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This is part of the exchange between Eddie Webster and Leo Panitch - both labour-linked activists - regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the South African trade unions' present politico-economic strategies. At the core of their disagreement in this debate is, precisely, a difference of opinion regarding the presumed imperatives of globalization and what, if anything, trade unions might do to resist them . . . Webster sees new opportunities for working class self-assertion in the apparent compromises with corporate power and a reformist state that the South African labour movement seems compelled to adopt. Webster seems to envision little alternative to the labour movement's seeking merely to "modify" (rather than transform) the capitalist structures that currently drive South Africa's economy. (jbv)

vol 11 no 3

COSATU: Old alliances, new strategies
Eddie Webster

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 11, No 3, April 1996
Page 3



Eddie Webster is professor of Industrial Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand.

There is a great irony for COSATU in the present political moment. After decades of opposition to apartheid, culminating in their strong electoral support for the African National Congress (ANC) in the April 1994 elections, the unions find their allies participating in a Government of National Unity (the GNU) in which their main enemies are now their partners. They also face a global economy that dictates neo-liberal market-based policies as the only acceptable solutions. This places COSATU in a dilemma: does it continue to operate inside the Alliance and try and shape the agenda of the GNU , or does it "go for divorce" and risk confrontation and possible marginalisation?

There can be no doubt that COSATU played a central role in the transition to democracy in South Africa. However, it remains an open question whether labour can sustain this involvement during the period of consolidating democracy when the "rules of the game" have changed so markedly. Comparative experience suggests both that labour has difficulty adapting to this kind of new phase, and that pro-democracy forces may be dramatically reconfigured. This arises from the fact that there are two transitions at play: a political transition to democracy and an equally profound economic transition to growth, productivity, and global competition.

The GNU has accepted the macro-economic constraints of the liberal international economic order. It has signed GATT which is likely to send a wave of anti-protectionism and deregulation rippling through one industry after another; abolished the old financial rand; and sharply cutting real wages in the public sector. More recently, the GNU announced its intention to negotiate "the restructuring of state assets" (or, if you prefer, privatisation).

Liberal commentators have welcomed "this realism" as evidence that "normal politics has at last begun" in South Africa, but find it odd that COSATU is willing to accept a policy where it is likely to be the "chief potential victim." Many on the left have also concluded that the ANC has succumbed to neo-liberalism, while the media regularly predict the end of the Triple Alliance between the ANC, COSATU and the South African Communist Party (SACP).

These responses, I argue, miss the innovative part of South Africa's response to neo-liberalism and the crucial role of the Alliance in acting as a "left pressure" on the ANC. This dynamic, where labour is powerful both on the streets and in the centres of power, could be described as a process where Cosatu is both "inside and outside the state." While signalling an acceptance of the need for more open markets, this approach has also strengthened labour and given it a firmly institutionalized voice in decision-making.

The triple alliance

South Africa is one of the few countries in the world in which trade unions have grown over the last decade-and-a-half. This has involved a growth in union density from 15.32% in 1979 to 57.98% in 1993. Unions provided black workers with a voice, not only an economic voice in the workplace, but also a political voice during the apartheid period.

The existence of powerful `political traditions' of resistance among black workers forced the labour movement to confront its relationship with the national liberation movement. At the centre of this "hidden world" was the national democratic tradition led by the ANC and the SACP. Shortly after its formation in late 1985, COSATU's leaders travelled to Lusaka and endorsed the exiled ANC as the leading element in the liberation struggle.

The Triple Alliance between the ANC, the SACP and COSATU is deeply rooted in the struggle against apartheid . This has led to significant shared leadership between the Alliance partners. Furthermore, during the anti-apartheid struggle "social linkages" were forged. These shared identities and networks of personal ties that were built up during years of cooperation and shared hardship in detention, prison or exile are likely to endure well into the future.

Besides, Cosatu faces no serious opposition from rival unions on the left that could "poach" its members when they find it costly to support policies which threaten living standards . With a total membership of 1,3 million, Cosatu has more members than all the other federations put together. Neither does the ANC face serious opposition from its parliamentary opponents. In these circumstances, union leaders may decide that continued cooperation with the GNU - in the hope that it could minimize any negative impact of neo-liberal policies - is preferable to political isolation.

However in spite of the Alliance, the labour movement is relatively autonomous from the state and from its political leadership. COSATU was able to achieve what SACTU, its official trade union wing in exile until it was absorbed into Cosatu in 1990, never achieved: its recognition and acceptance by the ANC as an equal, not subordinate, partner in the Alliance. During the eighties COSATU built up its own leadership cadre, its own democratic political culture and its own constituency.

As a result the Triple Alliance is fundamentally different from the Soviet-style model where the union is little more than a conveyer belt for the party. COSATU is financially independent of the state, and retains a capacity to mobilise through a leadership that is accountable to its members rather than to a political party.

Stresses in the alliance

Does this high degree of labour autonomy and record of militancy point towards a break up of the Alliance after an initial period of cooperation? While the Alliance is likely to be put under considerable strain in the next few years, labour is unlikely to defect before the next elections in 1999.

By virtue of its independent power base labour it is able to mobilise outside of state structures, yet through its Alliance with the ANC it is able to influence state policy. By being both "inside" and "outside" the state, labour has the potential to influence the agenda of the ANC in pro-labour directions.

This was best illustrated during the struggle in the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) over the Labour Relations Bill in 1995 when labour "took to the streets" twice during the two-and-half month negotiations over the Bill. Many commentators saw the mass action campaign in June in support of labour's negotiating position, as a challenge to the democratic process. Quite the opposite is the case. By engaging in peaceful protest, the leadership of one of the key social partners was signalling to its membership that it was an autonomous actor.

Tripartitism assumes a pluralistic society where autonomous groups with divergent interests recognize each other's existence while promoting their own distinctive views. By channelling their demands and organising their conflicts within the framework of representative institutions, the conflicts that took place in and around the Labour Relations Bill were playing a real role in promoting labour's interests and consolidating democracy in South Africa.

Importantly, these tripartite arrangements are not part of neo-liberalism - instead, they are a creative challenge to the global agenda of neo-liberalism. The launch of NEDLAC in February 1995 is the key to this innovative strategy. It provides labour with a central role in the negotiation process. Through creating a statutory body designed to create consensus between labour, government and employers on economic and social policy, NEDLAC institutionalizes the potential power of labour in the heart of decision-making. Through the creation of industry-wide statutory councils designed to jointly negotiate training and industry policy, the Labour Relations Act creates the basis for long term industrial policy.

Above all, through Workplace Forums, workers are potentially drawn into decision-making at an early stage, challenging management's prerogative to unilaterally make and implement decisions on the shop floor.

What balance?

In short, the GNU has taken a bold and decisive step in the direction of co-determination. At the same time, the resultant new "rules of the political game" do pose for labour the need to find, on a continuing basis, an appropriate balance between cooperation and protest. Whether labour will have the will and the capacity to walk this tightrope successfully is the big question. Moreover, it must be admitted that some of the initial signs in this regard are not especially encouraging.

Firstly, organised labour has lost significant layers of leadership to government, political office, and the corporate sector. Often labelled "the brain drain," this has seriously diminished the pool of skilled and experienced senior leaders developed over years of struggle.

Secondly, a growing gap has developed between leadership and base. A union organiser has written of the dilution of the relationship between leaders, shop stewards and the rank and file through the emergence of an alternative set of relationships. In the author's pithy phrase, the upper echelons of the labour movement begin to share with their counterparts in other spheres an "increasing similarity not only in the style of dress, language and common pubs they begin to share, but also in the style of thinking and the approaches to basic political and economic questions."

For example, has the move to parliament, under the ANC banner, of key COSATU leaders, opened up possibilities of labour increasing its influence in the heart of the state? Or has there been, as one informant has put it, "an exodus without a map."

Certainly the union movement expects those seconded to parliament "to struggle inside Parliament for labour's positions." But parliament is the very antithesis of COSATU members' notion of direct democracy. As one grass-roots activist, now representing the ANC in parliament, observed:

"One of the most remarkable things about this parliamentary process is how it has decollectivized us. It has individualised us and the ethos of collective engagement that we had outside Parliament is fast evaporating. . . . There is something about Parliament that is inherently hierarchical."

Parliament, in the words of another informant, "is like a sink hole. You work frenetically, you work very hard, but you do not see immediate material success flowing from the amount of energy you invest in a particular issue."

While COSATU's influence may increase, a very different outcome is also possible, one in which these individuals - now detached from their old federation - are also isolated from the centres of power in the ANC. They do not have a labour caucus because it is believed any such initiative would be divisive. At the same time, as ANC members they are subject to parliamentary caucus discipline and are no longer formally accountable to the COSATU membership. In addition, a clause in the interim constitution forces Members of Parliament to resign their seats if they leave their party, this providing the party leadership with further powerful sanctions over dissident members.

Of course, the close informal social linkages between the parliamentarians and their erstwhile colleagues in the labour movement remain. But disenchantment is emerging in the Alliance as they see their former colleagues earning high salaries and driving expensive cars. In the words of one informant who complained about the large amount of money spent on salaries of politicians: "Its a transition . . . which we are trapped in . . . . And we have to get out. People are getting sucked into it and enjoying the benefits of it. It would be very difficult for people to give away what they have now."

Strategies and tactics

Still, to see such strains inside the Alliance as signs of possible rupture would be premature. "To retreat now," Jeremy Cronin, Deputy General Secretary of the SACP argues, "would be to hand over victory to our strategic opponents, whose agenda is also to capture the heart and soul of the ANC, and they are having some successes." A similar point was made rather more picturesquely by a leading COSATU official: "This is a transitional period, that's why we have a GNU, that's why you have to hug the hyenas of the past in order to make advances in the future."

And yet the question persists: is COSATU in a "no-win" situation where it gains little from remaining in the Alliance yet faces possible marginalisation if it withdraws from it? Or does the possibility exist of labour redefining its role and, through a combination of struggles inside and outside the state, find the means of challenging those who wish to embrace the market as the panacea for the meeting of all social needs?

In the words of a leading Cosatu official:
"There's all sorts of pressures, and sometimes you get the feeling that certain individuals are battling in the light of these pressures. But that's where your mass struggles outside parliament come into play because if a person only gets pressure from one side, from the IMF, the World Bank, from John Major and Thatcherite economists - then for a few months with that sort of pressure on an individual, he will begin to soften up and follow. But if there is equal pressure which is coming from left forces outside parliament on the same issues that he is getting pressure form the IMF, then he begins to think as an individual instead of thinking on behalf of other external forces."

As this quotation suggests, and as we have argued above, labour retains the capacity to block the most negative aspects of "economic reform." In the longer term, however, there is an additional question to consider: whether labour's power will be used to resist the market through strategies such as nationalisation and the like, or used merely to modify it - through what, to take one example, the Green Paper on new employment standards calls "regulated flexibility" (this regulated flexibility seeking to balance the protection of minimum standards with the requirements of labour market flexibility). While union leadership has, at least for the moment, identified itself with a market-modification approach, it is not clear what the full implications of such an economic strategy are for the unions' own membership. Can we hazard a guess that the very future of the Alliance depends on the outcome of debates about just such issues?

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