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"On 2 June 1999, the (ANC) won its second term of office. Their landslide victory, with a record voter turnout, is a sign that the political machinery underpinning the nation's `negotiated revolution' remains strong. Equally significant is that the progressive union movement - often critical of the ANC's economic policies - offered its full backing and resources to ensure this landslide victory. . . . Before the elections, many voices on the left had accused the ANC of adopting an increasingly anti-working class economic program. Yet South Africa's workers and unions remained committed to the `tri-partite Alliance' with the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP), presenting what many observers felt was a rather curious political paradox. . . ." The article concludes: "With union membership currently rising, COSATU may be able to strengthen its influence over the Alliance and public policy-making. The gap between worker expectations and practice would have to be bridged and the best way for that to happen is through a stronger focus on building union democracy and effective structures. Failing that, South Africa's workers could be in for a rude awakening." (jbv)

vol 14 no 4

A political paradox?: South Africa's trade unionists
a NALEDI team


Printable Version
 
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 14 No 4, August 1999
Pg 17
"Unions"

A POLITICAL PARADOX?
SOUTH AFRICA'S TRADE UNIONISTS

BY A NALEDI TEAM

Conrad Jardine, Vishwas Satgar and Ravi Naidoo of the National Labour and Economic Development Institute developed this article.

On 2 June 1999, the African National Congress (ANC) won its second term of office. Their landslide victory, with a record voter turnout, is a sign that the political machinery underpinning the nation's `negotiated revolution' remains strong. Equally significant is that the progressive union movement -often critical of the ANC's economic policies - offered its full backing and resources to ensure this landslide victory.

Before the elections, many voices on the left had accused the ANC of adopting an increasingly anti-working class economic program. Yet South Africa's workers and unions remained committed to the `tri-partite Alliance' with the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP), presenting what many observers felt was a rather curious political paradox.

To explore this paradox further the National Labour and Economic Development Institute (NALEDI) conducted a survey of worker expectations regarding the Alliance and transformation. This study, undertaken in late 1998, is part of a research project that began in 1994. The survey was completed by 640 Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) members across the country. The survey was a collaborative effort with other South African researchers, particularly those from the Sociology of Work Project at the University of the Witwatersrand.

High-intensity democracy

South Africa's new Constitution describes democracy as: Universal adult suffrage, a national common voters role, regular elections and a multi-party system of democratic government, to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness.

In South Africa, representative democracy is sometimes considered to be political competition among different political organizations or parties. This democracy is only multi-party competition - nothing more. Some have called it "low intensity democracy."

The political structure at the core of South African politics is much more complex, however. COSATU's relationship with its political Alliance partners, the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP), is characterized by overlapping members but also by organizational and political independence. In other words, COSATU, a trade union federation, is not the union wing of the ANC. COSATU's political independence thus enables the federation to influence policy and governance in South Africa through the Alliance. This structure offers the potential to allow organized workers to shape the political priorities of the ruling ANC.

COSATU's membership in a formally constituted alliance with the ANC offers the opportunity for shopfloor level workers to vote for ANC political candidates and to influence policy through their trade union structures. This means that an important centre of worker control within the political arena in South Africa potentially lies within the tri-partite Alliance. To the extent that this alliance works, organized workers can influence the direction of the democratic transition in South Africa. The arrangement could be described as a `high-intensity democracy'.

Role of unions

COSATU is not in alliance with the ANC and SACP to advance worker interests exclusively. The union federation has been committed to broad societal change throughout the policy debate and discussion of recent years. In keeping with this, 62 percent of the workers who were surveyed indicated that if a political party with majority worker support is elected, then that party must represent the interests of all its supporters. Thirty percent indicated that the party must represent all South Africans, even if worker interests have to be sacrificed. Only eight percent said that the elected party must represent workers only. This result is consistent with the findings of the 1994 survey.

Even in an electoral sense, therefore, COSATU workers have a commitment to a wider societal project that includes other class forces.

Workers' electoral support for the Alliance was informed by three key factors (see Table 1). The first factor was the calibre of leadership and their policies. Sixty one percent of workers emphasized that they would vote for the party that had both credible leadership and policies. Interestingly, 25 percent claimed to prefer policies over leadership alone, while only 11 percent preferred leadership. These results suggest that South Africa's politicians cannot expect to manipulate workers with empty rhetoric. They must instead clearly define what they represent for society.

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             Table 1
Most important factor behind decision to vote

    leadership & policy   63%
    leadership            12%
    policies              25%

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The second important finding was that most workers (54 percent) do not think they can rely on political parties alone. In line with this view, 93 percent of workers agreed that they will always rely on unions to represent their interests. One might conclude, therefore, that workers consider union participation in governance to be essential.

The third factor informing electoral support for and commitment to the Alliance is the desire to carry union cultures, such as regular consultations and direct decision making, into parliament (Table 2). Seventy-three percent of the workers surveyed indicated that their political party must consult with its supporters on all issues. A further twenty-five percent said that consultation was necessary only on important issues.

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                                 Table 2
                      Consultation with supporters

Consultation with its supporters on all issues                         73%
Consultation with its suporters only on important issues               25%
Consultation with supporters is unnecessary because party was elected   2.7%

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In short, COSATU workers consider themselves to be important partners in governance and political decision-making and don't confine their political role to merely casting a ballot. A narrow representative politics, with party leaders alone making decisions, is unacceptable.

Public policy

Over the past five years, the challenge of implementing the 1994 program of the tripartite Alliance - the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) - has driven the policy agenda of South Africa.

The majority of COSATU workers interviewed displayed a high level of awareness and understanding of the RDP (Graph 3). Eighty-two percent of workers knew about the RDP. One might conclude then that workers seem to have voted for the Alliance based on a perception that transformation would benefit society as a whole but would meet the interests of the poor in particular.

Labour plays a role in shaping public policy at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC). At NEDLAC, representatives of organized labour, government and community organizations sit together to discuss labour, economic and development policy. NEDLAC was created in 1995 largely as the result of a labour movement initiative and offers workers an added voice in the policy process. COSATU has contributed to a number of policy and legislative issues through NEDLAC. The survey indicated, however, that most of the workers interviewed (62 percent) did not know about NEDLAC.

Worker control and involvement in NEDLAC processes has been limited, therefore. This is confirmed by the response from workers that only thirty percent have been at union meetings where there was a report-back on NEDLAC. Sixty-nine percent said that they never had received a report-back on NEDLAC. COSATU may be committed to worker control, but when spaces have opened up for worker intervention, influence and leadership, generally, COSATU workers have not been involved at a grassroots level. Most workers who knew about NEDLAC believed that it was an important channel through which workers could influence national policy, nonetheless.

Thus despite the considerable potential for worker participation in the policy process, public policy making has generally not gone beyond sophisticated interventions made by union leadership. The survey shows that worker control over and involvement in public policy-making is weak. This leads to the conclusion that public policy-making does not filter down to workers as much as it could.

The absence of a "bottom up" practice of contesting policy raises a number of critical questions. Have policy engagements and parliamentary lobbying degenerated into a new kind of elite deal-making that cannot be driven by working class struggles and ultimately from below? Or are COSATU's leaders dealing with such complex policy issues that they require considerable technical capacity, making it difficult to communicate these issues to workers or mobilize their support? Or is it (as is likely) some combination of these factors?

Whatever the answer to these questions, when the relationship between worker control and public policy-making is weakened, this reduces the potential for worker influence through the Alliance and other policy institutions like NEDLAC.

Struggles to change economic policy

South Africa fell victim to a severe currency crisis in 1996. The South African government adopted a new macro-economic policy (called Growth, Employment and Redistribution, or GEAR) in an attempt to address this change in `market sentiment.' The new macro-economic strategy incorporated many neo-liberal features and placated the markets. For the working class, however, industry and workplace restructuring to meet the `imperative' of global competitiveness has unfolded at such a pace and to such an extent that workers have become extremely vulnerable. Employers use the high level of unemployment to keep wages low, and along with other strategies like relying more heavily on casual workers and sub-contracting, have pushed organized workers to a political crossroads: fight or be decimated.

With union engagement in national policy weakened, unions have instead tried to contest this structural adjustment from below. In 1998 this struggle led to a wave of strikes unprecedented during the democratic transition. The strikes were concentrated in five sectors of the economy - transport, chemical, catering, metal and the public sector. Most were on wage issues. Workers interviewed confirmed this, with 66 percent affirming that they had been involved in strike action since 1994, mainly to improve wages and working conditions.

Explanations for the paradox

Eighty percent of the workers interviewed felt that the political party they will be voting for (the ANC) has worker interests at heart (Table 3). Six percent disagreed and fourteen percent did not know. The overwhelming electoral support for the ANC, in the light of their apparent neo-liberal macro-economic policy framework, suggests a political paradox.

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               Table 3
 Does the party you will be voting for 
    have worker interest at heart?

           yes         80%
           no           6%
           not know    14%

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There are several possible explanations. First, most workers may, in fact, approve of government's economic policies. Thus the views expressed by union leaders may reflect only that portion of the union membership that is the most critical of the government's economic policies. This explanation, however, appears implausible since more than half a million jobs have been lost in the past five years, accompanied by a rise in insecurity among most workers.

A second explanation could be that workers feel that there is no important political party to the left of the ANC. If this is the case, they perhaps support the ANC as the `least-worst' option. Many left critics of the Alliance certainly have made this argument. Only 3 percent of the workers in the sample supported the idea of setting up a rival workers' party, however.

Third, perhaps most workers may approve of many ANC policies, enough to make them continue to support the ANC despite their unhappiness over economic policy. This explanation is more plausible in view of the advances made in some areas of service delivery and in dismantling apartheid's racist laws.

A fourth possibility is that workers have not made the link between their struggles from below and the rightward shift in the ANC government's macro-economic policy. This explanation is supported by the finding that the majority of workers do not know what GEAR is (see Table 4).

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                 Table 4
        Worker knowledge of what
        RDP, GEAR and NEDLAC are

             RDP      82%
             GEAR     33%
             NEDLAC   38%

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It is submitted that these last two explanations are the most plausible. The fourth explanation poses the challenge for COSATU of ensuring that policy interventions adopt a more worker-driven, "bottom-up" character. Although the leadership may be fighting to advance the mandates given to them by their members, most of these members are not familiar with nor actively involved in these struggles. In short, workers remain active on industrial issues, but are only actively engaged in supporting broader policy interventions in a very limited way. Industrial issues do provide an easier basis for organization than does complicated economic policy. But the focus on industrial issues also reflects structural and capacity problems that currently plague the unions. These problems have meant that the union leadership has been unable to facilitate worker understanding and involvement in policy interventions.

Prospects for the Alliance

Notwithstanding the strong electoral support for the ANC amongst workers in the 1999 election, since 1994 there has been a trend towards declining support for the Alliance . In 1994, 76 percent of workers interviewed believed the Alliance should fight the 1999 election. In late 1998 however, only 64 percent of workers interviewed indicated that the Alliance should contest the 2004 elections. This decline in support is relatively small, but the trend could accelerate if the government's economic policies do not meet the expectations of workers after 1999. Once the organized working class begins to confront the underlying policy and political challenges they face over the next few years, this too will have serious ramifications for the Alliance.

With union membership currently rising, COSATU may be able to strengthen its influence over the Alliance and public policy-making. The gap between worker expectations and practice would have to be bridged and the best way for that to happen is through a stronger focus on building union democracy and effective structures. Failing that, South Africa's workers could be in for a rude awakening.

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