“Building Trade Union Democracy as Prefigurative Politics in South Africa”

“In examining the possibilities for politics within and at a distance from the state, it is important to revisit the democratic traditions of the working class, which are often learned through struggles and strikes – and which were exemplified by the new unions of the 1970s and 1980s. Not much of this alternative tradition of democracy outside the state has been captured in official histories, which present the attainment of democracy in terms of the formation of a parliamentary government in 1994.”


“There was an ongoing, unresolved tension between more social democratic and more quasisyndicalist strands within “workerism.” The first-named was expressed in the idea of ongoing reforms leading to socialism through the state (see above); the second-named pushed for more complete autonomy from the state, and more direct efforts by the workers themselves to take direct power in factories and townships. This tension between a social democratic focus on tactical use of the state, and quasi-syndicalist emphasis on autonomous counter-power, was not even addressed openly. A heavy stress on practical issues and a dismissal of what were labelled by some as “armchair theorising” meant that theoretical reflection was neglected; meanwhile the “workerists” did not organise within FOSATU as a coherent political group, which created more problems.

That said, these ideas are worth revisiting – to understand where we come from, and to judge where we are now. There are no easy answers.”

[This pamphlet is an extract from the book Strategy: Debating Politics Within and at a Distance from the State – Eds. John Reynolds & Lucien van der Walt published by the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU), Rhodes University, Makhanda, South Africa.

This pamphlet can be downloaded in PDF format from Zabalaza Books here.]

Building Trade Union Democracy as Prefigurative Politics in South Africa

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