Ercüment Çelik

The political transition in South Africa has been decisively affected by Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) as a governing force and as a factor of social stabilisation in a context marked by macro-economic free market orthodoxy. “Three decisive aspects apply to the role of labour in this period: First, organised labour provided a decisive contribution, during phases of struggle as well as negotiation, in overcoming apartheid and setting the stage for the establishment of democratic political institutions. Second, labour’s role in the transitional and post-transitional phase was rooted in a formal electoral and programmatic alliance between the biggest union federation COSATU, the leading party in government African national Congress (ANC) and South African Communist party (SACP). Such an alliance immediately defined COSATU’s role, beyond the mere representation of worker interests in a project of governance that includes different and often, contradictory class forces, domestic imperatives and international pressures. Third, South Africa’s political transition paralleled a transition towards marked-based solutions to challenges of economic competitiveness and social integration”(Barchiesi, 1999:20).

Since 1985, COSATU has been in de facto alliance with the ANC. However, it was only in 1991, that it formally joined the Triple Alliance with the ANC and SACP. Through the alliance there is leadership overlap. The COSATU Secretary-General sits on the 85–member National Executive of the ANC. Five COSATU members sit on the Central Committee of the SACP. This gives COSATU some influence over the formulation and implementation of policies inside the ANC and COSATU. Two factors strengthen the alliance. Firstly, COSATU is not faced by strong rival competitors for a membership, who find it costly to support measures that threaten the living standards of members. Where competition does exist, rival unions are not more militant than their COSATU counterparts. Secondly, electoral support of the ANC remained after the next general election in 1999. COSATU is likely to continue in the alliance but put pressure on the ANC to change its policies.

How has labour reached to this position? We should go back to the past to understand the present. There are three major political traditions within the labour movement in South Africa: The national democratic tradition, the shop-floor tradition and the black consciousness/Africanist tradition. At the centre is the national democratic tradition led by the ANC, a broad multi-class African nationalist movement founded in 1912, and its close ally, the SACP founded in 1921. In 1955 the ANC/SACP alliance formed a trade-union wing, the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). Lacking a strong power based on the strong shop-floor and faced with an increasingly hostile state and intransigent employers, SACTU mobilized the oppressed-across class lines- around the demands of the ANC’s popular programme, the Freedom Charter, adopted in 1955. The banning of the ANC in 1960 led to the crushing of SACTU as an above-board organisation and forced it underground and into exile. Meanwhile, in the early 70s, an alternative political tradition had been established in the workplaces in the major industrial areas of South Africa. Based on strong shop-floor structures, these fledgling unions, in particular those which from 1979 affiliated to the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU), gave primary emphasis to building a cadre of working class leadership directly accountable to their members through a system of direct democracy. These emerging unions developed what has become known as the shop-floor tradition. In 1982, FOSATU’s General Secretary proposed the development of a workers’ movement under worker control as an alternative to the national democratic tradition. A third but numerically insignificant alternative emerged around black consciousness/Africanism.

In the mid-eighties the anti-apartheid struggle began to take on the dimensions of a virtual civil war reaching unprecedented levels of mobilization and resistance in factories and townships. By August 1984, when the South African Defence Force invaded the townships, these unions located within the shop-floor tradition were facing numerous pressures encouraging them to abandon their ‘workerist’ critique of ‘populism’. They were encouraged to align themselves with the United Democratic Front (UDF), a national umbrella body of anti-apartheid organisations formed in 1983. Underlying the acrimonious dispute between workerist and populist then, was the deeper question of the relationship of organised labour to the powerful political traditions dominant in South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle. In 1985, the two main currents in the labour movement merged to form COSATU, signalling a strategic ‘compromise’ in which the integrity of the ‘shop-floor tradition’ was acknowledged while the new federation committed itself to participation in the national democratic struggle under the leadership of the ANC. In 1990, the creation of a single federation of industrial unions aligned to the ANC meant that SACTU had been absorbed into COSATU.

Conflict between the state and labour escalated during the mid-eighties. The state was faced with a choice: intensify repression toward the labour movement and other mobilized formations in civil society and risk alienating capital with no guarantee of eliminating mobilization from below or turn toward more fundamental political reform. In February 1990, De Klerk announced the unbanning of the ANC, the PAC and the SACP and freed Mandela. Over the next 12 months the ANC, SACP and COSATU forged a formal alliance that cautiously began to distance itself from the armed struggle and from insurrectionist elements within its own ranks. Negotiation for a democratic alternative in South Africa began in earnest at precisely the moment when notions of alternative forms of democracy vanished. The collapse of socialist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and the crisis of social democracy in Western Europe, had transformed the international climate, delegitimizing radical notions of democracy and reinforcing a global economy that dictated neo-liberal market based solutions as the only acceptable solutions. This removed the apartheid regime’s historic fear of a triumph of the commandist version of democracy, long espoused by the SACP. It also opened an opportunity for capital to influence ANC leaders. With the opening up of political society, the centre of gravity within opposition politics shifted to the ANC as it began to reassert its hegemony as the political leader of the anti-apartheid movement.

In July 1991, the de facto alliance was formalised at the IV. National Congress of COSATU which reaffirmed the organisational independence of COSATU and reserved the right to be politically active and to oppose any decision that detrimentally affects them, both now and in a future non-racial democratic South Africa. In December 1991, COSATU applied to attend the convention to negotiate the new constitution but it was refused. It was comprised of political parties representing political society: no civil society formations- including business, traditional leaders and others as well as COSATU- obtained direct representation. “From this point, political parties were to be at the centre of transition”(Webster, 1998: 48).

The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) emerged as the centre-piece of the ANC’s electoral programme. Although the origins of the RDP lie with COSATU’s and SACP’s desire to bind the ANC to a radical programme of transformation, its adoption by the ANC had as much to do with electoral politics as it did with transformation. In particular, its macro-economic orientation was redefined away from the unions’ commitment to ‘growth and redistribution’ to a direction more attractive to domestic and international capital, with commitment to fiscal discipline and macro-economic balance. In 1993 COSATU criticized this programme on both procedural and substantive grounds. However it adapted the programme without suggesting an alternative to this call for fiscal discipline at the hearth of the RDP. The RDP rapidly took on the status of a mantra that dominated the discourse of development in the first two years of the new government. At the same congress, COSATU constructed the other leg of its electoral strategy in support of the ANC. Twenty parliamentary candidates on the ANC’s national list, including some of the organisation’s most senior office bearers and strategists. Many ex-COSATU leaders gained influence but COSATU as an organisation gained very little. Within 5 months the RDP turned into an official government White Paper, which reconceptualised it as a long-term strategic vision around clearly stated economic targets, leaving little room for change driven by labour or civil society.

In June 1996, the Minister of Finance finally released a macro-economic strategy: Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR). It commits the government to global economic orthodoxy; monetary and fiscal discipline; a stable exchange rate; higher public and private investment; lower tariffs and faster export growth. It welcomed by capital and the international financial institutions, aims to accelerate the privatisation programme and a reduction in ‘market inflexibility’. The document has been strongly criticised by both COSATU and the SACP, although it was eventually, formally endorsed by the ANC’s Working Committee. Through a pact regularly renegotiated in National Economic and Labour Council (NEDLAC), “labour will have to sacrifice sectoral income for enhanced class power, through both the enlargement of the working class and an institutionalised role in determining economic growth policy”(Webster, 1998:56).

New Labour Regime, New Institutions

The foundation of a new labour regime based on co-determination and concertation are being laid in South Africa. This refers to an institutional role for interest organisations-mainly economic- in the formulation and implementation/regulation of state policy. It is less a set of centralised core institutions and more a new and developing mode of representation and mediation of societal interests. This new labour regime is the outcome of three institutional innovations: NEDLAC, LRA, and the proposal for a social pact, which all emerged from the political capital built up during the period of struggle against apartheid, but not come out of neo-classic economic theory.

In 1991, COSATU called a successful general strike to resist the unilateral restructuring of the economy. One of the demands was for the creation of a National Economic Forum (NEF) in which the unions could extend the negotiation process to include economic restructuring. As a result, it allowed the labour movement to have a direct purchase on policy decisions. Labour’s participation in the NEF didn’t bring gains as significant as the unions had originally hoped and they came with costs. Within the first six months NEF merged with National Manpower Commission (NMC) to create the NEDLAC, whose objective is to reach consensus and conclude agreements on economic and social policy before they are debated in parliament. “NEDLAC is the clearest manifestation of a shift towards ‘bargained corporatism’ in South Africa. In addition to classic corporatism-government, organised labour and organised business- it consists of a fourth constituency-‘community and development’. This comes from below as a key union demand rather than being imposed from above.” (Webster, 1998:53). Three substantial national union centres-COSATU, NACTU and FEDSAL- are represented at the NEDLAC. NEDLAC institutionalises tripartism and envisages the negotiation not only of labour policy, but also of key aspects of fiscal, industrial, regional and local institutions and forums throughout the society.

“Rather than responding to an optimist view of ‘democratic corporatism’, it would function according to the same logic of state-led union subordination that gave corporatism a ‘bad-name’ among trade unions all over the world. There is no doubt then, that NEDLAC has been designed as a means of institutionalising and harnessing trade union power”(Barchiesi, 1999:28-35). “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. Industrial policy being discussed at NEDLAC 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 privatisation and export oriented competitiveness. The active union role in such a framework is expected to one of supporting plant closures and wage restraints.”(Panitch, 1996:7,8).

Labour Relations Bill (formally gazetted in December 1996 as an Act, LRA), tabled in NEDLAC in February 1995, was its first challenge. For the first time in South African history, it occurred on a negotiated consensus between labour and capital. The Act offered a new vision of work and industrial relations in South Africa. It is a response to global competition and opens up the possibility of greater co-operation between management and labour in the workplace. It brings all employees- private and public sector- into one industrial relations system where collective bargaining will take place in bargaining councils; it provides organisational rights for unions in the workplace, access to employer premises, meeting rights, union subscription facilities, and right of workers to strike with a clear right to picket; it dramatically overhauls the dispute resolution procedures by providing for an independent but state-funded Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). It is hoped to reduce the frequency of strikes; the act establishes clear rules on dismissal. The aim is to take the court out of the collective bargaining system; the major innovation in the Act is the concept of the workplace forum. It is designed to reassure unions that forums will not be used to supplant unions. Instead, they are designed to compel employers to co-operate by providing workers with statutory rights of co-decision making in the workplace. The hope is that they may be able to build on the existing culture of workplace negotiations and shop-floor interactions; thereby institutionalising consultation and participation as one of South Africa’s competitive advantages.

These institutions give labour an institutional voice over economic and social policy. However, labour’s optimistic agenda will be difficult to realize in NEDLAC where unions are forced into a more reactive role, responding to crises and (before the transition) attempting to check the decision-making power of the old government. “Labour found it easier to propose than to dispose, and while succeeding in establishing such forums, has had far greater difficulty controlling the agendas or their outcomes” (Webster, 1998:55). Workplace forums may be a threat to unions-not because of their design but because unions may lack the capacity to give meaningful support to union members serving on them. For another critical approach, “forums will not deal with familiar issues such as wages, but with productivity, technology, investment and so on. Without the capacity to provide expert advice to forum members, unions may alienate themselves and prove irrelevant” (Baskin&Satgar, 1996:111).

The third institutional basis for the new labour regime is the ‘social pacts’. South African labour studies were reoriented towards views, which largely focused on trade unions as institutionalised worker representatives. This means that unions had to become actors in enforcing ‘social pacts’ based on the exchange between social stability, industrial peace and economic competitiveness on the one hand, and a ‘socially sensitive’ view of economic reconstruction, open to redistribution, productivity-related increases and employment security on the other. As clearly stated in the discussion document, ‘The State and Social Transformation’ of ANC in 1996, the part of trade unions is to make workers understand and adhere to the broader objectives of the process of democratic transformation in their own interest. Briefly, their role- which is widely criticized- is imposing discipline on their members for the sake of social stability and economic competitiveness.

Paradoxes of Labour

The rise of a free-market hegemony in South African policy making responds to a logic of ‘home-grown structural adjustment’ that, unlike experiences with neo-liberal restructuring common elsewhere on the continent, depends largely on strategic choices of domestic economic and political actors, rather than on external conditionalities. This feature highlights, therefore, the contradictions for labour implied in the combination of promoting the country’s position in global competition for markets and investment, and seeking social compacts through institutionalised negotiations to gain legitimacy, social control and grassroots cooperation. The rise of unions’ influence in government has in many ways contrasted with their loss of independent power inside the Alliance. The institutionalisation of organised labour, implied in such outcome, selectively and unevenly affected other dimensions of COSATU’s life, determining in particular a growing marginalization of the federation as a critical actor in spheres of industrial and workplace change and labour market restructuring.

The question raised by the South African case is “whether it is possible for the labour movement to move in the direction of concertation at a time when the world economic order demands deregulation and a diminished role for the state. This is the post-apartheid paradox” (Webster, 1998:58). Labour then, faces a dilemma: if it continues in the Triple Alliance and fails to influence policy, it will become marginalized within a context increasingly dominated by neo-liberal social and economic policies. On the other hand, if it opposes neo-liberal policies it risks a confrontation with the government in which it will be presented as a special interest concerned with a small portion of the labour force. Faced with this dilemma, COSATU has proposed a twin-track solution for discussion among its affiliates. A negotiated accord with the ANC along the lines of the union-party alliance; and a consolidation of concertation arrangements in the NEDLAC through a negotiated pact with employers and the government. For Webster (1998), the aim of both accords would be to encourage the state to play a more active role in the economy, both directly and indirectly through partnerships with the private sector. This strategy envisages ‘regalvanising’ the ‘mass democratic movement’. Another paradox is emerged from the union investment companies. Despite its insistence on a ‘socialist South Africa’, organised labour has also embarked on wealth creation and -as Iheduru calls-‘labour capitalism’ as COSATU and its affiliates, have established about 20 union investment companies and over 60 other large-scale for-profit businesses. These businesses were established to provide independent sources of revenue for the unions and, allegedly, to enable workers to share in the economic opportunities that have opened up for previously disadvantaged individuals in the country. Labour capitalism as a response to global economic reform has created an interesting paradox for South African labour unions: they are now both labour and capital, workers and owners of large companies, employees and employers. Both responses by the labour leadership are strategies not only to contain the impact of globalisation and neo-liberal economic reforms, but also to enable it to remain relevant to the politics of transformation in the country. On one hand, are those who see union investment companies, including worker retirement funds in big business, as a new strategy to further the aim of socialism, i.e. for workers to control the means of production by buying them. Their critics, however, see it as a sell-out by former unionists who are looking for a new route to become upwardly mobile. Some also suggest that union investment companies would generate independent sources of income for unions that would enable them to proceed to a socialist path. These arguments seem to suggest that “labour’s embrace of capitalism is an autonomously generated response to globalisation and domestic economic reforms. Labour may not have been a passive partner in the unfolding concertation regime, but the convergence of interests of the state, business/capital and labour for the development of labour capitalism in South Africa should not be ignored.”( Iheduru, 2001:2,5).

Accordingly, union leaders have been aided and supported by the state and business/capital to embrace labour capitalism as one of the strategies to create a ‘black capitalist class’, who hoped to be in cooperation with the government without any conflict. In order to redress the legacy of racial exclusion and to consolidate its own power base after coming to power, the ANC sought the development of a new indigenous entrepreneurial class through ‘black economic empowerment’. In order to achieve this quickly, there was a redistribution of assets from white to emergent black capital through ‘unbundling’- that is, white dominated conglomerates selling off ‘non-care’ areas of their business to black economic empowerment companies, and also to foreign trans-nationals. “In a globalising political economy, one of the effects of unbundling was to transfer some of the risks associated with South Africa’s semi-peripheral location from a white conglomerate to emergent black capital and to labour” (Iheduru, 2001:264,65). Strong pressure from black business and professionals for racial preference, does, however, limits the options of the Alliance. As Friedman indicated (2002,40), a clear example is ‘privatisation’ which is legitimised as a means of transferring resources to emerging black business. This may work for the benefit of corporatist stability, but on the other side, workers most probably suffer a lot. Unions are in between both as the representatives of the workers and as the investors, besides as the part of the government.

What is the output?

This month, COSATU is going to congress with a decline in membership for the first time in its history. Total COSATU membership declined from 1,806,158 in 2000 to 1,771,336 in 2003 ( Paton, C. “Rise of the New Worker Leaves COSATU Behind”, Financial Mail, August 22, 2003, pp 26,27) . Does this result coincide with what we hold in this paper? Once, there was an aim of socialist South Africa. Does it still exist? The new government has implemented economic and social policies that are in direct opposition to what the members thought they were struggling for. A labour backed government come to the power and felt, as some approach, it has no choice but to implement neo-liberal solutions. “On the one hand it has been ‘hyper-liberal’, pursuing an extremely tight fiscal policy, exceeding that proposed by GEAR, and cutting off tariffs more than required by the WTO. On the other hand, it initially introduced stricter labour market regulation in the form of the LRA” (Carmody, 2002:258).

The role of trade unions in South African transition in the last decade is mainly determined by the transitionary approach of the government, which is also accepted by the COSATU itself, as the representative of the labour. All paradoxes of labour in this era are coming from the essence of taking the idea of adaptation to the new capitalist world economy as given. Maintaining the Alliance, restructuring the trade union bodies serves for the sake of this prerequisite. The national idea of growth in a competitive capitalist world market is dominant at the moment. This means that labour too, used its vote for this aim and it will necessarily experience all contradictions coming from its history and its foundational bases in South Africa. Eventually, it brings the risk of having nothing to tell in the future about why they stop struggling for a socialist society. Is it enough- for a society, which struggled for centuries against inequalities- to talk about only the collapse of apartheid regime? If not, if labour still has something to say, it should decide radically. South Africa has just come outside its own world-composed of basically on racism, anti-racism conflict. Does it need a break or to keep discovering the other world?

1. Adler, G. & O’Sullivan, G. “ Rounding up the Usual Suspects: Recycling the Labour Aristocracy Thesis” in ed. Jeremy Baskin, 1996. Against the Current: Labour and Economic Policy in South Africa. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, pp 165-85.
2. Adler, G. & Webster, E. 1995. “Challenging Transition Theory: The Labour Movement, Radical reform, and Transition to Democracy in South Africa”, Policy and Society, 23 (1).
3. Barchiesi, F. 1999 “Economic Adjustment, Political institutionalisation and Social Marginalisation: COSATU and the First Democratic Government (1994-1999)”, Transformation, 38, pp.20-48.
4. Baskin, J. 1996. “The Social Partnership Challenge: Union trends and Industrial Relations Developments” in ed. Jeremy Baskin, 1996. Against the Current: Labour and Economic Policy in South Africa. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, pp 21-40.
5. Baskin, J. & Satgar, V. “Assessing the new LRA: A Framework for Regulated Flexibility” ed. Jeremy Baskin, 1996. Against the Current: Labour and Economic Policy in South Africa. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, pp 101-120.
6. Carmody, P. 2002. “ Between Globalisation and (Post) Apartheid: the Political Economy of Restructuring in South Africa”, Journal of Southern African Studies, 28, (2), pp 255-75.
7. Friedman, S. 2002. “Equity in the Age of Informality: labour markets and Redistributive Politics in South Africa”, Transformation, 50, pp. 31-56.
8. Iheduru, O. C. 2001. “Organised Labour, Globalisation and Economic Reform: Union Investment Companies in South Africa”, Transformation, 46, pp. 1-31.
9. Von Holdt, K. 1995. “From Politics of Resistance to Politics of Reconstruction? The Unions and Ungovernability in the Workplace”. Paper presented to the Second International Conference on Emerging Union Structures. Stockholm.
10. Panitch, L. 1996. “COSATU and Corporatism: A Response to Eddie Webster, Southern Africa Report, 11 (3), pp.7, 8.
11. Webster, E.C. 1998. “ The Politics of Economic Reform: Trade Unions and Democratisation in South Africa”, Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 16,(1), pp.39-64.

Ercüment Çelik: Global Studies Programme, Master’s Student at the University of Natal Durban, South Africa

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