This book is a timely challenge to the wishful thinking which often pervades left scholarship on South Africa. Beresford, who has made a significant contribution to the study of South African labour, challenges two related strains of analysis. First, international labour scholarship which sees the South African movement as an exemplar of ‘social movement unionism’, whose presumed militancy, commitment to social change beyond the workplace and democratic organisation is proposed as a model for unions everywhere. Second, the ‘exhausted nationalism’ thesis which holds that the multi-class nationalism of the governing African National Congress is losing its appeal to black workers who have traditionally offered the ANC unwavering support, opening the way for a radical, class-based, challenge to poverty and inequality. Using his ethnographic work on energy workers organised by the National Union of Mineworkers as well as secondary sources, Beresford offers a convincing critique of both. On the first score, he shows that the labour movement is beset by much the same factionalism and patronage which threatens the ANC. While the split in the ANC’s trade union ally Cosatu, which expelled the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) after it withdrew its support from the ANC, has triggered much excitement among left scholars, ‘self-destructive’ factionalism is as much a reality as an attempt by sections of the labour movement to recover its radical past (p.73). South Africa’s ‘much revered’ unions are at a crossroads, he argues—they will either embrace ‘radical measures’ to reinvigorate organisation or face the prospect of gradually withering away (p.115). On the second, his interviews show that loyalty to the ANC remains strong among union members who give no inkling that they see its nationalism as ‘exhausted’. The claim that workers are recognising that the post-1994 government has failed them and that a radical alternative is needed misses a far more uneven reality—workers have gained as well as lost (p.131) and so many feel, with justification, that they are doing better now. Similarly, while union members were critical of the quality of public service provided by the ANC government, they also argued that they have experienced improvements since apartheid ended. Beresford also points out that union members’ support for the ANC is based not only on the degree to which their economic needs have been met but on a sense that it freed black people from racial domination and that it speaks for and represents black aspirations in general, those of workers in particular. This critique is timely, necessary—and broadly accurate. The evidence suggests that the union movement is weaker than at any time since 1994; the Numsa breakaway is yet to pose a significant challenge to the distance between leaders and members which is the core product of the malaise which Beresford discusses. Union leaders who have broken with the ANC are forced to temper their responses because many of their members are still committed to the governing party—the union federation launched by Numsa and its allies has been careful to endorse no political party and so to allow members to continue supporting the ANC if they wish. Despite this, much scholarship and left contributions to public debate continue to romanticise these trends and the book is an essential counterweight. The book’s argument is, of course, not faultless. Beresford notes, accurately, that gender issues may explain why unionised workers supported current President Jacob Zuma against then incumbent Thabo Mbeki in 2007—some of his interviewees blamed Mbeki for encouraging women to disobey their husbands and lauded Zuma as a symbol of traditional gender attitudes. Oddly, however, he sees this as a sign that unionised workers look to the ANC for ‘moral leadership’ (p.127ff). But the respondents are not decrying the death of traditional social norms in general—they seek specifically to restore gender hierarchy and so it is hard to see these attitudes as harbingers of a moralist conservatism. While he claims that the book develops an understanding of what workers would do if their expectations of the ANC are not met (p.148), it offers little which answers this question. This is not surprising since interviewees are broadly supportive of the governing party. But it is a significant flaw: since Beresford conducted his interviews, factionalism within the governing party has created at least the possibility that the worker support for the ANC which he identifies may be subject to review, even if the identity concerns which prompted it are not. That said, this book is an important intervention in the debate over South Africa’s future which deserves serious consideration by anyone with an interest, academic or personal, in the challenges facing the trade union movement and the country’s attempt to fashion a new society. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Royal African Society. All rights reserved
African Affairs – Oxford University Press
Published: Jul 19, 2017
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