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Rebuilding a Workers’ Movement

A new labor federation in South Africa promises to resist the country’s neoliberal kleptocracy, but it faces an uphill battle.

A workers' march in Johannesburg, South Africa on August 15, 2014. Meraj Chhaya

When the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) held its first congress this April, it marked a new era for the country’s labor movement.

SAFTU consists of twenty-four affiliated trade unions, which represent around seven hundred thousand members, making it the second largest labor group in South Africa, behind the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Over half of SAFTU’s members come from the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA). A further sixteen unions who expressed interest in the new federation attended the congress as non-voting delegates.

SAFTU’s founders established it as a socialist-leaning federation that will wage class struggle against South Africa’s capitalist class and increasingly kleptocratic government, ruled by the African National Congress (ANC). At the congress, SAFTU affiliates adopted a draft constitution and elected the first leadership structure, which consists of a president and two deputies, a general secretary and deputy, and a treasurer.

The new federation promises to “give the South African working class a new home, a real revolutionary home” and aims to be a “democratic, worker-controlled, militant, socialist-orientated, internationalist, Pan Africanist from a Marxist perspective” organization that will “struggle for the total emancipation of the working class from the chains of its capitalist oppressors.”

SAFTU was three years in the making. In 2014, COSATU expelled NUMSA, its largest and most radical affiliate, after the metalworkers’ union withdrew its electoral support for the ANC, COSATU’s alliance partner. The next year, the trade federation dismissed its general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, who became SAFTU’s first general secretary last month.

NUMSA and Vavi united in their criticism of the ANC, arguing that the party had failed to deliver on its promises of pro-poor economic and social policies. They pointed to the Marikana massacre — in which police killed thirty-four platinum mineworkers at Lonmin Platinum Mine on August 16, 2012 — as the final straw. As NUMSA deputy secretary general Karl Cloete explained in 2014:

Do we continue inside COSATU to reclaim COSATU or has the time arrived to close shop and draw a line in the sand and to move towards the formation of a new independent militant, democratic worker-controlled federation?

Three years later, these activists launched SAFTU, promising to unite workers in their daily struggles and move them toward socialism.

Political-Economic Crisis

The new trade union federation appears in the midst of an ongoing political and economic emergency. The Left too has been caught in a crisis of praxis, strategy, and morale; progressive elements have struggled to respond to the country’s new political and economic realities.

President Jacob Zuma and his ANC faction are facing the most serious challenge to their legitimacy yet. In the early hours of March 31, the president reshuffled his cabinet in the name of “efficiency and effectiveness,” axing Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, who oversaw the country’s “responsible” fiscal consolidation.

The finance minister and treasury had been implementing austerity measures in order to satisfy rating agencies and prevent the country’s investment status from falling. When Zuma ousted Gordhan, he sent the rand tumbling.

A number of groups united under the banner #ZumaMustFall, seeing the president’s latest move as an attempt to further capture state resources for his own benefit and that of his cronies. Political parties and civil society organizations jointly planned a march against the president, which brought over one hundred thousand people into the streets. The Economic Freedom Fighters came out in force, and the demonstration expanded beyond the anti-Zuma movement’s typical suburban, middle-class milieu for the first time.

All this takes place against the background of a long economic downturn, marked by corrupt state-owned enterprises and skyrocketing inequality. According to the Oxfam report “Economy for the 99%,” the total net wealth of three South African billionaires equals the total combined wealth of 50 percent of the population, and the richest 1 percent owns 42 percent of the country’s wealth.

Since the first democratic elections twenty-three years ago, the country has deindustrialized, causing hundreds of thousands of job losses in the mining and manufacturing sectors and leaving over a third of South Africans unemployed and in an untenable economic situation.

Crisis of Trade Union Movement

This political crisis extends to the labor movement, as we have also seen in Latin America and Western Europe. South Africa’s once militant trade unions are no longer what they used to be: COSATU is a shadow of its former self and cannot resist austerity or restore democracy and accountability.

We can trace the federation’s decline to the compromises it made when it entered an alliance with the ANC and accepted the party’s much-contested neoliberal economic policy, Growth, Employment, and Redistribution (GEAR), in 1996.

As Gillian Hart notes in Disabling Globalisation, GEAR changed the relations within the alliance, taking power away from COSATU and blocking its promises of redistributive social change. When privatization and labor casualization began in the 1990s, coupled with rising unemployment, deindustrialization, and a decline in real wages, COSATU was too weak to fight back.

The union movement’s weakness is most visible in its low internal democracy. Leadership has grown distant from rank-and-file members and no longer takes direction from workers. Instead, it follows the lead of the political and economic elite.

At the same time, COSATU has struggled to connect with and organize precarious labor, community struggles, and worker actions. (For more, see COSATU in Crisis edited by Vishwas Satgar and Roger Southall and COSATU’s Contested Legacy edited by Sakhela Buhlungu and Malehoko Tshoaedi).

The National Union of Mineworkers’ (NUM) complicity in the Marikana massacre best symbolizes this decline. The platinum mineworkers’ strike, which called for a R12,500 living wage, saw workers organize independently of their affiliated unions. Workers rejected NUM, which then called on the police to resolve the strike with force. The union’s former leader Cyril Ramaphosa — now South Africa’s deputy president — was serving as director of the company implicated in the massacre.

Apart from South African particularities, the story above aligns with the labor movement’s international crisis: institutionalized and bureaucratized trade unions have not kept up with the changing nature of work. While South African workers still display their militancy in wildcat strikes and community protests, organized labor has not built on or united these initiatives to win material and ideological gains for the working class. Despite the South African working class’s bravery and militancy, it is hard to identify an organized left in the current political movement.

A Renewed Labor Movement?

The labor movement will have a profound impact on the country’s political and economic direction. As veteran labor analyst Steven Friedman stated:

The formation of a rival to COSATU, the South African Trade Union Federation (SAFTU), may have little immediate effect on who runs the country. But it could tell us whether the labor movement can shake off the malaise that now grips it: this may be every bit as important to democracy and the economy as the fight to control the ANC.

The SAFTU congress emphasized that more than three-quarters of the country’s working class do not belong to any trade union. The new federation will work to build a home for all workers: “unemployed, in factories, in government offices, in schools, hospitals and clinics, as policemen and women, on farms, slaving on the streets in our towns and cities in informal trades, slaving in homes as domestic workers.”

In addition, SAFTU promises to undertake a number of campaigns addressing issues that range from unemployment to poverty, from labor brokers to attacks on workers’ right to strike. It also wants to work to resolve the public health and education crises, to restore land to its rightful owners, and to address the nation’s energy crisis. SAFTU opposes the controversial nuclear deal with Russia as well as the thousands of lost jobs in coal power stations and calls for the move toward socially owned, renewable energy.

But for the federation to become a vibrant and militant labor movement, it will have to overcome a number of challenges.

Changing Nature of Work

In South Africa, efforts to organize casual and informal workers have failed. As Benjamin Fogel points out, unions in South Africa often “uncritically reproduc[e] the traditional image of the male, industrial South African proletariat.” SAFTU will have to move away from conventional and comfortable ways of recruiting, mobilizing, and organizing in order to reach workers in casual, outsourced, and informal jobs.

Importantly, the draft constitution creates a National Working Committee structure comprised of representatives from different sections of the working class, such as informal workers and migrant workers. This group, if given enough power, will play an important role in moving the federation beyond traditional trade-union rhetoric.

SAFTU can look toward previous and existing examples of innovative strategies. The Marikana worker communities, which united with the community’s women, and the worker-student alliances that emerged during the #FeesMustFall student protests and the #OutsourcingMustFall/#EndOutsourcing campaigns offer exciting models. SAFTU can also look to  CSAAWU, a small but militant agricultural union working to build migrant worker forums in the rural Western Cape.

Destruction of Trust in the Labor Movement

A representative from the South African Informal Traders Alliance (SAITA) stated that “COSATU and the ANC broke people’s hearts . . . this federation must not break people’s hearts.”

Many people feel betrayed by the ANC’s false and broken promises, as their everyday Fexperiences remain materially similar to life under apartheid. The labor movement urgently needs to regain the people’s trust after years of class collaboration, which subordinated working-class demands to the political agenda of the ANC and South African Communist Party (SACP).

SAFTU says it has learned lessons from COSATU, and it will have to ensure that its structures, cultures, and organizing strategies do not mirror its predecessor’s. Above all, it must stop fencing the workplace off from other forms of struggle.

Many South Africans lost trust in the labor movement because they saw it become bureaucratized and watched its leadership enrich themselves. This created a distance between the leaders and members, so that the unions stopped representing rank-and-file interests.

As Steven Friedman outlines, high-ranking union members often gain access to seats on boards and deals with capital. This moves power and resources to the top. Vavi promised that the new federation would go back to the basics of organizing and build “vibrant, local structures . . . If we are only in boardrooms,” he said, “we will be nothing.”

The SAFTU congress gave observers two hopeful signs. First, the draft constitution states that the general secretary and deputy general secretary will not earn more than the wage of a skilled worker, although it did not explain exactly how it will do this math.

Second, the congress consistently rejected the National Economic and Labour Council (NEDLAC), a group set up in 1994 to bring labor, capital, and the state into dialogue on economic and labor policy. The federation has promised not to “trap ourselves into deal-making with capital.” The working class has already had twenty-three years of class collaboration on its back; SAFTU might represent a break with this system.

Political Culture

Forced unity — partly a legacy of the anti-apartheid struggle in the face of violent repression — became the dominant political culture within the trade union movement. Further, as Gavin Hartford points out, the SACP, rooted in Stalinism, required loyalty and compliance. Its politics opposed critical thought and political plurality, a viewpoint also deeply embedded in the ANC and COSATU. The federation will have to decisively break from this tradition if it wants to develop into an independent and democratic federation.

Further, in order to build a culture of democracy and independent thought, the federation will have to work against “big man” politics, rooted in the mythology surrounding the men who liberated the country. This destructive culture demands acquiescence to a few dominant — and almost always male — leaders at the expense of building collective agency among ordinary workers.

Beyond stealing people’s trust in their own power and capacities, big-man politics also feeds into South Africa’s deep-rooted and violent patriarchy, which the labor movement is by no means exempt from.

The congress offered some evidence that SAFTU would build such a democratic culture. The debate from the floor saw both large and small unions trying to hold together different political traditions, including socialism, internationalism, and Pan-Africanism. Attendees inserted Pan-Africanism into the conversation because they wanted to ground politics in its locality, rather than in the dogmatic application of Marxist concepts.

We will have to wait and see if SAFTU will take this politics of locality and solidarity seriously, in particular in relation to organizing African workers across the continent (especially in the South African Development Community region), where tension has grown increasing migration to South Africa amid economic and political crises and overt expressions of xenophobia by government officials and departments, such as the South African Police Department and Department of Home Affairs.

In the coming years, the federation will also have to navigate how it relates to political parties. A number of trade unions support NUMSA’s plan to build a workers’ party, and SAFTU must avoid reproducing a top-down relationship between the party and the trade unions.

Build Working-Class Power

At SAFTU’s launch, COSATU’s first elected general secretary, Jay Naidoo, said, “Those in power only understand one language — power.” In today’s fragmented working-class movement, the new federation will have to build unified power at points of both production and reproduction.

SAFTU currently has no affiliated union in the mining industry — the bedrock of the nation’s economy. Following the Marikana massacre, many mineworkers left NUM to join the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which then led the 2014 platinum mineworkers’ strike. AMCU remains hesitant and wary of the SAFTU, but the new federation must win them over.

Attracting this union, as well as maintaining internal unity (with political plurality) within the federation, will be crucial. Unlike COSATU’s slogan “One Industry, One Union,” SAFTU consists of many general unions, which organize along value chains and in the same sectors. This raises serious questions about “poaching” and will require careful negotiations.

The new federation has a momentous task ahead of itself. Importantly, as Marxist labor sociologist Eddie Webster notes, leadership, not on-the-ground worker militancy, has driven the federation so far. It came out of political battles within COSATU over its alliance with the ANC and SACP, and internal union battles against corruption and the erosion of democracy.

As tensions within COSATU and the alliance heighten — illustrated by the unprecedented cancellation of COSATU’s May Day rally following contestations over Zuma’s participation and ultimate booing of the president and disruption of the rally — the working class may be divided by various feuding elite factions and become victims of political violence. This places great weight on SAFTU as it attempts to build a democratic, worker-centered federation.

Will leaders welcome internal debate? Will workers take control of their organization? Will the focus return to working-class struggles, linking unionized and non-unionized laborers to community struggles? Will the federation spark a new, emancipatory common sense? While many questions remain unanswered, SAFTU’s launch represents a moment when alternative trade unionism could finally emerge in South Africa.

End Mark

About the Author

Thembi Luckett is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Witswatersrand. She previously worked for trade unions in the clothing and agricultural sectors.

Naadira Munshi is co-head of Equal Education's Gauteng Office. She recently submitted for examination her dissertation for a Masters of Art in sociology, at the University of the Witwatersrand.