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  • Institutionalisation, strike violence and local moral orders1
  • Karl von Holdt (bio)


Strikes were frequently accompanied by violence during the 1980s in South Africa. Strikers were regularly beaten, arrested and shot by the police. Strike breakers were intimidated, beaten and sometimes murdered by striking workers. Labour analysts ascribed the high levels of worker violence to the conditions under which trade unions organised and engaged in collective-bargaining during the apartheid era - in particular, the failure to fully institutionalise industrial conflict, and, more broadly, the absence of political rights which imbued industrial action with a strongly political dimension (Von Holdt 1989 and 2003, Webster and Simpson 1990). The implication was that with the political incorporation of workers into a post-apartheid democracy, and with the full institutionalisation of industrial conflict in new post-apartheid labour legislation, strike violence and the high levels of mass militancy which sustained it, would decline.

This has not happened. Strikes have increasingly been accompanied by heavy-handed police action - beatings, shooting with rubber bullets, arrests - while intimidation, assaults and murders of strike breakers have been a persistent feature of many large-scale strikes. This article seeks to explain why violence remains so much a part of industrial action, and what this tells us about the post-apartheid social order. It argues that several factors continue to undermine the institutionalisation of industrial relations and that, as in the 1980s, these factors range from those that are specific to the field of industrial relations itself to those that arise from the nature of the broader political, economic and social transition. These broader factors dispose workers to draw on the repertoires of collective violence that have [End Page 127] been established as a tradition of conflict and struggle in South Africa in order to strengthen their collective-bargaining position vis-à-vis employers.

This article begins by summarising a case study of strike violence in a steelworks during the apartheid period, and argues that political struggle played a considerably more significant role in undermining the institutionalisation of industrial relations than previous analysis had suggested. It then turns to two strikes in the public service, one in 1992 and the second in 2007. The first of these took place at a time when public service workers had no institutional or trade union rights and when, beyond the industrial relations field, society was marked by the heightened instability and extreme violence of the period of negotiated transition following the unbanning of the liberation movements. The strike was marked by extremely high levels of brutal violence. The 2007 strike, in contrast, took place at a time when public service workers had full trade union and collective bargaining rights, and when a constitutional democracy had been in place for more than a decade. Nonetheless, despite conditions that appeared propitious to the institutionalisation of industrial conflict, the strike was characterised by considerable violent intimidation of non-strikers.

The question is why this should be so. Analysis of interviews with workers suggests two reasons: firstly, steps taken by the employer acted to undermine what workers understood to be their collective-bargaining rights, reducing the strike to a naked power struggle; and, secondly, and more importantly, workers articulate a somewhat inchoate but nonetheless strong sense of grievance about their location in post-apartheid society which legitimates recourse to familiar tactics of struggle, including repertoires of collective violence. Two conclusions can be drawn from this. Firstly, a common thread that runs through the apartheid and post-apartheid period is that the degree of institutionalisation of industrial relations is dependent on broader political and social factors beyond the field of industrial relations itself. Secondly, the question of the industrial and social order in post-apartheid South Africa is not a settled matter: the authority of the state and of the law has a limited reach, and social hierarchy and the balance of power between social forces that underpins it remains contested. This explains the high levels of conflict and violence not only in industrial relations, but in many spheres of South African society.

The article concludes with the argument that the limits to institutionalisation cannot be understood only with reference to the dynamics within the field of industrial...


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pp. 127-151
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