The Vuyisile Mini Winter School is an annual event, launched at Rhodes University in 2015 with financial support from the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES). Named after a famed Eastern Cape trade unionist who was executed by the apartheid state, the Winter School has focused on trade unionists based in the Eastern Cape Province, where Rhodes University is located. The Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU) has been key to the establishment and organisation of the Winter School. The programme is structured around a series of academic and worker activist inputs and group activities structured to facilitate the development of skills in critical thinking and evaluation.
Non-aligned and inclusive, it draws in around forty trade union participants from a range of federations, as well as from organisations of informal workers. This year had representatives of all the main unions in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown), the three biggest federations — the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA) and the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) — as well as organised waste-pickers from the town, and the Phakamani Siyephambili farm dwellers’ workers’ committee movement from the Sunday River Valley.
The focus of the 2019 Winter School was on the theme of “politics within and at a distance from the state.” In the wake of “state capture,” grinding inequality and economic crisis, splits in the unions over political party affiliation, and the low turnout in the national state elections, it is important to revisit theorising the state in general, and the South African state in particular, and of union strategy and politics in relation to the state. What are the possibilities for societal transformation? What forms can democratic governance take? This requires critical reflection on what is meant by democratic practice, the effects of ritualised practices and demagoguery, and the ways in which power is organised, deployed and can potentially be redeployed within the realities of present-day South Africa.