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Unisa online - Trade unions and politics: it's a love-hate relationship

Prof Mandla Makhanya attended the inaugural lecture

Prof Mpfariseni Budeli

Trade unions and politics have always had a love-hate relationship. A relationship which began when trade unions became involved in the anti-colonial movements and a relationship which has continued through to the present day struggles for democracy and equality.

This relationship was explored by Department of Mercantile Law lecturer, Prof Mpfariseni Budeli, when she presented her inaugural lecture on Trade unionism and politics in Africa: The South African Experience. The aim of her lecture was to contribute to the debate on this relationship, with specific reference to South Africa.

Budeli’s lecture examined the beginnings of trade unions in colonial Africa, the emergence of trade unions in the struggle for Africa and South Africa’s independence, and trade unionism and politics in South Africa post democracy and constitution.

The first trade unions, she said, were created during colonisation and modelled around those which operated in European countries, but membership of these trade unions was denied to Africans and reserved for Europeans only. It is only later that trade unionism was extended to the colonised people of Africa.

Budeli’s research strongly pointed to the fact that the first African leaders who led the struggle for independence in their countries were indeed trade unionists. These leaders included, amongst others, Leopold Sedar Senghor in Senegal, Houphouet Boigny in Cote d’Ivoire, Sekou Toure in Guinea, Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, Julius Nyerere in Tanzania and Patrice Lumumba, in  the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

But if these great African leaders were trade unionists and were acknowledged for their contribution to Africa’s liberation struggle, how did a love-hate relationship between trade unions and politics develop?

According to Budeli, despite being the most important mass organisations of that time, the actions of trade unions usually occurred under the auspices of the national liberation movements and when liberation was achieved, leaders of the newly-independent African states were unwilling to tolerate the existence of trade unions as autonomous institutions as they feared that they could later challenge their authority and provide an alternative supply of political leaders.

“Military or single-party regimes established shortly after independence left little or no room for free and independent labour unions. Existing trade unions became branches of the regime or were suppressed. Despite their incorporation into the one party state, trade unions remained active underground and became the only opposition to government. Trade unions allied with other organisations to oppose the one party or military regime and demanded democracy and respect for human rights … In many countries, trade unions became political actors for democratic change.”

Budeli explained that the situation changed in the 1990s, when almost all African countries adopted new constitutions protecting human rights, including the right to freedom at the workplace. This, she said, allowed for trade unionism to again prosper on the continent.

The South African experience, she said, can be divided into four periods, the colonial period from the Dutch settlement during the 17th century to the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910; the period from 1910 to the establishment of apartheid in 1948; the period from the creation to the end of apartheid in the late 1990s, and the post-apartheid and democratic period.

Budeli traced the history of South African unions back to the late 1870s or early 1880s. Trade unions then represented skilled white workers only. Trade unions developed after the creation of the Union of South Africa but continued to favour white workers to the detriment of the black. The situation worsened under the National Party (NP) when it came to power and established apartheid in the 1940s. Black trade unions were associated with anti-apartheid movements and their leaders banned. The Bantu Labour Regulations Act was passed. Apartheid was entrenched in the Constitution that established a tri-cameral parliament in 1984. This parliament included whites, coloureds and Indians, but it excluded blacks.

Trade unions continued to operate underground. In 1985, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) was created with a strong support from the ANC. The confederation, together with other unions formed under the umbrella of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) mobilised the black working class and became the driving force of the country’s liberation struggle.

But according to Budeli, a power shift occurred in the 1990s, after former President FW de Klerk unbanned the ANC and other anti-apartheid organisations. These political parties had to play a central role in the transition process, and with the ANC asserting its hegemony, COSATU’s position drifted into one of subordination. However, and despite COSATU being excluded from the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), the forum which negotiated the making of a new constitution, the confederation was not tamed during the transition period, and allied with the ANC and the SACP, mobilising mass support for the ANC as it set to lead the post-apartheid government.

Budeli argued that since the 1990s, COSATU has regularly and bitterly complained about its marginalisation within the tripartite alliance. Tensions within the tripartite alliance became explicit in the run-up to the 2002 ANC national elective conference. These tensions culminated during the 2007 ANC national conference when COSATU, the SACP and the ANC Youth League openly campaigned against former President Thabo Mbeki.

According to Budeli, this signalled the re-emergence of a powerful trade union movement in South Africa which had been marginalised under Mbeki’s presidency. However, she said: “This re-emergence of COSATU was short-lived, as the ANC did not take long to assert its prominence over its two partners within the tripartite alliance, and imposed its macro-economic neo-liberal policy that Thabo Mbeki was blamed for and which cost him the presidency.”

In Budeli’s analysis, “as the ANC prepares for its 2012 national conference in Mangaung, the feeling is that little change had been made in the economic policy since Mbeki’s departure.”

She said a host of questions remained, such as, what is the future of the tripartite alliance, is COSATU going to withdraw and create its own party, oppose the ruling party and get its Secretary General elected president, or is it in the interest of labour for COSATU to remain within the alliance instead of asserting its own autonomy and disengaging from party politics?

Budeli also cautioned ANC leaders and militants to not be amnesic and make the same mistake as their NP counterparts who had wrongly thought that apartheid was eternal and that they would rule for ever. “While COSATU’s membership will continue to remain loyal to the ANC, no relationship or alliance is eternal. It is unlikely that the ANC will beat the record set by the NP and remain in power for more than four decades.”

Concluding, Budeli said that democratic consolidation in Africa, including South Africa, requires close cooperation between strong and autonomous trade unions and political parties.

“There are no blanket answers to the dilemmas facing union – government relationships; and that the nature and type of these relationships will depend on the historical, social, legal and political context of each country. Politics is dynamic. So is trade unionism. On the other hand, trade unions have never been or will ever be static organisations. They have changed and developed and will continue to do so. In part the way they change will be a response to the environment in which they operate.”

Click here to read Prof Budeli’s full address.

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