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Jan Theron argues that to understand Marikana you need to examine trade union history in Solidarity Road

Solidarity RoadJacana Media is proud to present Solidarity Road: The Story of a Trade Union in the Ending of Apartheid by Jan Theron:

The events leading to the Marikana massacre not only shattered South Africa’s image of itself as a democracy in which workers had a respected place, but also the image of Cosatu and its largest affiliate at the time. Subsequent events confirm that South Africa’s pre-eminent trade union federation has lost its way. To understand why this has happened, Theron argues, it is necessary to understand the choices made by the trade unions that formed it in the 1980s.

The Food and Canning Workers’ Union (FCWU) was perhaps the most famous of these, and had produced some of the country‚Äôs most prominent labour leaders – Ray Alexander, Oscar Mpetha and Liz Abrahams, among others. But by 1976, when Theron became its general secretary, it was on its last legs and riddled with corruption. Solidarity Road is an uncompromising account of a struggle to overcome corruption, as well as to revive a tradition of non-racial solidarity. A demonstration of non-racial solidarity by the workforce of Fatti’s and Moni’s in Cape Town catapulted the union into national prominence, in the same week as government tabled its race-based labour “reforms” in Parliament.

FCWU’s unprecedented victory in this strike meant it was well-placed to initiate the talks that eventually led to the formation of Cosatu. This was to be an independent federation, allied to political organisations fighting to end apartheid. However, for FCWU the basis of independence was always financial self-sufficiency coupled with zero tolerance of corruption. In this regard it was unlike the other trade unions involved in these talks. When the formation of a federation became imperative in the wake of the death in detention of Neil Aggett, FCWU’s Transvaal Secretary, FCWU merged with other trade unions to become Food and Allied Workers’ Union (FAWU). Compromises were made in this process that its members came to regret, and that were to facilitate the capture of a federation with so much promise. This is a story about the values that shaped the trade union struggle and the decisions and practices which undermined them.

About the author

Jan Theron was born and educated in Cape Town. At the age of 26 he became general secretary of FCWU, a position he occupied until 1986, when he became general secretary of FAWU. At the end of 1988 he took long leave to write a book, but did not return to the trade union. In 1990 he embarked on qualifying as an attorney, and has since combined legal practice with a part-time post at the University of Cape Town, where he has coordinated a research project on labour market policy and the changing nature of work. He has published in local and international journals and books.

Book details

 

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