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Congress of South African Trade Unions and Its Policies in 1985-1994 Essay

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Updated: Jan 13th, 2022

Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is a giant union federation in South Africa established in 1985 (Sparks 1994, p.10). It started with a membership of about 460, 000 workers but had increased to about 1.15 million by 1994 (Sparks 1994, p.11). Previously, its predecessors concentrated on pushing for better wages and improving working conditions declining to be affiliated with any political movements. After the inception of COSATU, however, unions started engaging in the national political struggle under the leadership of ANC. Unlike its antecedent, COSATU supported the politicization of activities of the trade unions and collaboration between unions and the United Democratic Front (UDF) (Sparks 1994, p.30). In the first decade since its inception, COSATU concentrated on political strategies targeted at improving the representation of the interests of black workers. When political consultations over South Africa’s future started to collapse in 1992, COSATU coordinated mass action through stay-aways, stoppages and marches to back ANC’s bargaining power. In 1994, during the national and provincial parliamentary elections, when ANC published the lists of candidates for various posts, it included 70 leaders of COSATU (Marx, 1992, p. 76). In return to the crucial role COSATU had played in boosting support for the electoral policies, the government was widely expected to institute labour friendly reforms. Although COSATU concentrated on political strategies, it was in a bid to help boost the representation of black workers.

Undoubtedly, since its establishment, COSATU has been the strongest union federation in terms of membership. In many respects, it has also been the most important civil organization tout court. Its overall action and accomplishments in the representation of the interests of black workers from 1985 to 1994 and beyond has been hugely successful. COSATU succeeded in enhancing the working conditions and rights of employees such as maternity leave. It also secured better wages, job security and severance compensation for employees who were terminated from employment (Brits 2005, p.50). These achievements and interactions that transformed the apartheid system would not have been achieved without the political strategies. Political strategies were necessary to create an appropriate environment for transition and no practical transformations would be realized had such strong strategic political strategies between COSATU and political parties not existed. The political strategies adopted by COSATU were necessary for a smooth transition to democracy and reconstruction in a context of disparities. These political strategies had to be forged to counter the repression of trade unions. The environment in which trade unions operated became increasingly confused and contradictory during 1989 (O’Meara 1996, p. 45). Political strategies were the most viable way for COSATU to initiate and organize political action against the apartheid system and a way to build cooperation between internal and exiled liberation movements.

At the inception of COSATU, it was accepted that the federation would play both economic and political roles. Although there were divisions regarding the method of interaction and the extent of cooperation with other political alliances, COSATU remained disciplined in its cooperation with UDF and maintained its autonomy in the tripartite alliance with UDF and ANC. The union continued to fight for the interests of the blacks actively with several notable accomplishments. COSATU was not a political party but had various political responsibilities. COSATU did not fail to represent the black workers since it balanced its involvement in political issues with basic worker interests. The political strategies avoided divisions in the trade union movement and COSATU always avoided submergence of its ideologies and upheld its democratic principles in any alliance they got into. During the first decade after its establishment, COSATU played a major role in bringing about a new political dispensation, in most cases putting the interests of its members first, and is one of the organizations that has greatly promoted the wellbeing and interests of black workers in South Africa. Through the political strategies, COSATU was transformed into a very potent political force that throughout committed itself to improving the position of its members, both at the workplace and in society. COSATU allied with the SACP and ANC to influence the negotiation process and as a shared commitment to breaking down apartheid structures (Lodge & Nasson 1997, p. 56).

The argument that has been advanced to support that COSATU neglected representing black workers could be South Africa’s move towards a class compromise, between capital and labour. However, it ought to be noted that although the capitalist system remained, and capitalists even secured some neo-policies, there were powerful safeguards of workers’ rights and higher wages. The poor blacks benefited from redistribution through the budget and the creation of employment opportunities (Brits 2005, p. 48). Owing to the political strategies forged in the first decade of its establishment, COSATU continued to exert influence within the ANC alliance and significantly boosted the rising of black business. It is apparent that, with time, the influence of trade unions was (and still is) decreasing and to remain relevant, COSATU was obliged to change their positions on various issues. Some causes of this decrease were market globalization, high unemployment levels, increased adoption of technology, increased cooperation of the employers, the decreasing need for unskilled and manual labour, the previous convergence of ideological stances and the different social policies adopted by governments. Initially, COSATU was obliged to adopt a radical stance towards both business and government. However, this had to change due to the advent of a new dispensation. The union had two choices; to adopt an adversarial mode and protect the interests mainly of its members, or cooperate with the government in the reconstruction of industry, policies and the economy. COSATU had the necessary sophistication and insight to engage in cooperation and still maintain its independence. The perceptions that COSATU had neglected representing the interests of the blacks could be due to a lack of understanding of COSATU’s strategy coupled with suspicion and mistrust between the parties.

When COSATU allied with ANC, it did so without losing its independence; unionists were prepared to join the struggles outside the workplace, something that apartheid necessitated, but they would do so on terms dictated by the national liberation organization (Brits 2005, p. 50). Therefore, while aligning with the popular national movement, thereby contributing to a convergence of workplace and township forms of struggles, it favoured the interests of black workers, making it clear that it would not be willing to subordinate those interests to the wellbeing of other blacks. COSATU achieved many freedoms for blacks including the abolition of pass laws, a new policy of orderly urbanization allowing blacks to reside in urban centres, citizenship, economic reincorporation and eventual collapse of the apartheid system (Brits 2005, p.54). Regardless of different government antics to subvert the activities of COSATU, through threatening, imprisonment and assassinations of the union leaders at home and in exile, the armament of township vigilantes and the supporting of the Natal-based alternatives, it was not deterred from forging ahead to fight for the interests of the black workers (Lodge & Nasson 1997, p.77). It is due to the spirited efforts of COSATU, ANC and UDF that made the government yield to the mounting of international pressure to end the apartheid system. While this was no conquest of power through a people’ war, the edifice of white political dominance had been irreparably fractured and the stability and future of capitalism in South Africa were placed in jeopardy. COSATU had delivered its leverage to the national liberation movement to achieve the end of apartheid. COSATU also participated directly in determining how that leverage would be wielded in negotiations over the postliberation order. The democratic forces were represented by the ANC, SACP and COSATU.

One thing that made it look like COSATU was not representing black workers was unemployment and the competition between the employed and unemployed. COSATU had not anticipated the high levels of unemployment that resulted due to job losses and thus, it lacked any plan to address a case where almost half of the workforce was permanently unemployed (Sparks 1994, p.110). Usually, unions fight for the interests of the employed only. This became difficult since it was apparent that getting a job was a rare privilege. Almost all benefits including access to medical care, education, decent housing and retirement benefits accrue from employment. The majority of unemployed blacks in the slums of urban centres and bleak sheds in the unproductive rural areas formed a permanent underclass. COSATU and other federations were yet to consolidate these perpetually marginalized recluses and they were yet to define the association between the employed and unemployed. With the levels of unemployment increasing, the government found ready recruits for its different police forces, homegrown chieftains could easily create vigilante groups, crimes, drug abuse and peddling increased (O’Meara 1996, p. 85). This made it appear as if COSATU had neglected to represent the blacks.

In conclusion, COSATU forged numerous political strategies in the first decade after its establishment. This was necessary to ensure the success of their cause since they needed like-minded democratic liberation movements such as ANC and UDF to have greater leverage over the government. They succeeded in greatly transforming the labour relations, working conditions and improving the wages as well as the eventual collapse of the apartheid system. However, they faced a great deal of opposition, which made it appear that they were not representing the blacks such as high unemployment levels, crackdown, banning and restrictions by the government. Despite the challenges, COSATU continues to exert influence within the ANC with the rising social group being a black business. Since its establishment, COSATU effectively continued to operate on both fronts –that is the bargaining machinery and by using political influence. The political strategies helped COSATU to mobilize a wide range of labour, welfare, political, civic and business bodies as it championed wider societal interests. Political strategies strengthened the federation’s position in both the political and industrial relations spheres while at the same time, sending a clear message to the government that it could not introduce new policies without first negotiating these in a tripartite forum consisting of labour, employers and the state. Politically, COSATU made its presence known through worker’s charter and constitutional change, which advocated for union rights and autonomy, an accountable government, gender equality and a democratically planned economy.

List of References

  1. Brits, J. P. (2005). Modern South Africa: from Soweto to democracy. Muckleneuk, Pretoria: University of South Africa.
  2. Lodge, T. & Nasson, B. (1997). All, here, and now: Black politics in South Africa in the The 1980s. Cape Town: David Phillip.
  3. Marx, A. W. (1992). Lessons of struggle: South African internal opposition, 1960-1990. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  4. O’Meara, D. (1996). Forty lost years: The apartheid state and the politics of the National Party, 1948-1994. Athens: Ohio University Press.
  5. Sparks, A. (1994). Tomorrow is another country: The inside story of South Africa’s negotiated revolution. Johannesburg: Struik.
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