A Lingering Effect of Apartheid

Apartheid lingers on in South Africa in so many more ways than just racial tension and structural inequalities. I don’t find this in itself surprising, but I haven’t come across much analysis of many current events and trends in terms of the past. More specifically, I haven’t seen much written in public, mass-consumed media that concerns itself with the relationship between the past and specific aspects of more subtle South African social trends. There are some areas like health, poverty, employment and education where the effects of Apartheid are widely and openly discussed, but there are others where this is not so much the case. (Well, at least that I know of – please do correct me should you find something I have missed.)

The widespread strikes over the past few months struck me as one such area that didn’t receive attention in ways I thought it might. The strikes were undoubtedly headline news and there were large numbers of articles dealing with the current political motivations and economic ramifications of the various strikes, but I didn’t read anything tying the violence that attended the strikes to the historical nature of labour unions and strikes in South Africa. The strikes of the 1980’s were violent in large part because of the Apartheid government’s response to the mass actions, but I found it really interesting to see how that carried through to the strikes while I was at home. Teachers, doctors and nurses in many places countrywide were seriously intimidated into not attending work during the public workers’ strike, and some were physically abused for daring to “defy” the strikes. The same held true for the metalworkers’ strike that followed the public workers’ strike. In these strikes, however, economic motivations drove the strikes rather than political disenfranchisement, so I noticed how many of the strikers took the same approach as for the strikes of two decades ago. To tell the truth, I am rather worried by how undemocratic the strikes were in some respects. I am not at all alone in that, but I am still surprised at how little I’ve read about the way this year’s strikes resemble those of the 1980’s in spite of the many changes that have occurred in the country.

I can actually see some very interesting theses and/or dissertations being written on exactly this topic, despite the trade union movement itself being such a rich vein of material. Nonetheless, I think there are other social phenomena that have roots in Apartheid but haven’t received any attention in the media I’ve been exposed to. I will post on those in the near future, so stay tuned.

[Historical side note: The 1979 legalisation of black labour unions in South Africa was one of the steps that allowed blacks to voice political and economic power. Trade unions were instrumental in organising mass protests against the Apartheid government throughout the 1980’s and their continued power is evident in COSATU’s role in the ANC’s tripartite alliance. COSATU = Congress of South African Trade Unions).]


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