The period preceding the launch of Cosatu


  • The ANC, SACP and PAC banned. Sactu exiled. Progressive unionism, in which Cosatu undoubtedly had its origins, had been in existence for nearly 45 years.


  • Widespread strikes in Durban. Mawu, NUTW, IAS, IIE, SALB and TUACC emerge.


  • Student uprisings and the banning of Saso and other organisations.
  • The clampdown, while targeting the BC movement, is partly a response to re-emerging worker organisation.


  • Formation of Fosatu and Cusa. Saawu, AFCWU, WPGWU, CTMWA emerge.


  • Wiehann Commission report released.


  • August – First formal trade union unity talks, Langa, Cape Town.


  • 5 February – Neil Aggett dies in detention.
  • April – Second round of unity talks, Wilgespruit.
  • July – Third unity talks summit, Port Elizabeth.


  • April – Athlone unity talks and the first feasibility committee meeting.
  • June – Launch of the United Democratic Front.


  • March – Johannesburg unity talks.
  • September – Vaal township uprisings.
  • September – Sfawu launches Simba chips boycott after dismissal of 450 workers, management soon reinstates the workers.
  • 5/6 November – 800,000 workers support Transvaal regional stayaway called jointly by COSAS and unions. Student and union leaders detained.


  • 21 March – Police open fire on marchers commemorating Sharpeville Day, in Langa township, Uitenhage. Twenty people die.
  • May – British multinational BTR-Sarmcol dismisses 900 striking workers, starting South Africa’s longest ever dispute.
  • July – State of emergency declared in the Eastern Cape and PWV.
  • August – Cosas banned.
  • June – Unity talks at Ipelegeng, Soweto, resolves to go ahead with the launch of the federation.
  • November/December – Congress of South African Trade Unions launched in the context of widespread township uprisings and intense repression.
  • December – Cosatu general secretary Jay Naidoo meets Sactu and the ANC in Harare.
1986 The first year

Characterised by unprecedented growth in membership and industrial action – and an iron-fisted response by bosses and the state

  • January – 30,000 workers at Impala Platinum mines down tools. Management dismiss 23,000 workers and strikes on other mines follow.
  • February – Thousands of metalworkers in Natal and Transvaal protest against detention of Mawu general secretary Moses Mayekiso.
  • 18 February – Cosatu Exco in formal meeting with the UDF.
  • 5/6 March – Cosatu delegation meets the ANC and Sactu. Talks cover the future economic system, the role of the working class in the national liberation struggle, the release of Mandela and negotiations.
  • 7 March – State of emergency lifted. Almost 12,152 people had been detained and 853 people killed nationwide.
  • 1 May – 100th anniversary of May Day. About 1.5 million workers heed Cosatu’s call to attend rallies instead of going to work (stayaway calls were illegal). The UDF supports the call.

– Inkatha launches Uwusa. The rally opens with a mock funeral as coffins marked ‘Barayi’, ‘Cosatu’ and ‘Naidoo’ are carried into the stadium.

  • May – TGWU and GWU merge to form one union, TGWU.
  • 12 June – A second, harsher state of emergency declared. Armed men carrying machine-guns and shotguns break into Jay Naidoo’s house. Six weeks into the emergency, 2,700 unionists have been detained. Open political activity severely curtailed. Many forced into hiding.
  • June – FCWU, Sfawu and Rawu merge to form Fawu.
  • 16 June – 1.5 million workers nationwide stay away to commemorate the 1976 uprisings.
  • August – Pass laws scrapped.
  • August – Cosatu East London offices burnt down.
  • September – 177 mineworkers die at the Kinross goldmine. Gencor tries to keep the press and union officials from the accident site. In response, Num calls a work stoppage on 1 October – 325,000 miners respond.
  • October – Sarhwu relaunched at a secret congress in Grahamstown.
  • October – Cusa and Azactu merge to form Nactu.
  • November – Sadwu launched uniting workers from Sadwa and regionally based organisations.
  • December – Tucsa dissolves.
  • December – A number of Sarmcol workers terrorised and killed.
  • 18 December – Ccawusa members at OK Bazaars go on strike for a minimum wage of R450. The strike lasts 77 days.