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The death of Nelson Mandela on 5 December 2013 was in a sense a wake-up call for South Africans, and a time to reflect on what has been achieved since ‘those magnificent days in late April 1994’ (as the editors of this volume put it) ‘when South Africans of all colours voted for the first time in a democratic election’. In a time of recall and reflection it is important to take account, not only of the dramatic events that grip the headlines, but also of other signposts that indicate the shape and characteristics of a society. The New South African Review looks, every year, at some of these signposts, and the essays in this fourth volume of the series again examine and analyse a broad spectrum of issues affecting the country. They tackle topics as diverse as the state of organised labour; food retailing; electricity generation; access to information; civil courage; the school system; and – looking outside the country to its place in the world – South Africa’s relationships with north-east Asia, with Israel and with its neighbours in the southern African region. Taken together, these essays give a multidimensional perspective on South Africa’s democracy as it turns twenty, and will be of interest to general readers while being particularly useful to students and researchers.
One of the features of the past few years has been the extent to which the role of trade unionism and collective bargaining in South Africa have been called into question. Some commentators have gone as far as referring to an ‘opportunity to smash the unions and enhance the economy's long-term job-creation potential’ (Sharp 2012). Others acknowledge the importance of organised labour in South Africa's industrial landscape, ‘but not in its current form’ (Business Day 5 July 2012). By the end of 2012, and with some normality having returned in the wake of the tragedy at Marikana on 16 August when thirty-four mineworkers were killed by members of the South African Police Services, and an uneasy truce having returned in the farming sector of the Western Cape after violent protest actions, it was clear that something of a turning point had been reached.
The general assumption is that there has been a significant weakening of trade unionism, most clearly pronounced in relation to the shifting allegiance in the platinum mining sector from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) to the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). Parallel to the weakening thesis sits a thesis of political power exercised by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) over the African National Congress (ANC) and government in how to regulate labour and the labour market. This has been most commonly argued in relation to Cosatu's opposition to labour brokers and the youth wage subsidy – both complex policy issues whose implementation was stalled for some time due to political difficulties. A similar argument has emerged in relation to the extension of the collective agreement between employers and trade unions in the clothing sector and its impact on jobs in the Newcastle area of KwaZulu-Natal.
What then is the reality of trade unionism in South Africa in the wake of Marikana? A divided and weakened union movement, or one that continues to command substantial power and is able to exercise significant political influence? And what are some of the challenges for trade unionism and for policy in the wake of the events of 2012?
A Fragile Democracy – Twenty Years On, the fourth New South African Review, is one of doubtless numerous attempts to characterise the state of South Africa some two decades after those magnificent days in late April 1994 when South Africans of all colours voted for the first time in a democratic election. As we write this, we are approaching the country's fourth such election, a significant indicator of the overall success of our democratic transition – for although there may prove to be wrinkles there is every expectation that the forthcoming contest will again be ‘free and fair’. Nonetheless, there are likely to be changes in the electoral landscape, there being significant prospect at time of writing that the ruling African National Congress's (ANC's) proportion of the vote will fall below 60 per cent, the level of electoral dominance it has consistently achieved hitherto. While the ANC can claim many triumphs, and can convincingly claim to have transformed South Africa for the better (materially and spiritually), there is nonetheless widespread discontent abroad. The ANC itself displays many divisions. The Tripartite Alliance (which links it to the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu)), is creaking; it is threatened by new opposition parties which appeal to disaffection – especially among the poor and those who feel excluded from the benefits of democracy – and even the established opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA) today seeks to cloak itself in the mantle of Mandela. Even while the ANC boasts about steady growth, more jobs, improved service delivery and better standards of living for the majority, critics point out that the economy is stagnating, unemployment remains stubbornly high, corruption flourishes, popular protest abounds, and government and many public services (notably the intelligence agencies and the police) have earned an alarming reputation for unaccountability. So we could go on – but we won't, as we would rather encourage our readers to engage with the wide-ranging set of original essays provided by our authors.
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