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  • Transition from Below: forging trade unionism and workplace change in South Africa
  • Ari Sitas (bio)
Karl von Holdt (2003) Transition from Below: forging trade unionism and workplace change in South Africa. Scottsville: University of Natal Press.

I thumbed through Von Holdt's Transition from Below with feelings of envy and sadness —envy because in 1979 I had toyed with the idea of doing my PhD work on Witbank, Highveld Steel, KwaGuqa and the hostels; sadness because the area brought back memories of a number of people, crucial to my intellectual and creative development, who have passed away.1 A further cause for envy was that Von Holdt's study could span the period from the initial steps of trade union organisation in the area, the early 1980s, the resistance and insurrection that followed and the transition to democracy. That he does so with commitment, care and analytical rigour makes this book a great contribution to the field of industrial sociology in the country.

By focusing on what he terms the 'micro-institutional level' of analysis, he attempts to demonstrate that South Africa's transition is not only a combination of a 'political transition to democracy and an economic transition towards a liberalised economy' but it also entails a 'third dimension': 'a process of internal decolonisation and reconstruction of society' or a 'contested transformation of post-colonial reconstruction' (2003:3). A core concept that explicates his approach and which constitutes the object of this 'contested transformation' is the 'apartheid workplace regime' (2003:5-8). Such a regime of domination at work constitutes, in turn, 'a national pattern of workplace practices' (2003:11).

Alongside the above conceptualisation of the workplace, there lies an understanding of the trade union as a central institution but also as a social movement: 'union structure includes the formal institutional girders ... but [End Page 124] also values and meanings, discourses and repertoires of action' (2003:9). The dramatic transformations occur in the KwaGuqa township and the hostels servicing Highveld Steel, the largest private steel producer in the country. They are driven by the dynamics of trade union organisation, initiated by the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA), and are taken to an unprecedented crescendo of politicisation through the campaigns of the United Democratic Front (UDF).

The second chapter is particularly crucial as the concept of the 'apartheid workplace regime' is given flesh and blood in the context of the steelworks: its racial division of labour, its racial segregation of facilities, the racial structure of power in the workplace, the role of the black 'baas-boys', but, also, the 'differentiation of black migrant and urban workers', and traces how each one is beginning to be challenged by the emerging unionisation in the factory and the area.

The third chapter explores the arrival of the trade union and the consolidation of its struggles, the winning of trade union recognition and the role of migrant and urban labourers in an emerging challenge that 'ushered in a period of unstable and fiercely contested transition' (2003: 71). The first consequence of these processes was not only a challenge to 'baasskap' and conditions of work, but also a process of untold hardship between the union shop stewards and a militant strike committee which used violence to establish control and discipline in the workers' struggles. This led to deep divisions and a loss of NUMSA's legitimacy among a sizeable section of the workforce by the late 1980s (2003:83).

The fourth chapter illuminates the relationship between social movement unionism, popular alliances and 'ungovernability' in the community. The rolling out of stayaways and resistance brought tensions between unions and community organisations, and between hostel-based migrant workers and residents. The complexity of the tensions was enormous because many of the shop stewards were also 'increasingly active in the community' (2003:107).

The fifth chapter explores how the interlacing of manifold struggles spilled over into the factory, and between 1986 and 1987 a 'chaotic' challenge and counter-challenge was under way with the 'lockout strike' of 1987, which ended with the 'union (securing) a relatively orderly surrender', but in the workplace 'it was smashed completely, there were no longer meetings, there was nothing… the militant...


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