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  • Maverick Insider: a struggle for union independence in a time of national liberation by Johnny Copelyn
  • Edward Webster (bio)
Johnny Copelyn (2016) Maverick Insider: a struggle for union independence in a time of national liberation. Johannesburg: Picador Africa

At the center of the idea of a trade union is the concept of collective solidarity. Solidarity is often used more rhetorically than analytically. It is possible to distinguish between two interpretations of the concept. The first is value-based, defining solidarity as a ‘moral imperative that … is a fundamental value in all the major religions of the world: do to the other what you would like her to do to you. Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Lindberg 2014:136).

The second, a union approach to solidarity, is different as it ‘has a constitutive element of mutual self-interest’. Solidarity in a union context means moving from an individual self-interest, or the self-interest of a smaller group, to a broader self-interest – for example, of all metalworkers in Sweden, or all dockworkers in Europe – and perhaps eventually to the mutual self-interest of a global working class. But even so, union solidarity will always have an element of shared self-interest.‘Unions are interest-based organizations’ (Lindberg 2014:136).

But Lindberg goes on to add a third element to his definition of solidarity – identity. Solidarity has, he says, an element of identification that is typically based on a shared position in the organisation of production. Identity as a worker, being part of the working class, is a vital element in union solidarity: ‘[Solidarity] is expressed in a willingness to stand up for each other and fight together’ (Lindberg 2014:136).

Johnny Copelyn’s engaging account of his years in the labour movement and then his successful entry into business presents one with a puzzle; are [End Page 158] there two Copelyns, one a working class hero committed to collective solidarity, the other a ruthless individualist who became a billionaire capitalist?1 Or is there a consistent commitment to certain goals that lies deep below this apparent contradiction?

Rather than thinking of Copelyn’s narrative in terms of the false binary of ‘continuity’ or ‘rupture’, I see the book as providing the reader with a unique insight into a remarkable generation of trade unionists who contributed decisively to the transformation of South Africa but whose personal circumstance were in the process dramatically transformed. The most celebrated example is, of course, Cyril Ramaphosa. Johnny Copelyn is another. They pragmatically seized the new opportunities that the advent of democracy offered, shaping the nature of post-apartheid South Africa in the process.

There are a number of excellent accounts by ex-unionists and labourlinked academics on the post-1973 rise of labour, but there is none quite like this.2 Written in an easy accessible and readable style, it is a gripping narrative. It is an insider’s account of the internal dynamics of a key union in the struggle for democracy. It is full of irony and humour with quite extraordinary stories of how the clothing and textile union struggled from small beginnings in Durban to become a highly innovative national union. This is autobiography at its best. It is a tribute to a highly skilled negotiator with a sharp independent mind.

Copelyn begins the narrative with an account of his conversion as a teenager to Habonim, a socialist Zionist Jewish youth movement that ‘woke me up suddenly to a sense that life wasn’t fair’ (3). He decides to put his youthful idealism into practice and travels to Durban to offer support as an economist to the emerging trade union movement. I remember his arrival well as I was one of the first people he visited in February 1974, as he notes in the ‘walk-on’ part he gives me in the drama that was to follow. Interestingly his first job was editor of the newly launched South African Labour Bulletin, one of the few surviving initiatives of what came to be called the Durban moment.

Copelyn soon emerged as a central figure in the textile union and the struggles for recognition in the powerful textile mills of the Frame...


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pp. 158-168
Launched on MUSE
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