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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 . . . Panitch fears a "corporatist" outcome that will be increasingly detrimental to the hopes of ordinary South Africans for a better life. Panitch smells disaster in the logic of "competitiveness" and "business as usual" that underpins compromises with corporate power. (jbv)

vol 11 no 3

COSATU and corporatism: A response to Eddie Webster
Leo Panitch

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Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 11, No 3, April 1996
Page 6



Leo Panitch, professor of Political Science at York University in Toronto, has written widely on working class politics and trade union strategies around the world.

I was in South Africa in October 1995 as part of a CAW- NUMSA project to analyze the contemporary political economy and develop teaching modules for trade union leaders and shop stewards on globalization, competitiveness, corporatism and the restructuring of work. Such an experience is hardly sufficient to make one an expert. Yet it would perhaps be irresponsible not to share the impressions and insights gleaned from long and intensive discussions with the national and regional leadership of one of the country's most creative and powerful unions, supplemented by further discussions with two Ministers, three very senior civil servants (all formerly key figures in COSATU unions), various provincial and municipal political activists and officials, as well as business analysts and socialist intellectuals in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg. Eddie Webster's comments on the dilemmas facing COSATU provides an appropriate context and opportunity to offer the following reflections.

It is, sad to say, my impression that the GNU's "response to neo-liberalism" has NOT been as "innovative" as Eddie Webster suggests. Borrowing heavily from the Australian Labour Governments, the strategy adopted is that of a "progressive competitive" accommodation to globalization (as analyzed in the essays by Panitch, Albo and Saul in the 1994 volume of The Socialist Register). The term corporatism is used more positively on the South African left than anywhere else I have ever known in my many years of studying tripartite structures. And this is so despite the clear trajectory towards the GNU's sponsoring the type of integration of trade unions with the state that has traditionally - and deservedly - given corporatism a bad name among trade union militants and socialists.

Assessing NEDLAC

There is no doubt, then, that NEDLAC has been designed as a means of institutionalizing and harnessing trade union power. But the question is: institutionalizing it with what effect and harnessing it to what end? Webster is correct to see the Labour Relations Act as a major reform which the trade union leadership won through combining tough negotiations in NEDLAC with timely and effective "mass action." (Note, however, that a good many militants and socialists are very uncomfortable with the Act's proclamation of fundamental class harmony between bosses and workers and with what that suggests about closing down class struggle on the shop floor - and in the community - especially through the provisions for workplace forums.)

But it is an illusion to think that this portends the autonomous and effective use of trade union power in the decisions that govern economic life in South Africa. Far from the industrial policy being discussed at NEDLAC amounting to, as Webster suggests, "a creative challenge to the global agenda of neo-liberalism," it is in fact a policy which seeks to integrate South Africa into the framework of free trade, the deregulation of capital flows and exchange rates, the promotion of privatization, and export-oriented competitiveness. The active union role in such a framework is expected to be one of supporting plant closures and wage restraint. It is a policy which runs directly counter to the predominant emphasis in the original RDP on a "people-centred" development strategy of "growth through redistribution."

In the case of NEDLAC, as all other such tripartite bodies, for all the talk about partnership in decision making, the actual decisions about what is to be invested, how, where and when are not made in NEDLAC, but remain the preserve of the capitalist class. Moreover, whereas the union leaders had a clear agenda and a strong mandate on negotiating a legal framework for collective bargaining, on questions of economic and industrial policy, union leaders have been reacting to an agenda set by capital and the state. Not only do the union leaders not have much confidence in these areas, but they are also expected by state and business officials to play a far more passive role.

Lost potential?

This is especially tragic in the South African case, because it might have been thought that the potential was there for a different story to unfold than the usual corporatist one - and no doubt it is this potential that is still inspiring Webster's vision of corporatism. Certainly there is a level of political sophistication and intelligence among the NUMSA activists I met that is quite remarkable. More than once, hearing it articulated during my visit, I felt a lump rise to my throat. For it brought to mind just how much it has been the case that the more formally educated the North American and European workers have become (and the more institutionalized have their unions and parties become), the more have they become politically illiterate. And it raised the question of whether the workers' enormous political intelligence, developed through years of struggle, might be dissipated, rather than be built on, in the new South Africa.

There was in the original RDP, a significant commitment to the "capacity-building assistance" the democratic government would give to the unions and other popular movements. A measure of how disappointing NEDLAC must be seen in this respect is that it has translated this into the meagre provision of funding one person to "coordinate" union representations. Far from developing union capacities to challenge creatively the political economy of globalization, there has been the "brain drain" from the unions that Eddie Webster refers to. "We have been abandoned by the intellectuals" was a comment I heard quite often from the trade unionists I met. And what was meant by this was not just that people had gone to work inside the state, but that those very people were the authors of a strategy that left capital rather than labour in the driver's seat and that made no provision for "capacity-building" on the part of the unions to challenge this agenda. Eddie Webster may wish it were so, but the government is not fostering "counter- pressure" from the unions and social movements in relation to its industrial strategy.

The separation between those who have gone into the state and the rest of the movement that Webster points to expresses itself culturally in a most poignant fashion, going beyond the more visible manifestations of high salaries and expensive cars. One middle ranking NUMSA official told me one night at Kippies jazz club in Jo'burg that it used to be the case that when COSATU people went to a place like this, heads would turn - they were seen as heroes in the centre of the action. Today, those who have stayed with the unions rather than gone into the state are seen as "losers" - not only financially, but because that's not where the political "action" is any longer seen to be.


Moreover, the process of embourgeoisification extends far beyond the perks and hierarchies associated with parliamentarism. Just as with the creation of an Afrikaner bourgeoisie in 1948, so is there a strategy on the part of the old ruling classes to facilitate a black bourgeoisie. And this even extends - dangerously - to certain unions. As one particularly perceptive analysis noted of trade union involvement in the partial sale of Anglo-American's Johnnic holdings as part of "the current wave of black economic empowerment equity transfer deals . . . [this] will have far-reaching implications not only for the broad thrust of black empowerment, but also for the trade union movement. . . . Trade unions cannot be expected to engage in a business venture on this scale and not expect it to influence their attitude toward capital. Hence it must impact on the character of unionism itself . . . " [Business Map, Sept. 4, 1995] It is doubtful if this is what the RDP originally meant by "capacity-building."

While I was in South Africa last October, 7000 lowly paid black nurses were dismissed for going on strike in the Eastern Cape. I heard one Minister boldly predict the closure of five of the seven auto plants in the country. And I was told by another Minister that the reason for the complete failure of the mass housing program was (a) that the people would rather live in shacks than rent publicly built apartments, and (b) that international investors would not cover South Africa's trade deficit if price controls existed on construction materials!

How should one explain such behaviour and abject rationalizations? One explanation no doubt is to be found in Webster's quote from a union organizer who notes an "increasing similarity not only of styles of dress, language and common pubs . . . but also in the style of thinking" between the old and new rulers in South Africa. A more charitable interpretation would be one that emphasizes the narrow range of manoeuvre open to the ANC in the GNU. After all, the transition from Apartheid was, in the end, a negotiated one, a compromise, and it reflected as such the continuing strength of the old ruling class and state as well as their weaknesses.

This question on how large was the room for manoeuvre was the one I most often asked during my visit. There was virtually unanimous agreement outside of government circles that the room for manoeuvre was rather broader than the government had taken. One business analyst told me, for example, that business would have been prepared to pay a 5% capital levy across the board as a necessary capitalist recompense for Apartheid had the government insisted on it. This alone would have paid for the mass housing programme - and much else. More generally, there can be little doubt that the GNU could have claimed far more "good- will" space in the international arena - by way of exemption from so quickly accommodating to the rigours of global neo- liberalism - than it has chosen to assert.

Opting FOR capitalism?

In other words, there has not just been a tactical accommodation TO capitalism. Rather, there has been a strategic opting FOR capitalism. It is a depressing story, but, of course, it is hardly one that is unique among erstwhile socialists and communists in today's world. As Patrick Bond and Mzwanele Mayekiso put it in their important essay in the 1996 volume of The Socialist Register: "Indeed, an important reason that neo-liberal compromises characterize South Africa's transition is that there were so many selective justifications [for such a course to be] drawn from across the world"!

Still, it is in a context so defined that the appropriate strategy of the labour movement now needs to be assessed. The issue is not one of leaving NEDLAC or staying within it. Trade unions by their nature must engage with employers and the state. The issue is only what kind of engagement with what effects on union autonomy? Corporatism is the kind of practice that stresses class harmony "in the national interest" despite the continuing existence of class inequality and domination; it is the kind of practice that puts far more emphasis on the ability of centralized union structures to control their members in that "national interest" than it does on their representing them in the class struggle. In a liberal democracy, it is possible to participate in tripartite structures, as in parliamentary ones, without losing movement autonomy, But this will prove true only if there is a clear appreciation of the corporatist contradictions entailed in such tripartite participation, and a concerted attempt to limit the effects of those contradictions on union autonomy - so as to maximize the capacity to represent and mobilize members, and to retain and develop radical policy proposals and a long-term socialist vision and strategy.

And in South Africa? One union leader told me that the form the transition to democracy in South Africa has taken has reduced the possibility that union leaders like him would end up in prison, but that the question he had now to address was whether union leaders like himself could avoid becoming "imprisoned in NEDLAC." The jury is still out on the answer to that question.

And there are signs that, at least among some COSATU unions, the approach now to be taken - vis--vis NEDLAC in particular and the GNU in general - will be that of developing an autonomous capacity for economic and industrial analysis and policy-making. On this basis, continued participation by trade unions leaders in NEDLAC and similar forums may continue and even be somewhat useful, but always to undertaken with a clear and autonomous strategic mandate for such participation. (Whether business and government will continue to participate on such non- corporatist terms is another question.) And this will have to mean, in turn, the advancement of an alternative economic strategy through education and mobilization well beyond the confines of NEDLAC so as to build up (as Bond and Mayekiso put it) a "working-class civil society" oriented to "people-centred development" - rather than to the accommodation to neo-liberalism that a strategy of "progressive competitiveness" amounts to.

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