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South Africa, labor movement

Nicole Ulrich and Lucien van der Walt


The union movement in twentieth-century South Africa operated in a context in which capitalist relations were built upon relations of colonial domination. The persistent use of state power against labor movements, heavy-handed intervention in the supply and control of labor, and close linkages between the state apparatus and private business help explain the persistent tendency of the labor movement to break out of the bounds of bread-and-butter issues, and fight battles around civil and political rights. Even avowedly economistic unions that drew a sharp distinction between workplace issues and “politics” were affected, while other union traditions engaged politics in various ways. These ranged from a minority revolutionary syndicalist tradition, which saw One Big Union as the vehicle for civil and political struggles, to the more dominant tradition, political unionism, in which unions allied themselves with left-wing parties and/or nationalist movements and involved themselves in struggles over civil and political rights. The social formation of South Africa has always been deeply linked into the larger-world polit ical economy. The discovery of diamonds at Kimberley in 1867, followed by gold in 1886 on the Witwatersrand, transformed the previously marginal area into a major site of capitalism, affecting not just South Africa but also surrounding territories. Gold mining was a ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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