The success of the new South Africa depends on what happens in its factories and offices, which in turn depends on organised labour. David Honigmann considers whether the unions, central to bringing down apartheid, can now contain black aspirationsby David Honigmann / December 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
If white South Africa were a separate country, it would be roughly as rich as Spain. Black South Africa would be closer to Azerbaijan. To repair the divisions left by decades of apartheid, the government has embarked on an ambitious reconstruction and development programme, talismanically shortened to RDP. But it faces a dilemma: most RDP projects, such as housing, education and health, require large amounts of government spending, all of which require sustained economic growth. The key to achieving this will come in the workplace-the only arena where white and black South Africans regularly mingle. Only if industrial peace can be achieved has the RDP a chance of success. Industrial relations are hence crucial to the success of the new South Africa.
For most of the country’s nine million workers, however, an emphasis on long-term growth at the expense of higher standards of living may not be palatable. During the 1980s, South Africa’s newly legalised black trade unions (led by Cosatu, the Congress of South African Trade Unions) stood shoulder to shoulder with the banned African National Congress. Both were partners in the struggle; the unions complemented the work of the ANC’s guerrillas, Umkhonto we Sizwe. When victory came, unionists assumed, it would bring in a promised land for everybody, politicians and workers alike.
But a year after South Africa’s first free elections, the situation for organised labour looks in many ways worse than before. Union organisers still earn about R2,000 a month (less than ?5,000 a year), live in townships and worry constantly about their finances. Their opposite numbers in industry still live in the rich white suburbs, still earn about five times as much, still employ maids and gardeners. Wage negotiations are as hard-fought as ever, redundancies still an ever-present threat. The government as employer has committed itself to keeping wage increases well below inflation. Nelson Mandela, the president, hosts tea parties for the widows of dead white nationalists; for the unions he seems to have only grim warnings and veiled threats.
For some unionists the late 1980s and early 1990s now seem a golden age of growing influence in the affairs of state. Following the abrupt transition from struggle to social democracy the unions have lost touch with their members, fallen out with the ANC and failed to keep pace with the changing South African economy. The promised land is no longer on offer; the question…