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  • A Paradox of Victory: COSATU and the democratic transition in South Africa
  • Debby Bonnin (bio)
Sakhela Buhlungu (2010) A Paradox of Victory: COSATU and the democratic transition in South Africa. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

South Africa's trade union movement is one of the few global labour movements that are in ascendancy. Unlike many countries where the labour movement seems to have reached its zenith the movement here is still militant, it's still growing and it's still in alliance with the ruling party. Yet surprisingly there has been little serious in-depth analysis of it since Jeremy Baskin's 1991 Striking Back - a history of COSATU (Ravan Press). So Sakhela Buhlungu's book fills a welcome gap.

This book succeeds in being simultaneously an academic book (useful for teaching, writing, reflecting and referencing) and a political intervention in the debates of the day. This is a reflection of the author's positionality with his history as a 'participant and observer of the South African trade union movement' (pvii), as well as, his current location as a professor of sociology.

While the book covers the period from the birth of the independent labour movement it's no linear history of COSATU. Its primary concern is the current issues, or in Buhlungu's words 'dilemmas', facing the labour movement in South Africa. Here (chapter 1 'Introduction: labour, liberation and development in Africa') he identifies four dilemmas facing the labour movement: the issue of economic liberalisation and the accompanying pressures of casualisation and outsourcing; the unilateral adoption and implementation of macroeconomic policies; union-party relations; labour relations reform; and, the loss of union leadership either to government or business (pp5-16). In having to respond to these pressures, Buhlungu [End Page 148] suggests, COSATU is no different from other union movements in Southern Africa, the difference he notes lies in its successes as a labour movement and this success, he explains, is firmly rooted in its history of mobilisation. These dilemmas and their placement in the history of the labour movement structure the debates raised in this book.

The 'paradox of victory' referred to in the book's title is that as the labour movement exerts its power and exercises its influence in the new democracy, so 'the fruits of their victories continue to elude them as the processes of liberalisation that they champion almost always result in the organisational weakening of union structures' (p17). Buhlungu locates his arguments in a discussion of COSATU and its immediate predecessor from the early 1970s onwards. The chapters cover the issues of union activism, organisational models and union mobilisation (chapters 2 and 3), the consequences of global economic integration and the author's view that the unions were unprepared for the consequences (chapter 4), the changing face of the union movement by the late 1990s and the 2000s and the consequences for building organisation (chapter 5), issues of leadership in COSATU (chapter 6), the meaning of 'race' and 'non-racialism' in the union movement (chapter 7), and finally, in chapter 8, the 'paradox of victory'.

I really enjoyed chapter 2 'Fighting for survival: union organisational models and strategies after 1973'. In writing about this period Buhlungu raises new issues and questions. Firstly, he brings the 'lived experiences of black workers' into the discussion of organisational history. Many of the accounts of the building of the independent trade union movement are inclined to treat the workers as having little agency in the formation or the form of the trade union movement. Much of the current writing (and often even the way it is taught in the lecture theatre, if I remember my undergraduate years) gives agency to only one set of actors - those whom Buhlungu calls 'the professionally-trained intellectuals'. Implicit in this chapter is a challenge to the prevailing paradigm. Explicitly the challenge is empirical; through his presentation of a different story Buhlungu is calling into question previously hegemonic accounts of the building of the trade union movement. But the hidden challenges are both theoretical and methodological. Buhlungu points out that once workers' lived experiences are integrated into the analysis it's possible to understand the social processes of mobilisation...


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pp. 148-154
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