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Monday, 20 November, 2000, 10:25 GMT
Trade unions: A central role in Africa?

Trade unions have often been the jumping off point for prominent movements across the continent and have spawned a number of leaders including Morgan Tsvangirai in Zimbabwe, Felix Houphouet-Boigny in Ivory Coast and, of course, Zambia's President Chiluba.

News and Information for Africa
In Swaziland currently unions have been at loggerheads with the government, headed by an absolute monarch, over democratic reforms and other political issues.

Should trade unions play a central role in politics in Africa today?

This Talking Point is now closed. A selection of your e-mails are published below.

Trade union leaders are more interested in the financial benefits to be obtained from the government of the day than in empowering workers

Ernest Cole, The Gambia
Trade unions in Africa have lost their power of collective bargaining a long time ago and have ceased to be the instrument of economic change that they should be. This is because trade union leaders are more interested in the financial benefits to be obtained from the government of the day than in empowering workers and promoting their welfare. They have sold their rights to the politicians.
Ernest Cole, The Gambia

The leadership of trade unions only use the powers entrusted to them by their unsuspecting members to buy favours from government. In Nigeria for instance, the president of the Nigerian Labour Congress is currently serving in about three government committees. Where lies his interest?
Aliyu, Nigeria

Trade unions can represent the power of the people only when the said population have a voice

Bwabo, Congo-Zaire
Indeed trade unions will or can provide much needed equity in the African workforce. But in order for such equity to exist, individual countries must possess actual continual organized work places which lack in many African nations. Trade unions can represent the power of the people only when the said population have a voice. There must be a strong transition from the natural African culture of chieftain final say (dictatorial) to wider democratic values before we could dance with the ideals of unionization where these values are strongly applied.
Bwabo, Congo-Zaire

Individual trade unions in Africa are key to the historical democratic struggle between corporations and workers. However, in terms of the trends of globalization, international corporations will continue to exploit African labor on a selective basis. The only solution to such a problem is collective bargaining at the international level, a theory that the future hopefully will bring to the exploited African workers.
Vijay Sekhon, USA (UC-Berkeley)

In Africa, where military rules and sit tight governments are prevalent, the trade unions are the only organised formidable opposition to a corrupt and illegitimate government. Without them in Nigeria, the illegitimate government of General Abacha would have had an easier walkover and he would have installed himself earlier as president for life.
Mutana Osemunu, Canada

It is rather unfortunate that these organized structures ... are these days seen as political hazards

Easmon Jamina, USA/Sierra Leone
Trade Unions must be seen as channels to empower, protect the rights of and organize the masses against hostile governments. Most trade unions have truly represented the voices of their people or countries especially during the struggles for independence from colonial powers. It is rather unfortunate that these organized structures that mobilize the masses to democratically participate in making significant changes in their communities against oppressive government policies are these days seen as political hazards. In essence, they have lost their potency. In my opinion, inasmuch as Trade Unions are serving to improve quality of life for the underserved instead of working as political tools to enrich the politicians, they are worthwhile.
Easmon Jamina, USA/Sierra Leone

In view of the African political and economic situation there is no other institution at present in Africa as a guarantee to the democratic process. It is the only social infrastructure to stand to any dictatorial attempt to derail our "cher" democracy!
Nebeyu Shone, Benin

Trade unions play no significant role in the day to day life of an African worker. It's just another instrument in the hands of politicians to manipulate the grass-root people.
Moussa Djabate, Ivory Coast/USA

Unions have played a pivotal role in political change

Adam More, Sudan
Next to the military, unions are the only modern forms of organisations in Africa. Their role is central to encouraging and sustaining the creation of a modern society. Unions have played a pivotal role in political change in such places as Sudan in 1964 and 1985 and in Zimbabwe. The problem with democracy in Africa often is the dedicated focus on form rather than function - the result in the ballot box often is a poor representation of the real balance of social power in society, which results in very weak governments that can be very easily outmanoeuvred by more dedicated or organised foes. One way to remedy this fatal weakness is through pluralism - the effective representation of all the powers within society - the military, political organisations, and civilian organisations of which unions are the most important.
Adam More, Sudan

I have spent twenty years as a senior official in the trade union movement. I believe that trade unions are vital if we are to achieve social justice in the new global economic order. The market can create wealth but it cannot distribute it equitably. Without equity economic growth will not benefit the poor of the world. Trade unions are the only force operating within the market system capable of promoting social justice. I now work for an NGO and would very much like to explore ways for trade unions and NGOs to work together to mobilise civil society to act for economic justice.
David Begg, Ireland

Wake up Africa, as long as Africa lies on its dictatorial rules, there will not be a system that guarantees a healthy function of trade unions.
Essey M Woldegiorgis, Ethiopia/US

The trade unions in Africa are usually only interested in what they are going to get out of a deal or government legislation and don't take into consideration what the ramifications are of any concessions made by the government.
Llewellyn Vaughan, England (Ex South African)

Africa, wake up!

Ibrahim Phodei Sheriff, USA
I am sorry to say this as an African but we have continually declined to the extent that our leaders don't even respect the rights and voices of the people they are governing. Trade unions do have vital role to play in politics but only when they are listened to. Most times in different parts of Africa, when trade unionists insist on voicing their views on the roles of their respective governments, they are most often antagonised. Therefore, trade unions can only achieve their patriotic objectives when African leaders everywhere are tolerant in the next Millennium. This is a challenge to them. Africa, wake up!
Ibrahim Phodei Sheriff, USA

Most African countries are missing genuine trade unions. The suffering of the working masses is a reflection of the lack, weakness or misrepresentation of trade unions. Working forces in Africa are indeed in a very bad state.
Omar A, Sweden

They have the potential to represent an alternative view

E. Matindi, UK
I believe that trade unions have an important role to play not only in Africa but in other parts of the world. As an organised movement they have the potential to represent an alternative view to that which may be offered by the Government. They also offer an opportunity to develop a civil society which is more likely to be tolerant and diverse than the hegemony which is sometimes characteristic of some governments.
E. Matindi, UK

Trade unions have undoubtedly played a pivotal role in the emancipation of the African continent both in colonial and post-colonial eras. Looking at their role in the colonial period one can conclude that the agitation for emancipation propelled them to political power - a position which most them abused after independence. However, their roles in the present dispensation all over Africa cannot be overemphasised.
Frank Isioma Okafor, Nigeria

African unions played an important role in the past

Christian Toglan, USA/ Togo
African unions played an important role in the past during independence struggles on the continent. Since then, they have become pigeons looking for grain and feed at the mercy of the ruling parties in various countries. They are also too disorganised to have any serious social and political clout.
Christian Toglan, USA/ Togo

In any society, trade unions are meant to advance the interests and rights of workers. And as potential stakeholders in government policies they are expected to take part in issues concerning the state. Since government policies cannot be completely separated from the politics of the policymakers, trade unions are also part of the polity. Thus they are indirectly involved. Trade unionism is an avenue by which the yearnings of the people can be advanced and thus change can be effected.
Damilola Olajide, Nigerian, Melbourne, Australia

I think the workers' unions are powerful enough to pull the Government to its knees. In this case, a so-called monarchy is abusing power. He is no king but a ruthless dictator who is living in the Victorian age. Wake up Swazi King
AbdiFatah, Somalian living in the States

Unions are a growing force, not a spent one

Marcus ter Haar, Botswana
Unions are a growing force, not a spent one. It is only recently that they have begun to realise the potential of their actions and are reported in the media. This is an indication that they have chosen to broaden their capacities. They are beginning to engage themselves more in mass action and protest. The fact that governments are banning union action is a message to show that they are not confident in handling union disputes. Unions are maturing Africa-wide. Along with their growing support from Northern countries, they will soon be a force to be reckoned with.
Marcus ter Haar, Botswana

Of course they are playing a role, but in favour of the ruling parties. In short most unions are mouthpieces of the government in power.
Debadebo, Burkinafaso

In a situation where most government officials are simply out to line a few pockets, the masses need a collective real voice of opposition to the corrupt family of politicians Unions, a collection of everyday people, have become that voice, the voice of the aching masses, the only true representatives of the people. They will be instrumental in making real democracy come to African nations. Furthermore in most African countries with high levels of illiteracy, the union provides a good bridge between the wealthy super-educated and the man on the street with simple basic education.
Ajibola, Nigeia/USA

The role of trade unions is misplaced: It is largely a vague concept the politicians use to spring to power and co-opt once in power. The governments place undue attention to them because of the failure to understand them. The union leaders also seem to have a vague understanding of their role in the total set-up. Perhaps then it should not be an issue at all. Employment is just one of the numerous examples of failure and its place should be given its proper significance in the rank of other matters.
l.M. Kariithi, Kenya

The time has come for the people of Swaziland to stand up for their rights and fight against totalitarian rule

Juda Sagane, South Africa
I'm proud that democracy lives in most of Southern Africa, thanks to South Africa's Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. However, it saddens me to see a continuation of suppression of workers' rights in Swaziland. The time has come for the people of Swaziland to stand up for their rights and fight against totalitarian rule and South Africa will give you the support you need.
Juda Sagane, South Africa

On the one hand, trade unions can be instrumental to democracy because they exhibit the power of the people in determining their worth and what they are willing to settle for. Trade unions help their members realise how much power they have in determining not only the destiny of an industry but the whole country in general.

African trade unions have been in the pockets of governments in power

Cillaty Daboh, USA/Sierra Leone
Since independence African trade unions have been in the pockets of governments in power. Their leaders make noises just to be rewarded by the government. As far as I am concerned they had never been important, they are not now and will never be.
Cillaty Daboh, USA/Sierra Leone

Trade unions serve as a bedrock for democratic change, particularly if you look at the historic record of leaders it has spawned such as Lech Walesa in Poland, Morgan Tsvangirai in Zimbabwe and others. There is a very strong correlation between having viable democratic institutions and having strong trade unions. With the increasing spectre of globalisation, the power of trade unions is slowly being nibbled away.
Jeffrey Kisukye, Uganda

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See also:

13 Nov 00 | Africa
Swazi strike partially observed
06 Nov 00 | Africa
Swazis protest at king's rule
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