SAFTU: A Giant is Risen?

Emerging divisions in the South African trade union movement find their roots in the struggle against Apartheid

On the 25th of April, the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) announced its arrival as a major force within the South African labour movement, with a one-day general strike involving hundreds of thousands of workers. The strike, against new labour laws which will make it more difficult to carry out ‘protected’ industrial action and for a higher minimum wage, saw tens of thousands march in cities across South Africa, including Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, Durban and Bloemfontein. The nascent labour federation, which was formed just a year ago to the day of the strike and already encompasses around 800,000 members across 23 different unions, had an incredibly successful mobilisation given its extremely short lived existence, a clear demonstration of its potential ability to organise and mobilise workers.

Despite the success of the mobilisations however, the strike drew fierce criticism from other labour organisations, including the largest labour federation in South Africa, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). SAFTU were criticised by other federations for behaving in a divisive manner, and for their demands around the national minimum wage. Normally for one union to criticise another for taking industrial action would be considered distinctly un-comradely in any labour movement, anywhere in the world – but in recent years’ sharp divisions amongst labour unions in South Africa have come to the surface, posing important questions for worker organisation in the country.

Marikana, and After

The acrimony and division within the South African movement became clearly visible in December 2013, when the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) passed a resolution at their Congress called for an end to the Tripartite Alliance and withdrew its support for the African National Congress (ANC), the ruling party. The Tripartite Alliance, which was formalised in 1990, was a three-way partnership composed of the ANC, COSATU and the South African Communist Party (SACP), developed through the anti-Apartheid struggle. COSATU and the SACP played an extremely significant role in securing the support of the Black working class in South Africa for the ANC as a party of government in the run up to the transition from Apartheid to multi-racial democracy. Once in power, the Alliance heralded a shift towards a corporatist model of labour relations based upon the hegemony of the ANC, the ‘party of liberation’, in stark contrast to the coercive and repressive response of the Apartheid state towards labour unions. But the two organisations were also extremely active in attempting – without much success - to push the ANC in government towards the left and away from the neoliberal policies which they have pursued in government. They played a key role in removing President Thabo Mbeki and replacing him with their preferred candidate, Jacob Zuma who, because of his poor background and armed struggle credentials, it was hoped would take a more sympathetic view of the plight of the black working class majority.

However, this change in leadership did not produce any significant shift in the policies of the government. Even worse, the Marikana Massacre of 2012, in which 34 striking miners were shot dead by police during an unofficial strike wave in the platinum belt, threw a harsh spotlight on the reality of the relationship between organised workers and the state in post-Apartheid South Africa. The strike itself was organised not through a formal union, although most of the miners were or had been members of the National Union of Miners (NUM), but by worker committees which developed organically in the mines. NUM, which at the time was the largest union in the country as well as one of the COSATU affiliate unions most loyal to the ANC, had repeatedly failed in the eyes of the workers to listen to their demands over pay and conditions, and had not secured any improvements from the employers or organised industrial action. Consequently, the workers felt forced to organise themselves, without an official union; because of this the police characterised their strike as criminal activity rather than a legitimate strike led by a recognised union. Perhaps most shockingly, Cyril Ramaphosa, a shareholder in the Lonmin mine at which the Massacre took place, a former General Secretary of NUM and as of very recently South Africa’s new President, was shown to have encouraged the police to open fire on the strikers and to have stated that the industrial action was not a legitimate labour struggle but “a dastardly criminal act.” The incident caused deep anger and concern in the trade union movement, and suggested that the hegemonic model of labour relations, based upon consent and corporatist decision making structures rather than coercion and repression, which had existed in South Africa since the transition to multi-racial democracy in 1994, had collapsed.

Around 18 months after the Marikana Massacre, and following years of frustration with the Alliance, NUMSA withdrew its support for the ANC government and resolved to campaign within COSATU for a break with the ruling party as well. The eventual result of this was that NUMSA was expelled by COSATU in 2015, since withdrawing support for the ANC violated COSATU’s constitution. 8 unions promptly withdrew from participating in COSATU’s executive structures in protest, and a split in South Africa’s largest labour federation, one that had arguably been a possibility for some time, began in earnest. Within less than two years, the new upstart labour federation SAFTU had been formed, and just a year later this recent national mobilisation shows clearly that it will be a significant force in the country.

One of the key issues around which the SAFTU strike was organised, the new minimum wage, provides a useful practical demonstration of the roots of the divisions currently playing out between the competing labour federations. The new national minimum wage of R20 per hour, which came into effect on May 1st this year, is the first that has ever existed in South Africa, and as such is obviously a welcome step forward from the perspective of workers. At the same time however, the introduction of a national minimum wage was part of the Freedom Charter when it was drawn up in 1955, and consequently has been the policy of the ANC since this time as well. It has taken the ANC nearly 24 years in government to introduce the relevant legislation, which as far as SAFTU and its affiliate unions are concerned is further evidence of the ANC’s complete failure to implement the Freedom Charter, regarded as the manifesto of the anti-Apartheid movement. Even worse, while the minimum wage will guarantee a monthly income of R3500 for a full time worker (provided they are not an agricultural or domestic worker, for which there are exemptions), this is not much more than 25% of the amount that could be considered a living wage in South Africa; Professor Chris Malikane of the University of Witwatersrand for example has suggested that a monthly income of R12000 is needed to sustain a “basic household”. The miners of Marikana who were shot down by police were striking for a monthly wage of R12,500. SAFTU as a federation has explicitly taken up this demand and it is clear that anything less than this is unacceptable.

SAFTU invited COSATU and other South African labour federations to participate in the one-day general strike, but not only was this invitation declined, it was met with active criticism and accusations of dividing workers by opposing the wage policy that had been agreed with COSATU and the other federations at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC). SAFTU has applied to join NEDLAC but was refused on the basis of a new rule which states that to be part of the council, labour unions must have existed for at least two years, which SAFTU has labelled a deliberate attempt to exclude the new federation. Taking a completely different attitude, COSATU welcomed the national minimum wage and praised President Cyril Ramaphosa for its implementation. In a microcosm, these two very distinct responses to the government’s proposals speak to a division within the South African labour movement which has been present for decades, and indeed predates the formation of COSATU itself in 1985. This division can broadly be understood as a contest between populist unionism on the one hand and ‘shop-floor’ unionism on the other.

A Movement Divided

Populist unionism in South Africa dates back as far as the 1920’s, well before the Apartheid system was formally introduced, when the Communist Party first began to attempt to unionise black workers. The vast majority of the earliest unions in the country that developed in subsequent decades can broadly be considered to be part of this tradition, which recognised clearly the need for black workers to organise together in the workplace against oppression and exploitation, as well as the potential industrial strength which organised workers would bring to the movement against colonialism and the Apartheid system. Unfortunately, however, unions and worker organisations that developed out of the populist tradition saw the ANC as the definitive political leadership of the working class. Consequently, the strategies of the broader Congress movement became the strategies of the organised workers. As a result of this, rather more effort was put into organising workers to support the ANC and the anti-Apartheid movement than went into developing strong workplace organisations capable of carrying out effective industrial action. In fact, the South African Council of Trade Unions (SACTU) in the 1950’s actually began a policy whereby worker leaders in the mines and factories were encouraged to leave the country and receive training in guerrilla warfare, so that they could become fighters for Umkhonto we Sizwe, which had a predictably disastrous effect on workplace organisation. In 1960 SACTU was banned and its organisers forced into exile by the Apartheid government, alongside the ANC, and was unable to continue to play a significant role in organising workers thereafter.

The roots of shop-floor unionism on the other hand lay in the mass worker mobilisations of the 1973 Durban strike wave, which developed fairly organically, took employers and the Apartheid state completely by surprise and won significant victories including wage rises in a number of different workplaces. Out of this strike wave grew many new unions, including the Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU), one of the key predecessors of NUMSA. In sharp contrast to populist unionism, the shop-floor model of unionism was characterised by an extremely suspicious attitude towards the exiled ANC and a fierce emphasis on the need for workers to be independent. This was partly a result of a very justified fear that any links to the broader anti-Apartheid movement, and particularly the banned ANC, would be used to justify state repression against the new unions. But it also reflected a desire for working class political representation; some within these new unions, which would eventually form the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU), argued that it was essential that workers founded their own political party, rather than rely on the ANC which was in the main led by doctors, lawyers and other more middle class elements. Additionally, learning from the experience of the loosely organised general unions that had come before, the new unions of the 1970’s placed great emphasis on building tightly organised networks of shop stewards and union activists in each workplace; hence the name, ‘shop-floor’. This made repression and recriminations difficult both for employers and the state; since the workers acted in almost complete unity when they went on strike, it was virtually impossible to identify leaders and make examples of them.

When COSATU was formed in 1985, it succeeded in uniting together these two traditions against a common enemy; the Apartheid state. Building upon the successes of FOSATU, which had made real progress in organising workers on a national scale for the first time in South Africa’s history, COSATU played a hugely significant role in the struggle against Apartheid and for multi-racial democracy. But even the name of the new federation – which used the word Congress – was designed to bring the organised working class back towards the ANC. SAFTU – which very deliberately uses the word federation, as a nod to its forebear FOSATU – represents the resurgence of an independent and class-focused labour union tradition born out of the mass industrial struggles of the 1970’s. NUMSA for example, which has arguably acted as the standard bearer of the more militant and oppositional shop-floor tradition since the end of Apartheid, was staunchly opposed to the Tripartite Alliance as anything more than a temporary measure. In 1992 the union argued explicitly at COSATU’s annual conference that labour should break the Alliance after the 1994 elections, and only consented to remain within the Alliance’s structures because they lost this debate in 1992 and to do otherwise would have jeopardised the unity of the new federation.

Not content with the formation of SAFTU, NUMSA also remains committed to the formation of a new, explicitly Socialist party of the working class in South Africa, reviving some of the debates that took place within FOSATU decades earlier. The purpose of this party they believe would be to build the political representation of the working class and challenge the dominance of the ANC. There have been many attempts to organise opposition parties in South Africa, including the Congress of the People (COPE), and more recently in the wake of Marikana the Economic Freedom Fighters, led by the expelled former ANC Youth League President Julius Malema. However, these parties have not yet managed to surpass even the Democratic Alliance (DA) in national elections, never mind challenge the ANC in electoral terms – despite strong support amongst black township youth the EFF for example secured just 10% of the national vote in the 2014 General Election. On the one hand the EFF message, that the ANC has failed the black majority and that the Freedom Charter must be implemented, is arguably an attractive one to black workers frustrated by the ANC. On the other hand, ultimately there is little clarity about what would be different about the EFF in power; there is little of substance to suggest that they represent something new rather than a rehash of the ANC’s own populist politics prior to being in government. In addition, the playboy lifestyle and wealth of leaders like Malema, combined with the EFF’s penchant for red overalls, does not sit well with many organised workers, particularly in NUMSA, who do look kindly on what they see as an attempt to pose as a representative of workers by someone who has never been a worker themselves. The project that NUMSA is calling for relates specifically to a party of the working class, led by workers themselves, and arguably echoes the call made by the MWT in the days of FOSATU.

However, despite their opposition to the ANC government and to the Alliance, not all SAFTU affiliates have been convinced by NUMSA’s plans, and at the present time the new federation has agreed to remain politically independent. Consequently, SAFTU does not yet represent a political challenge to the ANC – but it certainly represents a challenge to what remains of COSATU, and as last month’s general strike shows, that challenge is likely to become more serious as the federation continues to grow. In a country where there is not yet a party of opposition with any hope of ever winning a general election, and where the ANC has become increasingly unpopular with its key support base, the black working class majority, and increasingly hamstrung by warring internal factions, the emergence of SAFTU represents a major development in the country, both industrially and politically.


Sam Morecroft (@SamMorecroft)

Sam Morecroft is a PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield. He is currently working on his thesis, entitled: ‘”This Thing is Historical!”: COSATU, NUMSA and the Resurgence of Shop-Floor Unionism.’