South Africa: “Red, Black and Gold: FOSATU, South African ‘Workerism,’ ‘Syndicalism’ and the Nation.

South African Labour Studies Podcast by Sian Byrne

The podcast is provided by the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU), Rhodes University.
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“With a mass black worker base, the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU, 1979-1985) was the country’s largest, most radical independent union and working class movement. This paper is a partial recovery of its radical, distinctive politics of “workerism,” which has been widely misunderstood. “Workerism” rejected nationalism, both ANC and BC, as a multi-class bourgeois ideology that subordinated the working class; it rejected Marxism-Leninism as undemocratic; and was denounced by both ANC and SACP. FOSATU sought a radical new South Africa, with a massive redistribution of power and wealth, extensive “workers’ control,” and an end to racial/ national oppression, driven by an autonomous, bottom-up, left, non-racial “working class movement.” Why, then, did “workerism” get defeated by the (initially) relatively weak formations representing African nationalism, and lost in COSATU?
Sian Byrne previously worked at COSATU’s National Labour & Economic Development Institute (NALEDI). Her current research is a comparative historical study of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) in South Africa, and Solidarność in Poland in the early 1980s, using a global labour history perspective. Her research interests include anarchism and syndicalism, revolutionary workers’ movements, global and transnational labour history, and the national question in the colonial and postcolonial world. Sian Byrne was awarded a Ruth First Scholarship at Rhodes, named after the assassinated South African communist and anti-apartheid activist.
This talk was originally given on 16 September 2015 at Rhodes University, Makhanda. The Labour Studies Podcasts are from our popular Labour Studies Seminar Series, launched in 2015. We cover “labour studies” in the broadest sense: labour and left history, policy and political economy, unions and popular struggles.
NALSU, based in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, is engaged in policy, research and workers’ education. Built around a vibrant team from disciplines including Economics, History and Sociology, it has active partnerships and relations with a range of advocacy, labour and research organisations. It draws strength from its location in a province where the legacy of apartheid and the cheap labour system, and the contradictions of the post-apartheid state, are keenly felt. We are named in honor of Dr Neil Hudson Aggett, a union organiser and medical doctor who died in 1982 in an apartheid jail after enduring brutality and torture.”

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