Trade unions, social policy & class compromise in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Journal Article


Journal Title

Review of African Political Economy

Journal ISSN
Volume Title

Taylor & Francis


University of Cape Town

The poor benefit greatly through redistribution through the budget in South Africa: Poor children attend public schools in large numbers and poor households benefit from a public welfare system that is exceptional in comparative terms. Trade unions have championed these apparently pro-poor policies, even though the trade union movement is not a movement of the poor in South Africa (there are very few union members in the poorest half of the population). Trade unions' record in acting as a movement for the poor is shaped by their primary objective of looking after their members' interests. In education, teachers and unions engage with the state as the employer more than as the provider of a social service. Teachers' unions were primarily responsible for securing more expenditure on poor schools in the mid-1 990s, but this was the result of increased salaries. Self-interest has led teachers and their unions to oppose, block or impede some reforms that would improve the quality of schooling for poor children. In welfare reform, trade unions have championed the cause of the basic income grant, which is in the interests of the poor. A close analysis suggests that organised labour is also acting here in part out of self-interest. The socialisation of welfare costs will reduce the burden on working people and would deflect criticism of union-backed policies that, arguably, contribute to an economic growth path characterised by high wages but low employment. In previous work I argued that post- apartheid South Africa entailed a double class compromise, between capital, labour and the poor. The evidence from these areas of social policy suggests that this argument overstated the power of the poor and underestimated that of organised labour.