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  • Against the odds:the sustainability of the South African Labour Bulletin
  • Johann Maree (bio)


In 2003 Michael Burawoy, former president of the American Sociological Association, delivered an important address to the South African Sociological Association (SASA) Congress in Durban. He spoke of four sociologies, professional, critical, policy and public. Professional sociology is what is taught and researched at institutions of higher education while critical sociology uncovers the assumptions and values upon which it rests. Policy sociology is conducted for specific clients who determine the problems to be researched, whereas public sociology addresses issues of national significance and makes its findings available to the population at large. It interrogates the goals of those in power and examines the means they use to try to achieve them (Burawoy 2004:14-17).

Burawoy maintained that professional sociology had become dominant in America, whereas in South Africa critical sociology gradually emerged in the 1970s. And, he continued:

…the Durban strikes unexpectedly exploded onto the political scene in 1973, followed by the Soweto uprising of 1976. Blacks had found their own voice to break through the repressive apartheid order. A new industrial sociology, rooted in the analysis of the labour movement, flourished in academic debates and in pages of the new South African Labour Bulletin.

(Burawoy 2004:22)

From the outset the Bulletin epitomised what Burawoy meant by public sociology. Academics and other intellectuals were - and still are - writing clear and easy-to-understand articles in the Bulletin that are aimed at the broader public, specifically at the Black African working class. But the [End Page 48] Bulletin was from the outset more than merely a vehicle for public sociology. It also provided what Eddie Webster has called a 'social science of liberation'. By this Webster meant the linking of theory with practice by giving people who had been denied a higher education the opportunity to learn from their own practice (Webster 1982:7-8). The practice was to be provided by active involvement in emerging trade union organisation while the learning was facilitated by the Bulletin that helped them to conceptualise and use their experience in furthering their own struggle for economic and, eventually, political liberation. It is a process similar to what Paulo Freire termed the 'pedagogy of the oppressed'. Through this pedagogy the oppressed acquire power springing from their weakness that makes them strong enough to liberate both themselves and their oppressors (Freire 1973:21). The power they acquired was a collective power emanating from their weakness as isolated individuals in the workplace.


The aim of this paper is to explore the strategies adopted by the South African Labour Bulletin to survive the hostile environment within which it operated during the 1970s and 1980s. The remarkable achievement is that it succeeded against all odds and is now in its 35th year of publication. This achievement is all the more noteworthy as none of the other oppositional journals that were started during the 1970s managed to survive.

This paper is based on three sources of information. The first is participant observation as a member of the Bulletin's Editorial Board for 28 years. I was elected chairperson of the Board for 24 years in succession and thus had a very good opportunity to learn a great deal about all its operations and activities. The second source of information is the private collection of primary Bulletin material that I collected from even before my tenure as Editorial Board member up to the time I stepped down from the Board in 2004. The third source of information consists of published articles and other intellectual writing pertaining to the Bulletin.

This article examines four key strategies that the Bulletin adopted that enabled it to survive and remain sustainable. The first was to achieve its autonomy after being established by the Institute for Industrial Education in 1974. The second was to draw university-based intellectuals onto its Editorial Board. They helped to provide a flow of continuous copy for the Bulletin and to establish an important subscriber base in the universities in addition to its trade union readership. The third was to ensure the financial [End Page 49] viability of the Bulletin, first by broadening...


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