the National Party of DF Malan won the whites only general
election, with Apartheid as its official policy. Significantly, as Wolpe points
out, the defeated United Party had included reforms of the racial,
economic – political structure as its policy in the 1948 election, as a
response to the growing militancy by Africans. Thus the National Party’s
apartheid institutionalised and legitimised racial oppression in a coercive
state through the introduction of repressive laws which criminalised
militant organised opposition and the establishment of security apparatus
to enforce these laws. These changes however were considered rearguard
to protect the economic interests of the white minority population. The
National government introduced other laws to maintain access to cheap
African labour and contain the pressure on wage levels, by making it
illegal for Africans to strike for higher wages and working conditions. The
geographical mobility of Africans was curtailed by pass laws in order to
limit excess Africans from areas where their labour was not required thus
effectively controlling the migrant worker system. Apartheid further
developed ideological mechanisms which entrenched racial divisions in
education and social life, such as the introduction of Bantu Education and
the immorality act. As a consequence of the expanding apartheid
capitalist economy, especially in manufacturing, there was a demand for
semi-skilled and skilled African labour with concomitant higher wages.
Wolpe suggests that the employment of Africans in these occupations led
to the expansion of African education albeit Bantu education, which
indoctrinated the subjugation of Africans.

In 1955, the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) was formed.
(Ness I (ed) 3094. 2009). SACTU was aligned to with both the African
National Congress (ANC)-an African nationalist group formed in 1912 as
the South African Native National Congress, which transformed from a
moderate and elite party into a mass-based party in the 1950’s (Ness I
(ed) 3094. 2009)-and the mSouth African Communist Party (SACP) which
was the reconstituted CPSA, after the latter’s banning. SACTU was
responsible for some of the civil disobedience campaigns and a general
strike in the 1950’s led by activists such as Elias Motsoaledi and Elijah
Barayi. During this time the ANC was becoming more vocal and
confrontational as it became more mass based; in 1952 it was involved in
the Defiance Campaign to protest the pass laws and other apartheid
legislation with Chief Albert Luthuli at its helm. Emerging young leaders of
the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) such as Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu

agitated for more militant approaches believing in African nationalism and
eschewing cooperation with other racial groups. This view was however
changed by veteran communist ANC leaders such as Moses Kotane and JB
Marks, who also made the case for an alliance with the militant Natal and
Transvaal Indian Congress under Dr GM Naicker and Dr Yusuf Dadoo. The
ANC and other groups –The South African Coloured People’s Organisation,
the South African Indian Congress and the Congress of democrats- formed
the Congress Alliance in order to coordinate the struggle against
apartheid which culminated in a congress of the people in Kliptown
SOWETO, in 1955 to adopt the Freedom Charter, an essentially social
democratic document with socialist assertions (YN Seleti. (ed) 170. 2004)

The government responded by imposing new restrictions on opposition

politics as well as banning ANC leaders. By the end of 1955, almost the
entire leadership of the Congress Alliance were arrested and charged with
treason, effectively rendering the ANC moribund, bar localised protests
against forced removals, bus boycotts and anti-pass protests. The
adoption of the freedom charter and the cooperation of the Congress
alliance led to ideological differences within the ANC, with an Africanist
group emerging, claiming that the cooperation with Indians and leftist
whites in the Congress alliance was undermining the interests of Africans.
In 1959, the group broke away to for the Pan African Congress (PAC) led
by Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. The ANC accused the breakaway group of
racism and narrow nationalism. On 21 March 1960, police in Sharpville
opened fire on peaceful demonstrators at a PAC protest, killing and
maiming hundreds of protestors. Inresponse to worldwide condemnation,
the Apartheid government detained thousands of people and banned the
ANC and PAC, preventing their leaders from mobilising support to exert
pressure on the state. Those leaders who were not arrested went into
exile and set armed wings; with ANC setting up Umkhonto we Sizwe and
the PAC Upoqo. In 1963 the High Command of Umkhonto we Sizwe were
arrested at Liliesleaf farm in Rivonia Johannesburg, in what became known
as the Treason Trial, that resulted in the detention of Nelson Mandela and
many other comrades to Robben Island. (YN Seleti. (ed) 174. 2004)

The rise of Trade Union Power

By the late 1960’s, White supremacy and Apartheid rule seemed absolute,
the economy grew rapidly at 9.3% between 1963 and 1968. Local
conglomerates expanded, manufacturing increased and Direct Foreign
Investment enlarged. (Ness I. 3094. 2009). This led to a further growth in
the employment of Africans in semi-skilled positions and the rise in real
wages for Africans, although the ratio to white wages worsened. In the

early 1970’s at the onset of a global recession, unemployment increased
especially amongst unskilled migrant workers, as did inflation.

African trade unions had a long history in South African Industrial

relations, although never officially recognised, strikes by African workers
were illegal, and when they occurred they were brutally suppressed and
workers dismissed. The re-emergence of African unions occurred in the
70’s, particularly significant was the work stoppages and strikes by African
workers in the Durban area in 1973, involving over 61000 workers in 150
companies. Although still illegal, strikes continued during this period, with
low wages an instigating issue and issues regarding the status and rights
of African workers. Some employers became sympathetic, if not more pro-
active in considering that they had little choice to recognising union
rights. Notably in 1974 Harry Oppenheimer called for the recognition of
African unions as legitimate bargaining partners, as did the Association of
South African Chambers of Commerce (ASSOCOM). During this time, a
movement that had emerged in the 60’s, the Black Consciousness
Movement (BCM) was gaining traction. Led by Steven Bantu Biko, Black
Consciousness called on blacks to free themselves psychologically from
dominant occidental values, and to be more assertive, proud of their
cultural heritage and urged black people not to participate in their own
oppression. Unlike the PAC, BCM included Indian and coloured
communities, who shared common experiences of discrimination as
Africans in its definition of Black and ipso facto rejected vehemently, the
participation of white liberals. The formation of the Black Peoples
Convention (BCP) in 1972 was an effort to go beyond the narrow student
base to a broader base with popular appeal, especially among urban,
middle class and educated population and formed its own albeit small
Black Allied Workers Union.

Following the Student uprising in 1976-which many believe was ignited by

the BCM or at least its philosophies-the government increased its
repression, banning union activists and the BCM. In 1977, the leader of
BCM, Steve Biko was murdered in police custody, causing an international

Subsequent to the Soweto uprising was the rapid growth of trade unions
that emerged from the labour unrest during this time. Black union
membership jumped from 40000 in 1975 to 247000 in 1981, and to 1.5
million in 1985 (Seleti YN(ed) 178.2004). An issue which confronted the
Unions at this time whether to participate in the Industrial council system,
with other unions opposing the move as a ploy by the state for greater
control, and other’s arguing that the new laws are the site of the struggle,
where unions could engage the state to win worker’s rights. By the early

1980’s the participation of unions in the broader political discourse was at
issue, as political turmoil spread in black communities. With political
movements banned and with them a coherent organisation for political
rights for Africans, trade unions pressed for economic as well as political
rights. Sharp differences arose between unions who believed that the
primary focus should be on the shop floor and building strong unions. The
notion of a working class movement was articulated by the Federation of
South African Trade Unions (FOSATU). Fosatu general secretary Joe
Forster declared that “it is, therefore, essential that workers must strive to
build their own powerful and effective organisation even whilst they are
part of the wider popular struggle. This organisation is necessary to
protect and further worker interests and to ensure that the popular
movement is not hijacked by elements that will in the end have no option
but to turn against their worker supporters”.(Welsh D. 318. 2009). This
statement reflects the anticipation of nationalist elites who dominated
political movements who would adapt to capitalist interests once in
power. On 21 March 1983, United Democratic Front (UDF) was launched,
in Mitchells plain. The UDF represented continuity in the struggle against
apartheid, sharing the broad aims of the ANC in exile, this was made
explicit by making Nelson Mandela and other ANC veterans patrons of the
UDF. Black Consciousness supporters formed the National Forum
Committee, which opposed the involvement of anti-apartheid whites,
rejected the freedom charter and emphasised anti-capitalist over anti-
apartheid aims (Seleti YN (ed) 180. 2004).

The issue of union participation in the political struggle arose again on

whether to affiliate to the UDF, which had invited the unions to
participate. Although a few unions took up the invitation, Fosatu and other
independent unions declined. At issue was the sentiment that black
workers came from communities persecuted by apartheid and could not
divorse themselves from community political issues which affected them
and their families. As the townships erupted in violence, Fosatu and other
unions who held similar views had to compromise and forge alliances with
political movements. Following several years of negotiations to achieve
greater unity among the various trade unions, In 1985 the Congress of
South African Trade Unions emerged, incorporating union affiliates of
Fosatu which disbanded, as well as other previously unaffiliated trade
unions, with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) as the largest
affiliate. The NUM general secretary at the time was Cyril Ramaphosa, a
lawyer who was part of the Black Consciousness Movement in the 70’s,
Ramaphosa would later play a significant role in the negotiations to South
Africa’s democratic transition. The Council of Unions of South Africa and
the Azanian Confederation of Trade Unions rejected the principle of non-

racialism and would not affiliate to COSATU; in 1986, they amalgamated
to form the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) and insisted on the
requirement that the leadership be drawn from the African working class.

There were few whites in Cosatu, though more coloured and Indian
workers were members, with an overwhelming number of Africans, it
committed itself to building a non-racial working class movement and to
restructure the economy in the interest of the working class. Despite its
resolve to participate in the broader political struggle, was still not
affiliated to the UDF. In 1985, Cosatu general secretary, Jay Naidoo met
ANC leaders in Harare, which caused tensions among affiliates, because
they were not consulted. However, the Cosatu leadership understood that
the ANC was the most popular national liberation movement among
Africans and an association with them could not be delayed indefinitely In
1987 at its second annual Congress, Cosatu adopted the Freedom
Charter. Cosatu embarked on further political campaigns, calling for the
release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners and the unbanning
of political organisations. The state responded by attacking Cosatu offices
around the country, detaining scores of union leaders, and in 1987,
Cosatu’s Johannesburg headquarters were bombed. With a membership of
1.5 million workers by 1985 in 43500 workplaces, Workers demonstrated
the strength of organised labour power. With the South African economy
declining, the number of strikes and work-stoppages increased, occurring
around retrenchments, wages and dismissals. The most significant strike
was the mineworkers strike in 1987, which lasted for three weeks. In
1988, around the same time as the banning of the UDF, restrictions were
imposed on Cosatu to confine its activities to trade union work. Cosatu
was limped but unfazed, with the banning of the UDF, Cosatu became the
major column of internal resistance. Between 1988 and 1989 an
amorphous grouping, consisting of Cosatu and UDF leaders, called the
Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) emerged, calling for mass stay-aways
and general strikes. During 1989 the MDM was emboldened by the release
of some ANC leaders, including, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki. As early
as 1985, the ANC had started negotiating with white business people and
other interest groups from inside South Africa, and Nelson Mandela had
started informal talks with the state while in prison. In August 1989, the
ANC established the Harare declaration conditionally supporting talks with
the National Party government. In 1989 the Berlin Wall was collapsed,
heralding the collapse of the Soviet Union and ending the Cold War. In the
same year, following a stroke, the South African president PW Botha was
replaced by FW de Klerk. Realising an untenable situation, the new
president announced the unbanning of the ANC and other liberation
movements and the release of Nelson Mandela. With political parties re-

establishing themselves legally in the country, the UDF disbanded in
deference to the ANC, SACTU was dissolved into Cosatu.

Democracy and the new South Africa

On august 1990, the ANC and the government signed the Pretoria minute
as a step towards negotiations that culminated in the formal talks of the
Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) in December 1991. In
May 1990 Cosatu joined the SACP and ANC to form the Tri-partite alliance;
however the Soviet influenced democratic centralism as practiced by the
SACP and ANC members with a top-down leadership style, clashed with
the consultative structure of Cosatu and former UDF members as
practiced in the MDM.

John Saul argues that, by the early 90’s democracy was placed on the
agenda by peoples in Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia
through their popular struggles. However, the initiative was seized by
western intellectuals to direct the process along liberal concepts and a
“recycling of the modernisation theory”. The result was the collapsing of
democracy into liberal democracy as practiced in the west and with them
neo-liberal economic policies (Saul J 175. 2005). South Africa’s transition
was not immune to this process; there is a significant measure in which
the national party through the state president FW de Klerk sought to
safeguard features of white minority rule and the establishment of liberal
capitalist democracy. While the ANC maintained a Socialist agenda and
articulated the two-stage theory in its proposed National Democratic
Revolution (NDR), it harboured petit-bourgeoisie nationalistic elements. To
be fair, the South African economy was battered curtailing the possibility
of the ANC to manoeuvre as various international forces, such as the IMF
and the World Bank; the corporate sector and international aid community
mounted pressure. As leader of the alliance, the broad church of the ANC
still faced dissenting voices with regards to the methods and outcomes of
the negotiations, within the ANC itself, caution was raised with regards to
the compromises being made which would make it impossible for a post-
apartheid government to tackle the socio-economic disparities that
characterised the South African society.

Around 1993, Cosatu led a demonstration at the venue of the

negotiations, to ensure favourable provisions to labour in the draft
constitution and forums for sectoral struggles were ongoing alongside the
high profile Codesa, which led to the National Economic Forum, which
became National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC).
The views of discontent and the yearning for popular democratization

were unabated. This was evident in the proposal for a worker’s party at
the National Union of Metalworkers’ 1993 congress. Nonetheless most
trade unions preferred to direct their energies within the ANC led alliance.

Following the 1994 general elections that ushered in “democracy”, the

ANC became the governing party with Nelson Mandela as the state
President. Many Cosatu leaders took up positions in government and
some, most notably; Cyril Ramaphosa went into comprador-bourgeoisie
arrangements with private companies, in mining no less. The move to
parliament of key Cosatu leaders created possibilities for labour to
increase its influence in the state. However the deployment, led to
detachments with the federation and deference to ANC influenced

This has led to conflicts within the labour movement itself and with the
ANC in the alliance. With South Africa having entered the global economy
and embracing neo-liberal economic policies, Cosatu’s commitment to a
broadly socialist ideal was usurped by the ANC’s liberal agenda. It had not
taken long for the fissures to emerge, with Cosatu, expressing criticism of
its alliance partner. There were complaints about Mandela’s imperialist
style of leadership and growing resentment of Cosatu being treated as
junior partner. Apart from these misgivings and Cosatu’s opposition to the
government’s economic policies particularly the Growth Employment and
Redistribution strategy (GEAR) - considered a shift away from the
Reconstruction and Development Strategy (RDP) which Cosatu
participated in its formation-which the government made clear was a non-
negotiable policy, the tripartite alliance remains intact, though highly


The 2007 52nd ANC national congress, which saw the defeat Thabo Mbeki
as the president of the ANC by incumbent ANC and state president Jacob
Zuma was considered a victory for the labour movement in its attempt to
wrest control of the ANC and expressly change the economic trajectory of
the country-which was not without controversy, as the factionalism
became evident within Cosatu, leading to the expulsion of Cosatu
president, Willie Madisha. Nevertheless, since the 2009 general elections,
where Cosatu were considered an important column in the tripartite
alliance, the sincerity of Cosatu to the worker’s and popular struggles
have been tested and found wanting. The ANC still maintains its
commitment to neo-liberal economic policies. Despite the laments of its
general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi who regularly speaks out against
government corruption and the system of patronage; and extols virtues of

a people centred government, Cosatu leader’s are still co-opted into
government leading many to decry the entrenchment of labour aristocrats
and careerist unionist rather than activists. Indeed Vavi himself declared
his intentions to join government after the 2012 government elections.

With the contradictions that the labour movement finds itself in, and a
growing sentiment amongst workers and other communities that the ANC
is moving away from the masses, Cosatu straddles a precarious divide
between a champion of the working class or a collaborating vassal of the


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struggle: Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy in South Africa. (Scottsville:
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Andre Odendaal 2004. The liberation struggle in South Africa, 1948-1994 . in

Africa since 1990 Seleti Yonah (ed) New Africa Education

Wolpe Harold; 1972 Capitalism and Cheap labour-power in South Africa: from
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