Consciousness in Conflict: An Event History of African Unionism in the Sugar Industry

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Seminar Date
March 11, 2009
As the following narrative will illustrate, the internecine conflict that marred South Africa’s political transition began initially among workers in the labor movement after the Wiehahn Commission legalized black unionism in 1979. Tensions escalated almost immediately between the newly formed Fosatu and the home-grown “independent unions” that its ascendancy marginalized. The emergence of Fosatu in 1980, followed by Cosatu in 1985, dramatically reshaped the political landscape of the workplace.Pushing beyond mere shopfloor concerns to align with the broader movement for social change led by the UDF and the ANC in exile, these progressive formations inadvertently divided the working class by alienating those who refused to cede to their particular revolutionary agenda. Rooted firmly in a paradigm of liberal-democratic ideals, political unions promulgated a program of “national democratic revolution” committed to a liberal vision of the social good that held the autonomous individual citizen as the bearer of rights within the modern, egalitarian state. Guided by this project, they sought to override “backwards”, “traditionalist” solidarities to kinship, chief, and clan, which they considered inimical to the nation-building project. My aim is to approach the broader question of political violence in KwaZulu-Natal through an analysis of divergent ideologies of unionism. By exploring the history of independent and political unions in the sugar industry – wherein KwaZulu/Natal’s first legal black union was born – this chapter traces the development of the two competing forms of worker consciousness that drove political warfare in the region.
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