In a world wracked by ongoing economic crises, what is the role of trade unions? And if they focus solely on “bread-and-butter issues”, are they, as National Union of Mineworkers spokesman Lesiba Seshoka says, doomed to fail because “broader policies are shaped at a political level”.

What, in fact, is meant by “a political level”? And are not bread-and-butter issues – generally defined as wages and conditions – political to the core?

These questions came to the fore again in South Africa in the aftermath of Marikana. But they are also being asked around the world as unions become embroiled in increasingly fractious relations with employers, governments and, all too often, their own members.

In the process, sight is lost of the fact that trade unions emerged as a reaction to the economic system and not as an alternative; that the defensive organisations of the sellers of labour gain their greatest power through uniting workers as workers, irrespective of their differences. Only when there is a general threat to their wellbeing – to their “bread and butter” – do most organised workers rally in a manner that can sometimes spill over into radical political change or revolution.

But such radical change can be reactionary or progressive: it can become repressive and authoritarian or extend democratic control and human rights. Right now, the world seems to be on the cusp of moving one way or the other.

Observing the scene from London, it is evident that there is growing anger across Europe about high levels of unemployment, especially among men and women under the age of 25, and to the fact that real incomes for the majority of workers, globally, are declining. Bread, let alone butter, is under general threat.

In several countries, there is also considerable anger and disillusionment at trade union leaders who are seen – rightly or wrongly – to enjoy too cosy a relationship with employers or political parties in or out of power. Such tensions have become acute amid exploding petrol bombs in Athens and the brutal police repression of protests in Madrid, and are exacerbated by various forces on the political margins that are clamouring to fill developing political vacuums.

Given this background, and looked at from the perspective of Europe, the current industrial upheavals in South Africa are merely a sideshow in an often confusing carnival of revolt against the harsh consequences of a system in crisis. Opposition to austerity is a common theme.

Yet austerity, along with assurances that the pain is necessary in order to achieve the ultimate gain, seems a universal theme among those in power. As a result, the centre in many countries, in the form of the unions and their sometimes erstwhile political allies, is looking decidedly shaky.

The same applies in South Africa, where the centre – epitomised by the ANC-led alliance – seems to be holding up rather better than its counterparts in countries such as Greece or Spain. But everywhere the established order seems under pressure.

Even in Britain, still basking in the afterglow of a successfully staged Olympiad, there are now signs of subterranean rumblings. How strong these are – and how angry – should become clear as more anti-austerity protests get under way.

Britain’s Trade Union Congress (TUC) organised well attended protest marches in London, Glasgow and Belfast on October 20. The turnouts, especially in London, revealed the strength of popular feeling about growing unemployment and the declining spending power of wages as well as probable disillusionment with protest marches. The estimated 150 000 who turned out in London on October 20 was a far cry from the near 1 million who last year marched against the war in Afghanistan.

In fact, it is not since the massive anti-poll tax march in 1990 that such protests have done much more than highlight levels of disgruntlement. That massive march swamped central London. Police could not contain this surge of humanity, scuffles broke out – and escalated into a full-scale riot that signalled the end of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative (Tory) government.

The next few years, therefore, seem to promise considerable turmoil in what is still a major export market for South Africa. The sideshow south of the Limpopo therefore looks likely to be in for some even tougher times.