Mzabalazo on the move : organising on a South African commuter train

28 Feb 2020

The existing literature on labour movements notes how trade unions have been weakened in recent years. This observable pattern is not unique to South Africa; arguably, this decline represents a global phenomenon characterised by the disintegration of erstwhile militant labour movements. In the case of South Africa, the post-apartheid neoliberal labour regime has fragmented the militant social-movement unionism (SMU) of the 1980s almost to the point of extinction. Despite this trend, various studies have detailed pockets of revival and resistance by workers spread across a variety of sectors and continents. My article seeks to contribute to this literature by drawing on the case study of Mamelodi Train Sector (MTS). MTS was formed in 2001 as a ‘mobilising structure’, aligned to the African National Congress (ANC) and its alliance partners. Using the notion of space as a theoretical tool, I attempt to understand MTS and the space it organises – the train. MTS utilises the travel time spent going to and from work to offer legislative education to largely unorganised/non-unionised workers. In addition to legislative education, MTS members (self-styled comrades) discuss community issues and matters pertaining to the ANC’s tripartite alliance as an attempt to foster a particular kind of identity politics. The data collected reveals that, among other contributions, MTS offers hope and a sense of solidarity to those workers without workplace representation. The comradely sense of belonging, buttressed by a common identity, potentially mitigates the impact of workplace fragmentation – experienced by the majority of workers in South Africa. Organising on the train points to one missing link in our current efforts to understand workers’ agency – the geography of transport in South Africa and its related possibilities as a site of revival. With a specific focus on the MTS as a case study, I suggest that the train, as a by-product of apartheid spatiality, represents a strategic location for worker organisation in South Africa.