Malaika Mahlatsi17 March 2023 | 10:00

MALAIKA MAHLATSI: Nehawu illustrates death of political consciousness in unions

Protest action is an important tool in the hands of exploited workers, but the actions of Nehawu affiliates left devastation in its wake, writes Malaika Mahlatsi.

MALAIKA MAHLATSI: Nehawu illustrates death of political consciousness in unions

Nehawu members protest during a nationwide wage strike on 8 March 2023. Picture: X/@_cosatu


Over the past week, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU) and other public servant unions have been locked in a wage dispute with the government, culminating in protest action.

This is not an anomaly.

Since their conception, trade unions have served as a vehicle through which workers can challenge, to a degree, the exploitation inherently embedded in the capitalist mode of production. Because the law of supply and demand is used to determine wages, the role of trade unions is to slow down the erosion of wages in the face of the onslaught of capital.

But while protest action is an important tool in the hands of exploited workers, the actions of the protesting NEHAWU workers, particularly those in the health sector, can only be described as devastating.

While the strike ended on Wednesday after the workers and government reached an agreement, it left damage in its wake. The violence that characterised the protest action, including the disruptions of hospitals and clinics, intimidation and harassment of non-striking workers, and the vandalism of property, endangered the lives of patients.

In KwaDukuza, KwaZulu-Natal, striking workers attempted to remove a child on life support from an ambulance.

In the Eastern Cape, around 1,000 clinics and 92 hospitals turned away patients or discharged them prematurely for safety reasons due to acts of intimidation and violence by the striking workers.

Blockages of healthcare facilities also meant many could not access the healthcare they desperately needed. According to health minister, Dr Joe Phaahla, at least four deaths could be directly linked to the protests.

The actions of NEHAWU illustrate the death of political consciousness in the trade union movement broadly.

The 1970s was an important decade in the world – particularly in Latin America and Africa, where developments that would alter the course of history were taking place.

On the streets of Soweto, young people were demanding the annihilation of a right-wing nationalist government responsible for the oppression of the majority.

On the streets of Buenos Aires, Juventud Peronista were no longer prepared to be subjected to a reactionary government.

The rise in the levels of consciousness of the working class majority, which was born against the backdrop of severe repression by governments, resulted in events that would change society and redefine the role of the labour and trade union movement.

In South Africa, the 1970s witnessed a revival of the trade union movement, which began in Durban and then spread to other parts of Natal and ultimately, the rest of the country. Leaders of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), who had been banned or incarcerated following the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, the Urban Training Project, the General Workers Benefit Fund and students aligned to the Black Consciousness Movement consolidated their activities in the trade union movement and the labour movement.

These students were instrumental in the establishment of the Black Allied Workers Union (BAWU) in the mid-1970s.

This wave of activism by the labour movement and trade union movement was met by extreme repression from the nationalist government, which continued with its severe violence against striking workers and communities broadly.
Historically, trade unions have been the vanguard of the struggle for redistributive justice across the world.

German philosophers Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels were highly optimistic about trade unions because they believed in their revolutionary potential.

Engels argued that trade unions are a military school for class war - a preparatory ground for workers who would wage a class war in the quest for the realisation of a classless society.

Both Marx and Engels would later have reservations about their initial optimistic views, largely as a result of a lack of revolutionary ardour on the part of the British trade unions that they had used as a basis for their analysis of the revolutionary potential of unions.

But Marx and Engels, in the reassessing of their optimistic view, did not completely discard the general theory that they held about the relation between trade unions and the revolutionary struggle. They instead regarded what was happening in Britain as “a deviation in a historical trend”, which was a result of three main factors: labour aristocracy, corrupt leaders and embourgeoisment based on imperialism.

They regarded these as temporary, and argued that the embourgeoisment of trade unions in particular would pass once British imperialism declined.

But not everyone shared this optimism.

Vladimir Lenin, who served as the first and founding head of government of Soviet Russia, argued that trade union politics is “bourgeois politics”.

This argument is corroborated by various scholars and activists who assert that the union movement, through “social contract” style arrangements between government, unions and in some cases employers, is leading to class collaboration to such an extent that the strength of working-class organisations is being eroded.

Lenin’s arguments about trade unions are proving to be true in the context of South Africa. But what even Lenin could not have foreseen is that trade unions could someday pose a material danger to the very lives of the people – that they could be so devoid of consciousness that they would use the lives of the working class as a weapon to fight the employer.

The unionists of the 1970s, who understood that the struggles on the shop floor are a microcosm of the exploitative nature of the capitalist mode of production, and who, as a result, fought alongside communities in the struggle against draconian apartheid laws, could not have known that in 2023, trade unionists would be at war with the very communities denying them access to their human right to basic healthcare.

NEHAWU and other trade unions must revisit the literature of trade unionism in the global south to remind themselves of what trade unions used to represent and importantly, on whose side they fought.

Malaika Mahlatsi is a geographer and researcher at the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Bayreuth in Germany.