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Alliance Strengthened or Diminished? Relationships between Labor & African Nationalist/Liberation Movements in Southern Africa

By Peter Limb, University of Western Australia
18-20 May, 1992

A paper from the conference on "The Dynamics of Change in Southern Africa," University of Melbourne 18-20 May 1992.


The image of the ANC amongst black workers in South Africa is poorly understood. Either the ANC is seen as being in unshakable alliance with "the masses," or as an elite distantly removed from the concerns of "real" workers. Such stereotypes have not helped much to explain either the remarkable resilience of the "old" Congress, or the resurgence of today's ANC. This paper critically surveys past and present assumptions about the ANC, suggests reasons for the underestimation of the organisation's revival, and proposes a more integrated theoretical view of Congress which takes into account its historical heritage or image, and its links with black labour movements that have been largely neglected in the historiography. The "model" has some relevance for African nationalist and labour movements in neighbouring countries, such as Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Namibia, where there have also been theoretical misconceptions about the nature of African nationalism/(national) liberation movements, that tended to underestimate the mass nature and support for these forces, and secondly, exaggerate the "independence" and strength of working class organisation. Given the general paucity of comparative regional labour history, paralleled by the undeveloped nature of regional links by labour movements, a clarification of these relationships is overdue. African nationalist/liberation movements forged various loose links with workers during the struggles for independence in many parts of the continent. What is the state of these links in Southern Africa today? Have latter-day liberation movements supplanted nationalist groups as the champions of workers? Is the enduring ANC an exception, in that it is technically still fighting a "nationalist" struggle, and what are the prospects for the continuation of ANC-worker alliances in a post- or non-apartheid South Africa?

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