Africa’s labour movement is on the move from Cape to Cairo – demanding democracy, devising policy and building a new African economy that creates jobs and opportunities for all. Kwasi Adu-Amankwah, the former head of Ghana’s powerful labour federation, was elected general-secretary of the Africa division of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC-Africa) in 2007, putting him at the helm of a pan-African labour movement representing 16 million workers in 47 countries. Michael Fleshman spoke with him at the World Social Forum in Dakar, Senegal, on 8 February, shortly after Mr. Adu-Amankwah led a march to the Egyptian embassy in solidarity with the Egyptian people’s pro-democracy movement.
Question: Why has the ITUC-Africa come to the World Social Forum? Aren’t mass-membership organizations like trade unions different from the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and activist groups that predominate here?
Kwasi Adu-Amankwah: ITUC-Africa has always followed the World Social Forum. It poses an alternative to the existing world. We came to propagate our own ideas, but also to learn from the rest of civil society around the world about their activities and perspectives.
Our unions reach out to NGOs even though they are not membership-based. The issue-based NGOs develop expertise and the unions are happy to link up with them. So although there are differences, unions and NGOs can always find ways to work together. Unions can have a great social impact through their role in the economy. But unions have not been so successful at marketing themselves. They assume that people know about them. NGOs go out of their way to make themselves heard.
Question: What role are African unions playing in pro-democracy and economic reform movements around the continent?
Answer: Unions were very involved in anti-colonial struggles in the 1950s and ‘60s. Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and Guinea are examples. In South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe in the late ‘70s and ‘80s too. In the second wave of democratization struggles [in the 1990s], unions again were very present.
Now it appears that Africa is opening up for business. Just before the global financial crisis, there were good figures about growth. But many of our unions are not impressed. In large measure, the growth that appears to have occurred is not growth that is accompanied by employment.
But even more importantly, a lot of that growth is in areas like the mining sector — mineral resources and oil. It just reinforces existing relations in African economies, where African countries produce raw materials that find their way onto the markets of industrialized countries to fuel their industrialization. There isn’t that much added value in our growth. They don’t have any linkages to the rest of the economy.
Question: What impact has the world financial crisis had?
Answer: When you talk about the global crisis — 20 per cent unemployment in developed countries is a big matter. In Africa, that is something we have always lived with. Unemployment has always been high.
Sometimes it is obscured by what is described as the informal economy. In the kind of informal economy we have in Africa there is no social protection [unemployment compensation, health benefits and so on]. It’s really just disguised unemployment. In some of our countries it’s as high as 80 per cent! It’s only in South Africa and some parts of North Africa that the wage-earning sector is beyond 30-40 per cent.
The trade union movement has largely been busy trying to secure better terms and conditions of employment for our members, who are largely in the formal sector. But in the past decade we have been concerned about the bigger question, about the kinds of economies we have. We do think it is possible to have a global social safety net, given the world’s resources.
Question: How do you create jobs in Africa, given the twin realities of underdevelopment and globalization?
Answer: One thing is we’re trying to assist our affiliates to build their research and policy capacity, to help them engage with their governments. Also, we are building on the experience of some of our unions, who produced an Alternative to Neo-liberalism in Southern Africa (ANSA).* They are working in different countries to find how the unions, working with other components of civil society, can develop more clearly the alternative.
Question: Neo-liberalism is a term to describe what some consider radical free-market policies — deregulated financial markets, unrestricted trade and the ending of government social safety nets. What alternatives are African unions proposing?
Answer: This is ANSA  The starting point of development should be the people, not the markets. Policies of popular participation and control of resources that empower people to make decisions for themselves follow from that. Related to this is the whole question of African integration. We need to rediscover ourselves in terms of similarities and develop systems of governance that allow the different parts of Africa to fit into each other — and then be able to meet with the rest of the world.
Question Don’t these kinds of economic changes require equally far-reaching political changes?
Answer: Yes they do. At the dawn of independence the colonial powers split our territories up into small countries. In the first wave of independence our leaders seemed satisfied with them. They were too busy trying to protect their new-found sovereignties to see the value of joining together. That has bedeviled us until today. We have 54 small countries, each with some sovereignty. You can’t deal with the rest of the world that way. Meanwhile the rest of the world in reality sees us as one.
We need to cede some real power to a central entity, while keeping local autonomy that preserves our diversity and what we know locally. It is time to break with artificial barriers among ourselves. We need to re-engineer our existence to ensure that we as Africans can come into our own. When we get to that stage I don’t think anybody can dictate their terms to us.
And for that to happen, the character of the African state itself really has to change. There needs to be much more democracy. There needs to be much more decentralization over issues that people can decide for themselves. I think that is the political agenda for Africa that we can make a contribution to as unions.
Question: The World Social Forum slogan is “Another World Is Possible.” Would you say that another Africa is possible?
Answer: Look at Tunisia and Egypt today. These are African countries. I would say another Africa is happening.