The labour movement played a critical role in the end of apartheid. Yet 20 years later, South African workers face a crisis, and the house of labour is divided.


workers unite 1985

Apartheid and the Labour Movement in South Africa

The labour movement played a critical role in the end of apartheid. When black workers defied the apartheid regime in the docks of Durban in 1973 by taking wildcat strike action, they initiated a chain of events that lead to the economic defeat of apartheid capitalism. Crippled by uncontrollable industrial action, the apartheid regime legalised black trade unions, believing they could tie them down in the processes and bureaucracy of labour relations. Instead, the newly formed unions, united into the confederations of COSATU and NACTU, went from strength to strength, organising and undermining the economic basis of the regime.

While official history highlights the role of negotiations, sanctions, and the importance of  international sport to white voters as being crucial factors, the labour movement’s ability to mobilise the mass of people was probably single biggest factor in the defeat of apartheid. By uniting workers, communities, students and democrats from across society into the United Democratic Front, the unions were able to articulate a positive and achievable struggle for social justice, as well as an activist role for ordinary people.

Jay Naidoo, COSATU's first general secretary

Jay Naidoo, COSATU’s first general secretary

This is in stark contrast to the tactics of the armed struggle: while heroic, this encouraged a culture of martyrdom, and an elitism in some of the exiled leaders. Unions put ordinary working people at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid, and it was these workers that prevailed. By striking at the economic heart of apartheid capitalism, organised workers were able to attack the profitability of the system, and force it to negotiate.

The democratic era

The labour movement went into the democratic era in a powerful position: in alliance with the governing party, and with a strong reputation in the fight against oppression, the workers’ movement seemed poised to take a central role in the new society, and to help bring about an end to economic as well as political apartheid. Workers’ rights were enshrined in the Constitution and labour laws of the new democratic state.

While the labour movement in the West had been in decline since the late 1970s, South African unions bucked the trend, and were showing growth, dynamism and a shopfloor vibrancy that suggested the power to bring about a real industrial democracy. In addition, South African workers helped develop and articulate a new model of industrial relations – social movement unionism – that seemed to provide answers to the organisational impasse reached by their colleagues in other countries. South African unions had reinforced their central role in society by developing themselves as the economic arm of a broad social struggle for economic and political justice, uniting diverse communities, rather than just fighting for the narrow terms and conditions of their members.


From the start, however, there were stresses and contradictions that threatened workers’ unity. Chief of these, perhaps, was the way the workers’ movement reflected apartheid divisions, and that workers went into the democratic era with three rival confederations reflecting different histories and traditions. In time, tensions between federations would ensure that workers were sometimes divided politically, and restrained from taking collective action, or in identifying and fighting a common class enemy.

The other major contradiction was the alliance between the dominant federation, COSATU, and the governing party. This was always going to test the loyalties of activists, especially as the state was a major employer. When the post-apartheid government embarked on a neoliberal economic policy which resulted in, among other things, a raft of privatisations of state enterprises, this contradiction was thrown into even starker relief.

Another fault line was the shift in the nature of the South African economy itself. Jobs were shed in the traditional extractive industries, as well as in the former state enterprises. Both the service sector and the informal economy grew in importance. Preoccupied as it was political battles, the labour movement failed to respond adequately to this shift, and a large constituency of workers remains unorganised.

Finally, there was a shift in the country’s labour relations model to the social dialogue of the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC). NEDLAC is a tripartite body consisting of representatives of labour, government and business. While it has brought about better collective bargaining cover and material conditions for workers, it has done so at the expense of an increased bureaucratisation of the labour relations process, with a consequent demobilisation and marginalisation of shopfloor activists.

The situation today

The period since the end of apartheid has seen growing discontent among the working class and poor in South Africa. Most have seen no improvement to their material circumstances, and yet are confronted with the conspicuous wealth and consumption of both the old, white ruling class, and the new elite. South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world. Despite economic growth rates that would be the envy of the US or Europe, ordinary workers still live in desperate poverty.

This inequality lead to the rise of new social movements and protests for service delivery. Increasingly, these protests were met by state violence. However, the depth of the crisis – especially in the labour movement – came to shocking prominence with the Marikana massacre in late 2012. Scores of striking mine workers were shot dead – some executed at point blank range – by the police during a strike. The strike itself was a consequence of divisions in the mining unions, with workers protesting the failure of their unions to represent them adequately. Marikana was followed by a massive wave of worker insurrection, not just in mining, but also agriculture, where workers on wine farms set vineyards alight in protest at conditions.

The consequences of Marikana and the resulting worker insurrection have torn the South African labour movement apart: the unions are split, essentially, between those that believe they should be fighting for the working class and poor, and those that have chosen loyalty to the government. Blame and recrimination abounds, with senior unionists being blamed for complacently allowing the situation to develop.

An important survey carried out by the labour service organisation Naledi shows that ordinary members want their unions to defend their interests robustly, but some in the leadership have acted undemocratically in order to preserve their power and their close links to government. This has lead to a deep dysfunction at a time when a powerful and united labour movement is needed more than ever.

South Africa faces a crucial general election this year. With no consistent voice speaking for workers, right wing populists are filling the vacuum. We have seen the rise of the EFF party,  a thuggish group of workerist fascists who exist only to allow their leaders access to money and power.

South African workers face a crisis, and the house of labour is divided. 

Workers’ World is a workers’ media organisation based in Cape Town and Johannesburg. This is an extract from their 15th anniversary report

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.

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