What Are We Fighting For? Possibilities for Decent Work, Unions and Rights in Africa

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Prof Lucien van der Walt
Prof Lucien van der Walt

Speaker: Professor Lucien van der Walt

Date: Wednesday, 27th March 2019

Time: 4:15pm

Venue: Eden Grove Seminar Room 2 

The series is run by the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU) and the Departments of Sociology and Industrial Sociology, History, and Economics & Economic History

THE PAPER: This paper discusses whether the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO's) Decent Work agenda is a feasible and desirable goal for unions and working people in Sub-Saharan Africa. The overall argument is that the agenda has positive elements, but is a profoundly inadequate response to capitalist globalisation and African immiseration. Its concrete proposals fail to appreciate how the development of capitalism and the state is tearing away the ground for serious, sustained reforms and compacts, let alone capitalist alternatives to neo-liberalism.

Real changes cannot come via the ILO, nor through pursuit of the current Decent Work agenda. They require working class self-activity and an internationalist class struggle-based project of globalisation from below, seeking in the first place, global labour standards and global minimum wages and aiming, in the second, at popular self-management of economy and society. This requires reforming and regenerating unions, autonomy from the state, a prefigurative popular politics, alliances between popular class sectors, and building class-based counter-power and counter-hegemony. The history of African trade unions provides a rich tool box of experiences upon which we can draw: African unions have a far richer, more radical and creative history than often acknowledged, building on the class struggles of commoners, serfs and slaves that preceded the European conquest.

THE SPEAKER: Lucien van der Walt lectures at Rhodes University, has long been involved in union and working class education and movements, and has published widely on labour, the left and political economy. His books include "Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940" (2010/2014, with Steve Hirsch, Benedict Anderson etc.),  and "Politics at a Distance from the State: Radical and African Perspectives" (2018, with Kirk Helliker). His PhD on anarchism and syndicalism in southern Africa before the 1930s won the 2008 international "Labor History" best thesis prize and the 2008/2009 CODESRIA award for best African dissertation. His work has been widely translated, including Czech, French, German, Greek, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish and Zulu.



Source:  NALSU

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