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  • Labour beyond Cosatu: mapping the rupture in South Africa’s labour landscape ed. by Andries Bezuidenhout, Malehoko Tshoaedi
  • Edward Webster (bio)
Andries Bezuidenhout and Malehoko Tshoaedi (eds) (2017) Labour beyond Cosatu: mapping the rupture in South Africa’s labour landscape. Johannesburg: Wits University Press

Labour Beyond Cosatu: mapping the rupture in South Africa’s labour landscape is the outcome of the fifth in a series of surveys of union members attitudes towards democracy. It is an excellent collection of research based essays; informative, innovative and well written. Unlike previous publications in the Taking Democracy Seriously (TDS) series, this study goes beyond Cosatu to interview members of Fedusa and Nactu. The number of questions has also been expanded to include income and household support as well as in-depth interviews and a wider range of sources such as Statistics South Africa. Arguably this longitudinal study of ordinary union members over a 20-year period is unique in the world of labour studies. The TDS series has developed a rich archive on the changing landscape of South African labour.

The volume raises three issues. The first survey of union members was conducted on the eve of South Africa’s first democratic elections in April 1994. At the centre of that study was an interest in the tension between two forms of democracy; the system of participatory democracy that had emerged at the shop floor level where the elected representatives–the shop stewards–were directly accountable to their members. It could be described as a form of direct democracy. On the other hand, parliamentary elections were about to take place which involved a different kind of democracy–namely, representative democracy–where representatives [End Page 132] are elected to represent their members in parliament. They pack up their bags and go elsewhere, unlike the shop steward who stays in the workplace.

Interestingly the survey on which the book is based confirms that the notion of participatory democracy is alive and well in most Cosatu affiliates. Eighty-nine per cent of the respondents answered in the affirmative when asked the question: if a shop steward does not do what the workers want, should the workers have the right to remove him/her? The idea that union leaders should only act on the shop floor when they have a mandate is entrenched in the culture of the South African union movement. But, the authors argue, when it comes to decision-making at the regional and national level, workers have little influence or control over decisions. Indeed, Johann Maree speaks in his informative chapter of a ‘democratic rupture’ between workplace structures and national leaders. He attributes this decline in participatory democracy to a decline in trade union education of ordinary members. This lack of trade union education, the editors of the volume suggest, ‘disempowers the rank-and file membership in terms of their ability to actively take part in broader national debates of the labour movement’ (5). ‘Cosatu’s weakening of internal democracy’, they continue, ‘has serious implications for their role in the consolidation of democracy in post-apartheid South Africa’ (5).

The authors make a good point–and a top priority in the labour movement is the re-vitalisation of trade union education for ordinary members. But the need for trade unionists to acquire additional knowledge and tools enabling them to take an active part in public debate and the process of policy formulation also makes specialised training and education essential.

A second issue relates to the future of labour. The authors make quite clear that the future of labour is in question if ‘unions cannot expand their membership to include the marginalized sectors of society’ (7). They cite the successful overcoming of outsourcing by the students on university campuses, a victory the editors remark, the students ‘achieved in a matter of weeks what the labour movement failed to achieve in the last twenty years’ (7).

The volume provides useful information that is quite central to any debate on the future of labour.

  • • Many members of Cosatu are doing quite well–one out of ten earn more than 20,000 rand per month. However over half of them earn [End Page 133] between 3...


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pp. 132-135
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