From the Durban strikes in 1973, trade unions played an increasingly critical role in organising workers to improve their pay and conditions of work. They also played a vital role in building democratic counterpower against the apartheid state. The Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu), launched in Hammanskraal in 1979, stressed worker control and built impressive grassroots organisation.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) launched in Durban in 1985 and often worked closely with the United Democratic Front (UDF), launched in Cape Town in 1983. This enabled workplace and community struggles to connect, and built a political culture in the unions committed to struggles for social justice beyond the shop floor.
This continued after apartheid. Cosatu played an important role in the struggle against Thabo Mbeki’s ruinous denialism with regard to the AIDS pandemic, and for access to treatment. In 2008, the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) refused to offload a consignment of arms from a ship docked in the Durban harbour, and destined for the repressive state in Zimbabwe. But in the years to come, unions would often be more focused on political contestation within the ANC than the growing struggles organised outside of the ruling party.
In the early years after apartheid, trade unions generally had considerable moral authority. But some unions began to squander their standing in society as they allowed their leadership to be integrated into the circuits of power in and around the ruling party, the state and capital. Some, perhaps most notoriously Sadtu, the teachers’ union, and Samwu, the municipal workers’ union, became publicly associated with corruption. In certain cases, there was, as in parts of the ruling party, a degeneration into gangsterism.
In 2006, the reputation of Zwelinzima Vavi, then the general secretary of Cosatu, was, along with that of figures such as Blade Nzimande and Julius Malema, permanently damaged by his support for Jacob Zuma during his rape trial. Two sexual misconduct scandals compounded the damage. Former Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini’s fawning support for Zuma also did significant damage to Cosatu’s credibility.
In 2014, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), the largest union in the country, was expelled from Cosatu. The expulsion was in response to the union’s open critique of Zuma and its explicit rejection of the ANC. This opened a new chapter in the history of South African trade unionism, and offered the prospect of renewal.
Numsa went on to lead the formation of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), which weakened the ANC’s hold on the organised working class. But for the industrial unions that joined Saftu organising on the terrain of rapid deindustrialisation, mass retrenchments and systemic unemployment poses significant challenges. Constant rearguard battles against retrenchments drain time, energy and resources. Factionalism, sometimes encouraged by non-governmental organisations seeking influence, has also taken a toll.
Nonetheless, there have been some notable achievements. Important connections have been established with community-based struggles, including Abahlali baseMjondolo, the largest popular movement to have emerged after apartheid, which now organises in five provinces. Significant connections have also been established internationally with trade unions, popular movements, political organisations and intellectuals. For instance, Numsa now has a close relationship with the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), the landless movement, in Brazil.
But with the strike at South African Airways (SAA), and the looming conflict at Eskom, anti-union sentiment is now reaching a fever pitch in the elite public sphere. Unions seeking to protect jobs and ensure that workers are not made to pay the price for the looting of state-owned enterprises are being presented, to use Margaret Thatcher’s notorious phrase, as “the enemy within”. An imminent attack on vulnerable people is being dressed up as an imperative, essential for the national interest. Increasingly, hostility towards trade unions and workers is crossing the line that separates robust critique from slander.
Commentators on the Left and the Right have compared the current moment to 1981 in the United States, when Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers’ strike, and 1984, in the United Kingdom, when Thatcher broke the miners’ strike. In both countries, these moments marked a decisive setback for the union movement, which resulted in a rapid increase in accumulation by elites and an equally rapid decline in the fortunes of the working class. As has been noted by commentators on the Left, this eventually resulted in political crisis in both countries in the form of votes for Donald Trump and Brexit.
For the Right, this is a moment for the South African government to emulate Reagan and Thatcher, to acquire a “backbone” and act “decisively”, so that the power of the unions can be broken. For the Left, this is a moment to defend the unions and to ensure that workers are not scapegoated for the staggering scale of the corruption by elites in both the state and capital.
Privatisation no panacea
Zuma often sought to cloak his repressive kleptocracy in the language of radical nationalism, and this has been continued, albeit not with the efficacy of the Bell Pottinger days, by the corrupt nationalists that continue to wield significant influence in the ANC. The EFF also uses the language of radical nationalism while engaging in authoritarian and corrupt practices.
This has seriously damaged the standing of the Left in some quarters. Together with the election of a pro-business billionaire president, and a general shift to the right across much of the world, this has emboldened the Right, both black and white.
As a result, the promotion of a standard right-wing economic programme – centred around retrenchments, union bashing, austerity and privatisation – is being presented as if it were an objective set of requirements for the national interest. However, evidence from around the world shows, conclusively, that while these sorts of measures benefit elites, they have a catastrophic impact on the majority, and especially the working class and already impoverished people.
The 944 people who will lose their jobs if SAA is able to go ahead with its planned retrenchments are not responsible for the sustained looting of the airline. Retrenching these people will not solve the airline’s financial problems. International experience clearly shows that privatisation is no panacea for economic stagnation and mismanagement. Austerity will only compound the economic and social crisis in the country, and may well produce a political crisis.
The increasingly hysterical union bashing in the elite public sphere often veers far off the terrain of rational debate and discussion. It is vital that the debate on the future of the state-owned enterprises, and our economy in general, be rooted in a close and careful examination of the most credible available evidence. It is equally important that it moves from a commitment to the interests of the many rather than the few.