This paper was submitted to the 1973 Durban Strikes Celebrating 50 Years Conference


            Although I had known Vishnu for nearly forty years, it was only in 2013 that I got to work with him. It was on a special edition of Transformation focusing on the varieties of capitalismapproach.[i] We became good friends when we both joined the new Southern Centre for Inequality Studies (SCIS) in 2018, and initiated a project on Alternative Forms of Ownership (AFO). The projects aim was to identify and analyse the alternatives to the traditional corporations emerging in the global South. We wanted to examine in-depth the forms these alternatives are taking. We wanted to find out whether there was a shift by enterprises towards greater responsiveness to societal issues, as well as towards workers and their communities. This is why we included a focus on co-operatives, co-determination, and a stakeholder approach to the enterprise. The outcome of our first workshop in 2019 revealed a shift in some sectors in the opposite direction. There was a return, in the case of the platform economy, to the despotic rule of the robber baronsof late 19th-century American capitalism (see Michie and Padayachee, 2021).

            We – Vishnu, Robbie van Niekerk and I – were planning a follow-up workshop in late March 2020. But the severe lockdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic scuppered all our plans. Sadly, Vishnu passed away three months later. The workshop was postponed indefinitely. In the notes for the opening speech he planned to give at the workshop, Vishnu wrote, My colleague Eddie Webster and I have engaged one another over the past two years in an on-going conversation over what a progressive pro-poor variety of capitalism that aims to reduce inequality, promote economic growth, and strengthen social infrastructure may look like, and what it would have to offer South Africans.” The note continued, To be fair to Eddie, he had begun to probe these issues as far back as his piece with Karl von Holdt in 1992, in which he spoke of the possibilities and limits of radical social democracy. The notion of corporatismand the term social accordalso emerged at the time as ideas for a middle, or third, way lying somewhere between conventional socialist and capitalist models” (Padayachee, 2000).

            As a tribute to Vishnu, I would like to take this conversation forward by revisiting his home city, Durban. I will explore the ways in which the politics of placeshaped a generation of left intellectuals, and the contemporary relevance of the ideas that emerged at that time.

            The question I am posing is whether the embryonic political theorythat emerged in Durban was a missed opportunity for the development of a more pro-poor and egalitarian post-apartheid developmental path. I divide my argument into three parts. In Part One, I explore the resistance to apartheid that took a creative turn in Durban in the 1970s and early 1980s. In Part Two, I examine the idea that, by failing to consolidate worker organisation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) missed an opportunity to shape an alternative path. In Part Three, I conclude that Cosatus failure to enter the Alliance, comprised of Cosatu, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the African National Congress (ANC) in the eighties and nineties without a map – an overall strategy that integrated the different interventions of Cosatu – led to the federations gradual marginalisation.

Part One: A creative turn – the Durban moment

            I arrived in the city of Durban in late February 1973 – some 46 years ago – to take up a post in the Department of Sociology at the then University of Natal, Durban (UND). It was a dramatic moment as South Africa was experiencing its first wave of worker unrest, the Durban strikes, since the apartheid police massacred 69 people at Sharpeville in 1960.

            I was met at the airport by the head of department, a benign ‘gentleman’ in a safari suit. It was one of those hot, humid Durban afternoons before the days of air conditioning. I was taken to a hotel in the city centre. I felt I was entering the world of late colonialism.

            I was woken the next morning by an emissary from the recently banned political science lecturer, Rick Turner. He said Rick wanted to meet me. I readily agreed, and spent the rest of the day with Rick and his wife Fozia Fisher at their rambling Bellair home. We discussed the organisational possibilities for change. Rick made it clear that he rejected armed struggle as unrealistic, and economic sanctions as counter-productive. He argued there was only one sphere in which Africans had potential power, and in which their power potential was in fact growing. This, he said, was within the economy.

            By the time sunset arrived, Rick had persuaded me to join the Working Committee of a planned workers college, the Institute of Industrial Education (IIE) and to join the board of the about-to-be-launched South African Labour Bulletin (SALB).

            Soon after this encounter, I did what sociologists do. I undertook a survey of members of the embryonic trade unions that had been established in the wake of the Durban 1973 strikes. One of the questions I asked was, “Why did you join the union?” I expected them to say “wages” and “benefits” because wages were low, and the apartheid system was built on cheap black labour. But as it is often said, surveys usually confirm commonsense; however, they can also disturb common sense. Much to my surprise, it was neither for benefits nor for wages that workers gave as the dominant reasons for joining the union. It was human dignity. “I joined the union,” one worker said, “because we are not treated like human beings” (cited in Webster, 1979).

            My first conclusion from my survey was a challenge to the well-known conceptualisation of needs as hierarchical by Abraham Maslow (1943). His memorable pyramid depicts how individuals start with basic physiological motives, moving up through the hierarchy to safety, belonging and love, esteem, and finally to self-actualisation.

            But if my respondents saw recognition and dignity as more important, even in context of material adversity, a critical component of inequality in South African society is inequality of recognition. Understanding the causes and consequences of recognition, and of mis-recognition is, writes Chris Desmond (2018), key to understanding how to combat inequality.

            Interestingly, a young medical student at the University of Natal, then called the non-European section of UND, was addressing precisely this issue. Of course, I am referring to Steve Bantu Biko and his emerging philosophy of black consciousness. These young black radical  intellectuals were focusing on how white racism dehumanised both white and black, and whyIn the long run the oppressed will have to free the oppressors who are unable (and unwilling) to free themselves” (cited in Webster, 1975). This was a historic rupture with the mindset of apartheid. Black, Biko argued, is not a colour; if you are oppressed you are black.

            Another question my research assistant, Judson Kuzwayo, asked the worker respondents was: Can you think of a leader, present or past, who can or could improve the position of African workers?” This is what they said:

Albert Luthuli


Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi


Nelson Mandela


Moses Mabhida


source: Webster (1979: 43)

                When I presented the results of the research to the IIE in 1975, a member of the IIE Working Committee questioned their validity. Who,” he asked, is Moses Mabhida?” I said I did not know but that I trusted the interviewer. Subsequently, in 1977, I had time to read WorkersUnity, the newspaper from the ‘fifties of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu), the trade union arm of the Alliance. Sitting in the banned section of the William Cullen Library of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), I soon discoveredthat Moses Mabhida was a prominent leader of the SACP, ANC and Sactu in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. The working class, I came to realise, was not some collective tabula rasa waiting for white intellectuals to tell them what to think. They had their own history and political traditions of which the national political tradition had deep roots in Durban and its surrounding areas.  

            Indeed, as Sakhela Buhlungu argues, the white full-time union officials in the black unions were mainly from middle-class backgrounds. They were never fully integrated into the movement with which they had pledged solidarity (Buhlungu, 2006). Buhlungu applied Erik Olin Wright's notion of contradictory class locationto explain this incomplete integration. The social distance between white and black people in society continued to exist between white officials on the one hand, and black workers and full-time officials on the other. Power relations between white officials and black unionists remained unequal and, Buhlungu went on to argue, white officials performed expert functions while black unionists performed the more menial functions.

            In his reply to Buhlungu, Johann Maree does not dispute that there was a social distance between the white officials and black workers during the 1970s (Maree, 2006). Instead, Maree argues, their strategy of building active democratic shop steward structures in the workplace helped build a democratic and powerful black trade union movement. Marees argument is based on an historical overview of the two major black trade union federations that emerged in South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s. The Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu) was non-racial and accepted white intellectuals as officials. It eventually grew into Cosatu, which played a major role in the mass democratic movement during South Africas transition to democracy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The other black trade union federation was Africanist, with some black consciousness orientations. It appointed only black officials and eventually grew into the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu). Nactu, Maree argues,  never matched Cosatu in size, strength or strategic leadership. The non-racial federation grew much stronger than the Africanist federation by focusing on building active democratic shop steward structures in the workplace. This, Maree suggests, was part of a deliberate strategy by white intellectuals in the unions to put control of the unions into the hands of black workers, who gradually rose through the ranks into positions of leadership.

            While this debate between Sakhela Buhlungu and Johann Maree on the role of white intellectuals in the post-1973 labour movement was important, it failed to identify the innovative part of what Tony Morphet called the Durban moment.[ii] Here, at the height of apartheid, two movements were to emerge, beginning a journey that was eventually to bring apartheid to its knees. In the words of veteran political scientist Mahmood Mamdani, The most important force for this change was not the armed struggle, nor exile politics, nor the international boycott movement.” The force that began to bring apartheid to its knees, Mamdani argues, was provided by student activists of all colours and by migrant and township labour (2021). He argues that together these two movements, the black consciousness movement and the workerstrade union movement, dramatically shifted the locus of struggle from exiled professional revolutionaries to the communities of South Africa.

            It could be argued that Mamdani overstates the significance of the Durban moment. But in bringing the struggle back home, a vision of a non-racial and egalitarian society re-emerged in the giant textile mills of Pinetown and the campuses of the University of Natal. Anti-apartheid resistance took a creative turn in the 1970s. For the first time, resistance did not reproduce the architects of apartheid inside the resistance itself. Before, resistance to apartheid was organised through separate organisations for different racial groups: the ANC for Africans, the South African Indian Congress for Indians, the Coloured Peoples Congress (CPC), and the whitesCongress of Democrats. Resistance in the 1970s, Mamdani argues, broke through apartheids cognitive order” (Mamdani 2021: 31). This epistemological revolution that would spur decolonisation,” Mamdani goes on to argue, was characterised by a two-fold development: radical white students joined non-white migrant workers in a mobilisation that gave birth to South Africas non-racial unions; and African, Indian and Coloured students, inspired by the Black Consciousness Movement, were reborn as black” (Neither Settler nor Native; 31).

            What happened in South Africa was not, Mamdani concludes, a social revolution stalled but as the most far-sighted transition to political independence in the colonial world” (Neither Settler nor Native; 189). However, for Mamdani, social justice was not attainable in 1994. It would, he argues, have required a revolution but this was not practically possible, given the balance of forces. There was instead a stalemate between forces supporting and opposing apartheid, which was broken through a compromise agreement” (Neither Settler nor Native; 188). South Africas achievement was a political revolution ... a radical attempt to imagine a postcolonial political community that is neither a return to the imagined precolonial nation nor a continuation of the colonial condition” (Neither Settler nor Native; 189).  I turn now to the idea of the Durban moment as a missed opportunity for a more pro-poor development path.

Part Two: Was the Durban moment a missed opportunity?

            I agree that a revolutionary rupture was not feasible at that time but I disagree with Mamdanis false binary of  either a revolution or a political compromise. I will argue, contra Mamdani, that what emerged in Durban in the seventies and eighties was the embryo of an alternative; an embryo that could be called a radical social democratic project which was stalled not by the unfavourable balance of power in South Africa but, as Alec Erwin, a failure to consolidate an embryonic political philosophy” (Erwin 2017: 236).

As Dikgang Moseneke, in his book, My Own Liberator, argued:

The negotiators did not stare in the eye the historical and structural inequality in the economy‚ and the inequality rested and still rests in the disparity between those who own productive assets and management skills‚ on the one hand‚ and those who dont. (Moseneke 2019:5)

            Erwin, a  leading white academic and trade unionist at the time, argued thatby failing to face the dangers of an unstructured relationship within the Alliance and paying insufficient attention to the need to find new ways of building worker-class organisation, the workerist leadership missed a major opportunity to build working-class power” (The Unresolved National Question, 251). What was needed, he said, was a second Joe Foster speech process after the formation of Cosatu, and then again after the democratic transition” (ibid., p. 250).

            At the centre of Erwins argument is the significance of the Foster speech. The significance was two-fold: firstly, it was not the product of one person but of a deep participatory process of some months of meetings, discussions and laborious drafts ... by worker leaders … linked to factories [and] as a result of the close proximity of the factories to the townships” (The Unresolved National Question; 237). Secondly, There was an embryonic political theorypresent in the Foster speech” (The Unresolved National Question, 250).                                                                                                                                                                               

            What was articulated in the Foster speech, Erwin argued, was a well-disciplined worker organisation that had a national presence within the economy but that could also engage in local and regional matters and was conceived of as a working-class movement that would be so significant that the Alliance would have little option but to accommodate it and pay heed to working class needs” (ibid., p. 250).

            Erwins argument as to why this did not happen is that there was an overestimation of how far towards worker organisation the Alliance could be cajoled, and there was an overestimation of the resilience of the worker leadership structures that had been built up within Cosatu” (The Unresolved National Question, 251). The result was that there was no platform where a longer term reflection on how the relationship between worker organisation and the Alliance should be structured” (The Unresolved National Question, 251). Erwin concluded: For worker power to be built, it has to be built from the bottom again. It should be worker leaders who deal with the local issues of service delivery and they should then use their national power to ensure that delivery is provided” (The Unresolved National Question, 252).

            Erwin raised a fascinating counter-factual. But to answer it more fully, we need to revisit the debates in the early nineties on the relationship between unions and political parties. I will examine this more fully in my presentation at the conference in July 2022. In the meantime, I offer some preliminary thoughts.

            In the wake of the 1973 strikes in Durban, a non-racial trade union movement emerged after some decades of repression by the apartheid state (Maree, 1974). These unions were not entirely new but they presented a challenge not only to the apartheid state and employers but also to the dominant national democratic tradition in South Africa. These embryonic unions placed strong emphasis on building a cadre of shop stewards with deep roots in their workplaces and industry-wide bargaining and organisation. Their critics in the national democratic tradition labelled these unions as syndicalist in orientation or, later in the 1980s, as workerist(Erwin, 2016).

            The formation of Cosatu in December 1985 brought together unions from these different traditions into an uneasy strategic compromise: the well-organised industrial unions drawn from the shop floor tradition, and the general unions drawn from the national democratic tradition, as well as the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which had recently broken from the black consciousness tradition.

            With the imminent establishment of the ANC as the ruling party, an intense debate took place in the early 1990s inside Cosatu, and within its largest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), in particular. The debate focused on how they would relate to their Alliance partner, the ANC, once it came into power. The 1991 Numsa congress resolution stated: “…the trade unions must remain independent of political parties. The development of party political groupings in Numsa will lead to party political domination of the union and disunity among workers” (Forrest 2011: 476). But instead of remaining independent of political parties, ironically, the ANC victory in May 1994 precipitated an exodus of Cosatu and Numsa officials into government. How did this come about?

            At a special Cosatu congress in August 1991, delegates decided to release twenty Cosatu leaders to stand as parliamentary candidates on the ANC list. These included some of the trade unionsmost senior office bearers and strategists. In late 1995, a much larger number of leaders were similarly released to stand on local government lists. The guiding idea was that such individuals would strengthen the capacity of the ANC and simultaneously shape its direction towards labours goals. These aims proved elusive. While perhaps some ex-Cosatu leaders gained influence, especially those who became cabinet ministers and chairpersons of parliamentary committees, Cosatu did not. Instead, it suffered a brain drain in which many of its leading figures, especially at regional and local levels, left the organisation” (Buhlungu 1994).[iii]

            Once in parliament, these trade union movement individuals found themselves detached from any accountability to their old federation. Simultaneously, they became relatively isolated from the centres of power in the ANC. Within the ANC and the SACP the labour leaders seldom had the same seniority and credibility as those who earned their status as ex-Robben Islanders, or through leadership in exile, especially in the ANCs armed wing, Umhkonto we Sizwe. Furthermore, these ex-unionists were subject to party discipline. Indeed, in the early years, a clause in the interim constitution compelled members of parliament (MPs) to resign their seats if they disagreed with ANC party policy. In the memorable words of the general secretary of Numsa at the time, Enoch Godongwana, the decision to go to parliament can best be described as an exodus without a map” (quoted in Adler and Webster 2001: 12).

Part Three: Exodus without a map

            For a moment in the seventies and early eighties it appeared that an alternative working-class politics was emerging in Durban. It involved a new generation, influenced by the European New Left, and committed to translating participatory democracy into a strong shop floor movement. But the hidden voicesof the national political tradition were an essential part of the early seventies and their determination to embed working-class interests within the Alliance was eventually rewarded with the launch of Cosatu in 1985. It seemed for a moment as if the vexed labour questionhad been resolved through an equal partnership between Cosatu and the ANC.

            But this was not to be. Instead, Cosatu sent its leading officials to parliament without a mapto ensure its goals. I am not suggesting that Cosatu should not have joined the Alliance; their constituency demanded it. For example, in a survey of Cosatu members on the eve of the first democratic elections, 70% of members said they would vote for the ANC in the next elections, even if the government fails to deliver (Ginsburg, et al, 1995). The membersviews did not contradict their assertion that Cosatu would best represent their interests in the transition. Rather, they saw Cosatu as best representing them within the Alliance where they believed they could influence government policy (Ginsburg et al. 1995).

            But it was a strategy that contained contradictory imperatives. The one imperative stressed participation with government while the other stressed autonomy and opposition to capital and independence from the state. Could these contradictions have been resolved through an overall strategy – a map – that integrated the different interventions made by Cosatu? Such a map would have required two elements: the first was the maintenance of a strong shop floor structure, and the second was a macroeconomic programme that provided a realistic alternative to neo-liberalism. Neither element was to be met in the decades that followed. The authors of a recent study describe a democratic rupturein Cosatu (Bezuidenhout and Tshoaedi 2019); Padayachee and van Niekerk (2019) describe the marginalisation of the left Keynesian economic and social policy think tank, the Macro-economic Research Group (MERG), which the ANC initiated and later disowned.

            Much has changed in the world of work and politics since those heady days of the Durban moment when black and white South Africans crafted a vision that transcended the narrow roles the architects of apartheid had placed each into. I hope, by revisiting Durban and this vision, I have laid the foundations for a deeper understanding of the life and work of our friend and colleague Vishnu Padayachee. I hope, too, that this brief paper will contribute to our conversation on what happened to the embryonic political theorythat emerged in these exciting years.


Bezuidenhout, A. and Tshoaedi, M. (eds.) 2017. Labour beyond Cosatu: mapping the rupture in South Africa’s labour landscape. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

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Desmond, C. 2018. How we shape each other: Balance, denial and corrosion. Presentation at the inaugural conference of the SCIS, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, 5–6 September 2018.

Erwin, A. 2017. Workerists and the National Question. In The Unresolved National Question: Left Thought Under Apartheid. Webster, E. and Pampallis, K. (eds.) Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

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Michie, J. and Padayachee, V. 2021. Ownership and Governance of Companies: Essays from South Africa and the Global South. Routledge.

Padayachee, V. 2020. Planned Opening address to the SCIS workshop on Alternative Forms of Ownership, Johannesburg, 25 March 2020. Unpublished.

Padayachee, V. and Van Niekerk, R. 2019. Shadow of Liberation: Contestation and Compromise in the Economic and Social Policies of the African National Congress, 1943–1996.

Southall, R. and Webster, E.  2010. Unions and Parties in South Africa: Cosatu and the ANC in the wake of Polokwane. In Trade Unions and Party Politics: labour movements in Africa. Beckman, B. and Buhlungu, S. and Sachikonye, L., (eds.) Cape Town: HSRC Press.

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Webster, E. and Adler, G. 2001. Exodus without a Map? The Labour Movement in a Liberalising South Africa. In Beckman, B. and Sachikonye, L. (eds.). Labour Regimes and Liberalization: The Restructuring of State-Society Relations in Africa. Harare: University of Zimbabwe Publications.


1 Transformation, 2012, 81/82. The edition was titled Capitalism of a special type? South African capitalism before and after 1994.

2 in Current Sociology, Vol 54(3), May 2006.

3 Buhlungu (1994) estimated that 80 key leaders had left the trade union movement by the time of the national elections. And a lot more left after the local government elections in 1995.