Workers’ Participation at Plant Level: The South African Case

  • Edward WebsterEmail author
  • Themba Masondo
  • Christine Bischoff


We examine the attempt in a democratic South Africa to shift from an adversarial class struggle approach (with heavy racial overtones) toward a more participatory and cooperative industrial relations system based on workplace forums. We argue that the experiment failed because this attempt at institutional transfer from the successful system of German co-determination did not take sufficient account of the specific social and economic context of South Africa’s distinct industrial relations system. The majority of organized workers in South Africa have over the past three decades opted for engagement with employers on the basis of a union agenda and union independence in order to transform and democratize the workplace. At the center of this strategy has been the shop steward as the instrument for worker participation at plant level. However, our ethnographic account of participation at plant level suggests that workers feel disempowered and unable to significantly shape decision-making.


South Africa industrial relations Worker participation Co-determination: shop stewards Economic democracy Volkswagen 


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Edward Webster
    • 1
    Email author
  • Themba Masondo
    • 2
  • Christine Bischoff
    • 3
  1. 1.Society, Work and Development Institute, Southern Centre for Inequality StudiesUniversity of the WitwatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa
  2. 2.Department of SociologyUniversity of the WitwatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa
  3. 3.Wits City InstituteUniversity of the WitwatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa

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