Academic journal article African Studies Review

Wage Labor, Precarious Employment, and Social Inclusion in the Making of South Africa's Postapartheid Transition

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Wage Labor, Precarious Employment, and Social Inclusion in the Making of South Africa's Postapartheid Transition

Article excerpt


During South Africa's first decade of democracy, policies of social inclusion and social citizenship have emphasized productive employment and the work ethic in a context of fiscal discipline and public spending thrift. The government's institutional discourse contrasts, however, with a social reality in which most black workers have confronted growing economic precariousness and the inability of waged occupations to provide stable livelihoods above poverty levels. The article discusses workers' responses to these conditions with case studies of private and public employment. It finds that official rhetoric about the centrality of productive employment does not reflect the diversity of practices and discourses with which workers address the crisis facing wage labor.


During South Africa's first postapartheid decade, persistently high unemployment rates, combined with the proliferation of low-wage and casual occupations, have profoundly affected the material conditions of the largely black working class, undermining the meaning of wage labor as a vehicle of social advancement for the country's formerly oppressed majority.

The apartheid regime had incorporated blacks, particularly Africans, within wage labor in a subordinate status marked by managerial authoritarianism, employment instability, coercive forms of migration, political repression, and racial segregation in workplaces and neighborhoods (Von Holdt 2003). The resumption of black independent trade unionism in the 1970s, and its convergence around community and political struggles in the 1980s, led to the dynamics of mobilization and solidarity that contributed decisively to postapartheid democratization and the rise to power of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1994. The expression "social movement unionism" (see Seidman 1994; Von Holdt 2002) designated struggles that linked demands for workplace changes, political democracy, resource redistribution, and a better quality of life.

Under the democratic government, however, labor has faced an often uncomfortable reality characterized by lasting social inequality and conservative policies of economic liberalization - chiefly the 1996 Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy (see Bond 2005; Cassim 2006). As South Africa's economy emerged from apartheid-age isolation and protectionism to embrace globalization, the black working class has remained in a condition of social vulnerability. With the new democracy organized labor has indeed enjoyed fresh rights, safeguards, and institutional visibility, as enshrined in legislation like the 1995 Labour Relations Act or in trade unions' representation within corporatist-style policymaking institutions like the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC). These developments, however, have only partially counterbalanced the adverse socioeconomic trends linked tojoblessness and the casualization of employment (Theron 2004). If, for many black South African workers, these changes did not represent an entirely unfamiliar reality of exploitation and marginalization, they nonetheless delivered a powerful blow to hopes of social change woven in late apartheid experiences of labor mobilization and trade union organizing.

This article argues that the postapartheid combination of political and economic liberalization challenges the promise of social emancipation that wage labor had come to embody throughout past black working-class struggles. I look at the relations between changing forms of workers' vulnerability and their impact on social practices and discourse, focusing on representations and narratives of employment change as they highlight a broad set of research questions: Is an emancipatory politics centered on wage labor still possible in South Africa? How do workers' identities relate to employment trends under the new political dispensation? What is the role played by workplace-based organizations in changing workers' responses? …

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