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Maximum Working Class Unity? Challenges to Local Social Movement Unionism in Cape Town

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Joint political mobilisation between trade unions and community groups, often referred to as ‘social movement unionism’, has been upheld as a way forward for organised labour in a neoliberal world economy. Analysing the interaction between unions and communities is critical for understanding the potential and actual roles played by trade unions in voicing the concerns of marginalized workers and poor communities. This article examines the efforts of organised municipal workers and urban social movements trying to unite their forces in post-apartheid South Africa, by looking at the politics of the Cape Town Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF). While the participants of the APF have in common their opposition to commercialisation and privatisation of service delivery, their political unity is fragile. By contrasting the ‘ideal-type’ social movement unionism depicted in the contemporary literature on labour and globalisation with the findings of this particular case, we uncover some main dimensions along which this organisational cooperation is challenged. In contrast to the political unity experienced during the anti-apartheid struggle, the APF initiative operates in a restructuring post-apartheid economy where bridging internal organisational differences and confronting the hegemonic position of the African National Congress (ANC) in civil society have proved particularly challenging.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: Geography, School of Environment and Development, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK;, Email: 2: Department of Sociology and Human Geography, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway;, Email:

Publication date: September 1, 2006

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