Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

Fool me twice? Labour Politics in South Africa


Campaigning on a platform of “A People’s Contract to Create Work and Fight Poverty,” the ruling African National Congress (ANC) received nearly 70 per cent of the popular vote in South Africa’s third democratic election in March, 2004.

The ANC’s trade-union ally, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), was at its side, providing logistical support through their extensive affiliate networks. COSATU, the country’s largest trade-union federation, with 1.8 million members, called the election “a resounding working class victory.”

Underneath the façade of unity and common purpose, however, lurks the unresolved tensions between the ANC and COSATU on the overall direction of the government’s economic program. Presumably the ANC’s electoral platform was written to bridge differences between the ANC and COSATU – and the ANC voting constituency more generally – on key socio-economic matters like job creation and social-service delivery. By emphasizing the need to create jobs and fight poverty, the ANC responded to its own constituency’s criticisms of its performance to date.

But at the same time, the call for a “people’s contract” was viewed with some cynicism in light of the ANC’s style of government, especially under President Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela in 1999. Mbeki has become known as much for his top-down policy-making style and his intolerance of dissent within the ranks as he has for his commitment to neoliberal economics.

There is little doubt that the ANC was the “least worst” option, at least among the parties with any real prospects, since the South African Communist Party (SACP), the only “left” party with a large membership, continued to run candidates under the ANC banner. Still, for communities facing evictions, water and electricity cut-offs, and for unemployed workers retrenched during the ANC’s terms in office, supporting a party that was only the “least worst” option was hardly the type of democracy they expected to build when apartheid formally ended in 1994.

Indeed, the ANC cannot escape a nagging question: given its overwhelming majorities in parliament, why hasn’t it done more for South Africa’s poor and working class? It is certainly a question the majority of South Africans face every day.

The ANC’s socio-economic program

Social and economic inequality rose steadily over the last decade. Unemployment, already high by international standards, continued to rise, as did precarious and unprotected work. Seeking foreign investment and improving the country’s international competitiveness have taken precedence over meeting the needs of poor and working South Africans.

Take land reform. A disappointingly small percentage of land has been redistributed under the ANC. From 1995 to 1999, only 41 claims were settled under the restitution program, which was designed to restore land or compensate those dispossessed by segregation and forced removals. More claims were settled recently, but the entire program has been strongly criticized for its “trickle down” approach. Adopting policies promoted by the World Bank, it favours the most profitable and export-directed producers, actually leading to greater concentration of ownership.

Similar contradictions marred labour-market policies. Although new laws extended and expanded protection to some workers previously excluded from legislation, they fail to offer adequate protection to the growing number of workers on the margins of the economy.

Unemployment has grown steadily, and currently sits at about 43 per cent, if discouraged job seekers are included in the definition of unemployed. What is often overlooked is that the quality of new and existing jobs has declined, too. According to official statistics, the number of workers in non-standard employment (temporary, casual and seasonal workers) increased over the last decade, to over a fifth of the total workforce.

COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi complains of the “deepening unemployment crisis and massive inequalities growing at catastrophic proportions” and argues that “the interventions made by the democratic government have failed to stem the characteristics of the apartheid economy.”

With unemployment and informal and unregulated employment rising, social-security reforms have not reduced the high levels of poverty. Research commissioned by the government reveals that the system is sorely inadequate: there is no income-support program for older children or adults between 18 and 59, and no general assistance for households where no one is employed. According to a recent government report, “half of the poor live in households that receive no social security benefits at all, and the rest remain poor in spite of the benefits they receive.”

Privatization policies, coupled with tight financial management, have led to higher user fees for basic services. Water and electricity delivery has expanded, especially to areas that previously had no services, but many households are cut off because they cannot afford to pay. Security forces known as the “Red Ants” have been ruthlessly targeting communities that illegally reconnect services. Violent confrontations between the police and community members are becoming more common, with two recent deaths of community activists.

Thus, while a transition to democracy has taken place, a genuine democratic transformation – restructuring social and economic relations – has not. Community activist and researcher Ashwin Desai insists that “although the black elite rapidly became richer and the white poor rapidly poorer, in general terms whites got richer and blacks got poorer.”

COSATU and the ANC

Despite ten years of steady working-class marginalization COSATU has not faltered in its support for the ANC. After the 1994 and 1999 elections, which also relied on extensive campaigning support from COSATU, the ANC’s policy program appeased business interests and white professionals while containing its own political allies and voting constituency.

In 1994, COSATU expected that they, in partnership with their political allies, the ANC and the SACP, would together bring forward a program that would transform the country’s economy and the lives of ordinary South Africans. Those expectations were dashed when in 1996 the government introduced its neoliberal macroeconomic program, Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR), without consulting its alliance partners.

Despite its objections to the economic restructuring program, COSATU stuck to its agreement to help the ANC win the 1999 election. They highlighted achievements under ANC governance, downplayed areas of disagreement and devoted leaders, staff and shop stewards to the ANC’s electoral bid.

Just months after the ANC successfully contested the election, party chairperson Terror Lekota berated COSATU at its own congress for publicly disagreeing with government policy.

Lekota’s sharp words did not just show poor grace on the part of the ANC, or a flawed understanding of the nature of trade-union democracy (incoming COSATU President Willie Madisha reminded Lekota that “when workers raise concerns – in this forum – about the direction we are moving in, or, about particular policies which affect them negatively, that is their right. Comrades, if workers cannot raise these things here – in this parliament of the working class – then there is something wrong.”). Lekota was saying that the government wanted policy differences to be worked out in quiet, elite-level discussions where the labour leadership could be put at a disadvantage and consensus reached without much popular input.

In the months and years that followed, relations within the Alliance grew more strained. The government unilaterally and illegally ended a round of public-sector collective bargaining negotiations in 1999 with an imposed settlement, and COSATU proceeded with general strikes against GEAR and the government’s privatization plans.

Still, the labour federation remains within the Alliance, even though common sense suggests it should pull out, or at least leverage its power by threatening to do so. Leaders say that to leave the ANC would force COSATU to enter “the political wilderness,” but surely this is disingenuous, since a trade-union movement of nearly two million would have a range of political options.

Challenges from Below

Given the negative impact of many of the government’s policies on poor and working-class communities, it is not surprising that the last half-dozen years have seen a rise in protest politics in the country. COSATU-led anti-GEAR and anti-privatization strikes are a case in point.

Beginning in the late 1990s, precisely when COSATU was hamstrung by Alliance politics, there was a rejuvenation of community struggles, with social movements taking the lead in challenging government policies. Residents’ groups like the Anti-Privatisation Forum and Anti-Eviction Campaign are now at the forefront of community struggles challenging the policies of the ANC. While the potential of these new groups should not be underestimated, there are some clear limitations to their activities, since they generally are organized around single issues and small geographic communities. Opportunities for COSATU to cement a relationship with this emerging civil-society protest movement and help coordinate a new, broadly-based, national working-class movement have slipped away as a result of the federation’s focus on the Alliance.

A new community-labour partnership could expand working-class clout – but only if COSATU was willing to move away from the elite-centred Alliance politics that has promised so much but delivered so little to South Africa’s poor.

Carolyn Bassett teaches at Trent University and regularly writes on African issues. Marlea Clarke has lived in South Africa for many years and is now completing her Ph.D. at York University.


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