Rethinking “Workerism” and the FOSATU Tradition, 1979-1985

Rethinking “Workerism” and the FOSATU Tradition, 1979-1985 by Sian Byrne

Author: Sian Byrne

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This paper is concerned with unpacking key aspects of the politics of the influential “workerist” current that emerged within the trade union movement, notably in the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu), the largest independent union federation in South Africa from 19179-1985. This current dominated the main black and non-racial trade unions, played a central role in the anti-apartheid struggle, and was notable for its scepticism about the ANC and SACP, preferring instead to build an independent working class movement. Examination of “workerism” is not a new area of focus within left and labour circles, since workerism was highly controversial and featured, most notably, centrally in the “workerist-populist” debate in the 1980s. Yet it remains strikingly under-examined, with its core project obscured in key accounts.

Paper presented at the Durban Movement Conference
Rhodes University, 21 – 23 February 2013

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Prefiguring Democratic Revolution?: ‘Workers’ Control’ and ‘Workerist’ Traditions of Radical South African Labour, 1970–1985

Prefiguring Democratic Revolution?: ‘Workers’ Control’ and ‘Workerist’ Traditions of Radical South African Labour, 1970–1985 by Sian Byrne and Nicole Ulrich Author: Sian Byrne and Nicole Ulrich

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During the 1970s and early 1980s, sections of the trade union movement questioned the African National Congress (ANC) and South African Communist Party’s (SACP’s) narrow vision of freedom, which was based on the capture of the colonial state by a nationalist elite. Located within a distinct political current that prioritised participatory/direct-democracy and egalitarianism workers were regarded as the locus of transformative power in society, and their organisations were viewed as prefiguring a radically democratic future. This article examines the very different kind of radical anti-colonial engagement offered by ‘workers’ control’ in the 1970s and ‘workerism’ in the early 1980s that was developed by the Trade Union Advisory Co-ordinating Council (TUACC) and the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU), respectively. Keen to draw lessons for the trade union movement today, this article outlines the key characteristics and limits of these traditions that facilitated their decline in the post-apartheid context.

Sian Byrne & Nicole Ulrich, Prefiguring Democratic Revolution? ‘Workers’ Control’ and ‘Workerist’ Traditions of Radical South African Labour, 1970–1985, first published in the Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 2016

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