The Platform

Jacob Dumdum, President of the Federation of Free African Trade Unions of South Africa. (United Nations)

Is there a future for trade unions in South Africa?

Trade unionism has its origins in England in the late 17th century, gaining popularity during the Industrial Revolution. On the African continent, trade unions began to gain popularity during colonial rule, dating back as far as the 1880s. The birth of trade unionism in Africa interlinked with a multitude of political, social, and economic aspects. This is why politics and trade unions have always been intertwined in Africa.

South Africa’s trade union history is a strong example of this political and trade union link. Early trade unions were reserved for white people only, reflecting the political outlay of the country at the time. The first union for black workers was established in 1917 and by 1924 the South African Trade Union Congress had been formed, with Bill Andrews as secretary. Andrews subsequently became the first general secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP). These trade unions paved the way for many more to form, allowing black people to have a voice under the Apartheid regime. After years of unions being formed, banned, merged, and demerged, the largest trade union in South Africa was ultimately formed – the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).

COSATU was formed in 1985 and cemented itself at the forefront of the anti-apartheid fight. The union played a dual role in representing workers in South Africa and forming part of the Tripartite Alliance. The Tripartite Alliance is a partnership between COSATU, the African National Congress (ANC), and the South African Communist Party (SACP). The alliance was forged in 1990 to galvanize support for the ANC during the apartheid era, assisting in its defiance campaign and fight against the apartheid system. Apartheid may have ended but the alliance still stands to this day.

An increase in public support for the ANC during the apartheid era created a definitive shift of power within the Tripartite Alliance. The union was left out of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) that convened in 1991, thereby leaving the interests of labour relations up to its partners. This is where some believe the earliest signs of cracks within the alliance started to show. Despite these cracks, trade unions were recognized in the 1996 Constitution, giving citizens the right to join trade unions, and giving unions the right to bargain and strike.

Fast forward to 2018, and the ANC is still walking a tightrope between ideological and policy-based differences within the alliance. The issue remains; despite existing for 30 years, the alliance partners have failed to decide how their partnership should work for the benefit of unions and citizens. The years of Jacob Zuma’s presidency saw the alliance pushed to its wit’s end. COSATU and the SACP had long accused the ruling party, and Jacob Zuma, of not consulting them when key cabinet appointments were being made; they were tremendously critical of Zuma’s presidency. Both organizations campaigned strongly against Zuma, with COSATU stating that it would call for members to strike if no action was taken against Zuma as national president. This was the wake-up call that put the ruling party (the ANC) into action, with Zuma resigning shortly thereafter.

Without COSATU and the SACP’s assistance, the ANC’s support would dwindle; since its inception, the alliance has helped the ANC stay in government power. This notion finds the ANC motivated to give into the alliance’s demands in order to maintain support, and there are multiple examples of this. In September 2019, the SACP expressed concern over the 2021 local elections; announcements regarding contesting these elections were made. In December 2019 these statements were retracted, and support was given again after the ANC agreed to the new model of cooperation that the SACP had suggested. It is important to note that this relationship exceeds political support; all of the partners in the alliance have assisted in maintaining and influencing each other’s political strategies. COSATU can always count on the ANC’s support during election periods, as the ANC knows on which side their bread is buttered. Trade unions use this to their political and social advantage.

COSATU may be the top player in trade unionism in South Africa, but over 207 different unions are registered with a total of 3.1 million members overall. Over the years, trade unions have evolved and adopted roles that are similar to those of business shareholders. Trade unions have started investing in opportunities emerging from public and private companies, especially those hoping to increase their Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment rating. Could, or should, a trade union be both a shareholder in a business and represent the workers? Perhaps not. By becoming a shareholder and turning their attention to making a profit, trade unions are losing the essence of what they are – a body to protect and fight for worker’s rights.

Trade unions and strikes are two phrases that frequent the media in South Africa, and for good reason. The latest data from 2018 recorded that 137,712 labourers went on strike, resulting in a loss of 1,158,945 working days. There were a recorded 165 industrial strikes in 2018, an increase from the 132 in 2017. Workers lost over R266 million in wages due to strike action – the transport sector was hit the hardest, contributing R131 million in lost wages to this figure.

An amendment to the Labour Relations Act was made in 2018, largely due to the increase in strike action. Trade unions and employer’s organizations are now required to hold a secret ballot before strike action. Half of the eligible, deciding members must agree that strike action is required for a strike to go forward. It is now illegal for strike action to occur without this. The hope is that this policy will reduce the number of strikes occurring, with a special focus on reducing violent strikes.

The next question people are asking is whether there is a future for trade unions or not. Many believe that unions are in crisis; infighting has reached a peak, and organizational splits are occurring. The younger population that is now entering the workforce is also not seeing a need to belong to a trade union. For example, the mobilization that students achieved during student protests (2015 onwards) showed that unions are not necessary, the people can speak for themselves. The younger generations are also not interested in the political motivations and affiliations of trade unions or membership fees; they want unions to have a sole focus on its members. Without attracting younger generations as members, trade unions will shrink and eventually, be lost in the public and political realms.

Talya Parker holds a Master's degree in Political Science from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. Talya is currently working as a research analyst for Ceravoid, a commercial intelligence and risk management firm based in Cape Town. Talya is passionate about Political Risk and Intelligence on the African continent.