Chinese steel imports in South Africa: the power of capital, labor struggles and the balancing act of the state in tackling global issues from a national space

Maserumule, Motlake Bethuel
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This research project was initially organized around Chinese Steel and Brazilian Food imports in South Africa, and how labour in SA waged its struggles around the imports and the kind of transnational solidarity it could mobilise within the context of inter-state relations between China, Brazil and South Africa under the auspices of BRICS. However, the research found a long, complex and highly contested process of engaging with the steel imports from China that entered South Africa from 2014. The imports from China affected other countries as well, leading to a global steel crisis. In South Africa, the imports had a differentiated impact in different sub-sectors of the South African steel industry, triggering a fierce contestation between the different fractions of capital over how to respond. The research thus followed and focused on the experiences with the steel imports from China and how the country organized itself in response. Within this refined focus the research examined the impact of the Chinese steel imports and the responses of labour and other stakeholders – business and government, and what the case revealed about the co-operation of two countries. Within this new focus the research was organized around the main question: ‘How was the national space used to tackle global issues, with reference to labour struggles around the impact of Chinese steel imports in South Africa? The main interest on the research project derived from the fact that literature on trade and trade union struggles has focused mainly on trade relations between countries of the North and those of the South and on North-based trade union structures such as the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) which waged a campaign to link the enjoyment of the benefits of free trade with the respect of trade union rights (Webster, 2015; Anner, 2000; Bieler, 2012; Lindberg, 2014; Bieler, Lindberg. & Pillay, 2008;). Not much attention has been given to trade union struggles around global issues, especially trade within the context of interstate co-operation in the South, at bilateral level or within the multilateral structures like BRICS. The project examines the challenges for labour deriving from the economic relations between China and South Africa, as key members of BRICS, based on an analysis of the impact of steel imports from China in South Africa. Though the research focused on the impact of the Chinese imports in South Africa, it examined the dimension of transnational labour solidarity as the crisis was of a global character.
A research report submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts to the Faculty of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 2020