By Drew Forrest
BBC Focus on Africa magazine
In theory, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) are allies in government.
Union leader Willie Madisha received death threats
But two years ago, relations had deteriorated to the extent that Cosatu president Willie Madisha accused officials from the ANC of the government's National Intelligence Agency of sending anonymous death threats to his mobile phone.
Cosatu was locked in an acrimonious struggle with the leadership of the ANC over South Africa's economic direction.
The reason was the government's misleadingly named Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) strategy, under which successive ANC governments cut government spending and squeezed the budget deficit.
The decision was taken to rein in inflation, part-privatised the state telecommunications company, allowed parastatals to shed jobs in large numbers, and insisted that it had no direct responsibility for rolling back chronic unemployment, estimated at between 30 and 40% of the adult population.
Cosatu's response to Gear was a steadily escalating protest campaign, culminating in a one-day "anti-privatisation strike" in late 2002.
A furious ANC leadership, with President Thabo Mbeki leading the charge, circulated "briefing notes" to all ANC regions calling for the "ultra-left" activists in Cosatu to be "isolated and defeated".
Hostility was scaled down by both sides after the ANC rank and file - in many cases also Cosatu members - made it clear that they expected the two organisations to co-operate.
The union official (l) is addressing strikers wearing an ANC t-shirt
Black labour's close historical relationship with the governing party has been a source of both strength and weakness.
One of the ANC's first legislative acts was to pass a series of statutes cementing worker gains from the factory struggles of the 1980s - including the right to strike and collective bargaining.
But Cosatu mistakenly thought majority rule would usher in a socialist, or at least a left-leaning economic regime. It expected the ANC to retain and even extend state ownership of key sectors of the economy, and to use its power for the benefit of black workers and the unemployed.
It reckoned without Mr Mbeki's fiscal conservatism - essentially modelled on Tony Blair's "Third Way" - and his perspective of African nationalism, which focuses on the creation of a black ruling class.
It would be wrong to accuse Mr Mbeki of callous neglect of South Africa's poverty-stricken millions. National budgets have gradually become more expansionary, welfare spending has risen and an expanded public works programme has been launched to ease joblessness.
In part, ANC officials say, the relaxation of earlier fiscal stringencies has flowed from Mr Mbeki's direct experience of township living conditions during the recent election campaign.
But it could be argued that the government's focus on building the black political, professional and business classes, and to increase their ownership of the economy, has been far more thoroughgoing.
Unions feel neglected by the government
Its policy towards the white business establishment has been cautious, aimed at encouraging racial asset transfers under negotiated industry charters, and the "greying" of corporate management.
The foreign investment community and multilateral bodies like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund remain potent shapers of policy, making themselves felt particularly through Mr Mbeki's International Investment Council.
Increasingly alarmed that the policy has simply given birth to a small band of black multi-millionaires, Cosatu has campaigned for "broad-based" black economic empowerment, under which companies improve working conditions while ceding equity to black entrepreneurs.
In this scheme of things, the influence of the labour movement has declined. Though still important, its voice has become one among many for a ruling party that sees itself as representative of all social classes.
The view of Mr Mbeki and his inner circle, revealed by the 2002 "briefing notes", is that the ANC must provide political leadership, while labour's role is primarily to defend workers' interests on the shop floor.
The post-1994 period has been a difficult one for Cosatu in other ways. Its membership has declined from a peak of about two
million to 1.7 million, but this conceals a far more radical shift in the character of its organised base.
Worker numbers in traditional manufacturing and mining strongholds have fallen sharply as companies, often responding to global market conditions, have slimmed down, restructured and mechanised.
Cosatu's recruiting arm has replaced them with members from service industries and a ragbag of new affiliates representing bank workers, musicians and sportsmen, among others.
In theory, South Africa has a highly regulated labour market. Conservative critics, like the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, make much of the sweeping labour reforms of the ANC's first term in office, complaining that they have served to scare off foreign investors.
But with massive unemployment and a relatively weak state, the reality on the ground is very different.
In line with world trends, there is a marked growth in informal and casual labour in South Africa, which by its nature presents the unions with an organising nightmare.
Government statistics suggest that of an economically active population of 15 million, about seven million people are formally employed, five million are jobless and three million are in the informal economy, barely subsisting in such trades as hawking, pavement shoe-mending and pirate taxi-driving.
Sympathetic observers say the labour movement's survival may depend, in the first instance, on its ability to render better services to a working population now more preoccupied with living standards than political rights.
Currently an uneasy truce, Cosatu's alliance with the ruling party is likely to become more fraught in the years ahead.
At some point - particularly if economic conditions worsen - the federation may decide it has more to gain by striking off alone than relying on the ANC to fight its political battles.
This article appeared in the Oct-Dec 2004 issue of the Focus on Africa magazine which carried a series of articles on trade unions. To order a copy, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.