The origins of many labour movements in the region can be traced back to liberation struggles for national independence. In Namibia and South Africa organised workers (NUNW and COSATU respectively) were one of the most visible and effective social forces advocating independence and social change.

After independence their links with the former liberation movements, now in power, remained close. In other countries however, labour movements that once were close allies of liberation movements found themselves the foremost advocates of democracy and thus openly challenged the ruling parties of the day. Due to their relatively large social bases, trade unions in Zambia and Zimbabwe played key roles in the formation of political opposition parties that ousted ruling liberation movements (Zambia), or presented a serious political challenge (Zimbabwe). Swaziland is also characterised by serious conflict between government and labour. In countries like Botswana, Malawi and Mozambique, however, union federations were actually established in response to government initiatives and, even today, hardly play the role of independent working class organisations.

After independence, unions in the region redefined their roles and places in peaceful but neoliberal environments. As hardship set in under neoliberal rule and promises made by the new regimes failed to materialise, social movements sprung up to fill the void created by political parties and unions. Casualisation became increasingly common. In response to these developments, the unions in countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa are actively engaged, though in different ways, in wider economic policy issues alongside regular union bread and butter issues. On the contrary, unions in other countries confine their activities to shop floor issues.

While union membership shrinks due to mass retrenchments following mine closures, privatisation, structural adjustment programmes and the latest global crisis, unions are still the best organised sector of civil society and their power and influence cannot be measured statistically – about 40% of Southern Africa workers are union members. The force of trade unions has been impressively demonstrated by mass action in Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa where they challenged government policies and received support from NGOs and community-based organisations (CBOs). However, formal labour constitutes less than a quarter of the total labour force in the region. The majority of the population ekes out a living in the unorganised informal sector.

Union influence is sometimes hampered by a lack of trade union unity at national level and the lack of strategic alliances between labour and other organisations representing marginalised constituencies.

RLS Southern Africa currently implements, in cooperation with partner organisations, projects concerning:

  • research and training like the Labour Diploma in Namibia (LaRRI) and in Durban (Workers College) and the COSATU/ UCT Diploma in Education that strengthen the unions in their struggle both on the shop floor and around broader socio-economic issues
  • research, training and public debate on government (neoliberal) policies and alternatives
  • production and dissemination of information on labour issues and alternatives