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30 October 2018
Where have all the classes gone? A critical perspective on struggles and collective action", Edited by Oksana Balashova, Ismail Doga Karatepe and Aishah Namukasa, 2017, Germany

The Speaker, Mr Eddie Cottle, is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Social and Economic Research, Rhodes University. He is the former project leader of Collective Bargaining Support at the Labour Research Service where he previously worked as the Policy and Campaigns Coordinator of the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI), Africa and Middle East Region. Eddie was also the coordinator of BWI’s “Campaign for Decent Work Towards and Beyond 2010”. In 2011 he edited the book, South Africa’s World Cup: A Legacy for Whom?

Date: 30 October 2018
Time: 12h30
Venue : 1E & 1G, Ground Floor, SOG Building

Summary of the Talk

This preliminary study examines long waves of strikes in South Africa over the period 1900-2015. In particular, it analyses the defensive and offensive character of strikes located within the Marxian theory of long waves of capitalist development. This analysis confirms a general tendency for offensive and defensive strikes to be linked to the upturns and downturns of the capitalist business cycles and long waves of capitalist development (what can be termed the objective factor). However, while giving primacy to the objective factor, Marxian analysis has consistently maintained the relatively long-term autonomy of the class struggle (what can be termed the subjective factor). It is in view of the latter that I employ the Marxist theory of long waves of capitalist development through which the dialectic of the objective and the subjective factors of historical development of strikes can be examined.

Eddie Cottle concludes: Strikes in South Africa are generally pro-cyclical, fluctuating around the long-term asymmetrical curve of capitalist development.

All the offensive strikes regarded as turning points in South Africa, such as the 1992 Rand Rebellion, the African Mine Workers’ Strike of 1946, the 1973 Durban Strikes, and the 2012 Marikana Strike took place on the upturn of the business cycle.

This is important in understanding the current wave of offensive strikes, which is not only a result of greater immiseration of the working class but is also a direct challenge to the labour process as workers demand an end to outsourcing and labour broking. What is significant here is that the most sustained attack on the neo-liberal cost cutting labour process occurred in the post office, the higher education system and, to a small degree, the farming sector. The 2014 NUMSA strike is indicative of the fact that the challenges to the labour process are set to unfold in the private sector as well.

Social structures and class consciousness are directly related and influence each other, what we are witnessing is that an increasing share of unorganized and organized workers are bypassing trade unions and the industrial relations system, resulting in increased conflict.

We are thus entering a new period where the victory of neo-liberal capitalism in creating a more flexible labour force through changes in the labour process is being challenged by the very workers this barbaric system created. As we have seen, the new vanguard of the labour movement is being drawn from the disposable reserve army of labour; the casual, part-time, and seasonal workers employed mostly by sub-contractors or labour brokers. In the long waves of the rise and decline of working class struggle, it is truly remarkable that it has taken South Africa’s working class about two decades in the ‘school of war’ to see that a new model of accumulation – a neo-liberal democratic capitalist dispensation and its industrial relations system – is not in their interest.