Worker Co-operatives, Markets and the South African State: An analysis from an Anarchist Perspective

by Oliver Nathan (ZACF)


Worker co-operatives in post apartheid South Africa have all too often been championed by certain sections of the labour movement and some on the left as part of the solution to the ‘structural unemployment’ facing the popular classes in the current dispensation.  Moreover, and often framed in purely ideological, often Proudhonist terms (in particular from the SACP and from various ex SACP members); worker co-operatives are understood as an equitable way of organizing production so that workers have control over the labour process, on the one hand, and ownership of the means of production, on the other.

Sarmcol Workers T-shirt Printing Co-op

Certain ‘enabling’ legislation and policy such as the Co-operatives Act of 2005, the National Co-operatives Policy of 2007 and the national Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) stepping in as the ‘custodian’ of co-operative development South Africa has, at least on paper, meant that co-operatives are part of the national development agenda currently embodied by the New Growth Plan (NGP) policy framework.[1] However, if one does some research into how various co-operative development projects, including trade union, state initiated, and community initiated and worker occupation-type co-operatives have fared in the post-apartheid era, one would see the dismal performance of these co-operatives in relation to their original objectives. These are, in particular, providing sustainable employment for their members while at the same time maintaining member control and popular participation in administration and production.

This article seeks to tease out some of the pitfalls of organizing worker co-operatives trying to compete in the market and often with the ‘assistance’ of the state. The benefits and limitations of co-operatives have long been the topic of discussion amongst anarchists and other libertarian socialists. This paper draws on the ideas of Bakunin (as against Proudhon) around the question of how co-operatives relate to and are affected by the state and the market in capitalist society. It subsequently evaluates the realities faced by co-operatives operating in the market through an analysis of ‘worker control’ and ‘social ownership’ in the former Yugoslavian co-operatives and ‘degeneration of worker control’ in the Mondragon Co-operative Complex in Spain. We then move onto the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality’s state sponsored co-operative development project as the South African case study.

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Organisational Dualism, Active Minority and the discussion between ‘Party’ and ‘Mass Movement’

Anarchist Federation of Rio de Janeiro – FARJ (Brazil)

Mikhail Bakunin
Mikhail Bakunin

The term “organisational dualism”, as it is used in English, serves to explain the conception of organisation that we promote, or what has classically been called the discussion between “party and mass movement”. In short, our especifista tradition has its roots in (Mikhail) Bakunin, (Errico) Malatesta, Dielo Truda (Workers Cause), Federación Anarquista Uruguaya – FAU (Anarchist Federation of Uruguay) and other militants/organisations that have defended this distinction between levels of organisation. That is, a broad level that we call the “social level”, composed of popular movements, and that which we call the “political level”, composed of anarchist militants that are grouped around a defined political and ideological basis.

This model is based on a few positions: that popular movements cannot be confined to a defined ideological camp – and, in this respect, we distinguish ourselves from the anarcho-syndicalists, for example – because they should organise themselves around needs (land, shelter, jobs, etc.), grouping together large sectors of the people. This is the social level or the mass movement, as it has been called historically. The model also contends that, to work in movements, it is not enough to be dissolved – or inserted – in them, even while recognising ourselves as anarchists. It is necessary that we be organised, constituting a significant social force that will facilitate in the promotion of our programme and also in defence against attacks from adversaries that have other programmes. However, one must bear in mind that we do not promote participation in one or other level; anarchists are also workers and are part of this broad group that we call the exploited classes and, therefore, they organise themselves, as a class, in the social movements. Even so, as this level of organisation has its limitations, the anarchists also organise themselves on the political level, as anarchists, as a way to articulate their work and ideas.

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What Anarchism and Syndicalism offer the South African Left

Lucien van der Walt

The 21st century is a time of both despair and hope: despair at the evils of contemporary society, hope that a new world is possible.

The ideas of the broad anarchist tradition can contribute greatly to this new world. They are integrally tied to an inspiring body of practice in working class, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and civil rights struggles, back to the 1860s. And they are relevant to South Africa today.


Anarchism’s basic aim is the most complete realisation of a revolutionary democratic vision, abolishing hierarchy and exploitation:

  • ending social and economic inequality, including by race, nation and gender, to create a society based on free, cooperating individuals;
  • revolutionary reconstruction of the family as a site of freedom and cooperation;
  • participatory-democratic control of the means of production, coercion and administration, through multi-tendency worker/ community councils, not corporations and states; and,
  • self-management at work, global economic participatory planning, and distribution on the basis of need, not markets.

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Without bosses: the Process of Recovering Companies by their Workers in Argentina, 2001-2009

by Red Libertaria de Buenos Aires *


Self-management in Argentina

From late 2001 and the beginning of 2002, sectors of the Argentine working class staged an extraordinary experience of struggle. The occupation of companies and the commencing  of production without bosses. In the context of an economic crisis, high levels of unemployment, bankruptcy of companies and massive retrenchments, thousands of workers organised themselves to keep their jobs.

Economic and Political Crisis

Between 1997 and 2001 there was a severe economic crisis in Argentina that impacted heavily on the bloc in power. This crisis was surmounted by a popular rebellion on the 19th and 20th of December that, facing a state of siege, forced the resignation of President Fernando De la Rúa and the opening of a process of leaderlessness in the executive branch of the Republic [1], and an advancement of popular struggle. This rebellion put an end to a series of neoliberal governments in the country, while there was a breakthrough in popular struggle: neighborhood assemblies, movements of unemployed workers and the recovery of factories and businesses by workers.

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Picking Up the Slack in Waste Collection and Ecological Protection: the Struggle of Recyclable Waste Pickers in Uruguay and Brazil

by Jonathan Payn (ZACF)

Across South America there is a growing movement – assuming different forms and characteristics, but with similar origins, demands and objectives – that, despite it being located at a strategically important intersection between two critical social issues – class struggle and ecology – seems to me to have received little attention in South African academic and activist circles. And this is true despite the fact that the social and economic conditions that gave rise to this movement prevail in South Africa, as they did – and continue to – in many South American countries. Perhaps this is due to the fact that this movement concerns people largely marginalised by industrial society and so-called ‘brown’ ecological issues – such as the pollution and contamination of rivers and dams surrounding poor communities, most acutely effecting the workers and poor – as opposed to the much more sanitary ‘green’ ecological issues – such as conservation and animal welfare – often associated, in South Africa at least, with liberal white activists from the middle and upper classes [1].

This is the movement of the catadores, as they are known in Brazil, and clasificadores in Uruguay; the recyclable waste pickers and sorters who, similarly to South Africa, constitute a growing informal sector in the industrial production cycle. This includes all people – not formally employed by public or private waste management services – who collect, transport, classify and sell recyclable waste for a living – or ‘work with scrap’ – thus “reducing demand for natural resources and reducing greenhouse gas emissions” [2]. A category of work which, according to the World Bank, is performed by 15 million people globally – or one percent of the world population [3] – and has become increasingly common in South Africa in recent years.

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Build a Better Workers’ Movement: learning from South Africa’s 2010 mass strike

Lucien van der Walt and Ian Bekker

The biggest single strike since the 1994 parliamentary transition in South Africa showed the unions’ power. It won some wage gains, but it threw away some precious opportunities. We need to celebrate the strike, while learning some lessons:

  • the need for more union democracy
  • the need to use strikes to link workers and communities
  • the need for working class autonomy
  • the need to act outside and against the state
  • the need to review our positions: against the Tripartite Alliance, for anarcho-syndicalism

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Zabalaza 12 Editorial

zacf logoThis issue of Zabalaza (no. 12) comes out in a period characterised by significant political changes and transitions. On the international terrain, the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, which began in late 2010 but have continued into recent months, have been a key topic of discussion – in both the mainstream media and in activist circles. There has been a tendency for these to be portrayed in the media simply as “struggles for democracy”. Likewise, the media often reproduce an incomplete version of events – depicting the uprisings as “coming out of nowhere”. In fact, in many cases the demands of the masses have raised far more profound questions about the basic distribution of both wealth and power in society, and are the culmination of struggles that go back some ten years, by both the masses and organised labour, around high unemployment, rapidly rising food prices, poor living conditions, open corruption by the ruling elites, and a lack of basic political freedoms (produced in part by the introduction of neoliberal reforms). In this issue we focus attention on the Egyptian case, looking specifically at the possibilities the situation holds for the future.

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Zabalaza #12 (July 2011)

Download Zabalaza #12Contents:

  • Editorial – Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front

Southern Africa