Interest Groups

South Africa Table of Contents

Interest groups have played a significant role in South African politics, although until apartheid was abolished the primary criterion for interest articulation was race, more often than economic issues. Interest groups work to achieve the goals of a particular ethnic community (Afrikaner, Xhosa, Zulu), racial group (white, black, coloured, or Indian), or other category of persons sharing a common goal. Leonard Thompson and Andrew Prior, in their book South African Politics , describe apartheid-era attempts by groups such as the Afrikaner Broederbond to win political influence in the parliament and the executive branch in order to maintain the status quo, while others, such as trade unions, sought to change labor relations and economic policy. Still other interest groups, such as the South African Media Council, had specific goals, in this case the establishment of a free and independent press. Finally, several organizations that were effectively banned from the political arena, such as the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM), continued to function as political interest groups during the apartheid era.

Within this system, the Afrikaner interest groups were the most influential, as they constituted an element in the country's ruling elite. After apartheid was abolished, however, interest-group politics began to change. Many organizations abandoned their ethnically based, secretive, extraparliamentary, or underground characteristics to meet the challenges of the new nonracial, open, and democratic political order.

Afrikaner Broederbond

The Afrikaner Broederbond (later Broederbond, or Brotherhood) was the most important apartheid-era interest group in South Africa. Functioning for almost sixty years as an elite, exclusively Afrikaner, secret society, the Broederbond gradually shifted its perspective on the future and supported the political reform process beginning in the early 1980s.

Founded in 1918, the Broederbond became a secret organization in 1921 and dedicated itself to advancing Afrikaner political, cultural, and economic interests. Membership was restricted to white Afrikaner males who passed a rigorous selection process. One of the group's primary goals was to place Afrikaner nationalists in key political positions and to establish other organizations to further Afrikaner interests. With members of the Broederbond in key leadership positions, the NP government often promoted the interests of the group.

The Broederbond's organizational structure and political strategy were first publicly disclosed in the late 1970s by Hennie Serfontein, an Afrikaner journalist who devoted much of his career to investigating the organization. According to internal Broederbond documents, in 1993 the society reportedly had 20,074 members--one of the highest figures in its history--organized into twelve regions and 1,392 branches, or cells. Branches varied in size from five to twenty members, and central committees in towns and cities coordinated branch activities. Branch cells selected representatives to regional councils, the next higher level of organization. Top policy-making authority was vested in the National Congress (Bondsraad), which met every two years and elected the organization's senior executive authorities, the Broederbond chairman and the Executive Council. The Executive Council served for two years; in 1993 it had eighteen members.

The Broederbond played an important role in transforming apartheid. Major governmental policy shifts in areas such as education and sports were first tested in Broederbond discussions before being aired in parliamentary debate. Then in November 1993, in preparation for the postapartheid political system, the Broederbond adopted a new constitution that radically transformed the previously clandestine organization. The Broederbond changed its name to the Afrikanerbond, removed its cloak of secrecy, and abolished its Afrikaner male exclusivity by permitting women and all racial groups to join. Some membership restrictions remained--new entrants had to speak Afrikaans, had to subscribe to the organization's constitution, and had to be approved by the other members. These restrictions helped to ensure the continued importance of Afrikaner interests and identity.

United Democratic Front

The United Democratic Front (UDF) was an extraparliamentary organization established in 1983, primarily in opposition to the government's constitutional proposals of that year. It served as an umbrella organization of antiapartheid groups. Membership was open to any organization that endorsed the principles of the ANC's Freedom Charter. Affiliates of the UDF included the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the South African National Student Congress (Sansco), the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), and the Congress of South African Students (COSAS).

Following clashes with the government, the UDF was effectively banned--i.e., its political activities were proscribed--under the terms of the emergency regulations of February 24, 1988, and many of its affiliates were reorganized under the guise of a new political coalition. The UDF disbanded on August 20, 1991, declaring that its major objectives had been fulfilled.

Mass Democratic Movement

The Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) was the name of an informal coalition of antiapartheid groups during the 1970s and early 1980s. As a formal organization, the MDM was established as an antiapartheid successor to the UDF after the 1988 emergency restrictions effectively banned the UDF and several other opposition groups. Even after 1988, the MDM was a temporary loose coalition of antiapartheid activists with no permanent constitution, no official membership rolls, no national or regional governing body, and no officeholders. Like the UDF, the MDM drew much of its support from the black community; a condition for affiliation with the MDM was adherence to the provisions of the ANC's Freedom Charter.

The MDM gained prominence in 1989, when it organized a campaign of civil disobedience in anticipation of national elections scheduled to take place in September of that year. Defying the state-of-emergency regulations in effect at the time, several hundred black protesters entered "whites-only" hospitals and beaches. During that month, people of all races marched peacefully in several cities to protest against police brutality and repressive legislation. When the UDF was unbanned in February 1990, most MDM leaders and many members rejoined their former organizations.

Trade Unions

Labor activism dates back to the 1840s, when the first unions were formed. Most major industrial unions were organized after World War I either to support or to oppose racial privileges claimed by whites. Black and communist organizations formed antiapartheid unions to abolish racist policies in the workplace; most proapartheid unions were formed by government forces to support discriminatory labor practices. During the apartheid era, membership in most trade unions was based on race, and until 1979, the government did not recognize black unions or grant them labor law protection. In 1977, for example, out of 172 registered trade unions that were eligible to bargain collectively, eighty-three were white, forty-eight were coloured, and forty-one were open to whites, coloureds, and Asians. Among the proapartheid and all-white unions were the White Workers' Protection Association (Blankewerkersbeskermingsbond), the Mineworkers' Union, and larger coordinating bodies such as the South African Confederation of Labour.

The South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), formed in the early 1950s, became the leader of the antiapartheid struggle in the labor movement. The government often arrested and harassed its leaders for political agitation. During the 1970s, however, the government recognized the need to exert greater control over labor activities and to improve government-union relations. In 1977 it established the Commission of Inquiry into Labour Legislation, headed by Professor Nicolas Wiehahn. The Wiehahn Commission recommended the legalization of black unions, in part to bring labor militants under government control. The government recognized black unions in 1979 and granted them limited collective bargaining rights. In the same year, the government established a National Manpower Commission, with representatives from labor, business, and government, to advise policy makers on labor issues.

During the 1980s, business owners and management organizations, such as the Afrikaner Trade Institute (Afrikaanse Handelsinstituut--AHI), which had represented Afrikaner commercial interests since the 1940s, were forced to negotiate with black labor leaders for the first time. To adapt to the new labor environment, they established the South African Employers' Consultative Committee on Labour Affairs (SACCOLA) to represent the owners in lobbying and collective bargaining sessions.

Black union membership soared during the 1980s. New labor confederations included the nonracial COSATU, which was affiliated with the ANC and the SACP; the PAC-affiliated National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu); and the IFP-affiliated United Workers Union of South Africa (UWUSA). By 1990 COSATU, the largest of these, had more than thirty union affiliates with more than 1 million members.

Efforts to begin dismantling apartheid during the early 1990s meant that union leaders were pressed to represent workers' interests more vigorously in the changing economic environment. Although the largest unions had been strong ANC supporters in the past--and were vital to ANC efforts to mobilize popular demonstrations against apartheid--they began to clash with ANC party officials and with government leaders in 1994 and 1995. Some union members feared that workers' interests would be overlooked in the effort to implement economic development plans in the postapartheid era.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress