By Walton Pantland It’s been a momentus year for the South African labour movement. In March and April, the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) mobilised millions of South Africans from diverse backgrounds in opposition to e-tollin …

Walton Pantland

By Walton Pantland

It’s been a momentus year for the South African labour movement. In March and April, the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) mobilised millions of South Africans from diverse backgrounds in opposition to e-tolling and labour brokering. Many of those who took part in Cosatu protests were not union members and had never taken part in a popular campaign before. By addressing issues with widespread public support, Cosatu greatly improved its prestige and reputation.

E-tolling is the creation of electronic toll roads in major cities, built and maintained by foreign companies, and amounts to effective privatisation of South Africa’s transport infrastructure. In a country suffering from severe urban sprawl and inadequate public transport, it adds a major expense to squeezed commuters already suffering from high inflation.

Labour brokering, a form of agency outsourcing practiced in South Africa, is deeply unpopular as it prevents vulnerable workers from enjoying full employment protection. As Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said in the federation’s magazine, The Shopsteward (pdf)

“Labour brokers are the main drivers of the casualisation of labour. Their practices are the absolute contradiction to the principle of decent work. They have driven down workers’ wages and conditions of employment. They do not create any jobs but sponge off the labour of others and replace secure jobs with temporary and casual forms of employment.”

Cosatu’s actions were successful, with the implementation of e-tolling postponed, and labour brokers severely restricted. However much of this leverage is only possible because under South African law, unions are allowed to take industrial and protest action for political reasons, and not just around a trade dispute.

In May, Cosatu fought off an attempt by the South African government to limit the right to strike by introducing the requirement to ballot before industrial action.

This means that unlike unions in the UK and most developed countries, South African unions can declare a dispute without holding a formal ballot. Secondary action and political strikes are also legal, and Cosatu frequently acts as a focal point for protests by civil society and social movements. This union power has made a tremendous difference to the lives of millions of people. This is also why it has been so influential on the two issues mentioned above, as well HIV treatment access, democracy in Swaziland and Zimbabwe and a host of other issues over the past few years.

As Ferial Haffajee argues in the City Press, Cosatu has succeeded in creating a new social class in South Africa:

“Cosatu has created a middle class where one did not exist in the 18 years of democracy. That it is funded by the public purse (funded in turn by you and I, the taxpayers) is neither here nor there.

What is remarkable is how a federation that started as decidedly blue collar has altered the identity and social position of its members so quickly and so effectively that it could turn the public policy of tolling on its head.

With taxis stripped from the tax base, the impact would have been borne by middle-class commuters.

In addition, it shows how good union negotiations can have an effect on the income trajectory of an entire sector of workers. This fuelled a consumption boom and helped lift South Africa to become a middle-income nation.”


Even the business press have given grudging admiration to the success of the union federation. As Carol Paton argues in Business Day,

“… it is highly significant that the quantum of labour law amendments that now stand to be passed by Parliament is completely in labour’s favour. Although labour brokers have not been “banned”, this is not really material as the most abusive practices and worst effects for workers will have been eliminated in law. Second, the strike and ensuing success in discussions with the ANC has been very good for Cosatu’s unity.

The gains that Cosatu has made during the administration of President Jacob Zuma are now demonstrable to workers and everyone in Cosatu, no matter their political stance. At its most recent central executive committee meeting last month, the political discussion paper — typically a highly critical and hard-hitting document — stated that Cosatu’s mobilisation had “shifted the political terrain” and said the federation needed “to acknowledge that the balance in government is slowly tilting in favour of working class priorities”.”

However, the success of Cosatu in raising living standards for its members raises its own issues – the growing gulf between those employed on decent wages, and the unemployed. South Africa has an official unemployment rate of 25%, and unemployment is particularly high among youth. Young people born after the end of apartheid have less institutional loyalty to anti-apartheid organisations like Cosatu, and are sometimes used as a political football by political groupings. The biggest opposition group in the South African parliament is the Democratic Alliance (DA), a socially liberal but economically right wing party widely seen as representatives of white capital. The DA has consistently argued that South Africa’s ‘rigid’ labour laws and the good conditions enjoyed by union members are the cause of unemployment.

Last week, the DA organised a protest march of unemployed youths against Cosatu’s head office in protest at Cosatu’s opposition to a proposed youth wage subsidy that would subsidise employers taking on young people. Cosatu argues that this would see older workers replaced by younger workers, and that it is an electoral gimmick that would do little to challenge the structural problems to the South African economy. Cosatu’s view is that the South African state should intervene in the economy to develop key sectors, and provide skills training so that unemployed people are able to get these jobs.

Cosatu saw the DA march as highly provocative and cynical, as a right wing party was pitting employed workers against the unemployed instead of targeting government for sticking to an economic policy that relies heavily on the market. Cosatu members gathered to defend their headquarters, and violence erupted, with many DA supporters injured by Cosatu stone throwers. Cosatu was widely criticised for allowing ‘thuggish’ behaviour, and lost some of the kudos it had gained during the e-tolling protests.

The Unemployed People’s Movement – a progressive organisation aligned to the radical shack dwellers social movement Abahlali baseMjondolo – released a statement rejecting the youth wage subsidy:

“The Unemployed People’s Movement rejects the Youth Wage Subsidy as a solution to the unemployment crisis that is leaving millions of young people without a future. We note that there has been a concerted attempt by big business, their academic and media allies and the DA to present workers as lazy and overpaid. This is outrageous. Workers have struggled bravely for a living wage over many years and the gains that have been won must be defended.” 

However the UPM also condemned Cosatu members for violence and argued that the federation needs to do more for the unemployed people. It seems likely that unless this divide is addressed, the material difference between those employed in the formal economy and the poor will be increasingly exploited by political parties looking for electoral gain.

Overall, however, the picture is of a strong and dynamic labour movement that is winning victories for its members and raising living standards.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
Author avatar

Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

Read All Articles