/ 1 June 2023

The role of labour movements in consolidating democracy and development

DDP senior programs officer Sphamandla Brian Mhlongo

‘We don’t have to lose jobs to breathe clean air’

There is a huge amount of work that lies ahead for labour, considering the economic and political crisis that South Africa is in presently, and cooperation among the various unions is absolutely vital. This was agreed upon by all the speakers who took part in a webinar titled: “The role of labour movements in consolidating democracy and development”, sponsored by the Democracy Development Program and hosted by the Mail & Guardian. Issues that it intended to address included the decrease in membership in organisations like COSATU and whether our unions can help build a culture of human rights.

A theme that clearly emerged was the role that labour should play in the Just Transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, to ensure that thousands of jobs are not lost and that access to the new technologies is democratically owned. A second theme that was mooted was the possibility of a worker’s party standing against the ANC in the next elections, as there seems to be no viable political alternative at present.

The discussion was kicked off by Sphamandla Mhlongo, DDP Senior Programmes Officer, who said the labour movement played a significant role in South Africa’s transition to democracy in 1994, but economic liberalisation has led to high costs being imposed on workers, and the status of the labour movement now is evidently fragmented; unions have lost their appeal for many, especially for young workers.

Mhlongo pointed out that the average cost of food has increased by more than 10% from last year, and that the national minimum wage of R25.42 per hour or R3 457 per month, when dispersed among a family of four members, is below the upper-bound poverty line of R1 417 per capita, per month. Millions are struggling to feed their families, jobs are precarious, and we are in a very difficult economic environment. 

In the light of this, the three panellists then made their opening addresses.


Nontembeko Luzipo, South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) Deputy General Secretary, talked about the role of labour in consolidating the democratic process. She said that labour must ensure that the government upholds and implements human rights, that it maintains and builds infrastructure, and protects workers. Workers’ rights are protected through the labour laws such as employment equity, but often women are still not paid equally. 

DDP webinar
Nontembeko Luzipo

SAFTU believes in a living wage of R4 500. The cost of a food basket for a family of four is R4 900, but this does not include electricity, transport and the like. Many companies do not even pay the national minimum wage. We do have strong labour laws in South Africa, but as they are often ignored or violated, the role of labour is to ensure that they are enforced. 

Labour must ensure that the government delivers on its commitments. Load-shedding is one commitment that the government has not honoured, the cholera in Hammanskraal is another example of where the government has failed to deliver its mandate of clean, safe water and adequate sanitation. 

Campaigns are something that labour must initiate and carry through: campaigns to address the living wage and address unemployment, to alleviate poverty and reduce austerity and improve the health system. “We [SAFTU] have joined the campaign to ensure that hospitals and schools are exempt from load-shedding,” said Luzipo.

We also have to campaign against widespread corruption. The railway system was a cheap and reliable means of transport for workers, who now need cash on a daily basis to pay for taxis. 


Raaes Noorbhai, National Coordinator of the Socialist Youth Movement, said that trade unions are in demise, drawing closer to state power, and are becoming a “labour aristocracy”. This is something you can see in South Africa, where our labour leaders have become separated from the needs of the workers. Our unions, especially COSATU, have “become ensnared” within the tripartite alliance. All of this undermines the real role of unions, which traditionally is meant to be “a shield for workers”. 

DDP webinar
Raaes Noorbhai

He pointed out that it has new legislation has made it very difficult to obtain a strike certificate  — and that strikes are one of the strongest weapons that the workers have. 

Like many of our politicians, Gwede Mantashe has a union background, but since he has become minister of minerals, we have seen time and again how when communities fight big mining corporations, the state takes the side of the multinationals. Noorbhai said it is essential that the unions do not further entrench capitalist democracy, but rather entrench worker democracy. 

He gave the example of the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (GIWUSA) and the Climate Justice Coalition, which have been pushing the greening of Eskom. “We don’t have to lose jobs to breathe clean air,” said Noorbhai, emphasising that unions really have to engage in the matter of the Just Transition. 

South Africans unions must join hands to have any real effect, on an international level as well. Perhaps a union like SAFTU should stand in the next election? The country is in a crisis, said Noorbhai, and a Mass Workers Party is required to address this.


Andile Zulu, Energy Democracy Officer at the Alternative Information & Development Centre (AIDC), said that SA’s neoliberal economic system is profoundly undemocratic. “People may have the right to freedom of speech, but what does that count for if they can’t read?” he asked. 

Andile Zulu DDP
Andile Zulu

Most South Africans are not free — they do not have the financial means to act on their desires. Neoliberalism has meant in South Africa the privatisation of SOEs, austerity and the cutting back of social services, and all the while, wages have been stagnating. Neoliberalism has also been massively elevating the power of the political elite.

Examples of neoliberal policy are: Eskom took out a loan from the World Bank in 2010 without consultation with the people, and because it is no longer provided as a service by the state, it is dependent on payments from people who can’t actually afford electricity. Labour is consistently portrayed as being too “loud” and inflexible, so investors are not interested in investing here, and, due to unemployment, our labour can be bought cheaply. The Just Transition is being pursued without consultation, just like the loans that were taken out. The energy of our country is increasingly based on profits, not on what is good for the people, and that is what unions must oppose. 

The role of unions and federations is to put pressure on the government to change its macro-economic framework and implement sustainable policies that benefit the people. They must call for a tax on the rich, for socioeconomic development, and to prevent the commercialisation of our energy sector. Renewable energy must be democratically owned. The future of labour lies in the energy issue. 

Renewable energy and Eskom

Mhlongo asked, is it too late to prevent what is happening at Eskom? Zulu replied that there are “big players” who are invested in the unbundling of Eskom, but it still belongs to the people. If the workers are organised and focused, they can put pressure on the state through their suspension of labour and bring them to the negotiating table. The problem is, do we have the organisation and discipline to do this? The fundamental policies that Eskom is run upon must be changed, such as outsourcing, which, history has shown, invites corruption. 

Noorbhai said we must remember that the policies behind Eskom were made deliberately, so lobbying is not enough; you have to force these actors to change, it won’t help to appeal to their morality. “There is no reformist alternative with the ANC; we need a mass movement to oust them at the polls.”

Mhlongo asked why labour has become so ineffective at mass organisation, to which Luzipo replied that more unity is required. There are many unions within Eskom, which must work together to save it, she stressed. When former Eskom CEO André De Ruyter spoke up about corruption there, SAFTU was the only union that went and laid charges with the police. 

“SAFTU believes in activism; we must go back to our roots as trade unions, and we must not be silent on issues because union leaders are afraid of losing their benefits. The more we are fragmented, the less pressure we can exert. We cannot be divided, as this means the capitalists can do with us as they want,” said Luzipo.

Questions from the audience

Are workers not best represented by NGOs? 

Luzipo replied that according to our laws, you cannot represent workers unless your organisation is a registered trade union. Noorbhai added that NGOs are not democratically organised, and should not be seen as an alternative to unions.  

Why were the unions so quiet during Covid? 

Luzipo said there were many challenges caused by the movement restrictions, such as not being able to have meetings and collect mandates; and many union members did not have access to webinars and to data. 

What exactly is socialism?

Noorbhai said that it is a huge topic, but one important aspect of socialism is that it means free access for all, to services such as education and health. Another aspect is that there is a planned economy; it is not just left up to the market. “In particular, we need a planned, massive rollout of renewable energy that benefits us all.” He said that one can never self-actualise under capitalism, unlike under socialism. 

He advocated that the Mass Workers Party should have the backing of SAFTU at the polls, to have maximum effect. 

Is the electoral space one that unions should contest? 

Zulu responded that politics is not compelling for most people, because the macro-economic policies of most of our political parties are not that different, so it all looks the same. There is also the issue of maintaining sovereignty from the private sector, which has so much power and leverage over the political domain. 

The political sphere can be used for creating change, but under neoliberalism, many people’s lives are so degraded that they don’t have the energy or will to make any changes. The market is changing very rapidly, and it’s very difficult for labour to organise under new employers like Uber, as their workers are so fragmented. 

Corruption is very entrenched, it’s an economy in itself, and if you challenge it at an entity like Eskom, those who benefit will not hesitate to resort to violence, and they have considerable resources. To combat that, you need very organised mass action. There is a huge amount of work to be done to challenge this class of kleptocrats, said Zulu.

Closing remarks

Zulu said NGOs must work out what exactly is their relationship with trade unions, and figure out what resources they have that can be shared, for instance by doing research for unions on topics like the Just Transition, or by helping unions to make educational videos. Cooperation is essential, because both are working under very adverse conditions. This is how the AIDC works, especially in pushing back against corporate sponsored media on issues such as renewable energy.

Noorbhai agreed that a lot of work lies ahead. The SYM has been helping postgraduate students who work for universities to organise to get paid better. The trend of the state regarding university protests has been to brutalise protestors, so shutting down the institution would be a more effective tactic. The power of a united working class is immense; unionising and striking are sharp tools. 

Luzipo said that at least our democracy still recognises days like Youth Day, Workers Day, Women’s Day, etc. “There is definitely a need for a political alternative, but it must be very carefully conceived: we must gather together so that we know what we are building.”