South Africa and the Changing Politics of Labour

Part 1: The Demise of COSATU

The two biggest signifiers of the state of the labour movement in South Africa in 2014 are, on the one hand, a terminal crisis within what is still, formally, the biggest trade union centre – the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), aligned to the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), and, on the other, the emergence of new workplace militancies by workers, notably the national strike wave in the second half of 2013 and now a victorious strike by 70,000 platinum mineworkers in 2014, acting outside COSATU and sometimes outside the industrial relations machinery associated with COSATU’s gains in the early 1990s.

The second is about renewal and resurgence. The first is about the sad demise of a once international inspiration.

To understand the significance of this new crossroad we should resist the temptation to start investigating the changing politics of South African labour by dipping into recent developments in the trade unions. Seeing that COSATU has been the overwhelming centre of trade union developments for more than 20 years, this can become a COSATU-focussed lens.

For much of South Africa’s recent history that focus may have had analytical shortcomings but no more than that required by the process of abstraction so necessary for any kind of historical enquiry. So a study of the politics of labour in the 1980s and 1990s could be forgiven for starting with developments in COSATU and to privilege developments there for understanding important political shifts within the working-class and, thereby, South African politics at the national level.

Revolt of the Poor

But because, presumably, the identification of the politics of South African labour as an important topic today is by way of casting light on the broader political conjuncture – a conjuncture in which events such as the Marikana massacre of August 2012 and the December 2013 NUMSA decision to break with the ruling ANC seem to define – such a privileged relation between the working-class and COSATU cannot be presumed.

The Marikana moment and its aftermath – the 2012 national strike wave that it unleashed, in particular – were driven by workers in opposition to, and outside of, COSATU and its affiliates. And South Africa has experienced nearly 15 years of unbroken protests by working-class communities all over the country – dubbed the Revolt of the Poor by the University of Johannesburg’s Chair of Social Change – which have certainly shaped the political conjuncture without the involvement of the labour movement, and certainly not COSATU.

And the most politically significant strike in recent South African history – the 2014 platinum workers’ strike – is certainly changing both the politics of South African labour as well as the national politics of the country – witness the rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – which drew on the militancy of the platinum belt and some of the community flashpoints. Yet one cannot understand these developments starting from a trade union lens.

So this article will claim that understanding the changing politics of labour requires us to step outside the confines of the trade unions and not even to take the trade unions as a point of departure, let alone a lens for viewing the developments within the trade unions. Instead it will privilege the changing make-up of the working-class and the changing political consciousness of a new movement of class struggle emerging today and assess events such as the NUMSA moment, the COSATU internal crisis, the emergence of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) and the changing national political landscape against these yardsticks.

Fight for a Minimum Wage

For nearly five months 70,000 workers went on strike, the longest mining strike in South Africa, in the platinum sector.[1] Many of the victims of the violence perpetrated by the state against workers at Marikana in August 2012 took a firm stand to fight for a minimum wage of R12,500 per month. This figure had taken on enormous symbolic meaning as it was the demand of the rock drill workers who struck in 2012 and were killed by the police at Marikana. It was thus not the ordinary shifting goal of traditional wage negotiations but became a line in the sand to workers who had experienced the Marikana massacre and wanted to raise the bar for the generations to come.

Thousands of workers returned home to some of the traditional source areas of migrant labour, seeking to survive. Others simply suffered relying on family and neighbours to keep them going in the townships and settlements of the North West and Limpopo provinces. The stakes were high and the strike had broader political significance as AMCU was a union formed out of a breakaway from the COSATU-aligned National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the union from which the Deputy President and the Secretary General of the ANC emerged.

The political challenge of the strike was clear from day one as the ruling party and its Tripartite Alliance allies sought not only to discredit the strike in the eyes of public opinion – a strategy that continues long after the strike is over – but to crush AMCU.

There was every sign that the platinum bosses did not want a settlement and did not expect such resilience from the workers. For the first three months they continued to sell platinum out of reserves hoarded before the strike and from other sources at prices agreed before the strike. Having nearly 80 per cent of the world’s platinum reserves the three companies are a de facto cartel able to manipulate prices simply by controlling output.

The platinum workers of AMCU faced hostility from the labour movement and were a direct challenge to the erstwhile liberation movement. And yet they won a famous victory.

Against the workers was a state harassing workers with false charges, their bosses withholding necessary ARV supplies to HIV-positive workers, and debt collectors seeking their pound of flesh. Against them was the government and ruling party whose leaders are drawn from their rival union, NUM. NUM called on workers to break the strike and unknown well-resourced elements sponsored strike-breaking initiatives dubbed MWUA.

On the same side were many voices of civil society – saying to the striking mine workers – ‘your demands are unrealistic’. The mining monopolies can’t afford R12,500. They will close down/sell off/disinvest/ mechanize and then you will simply lose your jobs. The strike therefore was blamed on the evil intentions of AMCU and/or the economic illiteracy of the mineworkers. Every financial journalist and economist said so … so it must be so.

The platinum mineworkers probably didn’t read the business press and if they did they didn’t believe the economic experts (and it is to their credit that they didn’t). They knew that in a war the first casualty is the truth. They know that the success of their strike depended only on their readiness to hold out and to find solidarity from their families and communities and others of their class. And they were proven right… forcing the companies to agree on increases close to their demand, and with their unity and resolve intact.

The Demise of COSATU

In the meantime COSATU sinks into a quagmire. Its biggest affiliate – the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) – is being threatened with expulsion for breaking with the ANC, while nine affiliates call on the President to convene a Special Congress and want the courts to adjudicate. Municipal union, SAMWU, workers and staff occupy its head office in protest at allegations that over R160-million has gone missing. Teachers’ union, SADTU, expels its President who is deemed to be too close to erstwhile suspended COSATU General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi. Vavi faces an enquiry into the selling of COSATU’s old building and the buying of the new one –
the process conducted by the then head of COSATU’s investment arm Kopano ke Matla, Colin Matjila, who then moves on to head up the parastatal, Eskom.

Vavi is reinstated by the courts and then is forced to carry out electioneering for the ANC in the 2014 elections – whose ire he earned in the first place for accusing the ANC of turning COSATU into
its “labour desk” (of course he found that going to an international ITUC Conference, conveniently, took him out of the firing line during the elections).

Then who offers to mediate the COSATU disputes? Why … the ANC? You couldn’t make this up if you tried. The ex-biggest affiliate, NUM, collapses in the platinum sector and only holds on to gold workers by dint of centralized bargaining with the Chamber of Mines and chemical union, CEPPWAWU, is threatened with de-registration by the Department of Labour for failing to submit regular membership updates.

This demise of COSATU is no cause for celebration or indifference. Forged in the cauldron of thousands of strikes and campaigns and rightly celebrated for both being at the centre of the resistance movement against apartheid and for being the first within the mass movement to begin to formulate new policies for a revolutionary South Africa, COSATU’s history is a noble one written in the blood of workers.

That it should implode is tragic. That it should disintegrate in this inglorious way is farce. And yet we have now the biggest and longest strike in South Africa’s mining history – at least since 1922 – a source of renewal for the working-class, and it passes COSATU and its affiliates by. Worse, NUM actively tries to break the strike but doesn’t even have the credibility and muscle to do so.

And yet we have had nearly 10 years of working-class communities being in what has been called everything from “service delivery” protests to a “revolt of the poor.” And this too has passed COSATU by.

We have just had an election in which more than a million people voted for a party – the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – which embraces a language of militant left wing politics – nationalization, redistribution of the wealth, and insisting that ministers and public officials must use public services – and this was the language of COSATU before. But now it lines itself alongside the government against whom all these slogans are directed.

Far from the demise of COSATU occurring in a period of a lull in mass politics or a new defeat of the working-class it is occurring when a new movement is on the rise. It is just that COSATU is not part of this new movement.

We need to trace this disjunct between the demise of COSATU and the rise of a new movement by cutting though layers of contemporary history, through at least three levels of analysis.

  • Firstly, the implosion of the Zuma-alliance as the most immediate cause.
  • Secondly, and at a deeper level, the insertion of COSATU in the new industrial relations order after 1994 – a process that will reveal both the moral corruption of COSATU as well as the source of the new mass politics of today.
  • Thirdly, at the deepest level, the disconnect between a restructured working-class after nearly 25 years of neoliberalism – both in the sphere of production and in the sphere of reproduction – and the shifting demographics of COSATU as an organization of a new middle class, while this restructured working-class takes to the road of mass struggle.

After performing that forensic examination we will then have to ask ourselves two further questions:

  • Where are the sources for renewal for a new mass movement? And,
  • Is the trade union a necessarily privileged organizational form in such a process?

The Zuma Project and COSATU’s Further Demise

The immediate, first level, can be traced to the make up of disgruntled forces which overthrew Thabo Mbeki. The South African Communist Party (SACP), COSATU and the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) were a coterie of conspirators which made a pact with Jacob Zuma that, in return for seats at the table of the state, they would champion a deeply-flawed individual into the highest office. Since Jacob Zuma’s ascendancy into power at Pholokwane and the subsequent 2009 elections which made him President of the country, we have witnessed increasing tension within affiliates of COSATU and between some leaders and the SACP.

The CEC of COSATU deciding to suspend Zwelinzima Vavi on charges of sexual impropriety, amidst open contestation between NUMSA – on the side of Vavi – and NUM, SADTU and NEHAWU – aligned with SACP Central Committee members, President S’dumo Dlamini, and NUM’s Frans Baleni.

Mbeki had had no truck with those for whom the state was merely a vehicle for private wealth projects – and lost little time in dealing with his own deputy president who was caught doing precisely this. But this opened the door for a layer of disgruntled elements – some with their own agendas of seeking a state for rentier capitalism; others with political axes to grind. These forces rallied together behind the SACP, COSATU and the ANCYL to drive Mbeki out after making a Faustian pact with Zuma.

That agenda had little to do – as we now know – with some kind of Left-Right programmatic tension within the ANC, or that Zuma, as against Mbeki, was a more “pro-poor candidate,” but was about a series of manoeuvres to get into influential positions in the state machinery.

A decisive ingredient in these developments and over a number of years has been the South African Communist Party. All the senior leadership of COSATU and most of its affiliates are SACP members. The SACP and its National Democratic Revolution – in which the “first” stage would be a capitalist democracy presided over by the ANC – has long abandoned any notions of, beyond the occasional rhetorical flourishes about socialism, and has become completely integrated into an avowedly capitalist state. Both its general secretaries are Cabinet ministers under Zuma. And even under Mbeki and Mandela the secret in ANC circles was always to appoint SACP heavyweights into senior Cabinet ministers which had unpopular tasks to carry out – privatization, e-tolling etc. The Communist Party has comfortably combined the rhetoric of socialism at May Day rallies with implementing neoliberal policies in government.

It has always been the SACP which has been the glue which held the Tripartite Alliance together. But as the ANC has shifted so has the SACP. In the recent past the SACP played the role of a “loyal opposition” – criticizing government policies such as GEAR while remaining loyal to the ANC and its leadership of what they called the National Democratic Revolution. Not only did the SACP remain loyal it gave a Left ideological spin to ANC’s embrace of neoliberalism famously accepting the privatization programme announced by then deputy president Mbeki in 1995 as long as privatization was done on a “case by case basis” and not on “ideological grounds.”

How did they resolve this tension? In the first phase of the Mandela administration the SACP blamed apartheid bureaucrats and World Bank consultants – advising departmental managers in the state – for misleading the ANC in government and allowing the neoliberal agenda to creep in. And so the goal of the SACP – and it dragged COSATU along with this given its ideological hegemony within COSATU – was to ensure “transformation within the state” and thus dedicate its cadre to hold to this line. Despite the avowedly neoliberal GEAR being crafted under the Mandela presidency as a home-grown structural adjustment programme the SACP stuck to this loyal, but critical, arrangement. Key SACP Central Committee members served in the cabinet.

But increasingly the Mbeki presidency was marked by greater centralization of power not only within government but within the ANC itself, and the two became indistinguishable. And so the space for SACP luminaries to staff key government policy portfolios became limited and Mbeki used to delight in showing his ability to use the SACP’s own “Marxist-sounding” language against them, to slap them down. So under the Mbeki regime the SACP coined the term the “Class of ’96” – unnamed ANC and business interests who were to blame for GEAR and its programme. But that “Class of ’96’, according to the SACP, would have its way if the SACP and COSATU did not continue to support an ANC government.

Underlying this loyalty was an increasing integration of the SACP into state structures – like Parliament, the cabinet, the provincial and local government structures, the Development Agencies etc. This layer of formal and political leadership sits like a dead weight on the lives of ordinary members of individual COSATU affiliates.

Both the SACP and COSATU got appropriately rewarded with cabinet ministers. Julius Malema’s Youth League got its own rewards in the form of both cabinet ministers and lucrative business tenders from national and provincial governments. But whereas Malema’s sin was ingratitude and over-ambitiousness, Vavi’s was to renege on an assurance to move on from COSATU general secretary in 2010 and not covet General Secretary, Blade Nzimande’s, leadership position in the SACP. So the SACP’s grubby Stalinist hands have been itching to get at Vavi since then. Vavi’s abuse of power and sexual indiscretions have provided the SACP with the necessary ammunition.

Meanwhile throughout the Mbeki years, the victims of his neoliberalism – the new working-class of urban and rural poor, the youth and the unemployed have been in increasing revolt – a revolt of service-delivery protests carried out beneath the radar of middle class public opinion. The system of labour relations and compliant trade unions kept a lid on the rising dissatisfaction in the industrial sphere. Until the revolts spilled over into the communities surrounding the platinum mines in the North West, and found a disgraced NUM incapable of having any moral authority to police the dissent. And then came Marikana….

And what did the Zuma project deliver? Well, cabinet positions for individual COSATU, SACP and ANCYL leaders… and then a veritable culture of cronyism and looting of the state. And then the ladder of advancement was whisked away, and when Julius Malema over-reached himself he was expelled… and so the erstwhile unified forces of disgruntlement unravelled.

But whereas this fall-out was the immediate cause of the demise of COSATU we can see at a much deeper level that this demise is also linked to COSATU’s achieving a corrupting niche in the new dispensation after 1994.

Growing Corruption and the Industrial Relations Framework
That Emerged after 1994

After the Marikana massacre President Jacob Zuma appointed the Farlam Commission and also convened an emergency Social Dialogue meeting of Business, Labour and Government in October 2012. The partners released a statement calling on strikers to return to work and for the police to defend law and order and noted that “the wave of unprotected strikes…[could]…undermine the legal framework of bargaining.”[2] But what did this “legal framework of bargaining” deliver?

Under apartheid industrial relations legislation had been based on the racial alliance between Big Business and white workers, and the suppression of black workers. White workers could form trade unions and use their muscle to establish minimum wages, industrial councils to have industry negotiations and have systems of labour protection and training through apprenticeship and training boards. For black workers, however, strikes were illegal and they were excluded from labour protection and industrial councils.

However the illegal strike wave among black workers outside Durban in 1973 saw black workers defy the labour laws and eventually set up strong unions and forge Recognition Agreements with large employers. New unions, like the Metal and Allied Workers’ Union (MAWU), even broke into the Industrial Council system, eventually forcing the apartheid state, in 1979, to amend the LRA to grant African workers the right to form trade unions and to compel employers to deduct membership dues.

By the time the labour market negotiations began in the early 1990s, COSATU wanted the state to legislate a legal duty to bargain on the part of employers, impose centralized bargaining and that the new democratic state should provide a high degree of social protection for workers. Big Business, in turn, wanted maximum labour flexibility, little state intervention and little social protection. These opposing views appeared irreconcilable.

The deal breaker was to take labour legislation out of the sphere of criminal sanction and state enforceability completely. Instead the state, and Big Business and Big Labour agreed to a system of what came to be called “voice regulation” and “social partnership.” So strikes and employer lockouts, unfair labour practices, unfair dismissals and incorrect wages, etc. would no longer be illegal but subject to discussion and rational persuasion through institutions like the CCMA. If your employer summarily sacked you or underpaid you, you couldn’t get a labour inspector to reinstate you or have your employer compelled by law to honour a contract… you went to the CCMA where you could get a mediator to try and reach a compromise solution.

Similarly, while there was no compulsion on the part of an employer to negotiate, you could invoke the power of your strong union to make life difficult in time for such a recalcitrant employer. And you could strike – albeit only on what was deemed to be a “matter of interest” (as opposed to unfair dismissal, which is deemed to be a “conflict of right,” over which you couldn’t strike but had to refer to the CCMA for mediation and/or arbitration). So the labour movement got its plethora of rights, but which were dependent on their real organized power to exercise, because the state was not going to be involved. But Big Business got its demands for labour flexibility because there were no laws involving the state imposing any kind of criminal sanction or legal enforceability, or even an obligation to bargain.

The whole system presumed a scenario whereby Big Business would get the benefits of labour flexibility, industrial peace and skilled labour and Big Labour would get skills, job security, higher wages and a seat at the table of all labour market institutions.

But neither the state nor Big Business kept their side of the bargain. Whereas the LRA, the SETAs and NEDLAC were unveiled during the period of the RDP, the government unveiled GEAR and its neoliberal prescriptions without any consideration of its Big Labour ‘partner’. And Big Business, instead of seeking beneficiation and skilled labour, took the gap – at least the biggest SA monopolies did – unbundled, financialized and then jumped ship to London, New York and Melbourne. Making money via releasing ‘share holder value’ on global stock markets was so much more profitable than extending employment and promoting skills, let alone hanging out with its ‘social partners’ in NEDLAC.

That left COSATU with nowhere else to go. After responding with anger in the early days of GEAR, the federation has more recently been happy to slag off the betrayals of its tripartite partner, the ANC, while its leaders, organizers and even shop stewards rake in the money involved in attending NEDLAC, SETAs and the myriad other tripartite and centralized bargaining fora.

And how did the institutions of South Africa’s industrial relations perform?

Well, from the viewpoint of peace and productivity they certainly did their job. Strikes have shown a steady decline since 1995 – with only 2010 and 2012 being exceptions. 2010 was the year of public sector strikes as unions and state departments found themselves at the end of a three-year agreement in that year, showing an increase in the number of strikes and days lost. The 2012 strike wave after Marikana was conducted outside of, and in opposition to, the industrial relations framework.

The CCMA, in the meantime has increased its case handling exponentially, and has become an established part of the industrial relations landscape.

But from the side of ordinary working-class people the system has been a disaster on every score.

Firstly, at the macro level, inequality is increasing and all the indicators show increased unemployment – now peaking at 40 per cent – according to Census 2012; and the increased informalization and casualization of workers. The labour peace has come at the cost of the restructuring of the working-class toward the very flexible labour demanded by Big Business.

But what about the layer of full-time workers who have permanent jobs and are the backbone of the trade unions today? It turns out that, apart from those who benefit from the perks of sitting on the various negotiating fora, it didn’t work for them either. In the main, Company-level wage negotiations have settled around the annual inflation rate. And seeing that this is a figure roughly representing cost of living increases over the year past, this means that real wage levels have been eroded.

And what about the achievements of the Bargaining Councils?

Well, the statistics on centralized bargaining are revealing. In the history of the labour movement this was supposed to be a powerful means to even things upwards – to win victories in enterprises or sectors where the workers were strong, and then have that victory extended to companies where the union was weak via the ministerial signature extending the agreement to non-parties. So for years employers resisted centralized bargaining or Industrial Councils (as they were called then) fearing that it would push wage costs up.

In 1995’s LRA the industrial councils were rechristened Bargaining Councils and the compulsion on the part of the minister weakened so
that s/he had some discretion in this matter and only if there were thresholds reached in terms of employer and union representativity.

So what has been their performance? In cases of holidays, working hours, maternity benefits, etc., Bargaining Councils have either settled on the minima already enshrined in the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (meaning no protracted negotiations and strikes were needed when workers already had these rights established in law) or, shockingly, have reached settlements where these are actually below the minima set in the Act. The average weekly working hours have gone up from 44 hours to 45 – a mass increase in the working year without a commensurate increase in pay.

In other words, far from Bargaining Councils being instruments used by the unions to level conditions upwards they have become instruments for the employers to level conditions downwards!

Cape Town’s Labour Research Service’s 2011-2012 Bargaining Indicators had this to say: “The BCEA looks more like a ceiling than a floor of minimum conditions. Put another way, actual conditions of employment tend to cluster around the legislated minimums. We see few significant upward variations.”

In COSATU’s internal review, tabled at its 2012 Congress, some 60 per cent of members expressed dissatisfaction with wage increases negotiated.

Overall workers’ wages and salaries as a percentage of national income have been dropping every year and were overtaken in 1999 by profits. In other words there has been a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in the era of the current industrial relations system.

But notwithstanding this, there has been one area in which black workers have benefited – the policy of affirmative action applied in the public sector has meant that a whole layer of black workers employed in local, provincial and national government departments, in the police, in the parastatals and in other services – the skilled employees – (as opposed to those who have found themselves in outsourced services which straddle the “public-private divide,” and which have been notable for downsizing and cost-cutting), who have moved into white collar jobs and into lower and middle management in the public sector. In this way the plethora of levels of government and its associated public-private partnerships has been able to move black people into spaces formerly the domain of whites. They are the beneficiaries of the new post-apartheid South Africa and a significant component of COSATU membership today.

And then there was Black Economic Empowerment (BEE)

Whereas the ANC government formalized and accelerated BEE after 1994 and made this a condition of state tenders and included it in crucial pieces of legislation such as the Mineral Rights Act, BEE was first initiated by Sanlam’s Metropolitan Life and then by Anglo American before 1994. Apart from the first layer of beneficiaries such as the Motlanas an important feature of Anglo’s unbundling was to seek a partnership with the unions for its JCI and its mining operations. NUM started this partnership using its access to workers’ provident funds and setting up its own investment company. This was followed by SACTWU and SACCAWU and practically every COSATU affiliate, including COSATU itself in setting up Kopano ke Matla, which invests in e-tolls, while COSATU protests against this road privatization, and is now the stick to beat Vavi with.

Apart from the contradiction of trade unions becoming capitalists the investment company scenario and the take over of provident funds also became a corrupting milieu of perks for office bearers and shop stewards sitting on Boards and being paid attendance fees and emoluments.

With union membership and leadership distant from the critical issues facing the working-class, COSATU has become a home for careerism and a pathway for senior leaders to move into government and into the Cabinet. The case of NUM – which was so graphically revealed after Marikana in the way the general secretary was earning R300,000 per month and where the worker leaders were full-time shop stewards on the payroll of the companies and enjoying perks and the union even owning shares in the bank that loaned money to workers – is not an exception but is replicated in other unions in the way all have investment companies and are schooled on the circuits of negotiating fora, Alliance meetings etc.

The new Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing, Senzeni Zokwana, epitomises this career path from NUM and the SACP to the cosy chambers of Zuma’s Cabinet.

COSATU and the Changing Composition
of the Working-Class Under Neoliberalism

At its deepest level the underlying causes for the problems within COSATU lie in the major structural changes that have happened to the working-class over the last 20 years of neoliberal capitalism and the re-alignment of COSATU’s membership. In this period the neoliberal attacks on the working-class have seen a shift away from full employment and fixed employment toward casualization, informalization and unemployment in the case of the world of work, and the abandonment by the state of the sphere of reproduction of the working-class – from apartheid brick houses in townships to shacks in informal settlements; from Bantu education to no education or privatized education; from discriminatory services to no services or commodified services – beyond the reach of the poor. As a result the working-class in South Africa is now largely an unemployed, casualized, semi-homeless mass.[3]

Neoliberalism was above all a strategy on the part of capital to respond to the crisis of over-production and over-accumulation which threatened profitability from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Much has been made of the features of this form of capital accumulation – mobile finance capital, accumulation by dispossession, new roles for the state etc. Many of these features are being sharply illustrated by the current global crisis. But the restructuring of social relations that is neoliberalism also included quite fundamental changes to the labour process: from millions of workers being driven out of the labour process itself (into unemployment), to a variety of forms of externalization and labour flexibility, part-time work, home work, casualization and outsourcing. These changes have also seen work become increasingly feminised and more vulnerable sections of the working-class – immigrants and refugees for instance – being particularly susceptible to the most extreme forms of labour flexibility. Frequently in cases such as outsourcing to home workers the point of production has become blurred with residential spaces.

These changes in the Sphere of Production and Reproduction raise questions of the appropriateness of the current forms of trade unions, their Methods of Organizing, and even more the relevance of trade unions in their current forms for articulating working-class struggles.

And neoliberalism has equally been about the restructuring of the sphere of reproduction of the working-class. The cuts in public services and social spending on public health, education, housing and health and the commercialization and privatization of water, energy, housing etc practised by almost all states across the world have cast the burden of reproduction of the working-class largely back onto the working-class itself, particularly working-class women.

These changes in both the sphere of production and the sphere of reproduction have engendered something quite fundamental – a change in the composition of the working-class, and a shift in the centre of gravity of struggles.

In South Africa, the last twenty-five years of neoliberal policies – privatization and commercialization, cuts in social services etc – and their intensification by the ANC government after 1996 have had devastating effects on the working-class. Unemployment levels average 40 per cent across the country but reach levels of 60 to 80 per cent in rural areas and the poorer provinces. People in rural areas now relay entirely on welfare grants and remittances from already poor workers in the cities.

Faced in 1994 with a backlog of 1.5 million houses, the ANC government simply abandoned any idea of a programme of public housing. The apartheid regime stopped building houses in 1982, so there was already a housing crisis. The new government adopted a policy of only providing subsidies to people to buy their own RDP houses from private and state developers with loans from the banks. Today the government claims to have provided housing by using the terms “housing opportunities.” This means that those who have taken advantage of the “housing opportunities” are in debt, others are in endless waiting lists to qualify for the miniscule rental stock, whilst millions are abandoned to informal settlements or living as backyard dwellers.

Rural livelihoods have collapsed and as a result South Africa’s small towns – the Balfours, the Howicks, the Sebokengs etc – have become rural ghettos of the unemployed, the youth and women. And in urban areas the older brick-house townships have become enveloped in new camps and backyard dwellers. As a result it is not so much the older apartheid townships like the Sowetos, Tembisas, Botshabelos or Mdantsanes which are the nerve centres of protest, but newer settlements like the Diepsloots, the Site Cs and the Bekkersdals.

Twenty years of neoliberalism and globalization have reconfigured the working-class in South Africa – a class of casualized and informalized workers, of the unemployed, of never-employed youth, of commuter women and of backyard-dwellers. Older movements – like most of the trade unions and all of the political parties – are no longer representative of these sections of the working-class, which today constitute the majority. More importantly these older movements no longer even act as a register of such struggles.

This reconfiguration of the working-class across both the spheres of production and reproduction fuelled two of the most dramatic strikes of the 2012 strike wave. The strikes on the platinum belt, and the emblematic demand for R12,500 were stoked both by the wage issue and by the fact that the platinum companies had abandoned the old hostels of the compound labour system and instead paid workers a “living out” allowance. In the absence of houses or services supplied by local authorities migrant workers set up informal settlements and lived in squalid camps around Rustenburg running without water, electricity or sewerage. There was a seamless continuity, or rather a toxic cocktail of “workplace” and “community issues” that came together to fuel their militancy.

Similarly the 2012 farm workers’ strike in the Western Cape combined the experience of full-time workers on the wine farms with a high degree of seasonal workers in other agricultural sectors who did not live on the farms and were only occasionally-employed. These workers lived in informal settlements near the farms but close to the small towns. It was their militancy and mobility that spread the strike and gave it momentum.

COSATU in the meanwhile has also changed in composition – from a largely blue-collar working-class formation in the 1980s and 1990s to the largely public sector, white collar federation it is today. This is reflected in studies done by its own research arm, Naledi, as well as by CASE. Until Marikana the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was the biggest single union, but NUM has moved on from a union of coal-face workers, to a union of white collar above-ground technicians. Outside of NUMSA the bulk of COSATU membership is now drawn from NEHAWU, SADTU, CWU, SAMWU, POPCRU etc. Nearly one-third of COSATU members now have degrees.[4]

This changing composition of COSATU has seen the centre of gravity of mass struggles in South Africa today shift toward the township poor, who have been waging service delivery struggles almost unabated for the last 15 years. These have been struggles largely waged by sections of the working-class who are unemployed, the never-employed, the youth and women carrying the burden of reproduction of the class.

With COSATU reduced to a morally-compromised coterie of middle class leaders hanging on to state institutions, negotiations fora and investments companies and implicated in engineering political career-pathing, it was an accident waiting to happen. The break up of the Zuma-pact has only accelerated an incorrigible rot. It is to NUMSA’s credit that it is showing militant defiance to this caricature of what was once a noble force. •

[Part two will deal with “NUMSA and the Emergence of a New Movement.”]


Prior to the AMCU strike, in the apartheid decades of the recent past, there had been other strikes of longer duration in the 1980s – one thinks of the SARMCOL strike – and there was a short mining strike by NUM workers in 1987 which involved more workers than the 70,000. But these occurred at a high point of mass struggles in the country and while those workers faced hostility from the employers and the state they enjoyed the active support of the whole of the labour movement, not to mention the liberation movement.

South Africa’s Labour Relations Act (LRA), Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) and their associated institutions of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), the Sector Education Training Authorities (SETAs) and National Economic, Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) came out of a series of engagements around the National Economic Forum, the Labour Market Commission and the National Training Board between 1990 and 1995. Like the World Trade Centre negotiations at Kempton Park, which shaped South African political compromises, there was a similar set of trade-offs being enacted within the labour market sphere between Labour (essentially COSATU) and Big Business.

This characterization is sometimes, wrongly, termed a “precariat” so as to distinguish this restructured working-class from a “proper working-class.” Deep in this kind of argument is the idea that the notion of the working-class is reserved for those who work – presumably because the working-class is exploited at the point of production and that capitalist exploitation is a “production thing.” But the working-class is exploited across the totality of its insertion into capitalist relations of production – both in the sphere of production and reproduction.

The dominant trade unions in South Africa have largely moved upscale – toward white collar workers and away from the majority of the working-class. Today the large COSATU affiliates are public sector white collar workers – the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU), the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU) and the unions amongst white collar workers in the parastatals – Telkom and Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) and Transnet and SATAWU. The lower level blue collar workers are now in labour brokers and in services that have been completely outsourced – like cleaning, security etc, so they do not fall within the bargaining units of the Public Sector Bargaining Council.

Leonard Gentle is a long-time South African political activist and trade unionist, and is the retired director of the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG).