Young Workers and Unions: Prof Lucien van der Walt, NALSU, and Dr Alex Mashilo, SACP, Address SAMWU Young Workers

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The SAMWU Young Workers addressed by Prof Lucien van der Walt, NALSU, and Dr Alex Mashilo, SACP.
The SAMWU Young Workers addressed by Prof Lucien van der Walt, NALSU, and Dr Alex Mashilo, SACP.

Professor Lucien van der Walt, director of the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU) at Rhodes University, and Dr Alex Mashilo, national spokesperson of the South African Communist Party (SACP), addressed the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) Young Workers on 28 June 2022. The topic: “Positioning Young Workers for their Rightful Place in the Economy, Politics and Labour Issues.”  The full event can be watched here. Lucien’s slides can be downloaded here.

Alex Mashilo (begins at 6:20 minutes in the video), stressed the important role that young people can play in working-class movements. Mbuyiselo Ngwenda was just 35 years old when he died: he was then general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of SA, and an SACP leader. But youth in South Africa face numerous problems. When working, they were exploited, and pitted against the older workers by employers. The youth also constituted the majority of the unemployed in South Africa. At present, new technology was being used to disempower and displace workers, and to divide the working-class.

Lucien van der Walt (begins at 51:05 minutes the in video) argued that unions remained the largest, stable civil society organisations besides faith-based formations. Young workers were crucial to unions’ future. But unions’ authority had declined; the left was in crisis. The “pipeline” from youth politics to unionism was being blocked by unemployment, the narrowly nationalist official “patriotic history,” and the narrowing of politics to parties and personalities. The neo-liberal era, with its inequality, erosion of social bonds and weaponised media, bred isolation, escapism, and fear.

Alex stated that young workers must act to make a difference. Like comrade Ngwenda, he had decided to join the struggle as a young factory worker, rather than accept injustice. Young workers and unemployed youth came from the same oppressed class in capitalist society. Working-class politics was enriched by young people bringing their unique energy, insights, and contributions in the struggle for a better world. It was essential to expand struggles and forms of organisation, uniting the class.

Lucien argued for a long march to rebuild the working-class movement, political consciousness, and people’s power. It was essential to build self-reliance, including community-based security and sanitation, respect for neighbours, autonomy from ruling elites, associational life, and political tolerance.

He stated that unions needed to be revitalised and expanded, and establish a popular, alternative media. Unions like SAMWU needed to rebuild union-community alliances by whistleblowing, championing service delivery, and win-win campaigns.  Mass job creation and reindustrialisation, not grants or “delivery” from above, and ending the township system were part of (re)building popular capacities for self-governance and aiming at new forms of “public ownership” in which the working-class had real control.  

A lively discussion followed (beginning at 1:22:53 minutes in the video), including on the nature of the state.

This engagement builds on NALSU’s history of working with SAMWU, the largest municipal workers union in southern Africa.  SAMWU’s Youth Forum is one of a number of such structures being established in the Congress of SA Trade Unions (COSATU) and elsewhere.