Trade Unions and the Coming of Democracy in Africa

The organizational and political weakness of nonstate institutions is one of the enduring realities of political life in sub-Saharan Africa (although it is true that the last two decades have seen the emergence of a more diversified and active civil society in much of the region). Kraus and his colleagues here investigate the prominent role of trade unions in promoting democratization in the 1990s and sustaining it since. The small size, organizational weaknesses, and fissiparous tendencies of unions are all highlighted, but the central argument that emerges clearly from Kraus' introduction and conclusion, as well as from the seven country cases studies (on Ghana, Namibia, Niger, Senegal, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe) is that labor unions have been able to play a central role in the struggle for democracy despite their shortcomings. The authors emphasize the legitimacy and popularity of union grievances, unions' connections to opposition parties, and the weakness of other nonstate actors. Paradoxically, unions at the same time proved incapable of protecting the economic interests of their mostly public-sector and urban rank and file, who have seen their purchasing power eaten away by inflation, economic recession, and the state's retrenchment policies.

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