Labour & Social Movements in Southern Africa

Theme Leader: Open


Labour movements in Southern Africa have a long tradition of political engagement, beginning in the pre-independence period and continuing all the way into the present. This engagement is driven by labour’s enduring interest in issues of liberation and development. This research will seek to explore the proposition that union engagement with political processes, parties and movements is not irrational or misguided. Rather, such engagement is often part of a broader strategy to achieve liberation and achieve a developmental path favourable to the needs of unions and their members.


Trade union engagement with political processes in Southern Africa can be located in three historical periods, namely, the colonial period, the ‘developmental’ post-independence period and the current market-driven post-colonial period that we are witnessing today. Each one of these periods poses different challenges for unions, thus generating specific forms of institutional and organisational engagement. The era of market regulation today presents unions with new challenges that threaten the very future of the movement.


If trade unionism in Southern Africa is to rise to the challenges posed by the increasing differentiation and polarisation of the world of work it will have to revive its organisational energies in the core zone and turn its rhetorical commitment to organising the non-core zone into innovative and sustained strategies. It will have to effectively resist authoritarianism by increasing its cost for employers, and on the other hand it will have to link core and non-core workers, building solidarity across their differentiated conditions and interests - and possibly doing this by extending campaigns into the community - and finding ways to utilise the leverage of core workers and communities to compensate for the workplace vulnerabilities of non-core workers.


In this cluster we are also developing our interest in the field of labour geography in order to understand labour responses to neoliberal globalization in specific places, as well as emerging trans-national strategies.

© 2016 by SWOP

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