Trade Unions and the Coming of Democracy in Africa
Jon Kraus, ed.
(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 296p.

Reviewed by Robert Lloyd, Ph.D., Associate Professor of International Relations, Pepperdine University.

A remarkable wave of political liberalization swept the African continent in the 1990’s—toppling authoritarian and single-party systems dominant since independence in the 1960’s and establishing more democratic systems of governance. This wave’s potency was amplified due to a confluence of internal and external forces. Within Africa, frustration at growing corruption and repression combined with fewer employment opportunities increased citizens’ support to political leaders and civil society organizations seeking regime change. Outside Africa, the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union ended economic support for client states and diminished the general appeal of socialism as a rival political ideology to democratic liberalism. For Africa, this meant that financial lifelines for economically stressed states and societies would need to be obtained from foreign donors and Western-dominated institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) that favored both political and economic liberalization.

Clearly, a fairly dramatic shift had occurred in the continent. Freedom House—a Washington, DC-based organization that promotes democratization worldwide—has documented this change in their annual “Freedom in the World” reports, which assess the status of democratization in the world. In 1989-90, as the Soviet Bloc was disintegrating, Freedom House listed but three “free” countries in Africa, eleven “partly free,” and thirty-three “not free.” One decade later, the number of “free” countries had increased to eight and “partly free” to twenty-four,” while the number of “not free” countries had decreased to sixteen.

Trade Unions and the Coming of Democracy in Africa aims to deepen our understanding on how authoritarian rule yielded to a more democratic and open political system across the continent. This important book, edited by Jon Kraus, includes contributions by authors on seven African cases. The book asks and answers three central questions; starting with what role did unions play in the political liberalization that swept Africa? Based on case studies of Niger, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia, Senegal, and Ghana the study concludes that union opposition—expressed in strikes and other forms of protest—“seemed to be extremely important” in ushering in a new and more open political system. The book argues that in the cases of Niger, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa union actions directly led to political liberalization. In Senegal and Ghana, union efforts created an enabling environment for democratization and in Namibia, union opposition to white rule assisted in the independence movement.

The second question examined is how important were political and economic factors in propelling union opposition to the government? The book argues that government repression in the face of worker protests over the fall in real wages led union leaders to conclude that democratization was the logical method to secure political and economic rights. Union protest was particularly strong in those countries that had experienced the greatest economic decline. The book also notes that union leaders sought alliances with other civil society organizations to create a more united front.

The third and final question the authors ask is in those countries that did democratize, how have unions fared under the new political and economic dispensation? The authors argue that unions have continued their involvement in the political process. In South Africa, for example, trade unions are an integral part of the governing coalition of the ruling African National Congress party. At times, these ties have been strained where government economic policies designed to promote economic growth clash with union objectives such as land reform.

While the strength of the book is based on findings generated by case studies, if suffers some as a result of the countries selected for inclusion. The book does not include a complete treatment of Nigeria (although it is mentioned from time to time) and adding countries from East and North Africa would have provided a fuller picture of the topic of trade unions, civil society, and political liberalization. The addition of Mozambique, for example, would have given the reader the role and impact of trade unions in political liberalization in a former Lusophone and Marxist country. In fairness, finding appropriate cases and scholars who can assess a topic is a challenge in any case study approach such as this. It is a tribute that reading the book causes the reader to want to learn more about the topic by understanding the experiences of other states in Africa.

Additionally, the book notes that growing economic malaise was an important catalyst to union activity that helped topple authoritarian leaders and systems. The economic crisis did not disappear after political liberalization. The book argues that World Bank and IMF prescriptions for economic liberalization often failed to take into account the fragile economic, political, and social condition of African states. These policies also undermined the subsequent influence of unions. Yet if economic crisis and political repression had indeed served as a catalyst for unions to function as de facto opposition parties why did continued economic crisis and political disagreement with foreign donors simply not propel continued protest? Thus, the book’s sympathy for trade unions and their reduced influence in a post democratic transition period—along with disagreement with Structural Adjustment Programs designed to liberalize economically–means the reader is left unsure if post democratization states were ultimately unsuccessful or if they simply did not achieve a social democratic model preferred by the authors.

These minor criticisms are made within the context of a scholarly effort that overall is a solid contribution to the field of democratization in Africa. Trade Unions and the Coming of Democracy in Africa makes excellent use of actual case studies to test theories of democratization and provide additional insights into the role of civil society—specifically trade unions—in the transition from authoritarian rule to political liberty and civil rights. The book succeeds admirably in this task. It is an excellent resource for scholars and policymakers seeking to understand the factors that led to the extraordinary establishment (or restoration) of liberty for citizens of many countries across the African continent.