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Subaltern consciousness in South Africa’s labor movement: ‘workerism’ in the KwaZulu-Natal sugar industry

Hickel, Jason (2012) Subaltern consciousness in South Africa’s labor movement: ‘workerism’ in the KwaZulu-Natal sugar industry. South African Historical Journal, 64 (3). pp. 664-684. ISSN 0258-2473

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Identification Number: 10.1080/02582473.2012.661756


The liberation struggle in South Africa that eventually brought the apartheid state to its knees had its roots in the workers' movement that emerged in the early 1970s. Beginning in the 1980s, this movement shifted from a ‘workerist’ orientation around shop floor issues to a ‘popularist’ articulation with the broader liberation struggle – a shift embodied most fully in the transformation of FOSATU into COSATU in 1985. In the sugar industry of KwaZulu-Natal, this ideological shift opened up serious conflict among workers who had previously co-existed without quarrel. Workers from rural Zululand tended to reject the liberal-egalitarian tenets of the ‘national democratic revolution’ promoted by Sweet Food, the sectoral COSATU affiliate. Instead, they sought refuge in an organisation known as National Union, which – following elements of the workerist tradition pioneered by FOSATU – created space for them to operate as activists without having to fit within the mould of secular political modernity. This history provides clues about the tenets of political consciousness among migrant workers, helps explain ongoing conflict between Inkatha and the African National Congress, and forces us to rethink some of the assumptions about workers' politics in the dominant labour historiography.

Item Type: Article
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Additional Information: © 2012 Southern African Historical Society
Divisions: Anthropology
Subjects: D History General and Old World > DT Africa
G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GN Anthropology
H Social Sciences > HD Industries. Land use. Labor
J Political Science > JA Political science (General)
Date Deposited: 25 Jan 2012 16:52
Last Modified: 20 Oct 2021 03:15

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