||Our investigation into the long-term dynamics of world labor will thus be on the lookout for…the struggles of newly emerging working classes that are successively made and strengthened as an unintended outcome of the development of historical capitalism, even as old working class are being unmade (Silver: 20).
South African multinationals in Southern Africa are opening up new possibilities for regional trade unionism. With South Africa’s democratisation in the 1990s, pent-up capital in South Africa expanded northwards into the Southern African region – including the 14 countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). In contrast with historical patterns, South African multinational companies expanded further northwards beyond their traditional trading partners in Southern Africa into countries north of Africa. These South African multinationals have brought new economic investments into stagnant African economies and provided an impetus to economic growth.
The impact of these South African multinationals on their foreign locales has been significant. As new shopping centres, fast food chains, banks, refurbished and new manufacturing plants have been opened, local environments have registered the new foreign investment in different ways. While governments have welcomed foreign investment, workers have welcomed their new workplaces with a mixture of optimism and resistance. South African multinationals are agents of a new kind of regionalism that has opened up new possibilities for workers and their trade unions in Southern Africa.
In a few workplaces, a new regional imaginary has emerged amongst workers at these new, foreign firms. These firms are unleashing a regional geographic imaginary that entails a set of ‘regional claims’ to the South African company. The ability of these ‘regional claims’ to translate into regional trade union solidarity, however, is limited by the uneven development of trade unions in the region. Drawing on the case study of workers at Shoprite, a South African retail multinational, in Zambia and Mozambique, this article shows that South Africa is a central reference point and regional standard-bearer for workers at these firms. While workers at Shoprite in Mozambique have been unable to mount a successful strike against the company, workers in Zambia have organized militant national strikes, regenerating their trade union leadership in the retail sector. The stronger South African trade union movement, on the other hand, has had little resources to harness this new regional political opportunity into a combined challenge to South African capital at the regional level, given its defensive national stance.