About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

The role of trade unions in the transition

From an address by CYRIL RAMAPHOSA, Secretary General of the ANC, to the SACTWU National Conference JUNE 19, 1993

1. The role of organised labour since Codesa

There can be little doubt that trade unions, and COSATU in particular, have played a critical role in driving the negotiations process forward, and keeping the process on track, when the forces of reaction have attempted to place roadblocks in the way of democratisation. As the most organised sector of the mass movement, the unions have spear-headed the active involvement of civil society in the political process. In doing this, they have demanded that the process should belong to all the people of South Africa. They have said it does not only belong to those parties at the negotiating table, many of whom are illegitimate creations of apartheid, and whose only interest is in delaying the transformation of our country.

Many workers are concerned that trade unions appear to have beenexcluded from the negotiations process, and that COSATU's application to sit at Codesa was not granted. While this concern is understandable, it is sometimes incorrectly concluded that workers have no role or influence in the negotiations process. Even if COSATU was sitting at Codesa there would be no guarantee that workers would be actively participating in the process. There is an inherent tension in national negotiations, whether at the political or socio-economic level, of how you involve mass formations actively in the negotiations, negotiations which are often complex and move rapidly. We haven't yet found a successful formula to fully involve our people in the negotiations, whether in the ANC or other organisations.

Nethertheless, trade union and popular pressure has played an immense role.

Take the example of our demand for an interim government and a constituent assembly. Not so long ago, a wide range of 'opinion formers' in South Africa, including the liberal press, and even some in our own movement, were saying that these demands were unattainable. What was unrealistic yesterday has today become broadly accepted as inevitable, directly as a result of mass pressure.

This pressure has been exercised in hundreds of different ways, some less dramatic, some high-profile. Most importantly, faced with a barrage of brutal counter-revolutionary violence, our people have refused to give up or abandon the process, but have maintained their political will and vision of democratic transformation. In addition to our liberation movement, credit must go to organisations such as the trade unions, tempered in the furnace of the fiercest struggles, which have not flinched from the goals we have set ourselves, despite the vicious onslaught we have faced.

The consistency of our workers in articulating their political demands has been matched by their preparedness to take action whenever necessary.

The deadlock created by the regime at Codesa 2 last May, together with the Boipatong massacre, created the most serious political crisis in the period since February 1990. The two months of rolling mass action, involving hundreds of thousands of workers, culminated in the massive general strike of over 4 million workers on August 3-4 1992. This action was instrumental in laying the basis for the Record of Understanding on 26 September 1992, which saw the regime retreat from the positions it had taken at Codesa 2.

The assassination of Comrade Chris Hani on April 10 this year was met with an overwhelming national outpouring of grief and anger. Linked to this was the enormous political frustration which our people were feeling with the continued delaying tactics of the regime, and the lack of concrete results being delivered by the negotiations process. Workers responded spontaneously to the attack on the leader who they saw as embodying their hopes and aspirations.They also responded overwhelmingly to the alliance call for national action in support of our political demands: setting of an election date, joint control of security forces and setting up of the TECs. Within one week we saw two of the biggest stayaways in the history of our country. This militant but disciplined mass action was a key factor in leading to the setting of an elections date for April 27 1993 possibly the greatest breakthrough the negotiations process has yet seen.

The consistency of our workers in articulating their political demands has been matched by their preparedness to take action whenever necessary.

Through this brief history, one is not trying to suggest that the only role workers can play in the negotiations process is as some sort of deadlock breaking mechanism! Rather, it is important to see that the central role workers have played in mass struggles linked to the negotiations process, has been key in driving the negotiations process forward.

Behind all the technical debates and specialist language over which negotiators argue at the World Trade Centre is ultimately one decisive question the question of power. The real source of our power, which is ultimately greater than any power they can wield, is support from the masses of our people. This is something weshould never forget or take for granted.

2. Civil society initiatives

COSATU took the initiative last year to draft an accord with the employers organisation Saccola, attempting amongst other things to address the deadlock at Codesa 2. This was a groundbreaking initiative in that it helped to forge a national consensus on what was needed to achieve a political settlement, end the violence, and begin the process of economic reconstruction.

The trade unions have wisely taken the view that political negotiations are only one site of struggle, albeit an important one. A number of other areas were identified as critical sites of struggle, which couldn't wait for the election of a new government.

In the first instance, it was clearly understood that the regime sought to implement a package of socio-economic restructuring which would effectively entrench power in existing hands, and prevent a democratic government from dealing with the legacy of apartheid. Campaigns were therefore imple-mented, often success-fully, to halt government's programmes of unilateral restructuring, whether at the level of privatisation, taxation, health, education and so on.

Secondly, processes were initiated to democratise decision making and introduce new programmes for housing, electrification, drought relief, local government, and regional and national economic development. This saw the springing up of trilateral and multi-lateral forums at all these levels, despite the initial refusal of the government to relinquish what it regarded as its sole prerogative in these areas. These forums have been slowed down by government's reluctance to co-operate, but should hopefully begin delivering the goods to our people in the near future.

A third area which the trade unions have spearheaded has been to begin looking at how our industries can be restructured, how to save and create jobs, and how to reorientate the economy to meet the needs of our people.

In taking up these and other issues, COSATU has correctly identified the fact that it has to look at the concerns and interests of all working people in South Africa, and not confine itself to a narrow focus on the workplace concerns of its own members. I do not accept the argument of those who say that trade union members are some sort of privileged labour aristocracy, divorced from the unemployed and the very poor. Those trade union members are from the same commu-nity, indeed the same families as the unemployed and poor. Trade union members are still struggling for a living wage, job security, decent housing and all the other things all working people are striving for.

The connection between all these socio-economic initiatives and the process of political transition needs to be clearly understood. These initiatives are still taking place in a situation where political and economic power remain concentrated in the hands of a minority. We therefore need to be careful that the processes we are embarking on address peoples immediate needs, but don't place blockages in the way of long-term change. Because these programmes confines of current power relations, there is a danger that agreements reached today could inhibit a future democratic society from introducing measures aimed at far-reaching transformation.

4. Programme for Reconstruction and Development

Workers have a role to play in restruturing our country from the ruins of apartheid. The alliance is of the view that if elections do not result in a real change in people's lives, they will be meaningless. Conversely, we realise that without political power being transferred to a democratic state, it will not be possible to implement a meaningful programme of socio-economic transformation. COSATU and the ANC have arrived independently at the same conclusion that if the new democracy has any hope of succeeding, we need a programme for Reconstruction and Development which will be driven by democratic forces in civil society, together with a new democratic state.

This programme needs to be developed now and workers must play a crucial role in developing it.

Although the programme will have to be spear-headed by a new democratic state, which will have access to resources and power, the programme will only succeed if it is mass-driven. The fledgling democracywill be surrounded by all sorts of hostile forces which want it to fail, both locally and internationally. Our mass formations, particularly trade unions, civics, and others will have to fully involve the people, together with the democratic state, and our international allies, in implementing and defending the programme. Our people will do this if they have particpated in drawing up the programme and see that it is addressing their basic needs in a concrete and systematic way.

5. Role of Trade Unions in the political process in the run-up to elections

I have been asked "how will trade union concerns and worker rights be accomodated" in the political process and in the run-up to elections. But this is the wrong question! The real issue is not how trade union concerns will be "accomodated". Rather we should be asking how do we as trade unions and workers assert our rights, and make sure that no political party is in a position to ignore us. If we start talking about being "accomodated" we have lost half the battle already.

The ANC, in policy guidelines adopted at our National Conference in May last year says: "Workers have fought long and hard for their right to set up independent trade unions, their right to engage in collective bargaining and their right to strike. These rights must be protected in the Bill of Rights, which should be supplemented by a Workers' Charter..."

The ANC is not going to draft this Workers' Charter obviously this must be done by workers and their trade unions. COSATU has correctly argued that it can't by itself draw up the Charter, but that it must be drawn up by as broad a range of trade unions as possible. While we know that some difficulties have been experienced in this regard, we think that it is important that the planned Workers' Summit goes ahead, so that an authoritative document comes from workers to be fed into the constitutional process.

Beyond becoming part of the platform of the ANC-led election campaign, these demands of workers should also be put to other organisations and political parties. Any party which wants to trample on worker rights must know that it will face the wrath of workers. Already, a number of the proposals coming fromthe NP, DP, and other parties are fundamentally anti-worker in character. COSATU and its affiliates must stand up and challenge this, as you have recently begun to do.

6. Role of Trade Unions in the elections, and the effect of this on Trade Union independence

What is the role of trade unions in the elections? First and foremost, it is to go to the millions of workers, organised and unorganised. Tell them about the importance of our first-ever national election; the importance of a new constitution; what will be the benefit of having a new democratically-elected government; and tell them why it is absolutely essential that each and every one of them, their families and their communities vote on April 27 next year. This will be the largest mass campaign we have ever undertaken.

Trade unions have a special role to educate workers who have been isolated and denied basic information about the political situation and their rights. Trade unions should therefore main industrial centres, and reach out to all workers in the rural areas, white farms and bantustan areas.

Trade unions like SACTWU also have a special role to play in informing the 'minority' black communities, who have been isolated to a certain extent from the politics of the African communities, who may feel slightly cynical, disillusioned or apathetic, and as a result decide not to vote in the elections, or even worse vote for the NP! The ANC feels confident that if we do our work in these communities, and break down the misinformation, propaganda, and mistrust which has been generated by apartheid, the democratic forces will get majority support in next year's elections in all black communities. This will not be because our propaganda is slicker than the NP's, but because our democratic formations will have demonstrated to people that it is in their real interests to vote for the ANC.

There is talk, in some circles, of workers losing their independence if they support parties. By engaging parties in an election, and supporting them on the basis of specific platforms, trade unions are not giving away their independence. Rather they are, from a position of independent strength, asserting their influence and their power to act in a way which furthers their members interests. Anyunion which wants to distance itself from the key political issues and actors, for whatever reason, gives up its ability to significantly influence the political direction the country takes. At this point in our country's history, this would be a suicidal course for workers to take. What workers need more than anything is for strong independent unions which actively engage in the process in a way which furthers their interests.

7. Conclusion

Trade unions should not apologise for playing an independent and aggressive role during the election and constitution-making process to put forward their demands and programmes not only to the ANC, but to all other parties before and after the elections. You are not 'petitioning a government in waiting'. You have the power to ensure that worker interests are furthered so don't ask permission to use it!

The process which is now unfolding in our country is a very exciting one. For the first time in our history, the immediate prospect exists of us taking control of our own destiny. As trade unions and workers, we should not fear this, but sieze the opportunity with both hands. It will only come to us once.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.