Fool Me Twice? Labour Politics in South Africa

By Bassett, Carolyn; Clarke, Marlea | Canadian Dimension, September-October 2004 | Go to article overview

Fool Me Twice? Labour Politics in South Africa

Bassett, Carolyn, Clarke, Marlea, Canadian Dimension

Campaigning on a platform of "A People's Contract to Create Work and Fight Poverty," the ruling African National Congress (ANC) received nearly 70 per cent of the popular vote in South Africa's third democratic election in March, 2004.

The ANC's trade-union ally, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), was at its side, providing logistical support through their extensive affiliate networks. COSATU, the country's largest trade-union federation, with 1.8 million members, called the election "a resounding working class victory."

Underneath the facade of unity and common purpose, however, lurks the unresolved tensions between the ANC and COSATU on the overall direction of the government's economic program. Presumably the ANC's electoral platform was written to bridge differences between the ANC and COSATU--and the ANC voting constituency more generally--on key socio-economic matters like job creation and social-service delivery. By emphasizing the need to create jobs and fight poverty, the ANC responded to its own constituency's criticisms of its performance to date.

But at the same time, the call for a "people's contract" was viewed with some cynicism in light of the ANC's style of government, especially under President Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela in 1999. Mbeki has become known as much for his top-down policy-making style and his intolerance of dissent within the ranks as he has for his commitment to neoliberal economics.

There is little doubt that the ANC was the "least worst" option, at least among the parties with any real prospects, since the South African Communist Party (SACP), the only "left" party with a large membership, continued to run candidates under the ANC banner. Still, for communities facing evictions, water and electricity cut-offs, and for unemployed workers retrenched during the ANC's terms in office, supporting a party that was only the "least worst" option was hardly the type of democracy they expected to build when apartheid formally ended in 1994.

Indeed, the ANC cannot escape a nagging question: given its overwhelming majorities in parliament, why hasn't it done more for South Africa's poor and working class?

It is certainly a question the majority of South Africans face every day.


Social and economic inequality rose steadily over the last decade. Unemployment, already high by international standards, continued to rise, as did precarious and unprotected work. Seeking foreign investment and improving the country's international competitiveness have taken precedence over meeting the needs of poor and working South Africans.

Take land reform. A disappointingly small percentage of land has been redistributed under the ANC. From 1995 to 1999, only 41 claims were settled under the restitution program, which was designed to restore land or compensate those dispossessed by segregation and forced removals. More claims were settled recently, but the entire program has been strongly criticized for its "trickle down" approach. Adopting policies promoted by the World Bank, it favours the most profitable and export-directed producers, actually leading to greater concentration of ownership.

Similar contradictions marred labour-market policies. Although new laws extended and expanded protection to some workers previously excluded from legislation, they fail to offer adequate protection to the growing number of workers on the margins of the economy.

Unemployment has grown steadily, and currently sits at about 43 per cent, if discouraged job seekers are included in the definition of unemployed. What is often overlooked is that the quality of new and existing jobs has declined, too. According to official statistics, the number of workers in non-standard employment (temporary, casual and seasonal workers) increased over the last decade, to over a fifth of the total workforce. …

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