LabourNet Germany

Home Über unsSuchenTermine


Re-inventing the South African Labour Movement: Making the Desirable Possible

Peter Waterman, August 17th 2001

What is to be done, then? The only route, it seems to me, is utopia. By utopia I mean the exploration by imagination of new modes of human possibility and styles of will, and the confrontation by imagination of the necessity of whatever exists - just because it exists - on behalf of something radically better that is worth fighting for, and to which humanity is fully entitled. (Sousa Santos 1995:479).

A recent issue of the South African Labour Bulletin (henceforth: the Bulletin, or SALB), had a special focus on 'Challenges Facing Labour' (SALB,Vol. 25, No. 3, June 2001). The focus was drawn from a workshop entitled 'Globalisation and Democracy: Challenges Facing Labour', co-organised by the Bulletin itself, the Sociology of Work Unit at Witwatersrand University, and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (Germany). But the issue as a whole provides a sobering stimulus to similarly sober reflection on the future of the South African labour movement, labour studies and the Bulletin itself. And not only because it has so little to say directly about either globalisation or democracy!

These are hard times for the South African trade unions - a movement that from 1974 to 1994 provided an increasing point of reference not only for the liberation movement within (and outside) the country but also for the international labour movement and the international anti-apartheid movement (customarily intertwined).

During 20 years the movement (and SALB) developed, exchanged and shared, certain common strategies, political goals and an underlying worldview (a view of the world in both the political and theoretical sense). This worldview - an admittedly contradictory and changing combination of nationalism, socialism (statist or participatory) and liberal democracy - allowed South African workers, unions and left labour specialists to see themselves as a collective actor and to play a major role in the liberation movement. The coincidence of liberal-democratisation nationally with neo-liberal globalisation internationally has not only struck South African workers and unions in the most extreme and unpredicted ways (e.g. the instant conversion of the African National Congress into an African Nationalist Party - if 'of a special type'). It also undermined the worldview informing and inspiring labour studies, labour organisation and labour struggle. Indeed, it seriously undermined each of the three separate elements of this. (This is part of a complex global social process that Desai and Böhmke 1997, in an otherwise informative critique of the South African left, reduce to a traditional leftist discourse of moral betrayal).

The dispiriting and disorienting effects are, to my eye, revealed within this issue of SALB. Here it is not so much the widely - or wildly - differing orientations of the labour specialists that are at issue (Roger Southall's contribution identifies three or four approaches/traditions, though he does not distinguish between labour theory and union strategy). It is also the piece by Gwede Mantashe, General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, which deals with SALB as if it had only existed in the past, and with the present and future as if rhetoric was a substitute for analysis and strategy. It lies for me also in the piece by Chris Bolsmann, which deals with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in terms of a South/North divide that does not explain the contradictory nature of the data he provides, and therefore gives little or no guidance to an understanding of an international trade union movement which is in a related crisis to the South African one!

This is not to say that fundamental issues of real import to South African workers are not seriously considered - such as relations with the petty-commodity sector, industrial restructuring, relations with politics . But these are framed within Industrial Relations, Union Studies, Unions and Development, or Unions and Politics terms, that may not lean in the same direction and that anyway function to obscure any more general and motivating worldview or ethic. It occurs to me, indeed, that much of this issue of the Bulletin, is marked by one or more of the characteristics that Kohn (1992) considers as obstacles to social change: Limited Vision, Adaptation, Self-Interest (collective but narrow), 'Realism' and Rationalisation!

It may be significant that the most wide-ranging and coherent overview of labour's problems in South Africa appears to be articulated by Lloyd Sachinkoye from Zimbabwe (compare here Bond, Miller and Ruiters 2000)! His piece is entitled 'The Art of the Possible', though Lloyd himself apparently wanted to stress that politics is also the art of making the impossible possible (We will return to the im/possible below).

It is further significant that the South African union/alliance that appears most aware of the developing GNC is a non-COSATU one that (therefore?) is not represented in the SALB forum. This is the Mineworkers Union/Solidarity (Herman 2001). This body, however, rather than disputing the destructive dynamic and competitive values of the new capitalism, is - like at least one of the Europe-based International Trade Secretariats - subordinating itself to these. There is, however, no guarantee that this embrace of a GNC will not attract COSATU members if COSATU continues to rather dispute a national industrial developmental capitalism that is actually becoming increasingly marginal.

The point here is, it seems to me, that we need a new general worldview or frame if we are to understand, inform - and inspire - labour struggles in South Africa, (or anywhere else, everywhere else, for that matter) in the era of a globalised networked financial and services capitalism (for short, GNC). This framework, I suggest, can be drawn out of 1) theoretically-critical and socially-engaged globalisation theory, within which can be nested 2) the contemporary theory and practice of international/ist social movements, and within which, only finally would I place 3) the problems, theories and strategies displayed in this issue of SALB! I won't go into these, except to say that there is:

  1. A sufficient body of radical social theory around that recognizes the reality of a GNC, reveals its ever-more dangerous contradictions and increasing instability, and which points toward networked radical-democratic social movements for the provision of solutions (e.g. Manuel Castells, reviewed Waterman 1999, the Boaventura de Sousa Santos project on Reinventing Social Emancipation 2000);
  2. As for the theory and practice of the increasingly international and internationalist radical-democratic social movements, we have only to consider the anti-globalisation movement and the literature that is coming out of it (e.g. Brecher, Costello and Smith 2000). As well as the kind of protests and declarations coming out of anti-globalisation movements in Latin America (Cry of the Excluded 2001);
  3. The reason why I put the labour movement within or amongst the above movements is because it is currently still generally trapped within institutions, ideas and values of the national industrial capitalism within and against which it took contemporary shape.

Trade unions and labour/socialist parties are, in general, national/ist, representative-democratic (at best) institutions, themselves primarily oriented toward collective bargaining and social partnership (with inter/national capital and/or inter/state organisations). Built on the pyramid model of state, capital, church, even sometimes the army, they have been generally marked since the early-20th century by the 'iron law of oligarchy' - against which even radical or revolutionary leaderships are not immune (for the potential of electronic labour networking to solve this problem, see Greene, Hogan and Grieco 2001). This is not to say that union organisations cannot make contributions to worker welfare, workplace rights, to national-liberation movements and to the extension of citizenship and democracy. But it is to say that under conditions of a GNC, we should not expect them to be in the vanguard of popular empowerment, social/ist transformation and internationalism. (See the pertinent note by SALB Editorial Board member, Gaye Seidman 2001).

It is what is variously called the 'anti-globalisation', 'anti-corporate' or 'anti-capitalist' movement(s) that are most dramatically demonstrating the 'relational form' appropriate for both defence against and challenge to a GNC. They tend to network (internally; in relations to similar others; in alliance with possible allies, in cyberspace). They are culturally hyper-active, in the sense of using both low-tech and high-tech means of communication to both undermine the dominant powers and values, and to propose newer, more democratic, empowering, attractive and humane ones. What they do is not foreign to at least the newer trade union movements that exist in South Africa (except for the electronic bit), Korea or Brazil. These new networks - around such vital issues as food, housing, external debt, water, racism/reparations, land, militarism, consumption, women, communication democracy and sexual minorities - are increasingly finding each other by 'naming the enemy' as corporate capitalism (Starr 2000). They are also insisting that 'Another World is Possible' (World Social Forum 2001) and working out its meaning collectively and globally. Whilst, finally, unions are still trying to develop inter-nationalism (relations between nations, nationalities, nationalisms, and unions so identified or defined), the radical-democratic movements are developing a new kind of global solidarity (meaning one recognizing global problems, amongst which relations between nations/nationalities/nationalisms is but one).

Inter/national unions and socialist parties are either resisting this movement, are profoundly ambiguous about it, are trying to lead/control it, or are recognizing that by relating to it as an equal partner they can best 1) serve their own wage-earner constituency, 2) reach out to the rest of the working classes/categories (petty-producers, homeworkers, rural producers, housekeepers, un- and underemployed) and 3) ensure that labour issues are energetically forwarded within and by the new movement (actually, the latter increasingly do this, even in the absence or against the opposition of unions!).

No surprise, then, that this new 'movement of movements' is inspiring millions - including workers - exercising considerable moral appeal (despite its militaristic fringe), impacting on the dominant media, has blocked action by the international financial institutions and has contributed to the crisis of self-confidence currently afflicting the neo-liberal globalisers.

None of this implies that the South African union organizations have to shut up shop. What it does mean is that their first address should be not to Capital and State (including statist parties) but to the new social movements - many of their friends, neighbours, places of origin - now taking shape in South Africa. The social partnership of the future is with civil-society-in-the-making, not capital and state. Today, to be successful, even in a period when defence is primary, one needs the express support of the rest of radical-democratic civil society.

Nor does the above imply that one has to be either within or without the Tripartite Alliance, of COSATU, the ANC, and the South African Communist Party. The South African labour movement has been long plagued by binary options that obscure continuing problems: for example, whether or not to join the ICFTU, which obscured the problem of COSATU's lack of an explicit and detailed solidarity policy, strategy and even department (see Barchiesi 2001, for this problem in relation to one COSATU affiliate)! COSATU can both stay actively in the Alliance and forcefully address itself to the new social forces and issues the Alliance fails to represent. This posture, is, after all, the implicit one of COSATU towards the ICFTU. Nowadays, as the Latin American women's movement puts it, we need to move in our relationships from love (the assumption of a natural common identity) to need (the continual search for mutual interests, and common identities between differences).

Nor does it mean that the South African trade union organizations have to abandon their 'national identity' (defined as what? by whom?). But, today, to be successful, every national or local organization, action - or identity - has to exist 'in the light of internationalism'. So egalitarian networking has to take place locally, regionally, globally. It also has to take place between the unionized, non-unionised, non-unionisable workers. And between the labour and the other radical-democratic social movements.

As for the Labour Bulletin itself, I really think it has to reinvent itself as some kind of South African Labour and Social Movement Bulletin (there are models internationally). This would focus it on relations between labour and the rest of progressive civil society (amongst women's, community, human rights, rural, church, peace groups, etc). It would mean that the kind of material I refer to below might appear in the Bulletin. It might even increase sales - locally and internationally. It would prevent a reduction of the Bulletin to the art of the possible, at a time in which people and peoples are increasingly questioning this and - in the spirit of SALB in the 1970s-90s - demanding the desirable and making it possible.


Barchiesi, Franco. 2001. 'Transnational Capital, Urban Globalisation and Cross-Border Solidarity: The Case of the South African Municipal Workers', in Peter Waterman and Jane Wills (eds), Space, Place and the New Labour Internationalisms. Oxford: Blackwell. Pp. 80-102.

Bond, Patrick, Darlene Miller and Greg Ruiters, 2000. 'The Southern African Working Class: Relations of Production, Reproduction and Politics', in Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (eds), Socialist Register 2001. London: Merlin Press. Pp. 119-42.

Brecher, Jeremy, Tim Costello and Brendan Smith. 2000. Globalisation from Below: The Power of Solidarity. Boston: South End Press.

Cry of the Excluded. 2001. 'For Peace, Justice and Life: Proclamation of the Cry of the Excluded' (in Spanish). America Latina en Movimiento (Latin America in Movement), Quito, Ecuador, No. 337, July 31, pp. 22-5.

Desai, Ashwin and Helmut Böhmke. 1997. 'Death of the Intellectual, Birth of the Salesman: The South African Intellectual in the Democratic Transition', Debate Vol. 1, No. 3.

Global Social Forum. 2000. 'Porto Alegre Call for Mobilisation',

Greene, Anne-Marie, John Hogan and Margaret Grieco. 2001. 'E-collectivism and Distributed Discourse: New Opportunities for Trade Union Democracy'. Paper presented at the TUC/LSE Conference on Unions and the Internet, London, May 12. http://groups/

Herman, Dirk. 2001. 'A Growth Strategy for Trade Unions in the New Economy - MWU Solidarity of South Africa as a Case Study', Paper to the International Conference on Union Growth, Centre for Industrial Relations, University of Toronto, April 30-May 1.

Kohn, Alfie. 1992. No Contest: The Case against Competition. New York: Houghton Miflin. 324 pp.

Reinventing Social Emancipation. 2000. 'Reinventing Social Emancipation: Theme Presentation?: Participatory Democracy, Alternative Production Systems, Emancipatory Multiculturalism?, Biodiversity?, New Labour Internationalism'.

Seidman, Gaye. 2001. 'Response to Peter Evans' Essay' ('Why Renewed Interest in the Labour Movement?'), In Critical Solidarity: Newsletter of the Labour and Labour Movements Section of the American Sociological Association, Vol. 1, No. 1.

Starr, Amory. 2000. Naming the Enemy: Anti-Corporate Movements Confront Globalisation. London: Zed. 268 pp.

Sousa Santos. 1995. Toward a New Common Sense: Law, Science and Politics in the Paradigmatic Transition. New York: Routledge. 614 pp.

Waterman, Peter. 1999. 'The Brave New World of Manuel Castells: What on Earth (or in the Ether) is Going On?, Development and Change, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 357-80. Or:

Peter Waterman (London 1936) has been a reader of and contributor to the Bulletin since its foundation. He has three books or edited collections on labour internationalism coming out in 2001 and is involved, with SALB EB members Eddie Webster and Rob Lambert, in the Reinventing Social Emancipation project mentioned above.

LabourNet Germany:
Der virtuelle Treffpunkt der Gewerkschafts- und Betriebslinken
The virtual meeting place of the left in the unions and in the workplace