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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: March 2018



This volume is the fourth in a series of books published on the basis of five surveys of members of trade unions affiliated to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) that have been conducted over the past twenty years. As a series of longitudinal surveys of trade union members, this database is most probably one of the very few of such resources available to researchers anywhere in the world. The history of the survey itself is a remarkable story. In this Preface to the book we trace the outlines of this history briefly and comment on how the fifth survey is situated in the tradition.

The first survey was conducted shortly before South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994 and was called Taking Democracy Seriously. The aim was to understand the impact that South African traditions of trade union democracy would have on the country's emerging system of parliamentary and constitutional democracy. The findings were published in a book, Taking Democracy Seriously: Worker Expectations and Parliamentary Democracy in South Africa (Ginsburg et al. 1995). At the time, the authors engaged what was known as transition theory, a body of literature interested in the conditions under which societies moved from authoritarian rule to consolidated democratic rule without sinking back into authoritarianism. The authors critiqued Adam Przeworski's (1991) argument that successful democratic transitions mostly resulted from some form of elite pacting where parliamentary democracy was accompanied by conservative economic policies. They argued that, in the case of South Africa, Cosatu's strategic alliance with the African National Congress (ANC) and its history of participatory democracy could prevent this form of elite pacting:

By initiating and committing itself to the RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme), Cosatu has made clear its commitment to broad national goals … In this way, the possibility of deepening democracy by operating as a left pressure within the Alliance holds open the prospect that democracy in South Africa might transcend the conservative limits predicted by leading exponents of transition theory (Ginsburg et al. 1995: 109).

This statement was qualified with a cautionary note: ‘It will be difficult but not impossible for the labour movement to remain in the Alliance but not be co-opted, and to neither alienate itself from its base nor lose its militancy.’