We, the Trade Union representatives here present firmly commit ourselves to a unified democratic South Africa, free of oppression and economic exploitation. We believe that this could only be achieved under the leadership of a united working class.

[su_spoiler title=”COSATU history” icon=”folder-1″]

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) was launched on 1 December 1985, at the height of the struggle against apartheid. As a federation, it brought together many of the unions formed after the wave of strikes at the beginning of 1973 which marked a renewal of trade union activity after a decade-long lull.

Background of the trade union movement

Although trade unions had a presence throughout the modern history of South Africa, Black trade unions never managed to establish a permanent presence until the emergence of unions in the later 1970s and 1980s. The Industrial Commercial Union (ICU), formed by Cements Kadalie in 1919, was the first real flowering of trade union activity among Black workers in the country. Although it could claim a membership of 100,000 at its peak in 1927, the ICU was moribund by 1930.

Further attempts at unionising Black workers took place throughout the period after 1930, including the CPSA-inspired African Federation of Trade Unions, the Trotskyite Joint Committee of African Workers, and the SA Railway and Harbour Workers Union in the 1930s. In 1940 the Co-ordinating Committee of African Trade Unions was established, and the next year saw the formation of the Food and Canning Workers Union, one of the most durable in the history of South African unionism.

The 1940s also saw the establishment of the African Mineworkers Union and the Council of Non-European Trade Unions (CNETU).

With the coming of apartheid, laws such as the Suppression of Communism Act hit unions hard. Black workers left the Trades & Labour Council to join the Trade Union Council of South Africa (Tucsa), which had an ambivalent relation to Black unions, often excluding them or keeping them in check in favour of its white members.

In 1955 the more progressive members of Tucsa formed an alliance with CNETU to establish the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu), which held its first annual congress in 1956. Sactu joined the ANC-led Congress Alliance, and took part in many of the resistance campaigns of the 1950s.

The state, sensing the threat that an organised Black union movement posed to apartheid, introduced the Industrial Conciliation Amendment Act in 1956 to prohibit Africans from joining registered unions.

Nevertheless, Sactu’s Pound-a-Day campaigns were spectacularly successful in 1957, but in 1958 the campaign drew limited response, and the ANC, which initially supported the 1958 strike, called for an end to strike action after the first day, causing tensions between the two organisations.

After the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, the ANC and SACP jointly formed uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in 1961, and most of Sactu’s leaders, who were also members of the ANC, joined the underground military organisation.

By 1959 Sactu had a membership of 46,000 in 35 affiliates. But state repression saw many Sactu leaders and members arrested during the early 1960s, and by 1965 Sactu was decimated, leading to frenetic debates about the relationship between unions and the liberation movements.

The period after 1965 saw little Black union activity, although some unions did come into being in the early 1970s, notably the Transport and Allied Workers union, the Sweet, Food and Allied Workers Union, the Paper, Wood and Allied Workers Union, and the Building, Construction and Allied Workers Union.

1973: Renewal of Unionism

It was the spontaneous wave of strikes, begun by dockworkers in Durban in 1973, which led to the renewal of union activity in the country. The state was unable to stem this renewal, and indeed it conceded that Black unions were here to stay when it implemented the recommendations of the Wiehahn Commission, allowing Black unions to become registered for the first time since 1956.

The years from 1973 to 1985 saw a surge of unionism unprecedented in South African history. The launch of Metal and Allied Workers Union (Mawu) in 1973 was followed in 1974 by that of the Chemical Workers Industrial Union (CWIU) and the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU).

The formation of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu) in 1979 brought another dimension to the union movement: while unions had always been part of the political project to achieve political rights for Blacks, questions about the relationship between unions and the liberation movements abounded ever since the demise of Sactu, and Fosatu saw its mission as the development of an independent union movement that would be more strategic in political engagement.

Fosatu was able to build the shop-floor capacity of all its unions, to the point that the union movement was able to bring the country to a standstill at crucial moments. But by the early to mid-1980s, unions were beginning to question Fosatu’s arms-length relation to politics.

There were huge differences between the various competing blocs in the union movement, and the divisions were based on a series of issues: whether unions should be general unions or more focused industrial unions; whether they should register; whether they should include white workers; whether they should engage in community politics; and whether they should have direct links to the liberation organisations such as the United Democratic Front (UDF), Azanian People’s Organisation ( AZAPO) and others.

The union landscape was populated by a range of blocs: there was Fosatu; there was Cusa, the Black Consciousness-aligned federation; and there were Coloured unions that had on-and-off relations to Tucsa, among others. But there was a clear recognition that unions would be more effective if they were united, and unity talks began as early as 1979, and accelerated from 1981 to 1985.

The first serious deliberations took place at the Langa Summit in August 1981, where 100 representatives from 29 unions met to discuss a united response to state attempts to divide unions and tame them. They also discussed the question of registration, an issue that was the cause of deep divisions, especially between the Congress-aligned unions which rejected registration, and the Fosatu- and Cusa-aligned unions who were eager to use the space opened up by registration.

The death of Neil Agget in February 1982 saw 100,000 workers observe a work stoppage for 30 minutes on 1 February 1982. Hs death precipitated a new urgency in talks about union unity.

April 1982 saw another union summit on unity, this time in Wilgespruit. The summit resolved to work towards a new, all-inclusive labour federation. A third summit, held in July 1982 in Port Elizabeth, saw bitter divisions over a range of issues, and failed to move toward agreement for the basis of a broad federation. A fourth summit in Athlone in April 1983 saw the unions agree that the proposed federation could embrace unions with different policies, and a feasibility committee was set up to look at the issues.

Political Developments

In the meanwhile, seven unions, known as the Magnificent Seven, joined the United Democratic Front, and the UDF was preparing to mount protests against the upcoming elections for the Tricameral Parliament in August and September of 1984. On 3 September, unrest broke out in the Vaal Triangle, in what became the most sustained challenge to apartheid governance in the history f the country.

Cusa, aligned to Black Consciousness organisations, was ambivalent about what was seen as a Congress-led protest. Cusa’s largest union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), was the fastest growing union, and its membership exceeded that of all the others combined. NUM began to break loose from Cusa and decided to join the proposed federation.

Students were also mounting protests, and called for workers to support them. The Transvaal Regional Stayaway Committee called for a two-day stayaway on 4 and 5 November, a call rejected by Azapo.

While many unionists joined the protests, Fosatu remained relatively isolated – although its members did join in the protests. In the Transvaal, the rank and file were becoming convinced that their union leaders were hostile to mass action. To correct this perception Fosatu sent prominent unionist Moses Mayekiso to join the stayaway committee.

The response to the stayaway call was massive, and about 800,000 workers heeded the call in the Transvaal.

Unity Talks Resume

Sactu convinced the UDF-aligned unions to resume unity talks, and within Fosatu some were arguing that these unions should be accommodated, and Fosatu proposed the reopening of talks.

On 8th and 9th June, 1985, a final summit was held at Ipeleng in Soweto, where a wide range of unions brought their national executive committees to deliberate on the way forward. Unions aligned to the UDF, Black Consciousness, and representing various positions on the nature of the federation, were represented by 400 delegates.

The meeting, chaired by NUM’s Cyril Ramaphosa, proposed a tight federation and set out five principles: non-racialism, ‘one union one industry’, worker control, representation on the basis of paid-up membership, and co-operation at national level.

The Black Consciousness Azactu unions disagreed with the non-racialism principle, and Cusa’s unions disagreed with the constitution, which had been circulated ahead of the summit, claiming they had not seen the document. In the end, the Azactu and Cusa unions rejected the federation, with the important exception of NUM, which signed up.

UDF aligned unions, although suspicious of the feasibility committee, were persuaded by the ANC and Sactu to join, which they did. The feasibility committee was expanded to include UDF unions, and it set about preparing for the launch of the new federation. Delegates considered various names and settled on the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), reflecting the historic link to the ANC and Sactu.

Cosatu is launched

On 30th November 1985, more than 760 delegates from 33 unions descended on the sports hall of the University of Natal, in Durban, to inaugurate the new trade union federation. After his earlier success as convener at Ipeleng, Ramaphosa presided over the launch.

The congress began to draw up a constitution, making amendments to a draft that had been circulated earlier, the most significant being the creation of the post of assistant general secretary. The constitution determined that workers would dominate all the federation’s structures; that a national congress would be held every two years and would be the highest decision-making body; that a central executive committee would meet every three months; and that an executive committee would meet every month.

The congress set out various resolutions:

  • To establish one union for each industry within six months.
  • To focus on the exploitation of women workers.
  • To call for the lifting of the state of emergency, withdrawal of troops from the townships and release of all political prisoners.
  • To continue the call for international pressure, including disinvestment.
  • To demand for the right to strike and picket.
  • To determine a national minimum wage.
  • To extend the struggle for trade union rights in the homelands.

The federation also elected its office bearers at the congress.

Elected office bearers at the congress
President Elijah Barayi
Vice president Chris Dlamini
Second vice president Makhulu Ledwaba
Treasurer Maxwell Xulu
General Secretary Jay Naidoo
Assistant General Secretary Sydney Mufamadi

The First year: 1986

The government and the right-wing Inkatha responded to the federation’s establishment by saying that Cosatu was nothing but a front for the ANC, its launch part of the ANC’s plan to make the country ungovernable. Jay Naidoo rejected the accusation, asserting that Cosatu was first and foremost a workers’ organisation.

Among employers, reaction was more mixed, the larger corporations seemingly unfazed by the development, while smaller companies sometimes pressured unions to switch to the Inkatha-organised United Workers’ Union of South Africa (Uwusa), and withheld recognition if unions continued being affiliates of Cosatu.

Anti-apartheid organisations welcomed the launch of the federation: the UDF expressed enthusiastic support in a pamphlet; Sactu declared that it saw no reason for antagonism between it and the new federation; and the ANC appealed to the Black Consciousness federation, Azactu and Cusa, to work together with Cosatu, and hailed the launch of the federation in its annual January 8 statement.

Jay Naidoo travelled to Harare in Zimbabwe to attend a conference organised by the World Council of Churches, and met with ANC and Sactu officials for informal talks. Because of these talks, the federation was attacked by the government and Inkatha, who both reiterated the charge that Cosatu was a front for the ANC. This accusation came despite the fact that people from a broad range of organisations had been meeting with the ANC in Lusaka and Harare since 1984, including prominent black and white businessmen and white politicians.

Meanwhile, workers embarked on what would later be called ‘rolling mass action’, and in January alone 185,000 man-days were lost to industrial action. By the end of March, the figure rose to 550,000, a huge increase on the 450,000 total for 1984.

Strikes took place at Impala Platinum in Bophuthatswana, Anglo American’s Bank Colliery, at various mines in the Witbank/Middleburg area, in Pretoria (Pick n Pay), in Namaqualand (De Beers), Blyvooruitzicht in Carletonville, and on the East Rand (Hagie Rand).

Many miners were killed by police and mining companies’ private armies, who sought to prevent miners from holding meetings. These killings often resulted in strike action. Strikes took place in many sectors, including manufacturing and service sector. Workers flocked to join Cosatu, and the federation’s membership surged in the few months after its launch.

Cosatu’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) met for the first time at the Ipeleng Centre in Soweto from 7 to 9 February, to consider four proposals, all of them dealing with the federation’s relationship to political struggles. The federation sought to steer a middle path between populism and workerism.

Cosatu resolved to be politically active and to form alliances with political organisations, yet maintain its independence. The CEC agreed that Cosatu would meet with the UDF, and the two met on 18 February.

May Day 1986

May 1 1986 marked the 100th anniversary of International Labour Day, commonly referred to as May Day. While unions had tabled the date as one of the key demands throughout the early 1980s, employers had rarely conceded May Day as a paid holiday. The newly formed Cosatu now demanded that May Day be recognised as a public holiday, and called for a stayaway. It was supported by various organisations, significantly by the National Education Crisis Committee (NEEC) and the UDF, as well as many traditionally conservative organisations – such as the African Teachers Association, the National African Chamber of Commerce, and the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa (Seifsa), the metal industry employers’ organisation.

On May Day 1986, more than 1,5-million workers observed the call, joined by many thousands that included school pupils, students, taxi drivers, hawkers, shopkeepers, domestic workers, self employed and unemployed people. While the call was less successful in some regions, in the PWV area, the heartland of industry, the response was massive. Rallies were held in all the major cities, even though many of these were banned in advance by the state.

The media acknowledged that the majority of South Africa’s workers had unilaterally declared the day a public holiday, and Premier Foods became the first large employer to declare 1 May and 16 June as paid holidays. Following this, many other companies bowed to the inevitable.

Rightwing Reaction

Cosatu’s launch was perceived by the Inkatha Freedom Party as a threat, and the party launched its own union federation, Uwusa, at Kings Park Stadium in Durban. About 60,000 people, many not workers, attended the launch, bussed in by the IFP from all over the country.

Cosatu officials and offices came under attack by IFP and government forces. Offices were invaded in Madadeni and Newcastle; the house of Cosatu official Mathews Olifant was petrol-bombed; while other officials were abducted or arrested, and workers were attacked.

The state, for its part, declared a second state of emergency, and mounted a vicious campaign of detentions and crackdowns. Many unionists were arrested or harassed, including Jay Naidoo, whose house was raided by plain-clothes security police on the first night of the emergency, 12 June 1986.

In the first six weeks of the emergency, 2700 unionists were detained, the majority of them from Cosatu. Cosatu’s headquarters, Cosatu House in Johannesburg, was barricaded by the SADF, who monitored all movements in and out of the building.

But workers also retaliated. Hundreds went on strike to protest against the detentions. When five NUM regional leaders were arrested in Kimberly, 2000 workers at four mines went on strike, one of many such incidents.

Cosatu president Elijah Barayi, who was also the NUM’s vice president, was also detained, and the union initiated a national consumer boycott of liquor stores, bars and concession stores – and more miners at various mines went on strikes and go-slows.

Cosatu was prohibited from meeting outdoors, and other restrictions disrupted normal union processes – with the result that even business began complaining to the government that with union leaders in prison they were forced to negotiate with ‘mobs’.

Cosatu held a special meeting of its Central Executive Committee (CEC) on 1 July. Most of the delegates wanted to call for a stayaway, despite fears of dismissals and insufficient mobilising capacity. The ‘Day of Action’ was set for 14 July, but the response was disappointing. The UDF and other organisations had been unprepared for the call and failed to support the strike.

Disaster in Kinross

On 16 September a fire broke out inside a mine at Kinross, and about 180 miners lost their lives. Gencor, the mine owner, tried to play down the true nature of the disaster, releasing news of the incident late and under-reporting fatalities. They also prevented access to the media and union officials. In an official statement later, white miners who died were named, while black mining fatalities were announced thus: “Sotho 45, Shangaan (Mozambican) 21, Pondo 20, Hlubi (Transkei) 6, Swazi 8, Venda 1, Xhosa 29, Tswana 12, Malawi 15, Pedi 1.”

Wages and safety had always been the biggest concerns of mine workers, and the disaster caused deep anger. NUM called for a work stoppage on 1 October, and 325,000 miners heeded the call. A large number of industrial workers supported the call – as many as 275,000, according to Cosatu estimates.

The Stayaway and the Bomb

In May 1987 Cosatu launched its Living Wage Campaign, beginning on May Day, a Friday. To avert a union ‘victory’, the government declared the day a public holiday.

Cosatu joined the UDF and the NECC in the call for a two-day stayaway on 5-6 May 1987, two days set aside by the state for the white general election. More than 2,5-million people responded to the call. In the Eastern Cape the strike was 100% successful

The day after the strike, in the early hours of 7 May, Cosatu House was rocked by two bomb blasts. The bombs were placed near support columns in the basement, and the damage was so extensive that the building was declared unsafe. Cosatu, NUM, Pwawu, TGWU, Sarwhu and Mawu all lost their head offices.

In the aftermath, with the SABC launching a campaign of vilification that dared to present the blasts as the work of Cosatu itself, the federation launched a ‘Hands Off Cosatu’ campaign.

Mergers: One Industry, One Union

As part of one of its founding policies, Cosatu sought to bring all organised workers in each industry into a single union, and affiliates that had members in various sectors were expected to agree to the process of streamlining the federation’s membership. This proved to be easy in some instances, but a logistical and diplomatic nightmare in other cases. The food sector (Fawu) had been fairly successful in mergers by early 1987, as were domestic workers and transport workers (TGWU).

Construction workers came together in Cawu, chemical workers in CWIU, and Nehawu brought together hospital and education workers.

The metal workers’ unions merged on 23-4 May 1987 into the second largest union within Cosatu, smaller only than NUM. Numsa came into being with the merger of Mawu, Naawu, Ummawosa, Gawu, TGWU and Macwusa. Micwu, not a Cosatu affiliate, also joined up. Numsa began with 130,000 paid-up members, choosing as its general secretary Moses Mayekiso, who would complete 33 months in detention before taking up the position.

Ccawusa, TGWU and NUTW underwent more difficult attempts to form single industry unions.

The Freedom Charter

Cosatu held its second national congress from 14 to 18 July 1987. The most significant issue on the agenda was the proposal by the NUM that Cosatu, as the mineworkers had done, adopt the Freedom Charter. Despite a contrary motion by Numsa, which demanded that only large, mass-based socialist-oriented organisations be accepted as allies, the NUM resolution was adopted, although the federation was deeply divided by the move, many having a more critical relation to the Charter and Charterist political forces.

The Miners on Strike

The largest strike in South African history saw about 3,5-million mineworkers stop production in August 1987. Miners were tired of low pay, degrading tasks, the oppressive apartheid structure in the workplace as well as outside it. At the NUM’s annual congress in February 1987 the slogan ‘The Year the Mineworkers Take Control’ was adopted.

Representing the lowest-paid mineworkers in the world, NUM was determined to avoid earlier mistakes – such as split offers which gave different increases to different grades of workers – and push for an industry-wide agreement. Negotiations began in May 1987 and hit a deadlock soon after, and two conciliation boards failed to produce results. The Chamber of Mines, which was offering 17-23%, while NUM was demanding 30%, remained intransigent. In July, NUM’s members overwhelmingly voted for a strike, and the union announced on August 3 that an industry-wide strike would begin on 9 August.

On the night of 9 August, 75,000 workers failed to turn up for work on the night shift, and the next day a further 300,000 observed the strike call. Anglo American mines were affected more than any other. After reaching a peak of 340,000 by the second day, the number remained stable at 300,000 for the next two weeks.

Battles broke out around control of hostels and supplies of food, and workers were attacked in numerous ways: electricity to hostels was cut off, police were called in and opened fire with live and rubber ammunition, workers were teargassed and forced underground, and many were arrested.

The Reserve Bank withheld donations made to NUM from international supporters, and other banks prevented workers from withdrawing money from their accounts.

The strike was particularly successful at coal mines in the Witbank area, but miners throughout the industry held out for the duration. By late August, miners were being threatened with dismissal.

The chamber made a final offer on 26 August, on the 18th day of the strike, but NUM refused to accept. Anglo sent in its mine security in ‘hippos’ – armoured trucks – and workers were fired upon and many forced underground at Western Deep Levels. The next day Anglo dismissed 10,000 workers, and many were bussed back to the homelands. In total 50,000 workers were sacked.

Fearful of a defeat similar to the disastrous mineworkers strike of 1946, NUM announced on 29 August that it accepted the offer made on 26 August.

Consolidation and Turbulence

Following the huge mineworkers’ strike, Cosatu assessed the effects of the strike and considered why it had failed to mount support strikes. It set about strengthening its structures: a leadership code was set out and discussed; an education conference was held in October 1987 and education officers were appointed; an assessment was made of the federation’s strengths and weaknesses, and leadership and local structures were identified as weaknesses. The Living Wage Campaign was identified as Cosatu’s most important programme, with huge potential, but the campaign had not been adequately developed, and plans were made to take the programme forward.

But Cosatu was beset by other problems: violence in Natal was intensifying and forced the federation to turn its attention to the province instead of continuing with other work.

Meanwhile, amendments were being proposed to the Labour Relations Act (LRA) that sought to curtail strike activity and reverse gains made regarding job security. Employers in particular were putting pressure on government to curtail union powers, and Cosatu was forced to spend the next few years opposing these attacks on it effectiveness. CWIU, Ppwawu and Numsa in particular led attempts to oppose the amendments, but the unionists realised they were fighting a losing battle. The state, employers and even the coloured Labour Party were determined to push through the amendments. Nevertheless, Cosatu lodged a formal complaint with the International Labour Organisation.

Amidst all the turmoil, on 24 February 1988, Cosatu came under heavy restrictions when the government banned 17 organisations, including the UDF, South African Youth Congress (Sayco), Sansco, the NEEC and Azapo. Although Cosatu was not banned, it was prohibited from engaging in political activity.

The Special Congress and more strikes

To assess the effects of the bannings and the Labour Relations Amendment Bill, Cosatu held a special congress on 14 May 1988. Besides the federation’s 1324 delegates, leaders of the UDF, churches and other civil society organisations attended the meeting, which was held at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Delegates analysed the current situation in all its complexity – the political, economic and social aspects of the late 1980s, and concluded that apartheid was in crisis, and the regime was deemed unable to stem the demands for democracy.

Proposals regarding the forging of a united front were debated in a heated manner, most of the issues relating to relations between Charterist and non-Charterist organisations. A compromise resolution was eventually adopted, in which a committee would be set up to examine ideas for joint action, and delegates acknowledged that non-Charterists would have to be included in any decisions made.

Delegates also voted to call for three days of action, from 6 to 8 June 1988, to oppose bannings, restrictions and the measures used by the state to squash anti-apartheid opposition. It was billed as three days of ‘national peaceful protest’.

On 6 June, between 2,5-million and 3-million people observed the call and stayed at home. The level of the stayaway dropped in some areas on the two subsequent days, but in the Witwatersrand and Natal it was constant, as was the case in the Eastern Transvaal.

Cosatu was taken aback at the level of support for the strike, but there was concern about sectors that had not heeded the call. However, the massive show of support failed to halt ominous developments. Despite negotiations between Cosatu, Nactu (the Black Consciousness union federation), the South African Consultative Committee on Labour Affairs (Saccola), and the Department of Manpower, the Labour Relations Amendment Act became law on 1 September 1988. The anti-LRA campaign had effectively failed, and Cosatu’s leaders engaged in a process of assessment and introspection to determine the way forward.

Meanwhile, Cosatu set about organising the Anti-Apartheid Conference (AAC). It was to be held at the University of Cape Town on 24 and 25 September, with delegates from all over the country set to travel to the venue. However, the Black Consciousness and New Unity Movement groupings pulled out at the last minute. To make matters worse, the government banned the conference, and the idea had to be abandoned.

The Workers’ Summit

When Nactu, the Black Consciousness union federation, suggested holding a workers’ summit to discuss opposition to the newly enacted LRAA, Cosatu agreed, even though there was some dissent within its ranks. Despite agreements regarding the date of the conference – 4 and 5 March 1989 – Nactu pulled out late in February. But with arrangements underway, Cosatu decided to proceed with the event. Later, some Nactu unions broke ranks and decided to attend the summit, which took place on the appointed dates.

The summit was held at the University of the Witwatersrand, and about 700 delegates attended the meeting. Non-affiliated unions also attended the summit.

The summit resolved to come up with an alternative to the LRA to cover all workers, and to present Saccola with a list of six demands, while finding ways to avoid the industrial court and identifying and targeting employers who used the LRA against unions.

The Third Congress

On 12 July 1989 Cosatu held its third congress at the Nasrec hall on the outskirts of Soweto. Delegates openly exhibited the symbols of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe and the South African Communist Party. Sydney Mufamadi read out an address by the ANC’s Harry Gwala, who was unable to attend. The UDF’s Valli Moosa argued that the regime was being pushed into negotiations for a democratic future, and Frank Chikane reinforced the point.

The major topic was negotiations, and delegates set out minimum conditions before the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) would enter into talks with the apartheid government, now led by FW de Klerk (after PW Botha was taken ill and resigned as president).

The third congress, unlike the previous two, was marked by a more united federation, but once again the nature of alliances was debated. Plans were made for drawing up a worker’s charter and organising a campaign to drive the process. Women’s issues came to the fore, and various resolutions, for example a demand for maternity rights, were proposed and accepted.

The Final Straws

Once again, Cosatu called for a stayaway on 5 and 6 September 1989, and despite some confusion on the first day, workers by and large heeded the call, although not in numbers as large as the June stayaway. A consumer boycott was also called for, and it, too, was successful to varying degrees in the different regions.

The reunification of Ccawusa which had split into two factions was a major achievement for Cosatu.

Earlier, on 26 July, the MDM, Cosatu and the UDF, called for a National Defiance Campaign, and the response was overwhelming throughout the country. White facilities were invaded, and banned organisation declared themselves ‘unbanned’, initiating a period of open and mass defiance of apartheid laws. In mid-September, mass marches took place in Cape Town Johannesburg and Pretoria, with marchers openly flying the ANC flag. In Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape, a huge march seemed to dwarf those of the larger centres.

It was apparent that the government of FW de Klerk was introducing a new approach to the problems of the country, and by October all the Rivonia Trialists were released from prison, except Nelson Mandela, who was released on 11 February 1990.

Numsa workers at the Mercedes Benz plant in East London, working in their own time and sponsoring the project, built a special car for Mandela, a bullet-proof luxury Mercedes Benz sedan, which they put together in four days. The car was presented to Mandela soon after his release, which marked the beginning of a new, post-apartheid era in South Africa.

But the marches and protests didn’t end: more than 50 marches took place in the ten weeks following Mandela’s release, and strike levels approached those of 1987 as previously cautious workers celebrated their new-found power, notably domestic workers.

Cosatu in the post apartheid era

The period leading up to democracy and the coming of the new dispensation presented new challenges to the union federation. No longer necessarily an opponent of the state, the federation would go through various transformations to deal with new realities.

With the realisation that they would soon see the dissolution of the laws they had depended on to extract cheap labour from an unprotected workforce, employers also had to adapt to a new regime. Cosatu met with the ANC and SACP and the trio’s relationship was formalised into the Tripartite Alliance.

The post-apartheid period has seen Cosatu engage numerous campaigns, economic, social as well as political, notably in the unseating of South Africa’s second president, Thabo Mbeki, and the federation continues to wield enormous power in deciding the fate of the country.

Last updated : 01-Dec-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 08-Dec-2011


[su_spoiler title=”Cosatu House Attacked” icon=”folder-1″]“Workers at Cosatu House were worried and shocked when they heard this news. Some workers rushed to Doornfontein Station to train stationcatch the train to Germiston. They wanted to help their fellow workers. Before we knew what was happening Cosatu House was surrounded by police and three more workers were dead. 400 SATS workers were arrested that day.” “In the days that followed, there was a muddle. The strikers were frightened to come to Cosatu House. Bit by bit people came back. But now we are back in the same situation. Since Cosatu House was bombed, we have nowhere to meet.


Justice Langa is the President of SARHWU members wash away the blood of their comrades after three strikers were shot in Germiston.

SARWU membersHe told Learn and Teach what is happening at the moment. “The workers have not given up,” Justice said. “We are waiting to see what will happen. We are taking SATS to court. We say that SATS was acting outside the law when they fired all the workers.

“SATS say they will not employ new workers until the court case – and they will not chase workers out of their hostels. The court case will be held on the 25th May. We are hopeful that we will reach an agreement with them.”


“It has been a long and difficult battle. Workers have died and been detained. We have really suffered. And the unions have suffered too – not just our union – but all the unions. All the people from Cosatu House are out on the streets, looking for new offices.

“We did not want to cause problems for the other unions. But we cannot go back to our old lives under SATS. When we go back, we want to know that we will be treated like human beings.”

We salute the SATS workers for their courage. They have fought long and hard. The SATS bosses must know that the world is watching them – we have all seen how they treat the people who work for them. And we hope the strikers will win their fight for better treatment on the railways.

From Learn and Teach Foundation


[su_spoiler title=”Character of the Federation” icon=”folder-1″]Name: The name of the organisation is the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), hereinafter referred to as the “Federation”.

Structure: The Federation consists of the following structures – 1. National Congress (“NC”). 2. Central Committee (“CC”). 3. Central Executive Committee (“CEC”). 4. Provincial Congress (“C”). 5. Provincial Executive Committees (“EC”). 6. Provincial Shop Steward Councils (“SSC”). 7. Local Shop Steward Councils (“Locals”); and 8. Local Executive Committee (“LEC”) [/su_spoiler]

[su_spoiler title=”Aims and Objectives” icon=”folder-1″]

  • securing social and economic justice for all workers;
  • understanding how the economy of the country affects workers and formulating clear policies on how the economy should be restructured in the interests of the working class;
  • restructuring the economy to allow the creation of wealth to be democratically controlled and its fruits shared among the working class;
  • striving for just standards of living, social security and fair conditions of work for all;
  • advancing or opposing any law, action or policy of any authority or body affecting the interests of affiliates in particular, or the working class in general;
  • facilitating and co-ordinating education and training of all workers so as to further the interests of the working class; and
  • conducting, co-ordinating and publishing research into matters affecting workers;
  • encouraging all workers to join progressive and democratic trade unions; and
  • striving for a united working class movement regardless of race, colour, creed or sex;
  • forming broadly based industrial unions in all industries where none exist; and
  • assisting unions operating in the same industry to merge into broadly based industrial unions;
  • encouraging co-operation among affiliates;
  • co-ordinating joint activities;
  • creating a forum to achieve common goals and perform such actions as are necessary to achieve these goals;
  • resolving disputes between affiliates and within the Federation; and
  • instituting or defending legal proceedings affecting affiliates or the Federation;
  • raising and acquiring funds by affiliation fees or by any other legal means in order to further these aims and objectives; and
  • purchasing, leasing, hiring or acquiring any movable and immovable property and rights which the Federation may deem necessary; and
  • to pursue any action which may be in the interests of the Federation and its affiliates and which are consistent with this Constitution.


[su_spoiler title=”How COSATU was organized” icon=”folder-1″]Cosatu is the beneficiary of the best traditions of workers’ and union struggles that span over 100 years. Cosatu’s organising style and the organising principles it has brought to the workers movement over the past ten years have helped make the federation the giant it is today.

Thousands of workers laid down their lives for basic trade union rights and the franchise as a cherished human right. The monument of their sacrifices is today’s labour movement and is best immortalised by the shopsteward. Unions, from the Industrial and Commercial Union (ICU) of the 1920’s through to the Council for Non-European Trade Unions (Cnetu) to Sactu, Fosatu, and Tucsa (as a negative example) have bequeathed much to Cosatu. It is from these forerunners that Cosatu has forged an organising style that distinguishes the federation from its counterparts.

Earlier organising styles

The birth of the modern trade union movement after the repression of the 1960’s and the banning of the ANC and PAC, and the exiling of Sactu, dates back to the 1973 strikes in Durban. Following this, various industrial unions were formed which eventually resulted in the formation of Fosatu. Other unions grouped themselves in Cusa.

Fosatu’s organising style was characterised by deliberate, painstakingly slow, plant-by-plant building of shopfloor structures. It was an approach which emphasised small gains and the survival of the organisation. This incrementalism was dictated by the relative lack of resources. It was also an approach which eschewed a “premature” involvement in politics, running counter to the early strand of social movement unionism of Sactu (as evidenced by Sactu’s alliance with the ANC and the “Pound-a-day” campaign).

The experience of the NUM, launched by Cusa in 1982, changed the face of union politics. The NUM brought with it a more popular style of mass mobilisation. This was made possible in part by the conditions under which mineworkers lived and laboured. The mine hostels and compounds, and the large number of migrants employed, presented the union with a kind of “captive market”. Rapid growth was indeed possible. Unlike with the early Fosatu organising methods, a movement, as opposed to a cadre base, was the result. Activists were elected as shopstewards. Today the NUM remains Cosatu’s leading union in numbers and perhaps organisation. These two organising styles shared a common organising principle. At the heart of both manufacturing and mining was the principle of worker control, anchored in the shopstewards’ committees.

Organising principles

What were the organising principles that underpinned Cosatu? And, in the context of transition and transformation, will the next ten years see Cosatu’s rank and file clinging to them as dearly? Many of the broad organising principles are codified in the preamble to the Cosatu constitution, some less specifically so. As Cosatu enters the next decade, these questions merit some examination.

Paid-up membership

Representation in affiliate and federation structures is on the basis of, and proportional to, paid-up membership. Only when workers pay their trade union dues can they expect to control elected and appointed leadership. In this context, trade union dues become not only a means of financing union activities, but also a guarantee that those who pay the piper, call the tune.

This principle is important for according a union its commensurate influence and voting strength, say, in an industrial council where it “competes” with other unions.

Shop floor organisation and worker leadership

Unlike the British situation where shopstewards were seen as a rival to the established leadership, Cosatu put shopstewards at its core.

The election of shopstewards, and the establishment of shopstewards committees was its most important organisational focus, centred on worker leadership. You could not become a union leader (office-bearer) if you were not a shopsteward in the union. Full-time positions were often held by former academics, students, or political activists. But they were subject to workers’ control. In practice, worker majorities in all committees (as opposed to paid, full-time officials) was meant to keep a check on intellectual domination.

Workplace based shopsteward committees give rise to higher levels of shopsteward organisation and coordination at affiliate branch/local and regional level. Shopsteward committees of different affiliates in a particular industrial or geographical area come together to make up the Cosatu local. In this way, it continues to be possible for workers to play a role in local, regional and national political and development issues.

Democratic process

The democratic process of the emergent union movement was founded on three principles. In putting forward workers’ views, their representatives had to canvass views within union structures. This mandating process required that only the views and positions agreed upon in worker-controlled structures could be represented, and faithfully so. Where this was required to be changed, it could only be done with the consent of the original mandating structure, or such other structure agreed to beforehand. For example, if during wage negotiations the negotiating team wishes to recommend settlement on less favourable terms than their mandate, a renewed mandate is required from the structure giving the mandate.

A further requirement was that wherever mandated positions were to be represented, whether to other workers or in negotiations with the bosses, those giving the mandate were entitled to be informed of the responses to their position. It was thus incumbent on the representing officials, workers or structures to report back.

The final component of the democratic process is the right to recall leadership where it is felt they do not act in the best interests of workers. In this way, workers are able to exercise control over their elected leadership, and act as a safeguard against personal ambition or gain.

Industrial unionism

Around the slogan “one union, one industry”, the launching congress decision to merge the 33 founding unions into ten sectoral affiliates was important for building a tight federation. In Cosatu, industrial unionism was strengthened because it had to be achieved by the protracted and sometimes discordant programme of mergers. A further requirement, that industrial/sectoral affiliates be nationally based, has meant that they could not escape their obligations to organise in areas they considered to be difficult.


In the unity talks leading to Cosatu’s formation, this was to prove a thorny issue. Black conciousness-oriented unions from Cusa and Azactu argued for anti-racism. Fosatu and the “community unions” – Saawu, Gawu, A/FCWU, etc. contended that non-racialism was not simply a means to accommodate the many white intellectuals who had made common cause with the union movement, often in leadership positions.

To build a vision of a united working class, it had to be enshrined in the character of a new federation. It was to prove one of the issues over which the Cusa/Azactu unions were to part company with those who eventually went to Durban in December 1985. Now, ten years later, it is apparent that Cosatu is beginning to reap the benefits of non-racialism. That large numbers of white finance workers in Sasbo are not uncomfortable in Cosatu, or that the SAA’s still largely white cabin crew want only Sarhwu to negotiate for them, is testimony to this. A tight and disciplined national centre From the outset, Cosatu stressed the need for decisions of the federation to be binding on affiliates. This was Fosatu’s single biggest contribution to Cosatu. A looser federation, it was argued, would be incapable of uniting its members in action on issues affecting the working class and its allies.

The difference between Cosatu and other federations on this score is stark. No other federation has ever been able to mount a campaign of any significance, either on its own or in alliance with other forces. Often members of other federations would observe Cosatu calls to action, even in defiance of their own centre’s wishes. The federation’s funds are centrally administered, with ultimate answerability residing in the national office bearers.

Politically independent but willing to act in alliance

At Cosatu’s launch, Cyril Ramaphosa (then NUM general secretary) contended that alliances with other progressive organisations must be on terms favourable to workers. He added that, “when we do plunge into political activity, we must make sure that unions under Cosatu have a strong shop floor base, not only to take on employers, but the state as well”. This signified a change from the Fosatu tradition. However, the different political currents that came to make up Cosatu were at one that when in alliance with political organisations with a proven track record, organisational independence of trade unions was paramount.

Militant unionism

The ICU was the first non-racial national trade union to take a political stance against racism and exploitation. Its constitution called for the basis of remuneration to be the principle “from every man according to his abilities, to every man according to his needs”. Cosatu’s rallying cry, “an injury to one is an injury to all”, is a recognition of the universal solidarity of workers. While strike activity has come to be the ultimate test of trade union militancy, in the future this may not necessarily be so. The willingness of unions to organise and engage in clear programmes of action in defence of workers’ rights may move them to a more co-determinist stance.


Cosatu’s constitutional preamble calls for “progressive international worker contact and solidarity”. Over the first ten years, Cosatu has been mainly a beneficiary of such contact and solidarity. However, with the rapid globalisation of the world economy and the growing pace at which links are being created between workers in different parts of the world, there is now greater scope for the federation to be a provider of international solidarity. With Africa and the Third World marginalised by the new international order, Cosatu will seek a new and dynamic role for trade unions at international level. [/su_spoiler]

[su_spoiler title=”The Shopsteward Volume 4. No.6 – December 1995″ icon=”folder-1″]Editorial

In 1982 the leadership of unions and federations participating in unity talks nearly committed political suicide by proclaiming: “there is no basis for the formation of a federation of all unions represented at this stage. No further meeting is planned.” Fortunately, taking into account the challenges faced by the labour movement, society and the need to defend ourselves against big business and the apartheid regime, further meetings took place and Cosatu was eventually formed. It is no exaggeration to point out that, since the lauch, our power and influence has been felt by both enemy and supporters alike.

Our pressure was immediately felt at a political, social and economic level. The regime had to contend, not only with the UDF and its affiliates, the revolutionary alliance of the ANC, SACP and Sactu, but also with a powerful trade union movement which combined political issues with bread and butter issues.

Employers who had relied on weak organisation to exploit and oppress workers were suddenly hit by waves of strikes by workers who were pursuing a living wage. No sector was left untouched. The Chamber of Mines, South African Railways, OK Bazaars, Pick and Pay, and many more tasted our power. Despite a government sympathetic to business, the brutality of the police and state of emergency powers, we emerged victorious.

The mass dismissal by the Chamber of Mines was meant to destroy the NUM and Cosatu. The fact that NUM remains the biggest union in our country (it is in fact bigger than Fedsal and Nactu) is evidence of our power to fight and to survive.

Key Gains

The federation developed positions which contributed to, among others, the following:

  • May Day as a paid holiday;
  • June 16 and March 21 as paid holidays in many workplaces and industries;
  • Parental rights for both men and women;
  • The unbanning of, among others, the ANC and the SACP
  • The release of political prisoners
  • Through various actions, we helped to resolve the Codesa deadlock and thereby bring about the present dispensation;
  • The RDP, which became the ANC’s election platform, has its origins in Cosatu;
  • Through mass mobilisation, we redirected the VAT campaign and the Labour Relations Amendment Act of 1988;
  • Through resilience we stand a good chance of having a favourable law on health and safety in the mines, in particular, and at all workplaces in general;
  • The cherry on the cake is, of course, the LRA as recently concluded in Nedlac and passed by parliament. [/su_spoiler]

[su_spoiler title=”SACP Salutes COSATU” icon=”folder-1″]by SACP general secretary Charles Nqakula

With admiration and pride, the SACP salutes Cosatu’s 1.6 million members. Comrades, you have built a giant. You have organised workers in factories, mines, shops, farms and kitchens throughout our country. As the fastest growing federation in the world, you have inspired working people in all continents of the globe.

Cosatu was launched 10 years ago out of the unity of Fosatu and other progressive unions. The launch marked the consolidation of the strategy that connects work-place democracy with the broader national liberation struggle. This is the tradition we must now carry forward.

In affirming the broad perspectives of the Freedom Charter, and now of the RDP, Cosatu has always, and without apology, proclaimed its commitment to socialism.

In adopting these positions, Cosatu has built and developed unbroken traditions of militant working class struggle in our country. These traditions go back through Fosatu, Sactu and CNETU to the ICU, and to the very beginnings of this century.

The SACP is proud to record the often central role that South African communists, prominent leaders and ordinary branch members – men and women – have played in building militant trade unions.

In celebrating 10 years of the giant called Cosatu, let us re-dedicate ourselves to some basic truths:

  • The organised working class must continue to be the driving force in the struggle to advance, deepen and defend the democratic breakthrough in our country.
  • In reaffirming the unity of our ANC-led tripartite alliance, we, as socialist formations, are not being hypocritical. We are not taking a free ride. Nor are we delaying the struggle for socialism. The struggle for liberation, the struggle for democracy, the struggle for reconstruction and development are not detours. These struggles ARE the struggles of socialists.
  • We say this because we believe that socialism is not some distant heaven. It is not a foreign country. It is not another bloc. Socialism is the struggle, here and now, to build a country based on human needs, and not on private profits.

Let us move forward, drawing strength and inspiration from Cosatu’s Ten Fighting Years!

Socialism is the future, build it now! [/su_spoiler]

[su_spoiler title=”A Giant Has Risen” icon=”folder-1″]Born in the midst of a state of emergency, township uprisings and tensions between divergent union traditions, Cosatu’s launch was a working class victory.

On the last weekend of November 1985, worker delegates gathered at the sports hall of the University of Natal to launch the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

Unity talks had started informally in 1979, become more formal in 1981 and continued up to the launch. Although the talks had covered many issues, there were still many unresolved differences and underlying tensions. But unionists felt the differences could be debated endlessly. Decisions had to be made and the best place for this to happen was within the democratic structures of a federation. Thus the 760 delegates from 33 unions were at once excited and apprehensive. No one really knew what this meeting, or the future would hold.

Cyril Ramphosa, then Num general secretary, earlier chosen as the convenor of the launching congress, set the tone with a short opening address: “The formation of this Congress represents an enormous victory for the working class in this country … In the next few days … we will be putting our heads together, not only to make sure we reach Pretoria, but also to make a better life for us workers in this country. What we have to make clear is that a giant has risen and will confront all that stand in its way.”

With that, delegates set about fulfilling their first task – the adoption of a constitution.

A Constitution

The congress spent much of its time debating the federation’s constitution, even though agreement on a draft had been reached during unity talks. There was lengthy and heated debate around the addition of an assistant general secretary, revealing tensions and unresolved issues.

A constitution, which determined the federation’s basic structures, was finally agreed on. Cosatu would be a disciplined and active federation with structures at national, regional and local levels. All structures should contain a majority of worker delegates. This was aimed at preventing union officials from dominating structures and was central to ensuring mass participation in decision making.

Structures would include a national congress every two years, a central executive committee (CEC) meeting every three months and an executive committee (Exco) which would meet every month.

Regional congresses would be held every four months and the regional executive committee would meet every month. Ten Cosatu regions were established at the launch, but this was later changed to nine.

Cosatu locals would be set up to unite workers from particular towns or townships. They would be open to all shopstewards living or working in the area and were seen as Cosatu’s basic unit of organisation which would advance the federation’s interests at grassroots level.

These structures have remained largely unchanged since Cosatu’s formation in 1985, apart from the restructuring of the executive committee in 1987. At the launch, the Exco comprised elected office bearers plus four additional members of the CEC. The 1987 Congress changed this to elected office bearers plus two delegates from each affiliate. This structure had been the original intention during unity talks, but was impractical due to the large number of affiliates joining Cosatu at the launch. Once a programme of mergers was underway, it became more feasible.


The congress called for one union to be established in each industry within six months. Delegates voted for the launch of an education programme and a newspaper.

Another resolution examined exploitation and discrimination against women. Some of the issues it dealt with were women’s access to “a limited range of occupations”, that they had to do “boring and repetitive work with low and often unequal pay”, sexual harassment in the workplace and women losing their jobs when they fell pregnant. The congress decided that Cosatu should take up these problems.

The right to strike and picket was another resolution and it called for the CEC to determine a national living wage. The congress condemned the bantustan system and the “super exploitation occurring in these areas”. Delegates stated their determination to “organise in plants based within the bantustans”, even though it was very difficult to do so. The congress resolved that the migrant labour system, “including pass laws and influx control” should be scrapped and that workers had the right to live in “proper housing” with their families “near their place of work”.

Other resolutions including a call for the lifting of the state of emergency, the withdrawal of troops from the townships, the release of political prisoners and the unbanning of all restricted individuals and organisations.

Delegates also decided that all forms of international pressure, “including disinvestment or the threat of disinvestment” were essential and should be supported – even though it was illegal at the time to make such calls.


The issue of elections was a difficult one. Cosatu’s leadership would be faced with enormous challenges. While the organisation had been launched, it still had to be built. This task would fall on the new leadership which had to be capable of weaving together the different strands of the union movement which came together to form Cosatu. To do this effectively, the leadership would need overwhelming support. Any hint of acrimony would inhibit their ability to fulfill their tasks. So the elections were extensively caucused outside the congress hall to make sure that consensus was reached. Union delegates huddled together outside the hall, discussing prospective candidates, with emissaries moving from one caucus to another trying to reach common agreement.

After much discussion, Elijah Barayi was elected president. He took to the podium saying, “You must know that a lion has been born”. Chris Dlamini was elected vice-president, Makhulu Ledwaba second vice-president, Jay Naidoo general secretary and Sydney Mufamadi assistant general secretary. All except Ledwaba, who stood against Saawu’s Robert Gqweta, were elected unopposed. All were men.

The Rally

The second day of the congress included a workers’ rally at Kings Park stadium in Durban. Insufficient work had gone into the planning of the rally and so attendance was disappointing – only 10,000 workers gathered for the event. But the crowd that gathered was enthusiastic and responded warmly to the elected office bearers as they were introduced.

Barayi’s speech stood out. Speaking in Xhosa, with his well-known wit and sharp tongue, he launched an attack on all homeland leaders, labelling them ‘puppets’, and he called for the release of the people’s ‘real leader’ Nelson Mandela.

Barayi also called on the government to scrap the pass laws within six months or Cosatu would call on people to burn their passes. While his comments did not reflect the issues agreed on at the congress, his tone reflected the spirit of the launch and was well received by the crowd.

The federation had been launched. And, while differences, debate and tension would continue to be a feature of Cosatu meetings for years to come, the new structures would provide the framework for them to be ironed out, and policies developed.

Cosatu was launched with an unambiguous political stamp and thousands of workers were jubilant about the launch. It gave them hope. It was their achievement. And, as delegates reported back to workers throughout the country, one particular song was to be heard wherever workers gathered. It was composed by Ccawusa members and it assumed for a time, the status of the ‘official’ Cosatu song: iCosatu sonyuka nayo/masingen’ enkululekweni ran the refrain – Cosatu is rising up/let us go with it to freedom.

Jeremy Baskin, Striking Back [/su_spoiler]

[su_spoiler title=”Years of Forging Unity” icon=”folder-1″]The stormy road to union unity

The union unity talks which resulted in Cosatu’s formation took place between 1981 and 1985. These “four solid years of painstaking deliberations”, as Cosatu’s first assistant general secretary, Sydney Mufamadi, labelled them, were marked by mistrust and conflict. Differences of interest, of political outlook, of organisational methods and of personality had to be overcome before Cosatu could be born.

Talks began in earnest during August 1981, when over 100 representatives from 29 unions met in Langa, Cape Town.

Convened by the General Workers Union (GWU), all major independent unions attended the meeting. This included Food & Canning Workers Union (FCWU), African Food & Canning Workers Union (AFCWU), South African Allied Workers Union (Saawu) and the affiliates of Fosatu and Cusa.

It was a time of rapid growth for the unions, and the Langa summit was aimed at developing a united response to the Wiehahn report. The report had been released in 1979 and it recommended, for the first time in South Africa, the recognition of African workers’ right to form and belong to trade unions. But, as the emerging unions were aware, the provisions in the report also aimed to divide and control them.

The summit passed a unanimous resolution rejecting “the present system of registration insofar as it is designed to control and interfere in the internal affairs of the union.” But this statement concealed deep differences. Some Fosatu and Cusa affiliates intended to register while other unions were opposed to registration.

When Neil Aggett died, while in police custody, on 5 February 1982 at John Vorster Square, a shocked union movement decided to arrange a protest action. If unity meant anything, it should include united responses to atrocities such as this.

All union members were called to stop work for 30 minutes on 11 February. A hundred thousand workers responded to the call, the majority of them members of Fosatu affiliates.

While the Aggett stoppage was a limited action compared to some of the massive stayaways which occurred subsequently, it was the first union-organised initiative since the fifties attempting to mobilise workers nationally at their places of work, over an issue beyond the factory floor.

Registration debate

The second unity summit took place in April 1982 at Wilgespruit and the registration debate dominated the meeting.

The anti-registration faction warned that registered unions would get caught up in a web of controls and would end up becoming reformist.

The registration faction claimed to be aware of the dangers of co-option, arguing that it would be wrong to ignore the space opened up by workers’ pressure on the state and employees.

Despite these disagreements, the summit resolved to continue to work towards a union federation.

The anti-registration camp – consisting of the seven ‘community’ unions: Saawu, Gawu, Macwusa, Gwusa, the Black Municipality Workers Union (BMWU), South African Textile and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) and the Orange-Vaal General Workers Union (OVGWU) – met to confirm their opposition to registration, but reaffirmed their obligation to forming a progressive federation. Positions were beginning to crystallise.

The third summit, in July 1982, in Port Elizabeth, was the most bitter of all. The seven ‘community’ unions put forward seven ‘non-negotiable’ principles as the basis of the new federation. These were: non-registration, shopfloor bargaining, binding federation policy, worker control, non-racialism, participation in community issues and the rejection of national and international reactionary bodies.

Fosatu, FCWU and GWU felt that non-racialism, worker control and industrial unionism were non-negotiable principles. The Cape Town Municipal Workers Association (CTMWA) agreed, but felt that the new federation could include industrial and general unions. Cusa’s principles included black worker control, industrial unionism and a loose federation.

The only principle the meeting could agree on was worker control, and even this was qualified by Cusa’s emphasis on ‘black worker control’.

The summit deadlocked and a terse press statement said it all: “It was decided that there is no basis for the formation of a federation of all unions represented at this stage. No further meeting is planned.”

After the PE summit, blocs within the union movement began to harden. The Fosatu bloc grew as GWU and FCWU/AFCWU moved closer to it.

The group of seven unions affiliated to the United Democratic Front (UDF). And tensions developed between Fosatu and its allies on the one hand and Sactu and the ANC on the other.

Common ground

But the need for unity meant that talks would have to continue, sooner rather than later. GWU initiated a fourth summit to discuss the practicalities of forming a federation. Held in Athlone, Cape Town, this was well-attended, with large worker delegations.

Fosatu came to the meeting declaring that it would never sacrifice worker control and non-racialism. The group of seven, retreating from their earlier position, accepted a proposal that the federation could include unions with differing policies.

With this as a basis to move forward, the summit started to discuss the steps needed to establish a federation.

Two basic positions were hotly debated. The community unions argued that the federation should be built organically, from the bottom up. Fosatu and its allies argued for immediate practical steps to form the federation.

In the end, all the unions present, except the OVGWU, agreed to participate in the formation of the new federation and a feasibility committee was established.

The feasibility committee’s first meeting was concrete and fruitful and, among other things, agreement was reached on demarcation. Participating unions agreed to inform each other where they were organising.

But the talks deadlocked again when Macwusa, Gwusa, Saawu, Gawu and the Cusa affiliates failed to provide membership information needed to continue demarcation discussions.

Allegations of poaching flowed thick and fast. The emerging unions were competing for membership. More fundamental problems were raised of how the general unions could transform themselves into industrial unions.

At this point, the talks nearly floundered again, for a number of reasons. Firstly, Fosatu felt little pressure to form a new federation as its affiliates had a rapidly growing membership and were benefiting from the well organised federation. There was a feeling that unity talks were a waste of time and that those unions wanting unity should simply affiliate to Fosatu.

Secondly, the group of seven ‘community’ unions were considered weak at building and consolidating shopfloor structures and it seemed to those in the Fosatu bloc that they were half-hearted in their commitment to industrial unions.

However it was decided to hold one further meeting, which Ccawusa convened. At this meeting, FCWU threw down the gauntlet, saying the talks could only continue with unions who had made an unconditional decision to join the new federation. In the case of general unions, they must be in the process of dividing into industrial unions and all federations must have taken a decision to disband in favour of the new federation. Those which could not meet these criteria would have observer status until they could do so.

The Municipal and General Workers Union (Mgwusa), Saawu and Gawu objected to this and the seven community unions left the meeting and effectively the unity talks.

But the process continued, and those remaining in the talks, representing about 300,000 workers, committed themselves to forming a new federation in the course of 1984. It was still not clear how united the remaining unions were – the issue of non-racialism versus racial exclusivity was still unresolved.

There were also rumblings of countrywide uprisings and major realignments, particularly in Fosatu and Cusa, were taking place.

The newly formed UDF gained momentum during 1984. Students were boycotting classes in growing numbers and by mid-year conflicts over high rentals were developing in a number of townships.

Political and community organisations, together with trade unions, began campaigning against the election for a new tricameral, racially based parliament.

As the elections neared, conflict increased. Unrest erupted in the Vaal Triangle townships. Unpopular councillors and mayors were called on to resign, their homes were petrol bombed and some were killed. The protests spread countrywide. In response, the state moved troops into the townships.

It was clear that unity talks could not continue in a vacuum, isolated from the growing township uprisings. A turning point came with Fosatu’s participation in the November 1984 Transvaal stayaway, alongside Cusa and the UDF-affiliated unions. The two-day stayaway, initiated by Cosas, was an overwhelming success with 800,000 workers joining in.

But Fosatu’s participation was not without its tensions. Many established leaders argued the federation was bowing to populist pressures, while rank-and-file members were impatient with what was perceived to be Fosatu’s political hostility to mass action.

Cusa was also affected by the developments – it had a poor reputation on the shopfloor and its leadership ranged from the a-political, to pro-Inkatha to black consciousness supporters. In mid-1984 the Num conference, believing that Cusa leadership was not serious about union unity, decided to join the federation, even if Cusa did not.

Meanwhile, the practical aspects of launching the federation were progressing smoothly and a draft constitution was circulated for discussion – without the community unions.

Following the November stayaway, Sactu stepped in, trying to persuade the UDF-affiliated unions to rejoin the unity talks and not to rely on ANC support to avoid building strong industrial unions on the ground. Sactu also called on the feasibility committee to assist the general unions in this process and not to make industrialisation a condition for participation in the talks.

Fosatu bowed to pressure to include the UDF unions in the talks, realising that it would be counter-productive to form a new federation without the support of the ANC and Sactu.

So unity talks were re-opened to both the UDF unions and groups like Azactu, which had emerged since the first summit.

Delegates to the Ipelegeng summit, 8-9 June 1985, were asked to set out their standpoint on two issues – the draft constitution which proposed a tight federation, and the five unifying principles: non-racialism, one union one industry, worker control, representation on the basis of paid-up membership and national co-operation.

The most hotly debated principle was that of non-racialism. Azactu and some Cusa affiliates counter-posed with the concept of anti-racism. This was in fact an objection to being part of a federation dominated by the politics of the ‘non-racial democratic’ tradition.

The Ipelegeng summit separated out those unions wanting to be part of the launching congress and those wanting to stay out. There were still a number of distinct strands in the unions moving towards the launch, represented in the varying strengths and weaknesses in shopfloor organisation and involvement in political issues beyond the shopfloor.

But these and other issues were left unresolved, to be debated and ironed out within the new federation.

During the final feasibility meeting, delegates discussed a name for the new federation. Proposals included Sactu, Saftu, Fotusa and Cosatu – all based on some combination of the words federation or congress of South African trade unions. Nobody felt particularly strongly about it. ‘Federation’ was a more accurate description of the structure, while ‘Congress’ represented an association with the congress tradition of the ANC. Eventually a FCWU delegate said as long as the word Congress was included in the name, he was happy. Most delegates agreed with the sentiment – Cosatu was about to be born. Striking Back [/su_spoiler]

[su_spoiler title=”The state of Cosatu in 1995″ icon=”folder-1″]

Cosatu assistant general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi takes stock of the federation at the end of its first decade and looks at challenges that lie ahead

We have a strong core of trained leadership, including shopstewards and organisers, mixed with a newer, emerging, less-experienced membership base, many of whom have come through Cosas and the youth congresses. They are increasingly youthful, more enthusiastic, and energetic.

A growing culture of worker control and democracy has taken root. Although membership and leadership are now more non-racial in character in the federation as a whole, in many affiliates there is an under-representation of shopstewards from the ranks of “coloured”, Indian and white workers.

We have also not made enough progress in electing more women shopstewards, and shopstewards from less-skilled workers. On the whole though, our dream of a strong, non-racial federation, representative of all the strata that make up our membership, is closer to realisation. More professional and white-collar workers are starting to join: teachers, nurses, civil servants and finance workers. This trend will continue as our federation sensitises itself to the needs of those occupations we traditionally did not represent, including engineers, pilots and land surveyors.

The decline of the manufacturing sector will compel further mergers, such as those involving Num, Numsa, Ppwawu, CWIU and Fawu. Public and service sector unions will continue to grow rapidly. Cosatu needs to prepare strategies to strengthen unions like Saccawu, and prepare them to organise what will be a very difficult industry. Some white workers will join Cosatu, not so much to defend broader working class interests, but to thwart programmes like affirmative action. However, the majority will join because they will realise that a white skin no longer ensures privilege. Once they are in Cosatu, we must develop programmes to re-orientate their thinking to that of their class brothers and sisters. There is a real possibility that the militancy of the early twentieth century will return.

Implementing back to basics

In the campaign Cosatu wants to reaffirm the traditions of:

  • strong workplace structures;
  • democratic practices;
  • a high level of commitment;
  • strong bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood amongst affiliates;
  • solidarity with and across affiliates;
  • a sense of service to the cause of working people;
  • and a culture of militant struggle.

We need to do this if we are to remain vigilant against the bureaucratisation of our unions. Leaders who negotiate over the heads and behind the backs of membership, or who undermine mandates given, should have strong action taken against them. This could include the dismissal of officials and shopstewards where justified. This should also apply to those who fail, through carelessness and incompetence, to defend workers from the attacks of bosses.

Leadership/membership gap

This gap is apparent at all levels of our organisation. Between the Nedlac negotiations and the leadership, between national and regional leadership, between regional and branch/local leadership, between local leadership and shopstewards, and between shopstewards and members. There are too few people who are knowledgeable about our movement. This reliance on just a few comrades widens the gaps as those who seem to know everything are often not taken to task about their activities or comments.

Demarcation of Cosatu

The pressures brought about by changes in the industries where we organise has a direct bearing on how Cosatu demarcates itself. The 1994 national congress instructed Cosatu’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) to re-demarcate the unions based on the principle of one union, one industry. The CEC has since asked the national organisers’ forum to make a recommendation in this regard. It will hopefully present its report to the March 1996 CEC.

Changes will be influenced by the changing nature of industries, prospects for growth, the relative demise of the manufacturing sector, the growth of service industries and international trends.


The structures established by our founding congress appear to be adequate, except for the locals. We need to look at the role of locals, and check whether it is feasible to constitutionally prescribe the number of shopstewards per affiliate to attend Cosatu local meetings. The current structure allows for maximum representation of affiliates in constitutional structures. However, as regional membership expands, it is becoming too expensive and unwieldy to have the number of delegates we do. The membership of the Wits region is 450,000 and 1400 delegates are eligible to attend their regional congresses. We will have to think of ways of trimming down numbers without sacrificing the principle of representation on the basis of paid-up membership.

Trade union unity

Countless resolutions of Cosatu congresses and Workers’ Summits have not been implemented. A joint executive meeting of Cosatu, Nactu and Fedsal mandated the secretariats of the three federations to prepare a discussion paper. This has also not materialised.

Our affiliates also have enormous challenges in this regard. Attempts by Cosatu affiliates to intitiate unity with unions in Nactu and Fedsal have not borne fruit.

However, the relationship between the three is on an upward curve and unity in action is on the increase. Fedsal participated in the recent LRA campaign. The three federations frequently present a united position in structures such as Nedlac and the National Training Board.

The three are also working together in setting up a trade union institute that will play a key role in capacity-building in the future.

These are indications that unity is within reach. Our challenge in the coming years is how to translate our unity in action into “one federation, one country”.


Cosatu’s October CEC strategy workshop identified three priorities:

  • job preservation;
  • job creation;
  • and social equity.

We will judge our participation in Nedlac on the basis of these criteria. The federation is formulating more detailed demands and strategies. However, we have already made a number of submissions at Nedlac, including a proposal for a social clause in trade agreements. This proposes that South Africa should only trade with countries which:

  • respect the right of workers to join trade unions;
  • ban the use of child labour;
  • protect the right to strike and collective bargaining;
  • and have no discrimination on the basis of race, religion or gender.

The denial of worker rights in one country undermines the economies of other countries, resulting in job losses.

Social plan

South Africa’s signing of the GATT agreement means that tariff protection must be phased out. Cosatu believes that this should be combined with a programme of retraining workers to prepare for possible job losses. The federation is alarmed that while GATT makes provision for a 12-year phasing out period, the government wants to do this in eight years.


Cosatu remains opposed to the wholesale privatisation of state assets. Any privatisation must be based on the balance of evidence. The federation has called for a moratorium on unilateral restructuring and insists that trade unions and other affected constituencies must be consulted.

Public sector restructuring

The public sector should be restructured to reflect the entire South African community in terms of gender and race and must accommodate sections of society previously marginalised by the apartheid government.

Rationalisation should follow a full audit of the public service, including former homeland administrations. We are concerned that some rationalisation has already taken place without a prior audit.

The federation is opposed to rationalisation through attrition. This could lead to key and strategic positions being left vacant and undermine the government’s ability to meet its priorities such as implementing the RDP and clamping down on crime and violence.

Role of Cosatu in the transformation process

Over the years, Cosatu has been part of the broad liberation movement through its alliances with, among others, the UDF, youth congresses, and the civics. Our role now cannot be the same as in the period before the 1994 elections. The federation’s new political role is to deepen democracy and to transform the institutions of power to allow for participation by Cosatu and society as a whole.

The second key role is to defend the gains of our revolution. The goals of the national democratic revolution (NDR) have not yet all been realised. We do not yet have majority rule, instead we have a government of national unity. There is also still power-sharing at provincial and local government levels, despite the recent local government elections. We are in a transition to complete the transfer of power from the minority to the majority.

Cosatu’s watchdog role

Cosatu is an independent organisation. We cherish our independence. If we lose our independence, if we unwittingly become a transmission belt of the ANC in government, or of the SACP outside of government, we will have no role to play whatsoever. We’ve got to play a watchdog role and remind the government and the ANC that it has been elected by the majority to implement the RDP. Together with civil society and other democratic forces, we shaped that document. To some extent we are already playing a watchdog role. On many issues, it is Cosatu that makes the most constructive criticism.

Community organisation

Cosatu took a conscious decision to strengthen civil society and what in 1987 we called ‘organs of people’s power’. We asked our leadership at all levels, including shopstewards and organisers, to ensure that they play a role in the establishment of these organisations. Wherever they are, Cosatu members play a role in establishing and participating in organisations of the people. We want to continue to have a strong relationship with the civic movement, with women, with the youth, students, rural organisations, the churches and so on.

Tripartite alliance

In 1991 we decided to enter into a formal strategic alliance with the ANC and SACP. Were it not for that decision, we believe South Africa would not be where it is today. We have played a major role in the alliance – in its programmes for liberation, democratisation, and for the RDP.

Cosatu has played a leading role in shaping every major programme that impacts on our society today. We have very strong relations with our alliance partners. The tripartite secretariat meets regularly. We occasionally have national summits bringing together the senior leadership of the alliance.

However, we also believe there are serious weaknesses in how the alliance works, especially since 1994. Not all of the ministries’ current programmes are driven by conscious political decisions in line with RDP objectives. Papers have been produced in an attempt to address these weaknesses. These deal with “building a political centre”, the challenges of reconstructing and developing our country, and how to build organisation in the post-apartheid era.

The alliance must develop a focus and direction. Each year there is a need to decide on three or four key areas our activities and programmes must give direction to, or lead transformation on. These could include areas such as education, access to land or meeting basic needs such as housing, electricity, and water. Our legislative programme and other interventions must be guided by these main focus areas for transformation. There are weaknesses, but we want to correct them. Cosatu believes that the alliance leadership has the political will to do this.

Building socialism

Cosatu remains committed to building socialism. Capitalism remains in crisis, unable to address the needs of the vast majority of people. However, socialism is not an event that will arise out of nowhere. We cannot fold our arms and wait for “the great arrival of socialism” and refuse to defend our interests just because South Africa is a capitalist state. Our priority must remain the completion of the NDR. We must plant the seeds for socialism within the womb of capitalism.

Cosatu and the RDP

We have taken a much-publicised resolution that calls on workers to discuss ways and means of giving practical support to the RDP. The intention is to ensure that workers contribute to and participate in the RDP. Since this resolution, there has been considerable debate. We have had resolutions from Num, Numsa, and Sarhwu, for example, calling for specific forms of action in support of the RDP. We want to see the bosses matching workers’ contributions measure for measure.

The October 1995 CEC discussed the matter again. A proposal based on the discussions in affiliates so far will be tabled in the November 1995 Exco. We propose that our contribution to the RDP should not be confined to working on public holidays. Through our collective bargaining programmes we must push for the bosses to invest in housing, education and training, etc. For example, Potwa, through its collective bargaining strength must ensure that it meets an agreed target of new telephone line installations in rural communities. Our construction affiliate must establish its own role in housing our people. Saccawu and Sasbo must work out what they can do to ensure that the finance houses invest in new jobs, houses and services.

Relations with the GNU

Our real focus must be to ensure that the RDP delivers within agreed time-frames. We therefore seek to co-operate with the government of national unity (GNU) at all levels. A proviso is that the GNU’s programmes are in line with the alliance’s objectives. We will have to manage the contradictions in the best interests of our national democratic revolution and the broader working class. The GNU is a giant step towards liberation, but we are opposed to a GNU beyond 1999. Many workers look forward to 1999 as a moment of real liberation. The objectives of our NDR cannot be realised if the GNU is allowed to continue beyond 1999.

Constitution-making process

By the time we celebrate our tenth anniversary, the first draft of the new constitution will have been released. We have made submissions including our opposition to the lock-out clause, our positions on freedom of association, and closed shops. The new constitution must unite our members in the cause of unifying our country and building reconciliation. However, we must remind ourselves that achieving these objectives is built on our organisational strength and resolve, not on sophisticated submissions. [/su_spoiler]

[su_spoiler title=”Strategic Unionism and the Politics of Engagement” icon=”folder-1″]

In its first decade, Cosatu made some critical choices which dramatically altered South Africa’s political economy. The implications of those choices today throw up dramatic challenges, not only for Cosatu, but for the Tripartite Alliance and the country as a whole.

Cosatu was born on the eve of one of the most repressive and brutal periods of the apartheid era. Yet it not only survived, but grew in strength during this period. A major reason for this was Cosatu’s ability to weave together effective shop floor unionism with political militancy and a national perspective. What often appeared at the time to be titanic struggles between workerists and populists was synthesized into effective strategic unionism.

The prime task of a union is to represent its members. But more challenging is for a union movement to strategically alter the terrain on which it represents its members. Looking back, Cosatu – building on its forerunners – was capable of such a strategic achievement. The political economy has without doubt been shaped by Cosatu’s first ten years of existence.


Much could be said about the background to Cosatu decisions. However, focusing on socio-economic engagement, there are a few important influences.

The first and in many respects the most important was the decision to build national, industrial sector-based unions based on shopfloor organisational structures. This linked unions closely to both the economic performance of the industry and its individual plant or mine components.

These developments occurred in a period of serious job losses in manufacturing and, shortly thereafter, in mining. Unions had to fight both retrenchments and then maximise the retrenchment package – a soul-destroying and very reactive method of bargaining. Stated somewhat simply, a union faced by this situation had a number of options. It could retreat from the shopfloor to avoid endless failure, or it could take refuge in political theory and predict the final collapse of capitalism. A third choice would be to find a more proactive stance.

Another influence was the call for sanctions and disinvestment. For good unionists working in factories where workers could lose their jobs, this was not always an easy position to take. Certainly it opened a lot of space for employers during wage negotiations. To counter this, Cosatu moved to strengthen its arguments on the economic front in support of sanctions and a number of major studies on the economy and industry emerged.

This work was eventually put together into a book edited by Stephen Gelb and the Industrial Strategy Project studies coordinated by Dave Lewis.

Those studies and the later Macro Economic Research Group study for the Alliance coordinated by Vella Pillay resulted in a great deal of comparative work on other economies.

In Cosatu – and before that, in Fosatu – this international exposure was greatly strengthened by a systematic study tour programme. This established very valuable contacts with many other strategic and powerful unions. One of the more interesting exercises that specifically focused on the economy, globalisation, alliances and organisation were trilateral meetings between CUT in Brazil, CGIL in Italy and Cosatu in South Africa.

However, understanding the contemporary workings of international capitalism and considering solutions does not in itself change the terrain.

Two other ingredients were necessary. The first was the power of mass mobilisation used to act against the apartheid state.

Far from being an apparently crude and simple political instrument, the truth is that this is an exceedingly complex phenomenon and it cannot just be switched on and off. The basis for such an action is a powerful popular preparedness to act in the face of danger. Thereafter, very careful leadership decisions have to be made.

The second ingredient arose from the first. Faced by a new and decidedly hostile Labour Relations Bill, Cosatu invoked mass action against the Bill. It forced a concession and the dog had caught the cat so to speak. Did we stand back or did we actually enter negotiations?

The decision was made to negotiate and the settlement not only redrafted the Act but agreement was made to enter discussions on other socio-economic issues. The die was cast toward strategic unionism. We had entered the politics of engagement. We had entered the sophisticated arena of fighting a war of position and a war of manoeuver – this was in 1988.

On reflection, it is interesting to contemplate that the ANC was preparing a very similar process encapsulated in the Harare Declaration and the initiatives of Comrade Mandela and his colleagues.

Strategy and engagement

The need to address actual job losses because of structural changes in industries; plant and mine closures; the need for an economic rationale for sanctions; international exposure to the challenges of globalisation; the power of mass mobilisation and successful negotiations all laid the basis for strategic engagement.

However, this direction immediately raises a profound dilemma for socialists – does engagement by working class formations merely reform and sustain the capitalist system? Is it not better to resist so as to force a collapse of capitalism?

Unfortunately this is an extremely complex debate much beset by dogma. Its theoretical resolution is badly needed and even then unlikely to be a timeless and universal solution. Space (and I regret time) preclude further discussion.

For the purposes of reflecting on Cosatu’s role, let us start with issues closer to practice. Faced with rising unemployment, severe structural problems in the economy and significant changes in production processes that are being globalised by capital, Cosatu had to make choices. And it chose to be proactive and enter negotiations around restructuring. To do this, it needed a positive programme of action and a national forum in which to contest this. Cosatu began working on both of these.

On the programme of action, no perfect blue print has ever been produced. Basic positions were adopted and developed over time. On a national forum, Cosatu, along with Nactu and Fedsal, fought for and won a National Economic Forum. After the April election this was translated into Nedlac.

At this stage an important and blunt truth has to be dealt with – the position within which the South African economy and its people find themselves.

South Africa has a medium-size economy, dependent on primary product exports, a protected manufacturing sector with high levels of unemployment, poverty and basic deprivation. In addition, it is surrounded by neighbours whose position is usually even more serious.

There are of course strengths in our economy, but it would be a criminal blindness that did not see the magnitude of the challenge before us. The realities of the matter are that neither of the untested utopias – the free market or a new socialism – offers any substantive policy programme in the here and now.

Stripped of all other essentials, the Tripartite Alliance is built on this reality.

Cosatu needs to try to engage and shape the terrain on which structural change will occur and within which the challenges of globalisation are addressed. The ANC, as the governing party, needs to mobilise a truly national effort to address the needs of our people, and the South African Communist Party, to its credit, joins this effort. For the SACP this does not mean that socialism has been abandoned – in the traditions of Marxism an examination of theory is grounded in the praxis of improving the position of the working class.

The Alliance provides the political base for the macro-economic programme set out in the RDP. And the strength of this Alliance offers a very real and possibly the only feasible option to business for the way forward. Business, in its many different forms, is also threatened and challenged by globalisation and the immiseration of our peoples. And it is not exempt from considering its views on capitalism in the contemporary realities of South Africa.

The RDP is not a wish list but a set of solutions based on a careful analysis of the realities we face. Within this Cosatu will continue to represent its members to their best advantage. Business will continue to try and maximise profit. The ANC will use its unique structures and history to unify a national effort and build a nation. And the SACP will continue to represent the aspirations of workers and the poor, and through a definition of its role and the struggle of class forces, strive for a socialist future.

For Cosatu the key element of their strategy must be to push for active labour market policies to manage structural change, to be part of industrial strategy, to stress employment and the meeting of basic needs, to protect workers’ rights and participate in productivity gains in industry and the economy. However, success will still require shopfloor organisation, industrial union strength, militancy and a strategic policy capacity.

Differing interests and class forces will continue to play themselves out, but on a terrain designed to address and then avert a pending socio-economic crisis.

None of us – the Alliance, business and communities – can enjoy the luxury of political jousting. Our minds must focus on the fact that our success needs every ounce of our energy. Only parties that could not mobilise on the RDP can afford to joust for a mere political advantage. Our liberation struggle still has much work to do.

Alec Erwin, former Numsa national education officer, now an MP and Deputy Minister of Finance


[su_spoiler title=”The women’s struggle in Cosatu” icon=”folder-1″]

Cosatu’s struggle for gender equality has been waged on many fronts – against the bosses and the apartheid government, and within Cosatu itself.

The struggle to improve the conditions of working women in South Africa has not only been a struggle against the bosses and the apartheid government. It has also been a struggle within Cosatu to make women’s issues a priority.

While some achievements have been made, there is still much to be done. And the battle to break down sexist ideas and practices within the federation as well as the struggle to map out a strategic plan to fight gender discrimination and empower women in the unions continues.

Cosatu’s heritage

Cosatu inherited some important victories in the years before its launch. These include the first maternity agreement signed by Ccawusa in 1983 and CWIU’s victorious struggle for equal pay for grade 4 machine operators at General Tyres. CWIU also got a manager fired for sexually harassing a woman worker at a Dunlop factory. In addition, unions won an amendment to the Labour Relations Act to the effect that Wage Determinations and Industrial Council Agreements should not discriminate on the grounds of sex.

In 1984, Fosatu published a book, called Women Workers, which outlined the key problems faced by women in the unions and the federation started gender discussion groups which debated separate women’s forums in the unions.

Passing resolutions

To register its commitment to gender equality, Cosatu passed various resolutions at almost every national congress since its inception. These resolutions dealt with:

  • the struggle against discriminatory treatment of women at work, in society and in the federation;
  • building women leadership;
  • reviving the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw); and
  • establishing gender forums and women’s forums.

Some of these resolutions sparked off heated debates, especially those on gender/women’s forums, the quota system and sexual conduct. While these debates continue to this day, these resolutions have been criticised because they have not been implemented effectively. Saccawu organiser Patricia Appolis explains why: “Perhaps the biggest problem with the previous resolutions was that women members in general did not actively participate in each stage of developing these resolutions.”

Thus it is important to make sure that women workers are involved in writing the resolutions which affect them. In addition, the obstacles standing in the way of their implementation must be removed.

Establishing women’s forums and gender forums

In its search for effective ways of organising union women, Cosatu started the debate over setting up gender structures at its first national women’s conference in 1988. Even though serious political differences emerged at this conference, women’s groups and committees were set up by affiliates like Numsa and TGWU. Numsa published Numsa Women Organise to popularise the union’s attempt at organising women. Other affiliates like TGWU organised training for women leaders. However, some affiliates did not have any functioning women’s forums.

In 1990, regional and local women’s committees and forums were also set up. They organised activities on general union issues such as a march against the Labour Relations Amendment Act, and on gender issues such as the National Childcare Campaign.

The Wits Women’s Forum produced a book in 1992, called No Turning Back to popularise the struggle for gender equality in the unions.

It was very difficult to establish these separate structures. They were run by women unionists also active in other union structures. This meant that they were burdened with extra union responsibilities.

In addition to childcare and domestic responsibilities, union women were prevented from active participation in union work because of patriarchal domination in their homes. Incidents where husbands or boyfriends stopped women from attending meetings or even dragged women out of meetings were reported.

The women’s structures were also not taken seriously by many men in the unions. Programmes were not supported, resources were limited and the structures were isolated from mainstream union activities.

Other problems included the establishment of women’s structures as substructures of education committees; a lack of organisational and educational skills and the absence of specialised leadership programmes to assist women. These all contributed to the decline of women’s structures.

At the 1991 Cosatu Congress, women had to fight for the continued existence of their forums. It was eventually decided that work would continue through women’s and gender forums. Both men and women would participate in these and they would play an important role in educating men about the need for affirmative action for women.

Cosatu’s second Women’s Conference in August 1992 called for a Family Code which would promote equal domestic responsibilities for men and women. The delegates also agreed to target laws that discriminated against women, campaign for better representation of women on decision-making structures, assist with drawing up a Women’s Charter and focus on maximum grassroots participation of women across the political spectrum. This conference was unanimous that separate forums for women to discuss gender issues were necessary to build women’s confidence and skills.

The debate over separate women’s and gender structures was raised again at a successful Cosatu Gender Winter School in 1995. Criticisms of the gender forums were raised as women still had to take responsiblity for them and men tended to dominate the forums when they attended.

Women’s representation

The under-representation of women at leadership level in Cosatu is still a crucial issue and there have been furious debates over ways to deal with the limited number of women in leadership positions. More than one Congress has debated the implementation of a quota system to reserve seats for women only. The debate is unresolved.

In the meanwhile, survey results show a bleak picture. Naledi research showed that, since its inception, Cosatu has never had women in powerful decision-making positions. With the exception of Sadwu, only one regional secretary is a woman and no general secretaries or union presidents have been women.

In 1993, Cosatu’s first woman national office bearer, Connie September, was elected. Excluding Sadwu, the Naledi survey shows a slight improvement in 1994, with 8% of national office bearers of Cosatu and its affiliates being women as compared to 5% in 1990.

Sexual conduct and sexual harassment in the unions

Sexual harassment and sexual conduct have been very sensitive issues in Cosatu since they first surfaced formally in 1989 during a women’s national seminar on sexual harassment in Cosatu.

This laid the basis for the controversial TGWU resolution on sexual conduct in the unions which was debated and rejected at Cosatu’s Congress in 1989.

The 1994 Congress was affected by allegations of serious sexual harassment on the part of some delegates at the Congress and this development laid the basis for a code of conduct on sexual harassment inside the unions.

In May 1995, Cosatu’s Central Executive Committee passed a code of conduct on sexual harassment proposed by the National Women’s Subcommittee. Whilst this represents a big step forward, implementing such a code presents a big challenge.

At the launch of the Sexual Harassment Education Project (SHEP ) in November 1994, Rose Makwane, Cosatu’s gender co-ordinator, made it clear that women would have to push for the code to be discussed and acted upon because the issue is not on most unions’ agendas. The absence of properly functioning gender structures will make the task even more difficult.


A number of affiliates have actively engaged in campaigns around issues affecting women workers on the shopfloor.

Of these, the struggle around parental rights and childcare have made most progress. Saccawu has spearheaded the campaign for paternal rights by focusing on the sexual division of labour in the home and the need to share domestic responsibilities between men and women. To popularise this issue, the union published a book in conjunction with Lacom, entitled Sharing the Load.

Saccawu, along with other unions, signed parental rights agreements with a number of companies. These established paid leave and job security as a right.

Since its first National Childcare Day campaign on 1 June 1990, Cosatu has consistently used the day to highlight its struggle to get employers to provide childcare facilities. On the day, men and women workers have taken their children to work. These actions have led to a number of employers negotiating childcare facilities and childcare allowances with various unions.

Some unions (particularly Numsa and CWIU) have actively taken up the struggle for equal pay for work of equal value. Progress was also made on women’s health rights when unions like Numsa won the right to free pap smears for working women. Fawu has also set a precedent in fighting sex discrimination in the workplace by taking a company to court over the matter.

Policy interventions

The labour movement is now confronted with intervention in the policy-making arena through its involvement in Nedlac and other tri-partite institutions. Here the struggle to ensure that policy making is gender-sensitive remains a big challenge. At present, a limited number of union women serve in Nedlac’s four chambers. This could limit the extent to which issues affecting women are taken into account.

At the outset, Cosatu was instrumental in shaping the formulation of the RDP, which makes extensive mention of the position of women in the economy and society. But intervention in these areas has raised the need for unions to strategise around the integration of gender into mainstream policies.

An important achievement at the level of policy is the adoption of the Women’s Charter for Effective Equality at a convention organised by the National Women’s Coalition (WNC) in February 1994. Cosatu is participating in the WNC and it has made a contribution to Article 3 of the charter which deals with the economy and the need for the economic empowerment of women.

Assessing Cosatu’s achievements

Cosatu has achieved much in the first decade of its existence:

  • More women have been organised into unions since the early 1970s. The struggle for gender equality is firmly on the labour agenda and gender issues are formally part of the programme of most unions.
  • The conscientisation of men and women has occurred through debates and discussion about the need to take women and the issues that affect them seriously. Numerous workshops, articles in union media and debates at conferences and congresses, both inside and outside the trade unions, have contributed to a growing gender awareness. However, it is unclear to what extent this has led to substantial changes in attitudes.
  • Cosatu has tried different mechanisms, from establishing autonomous women’s structures to gender forums, to find the most effective ways of organising union women.
  • Full-time national gender coordinators for Cosatu and a few affiliates have been appointed. This means that union resources, albeit not enough, are being specifically allocated to advance gender equality in the unions.
  • Issues that address women’s position on the shopfloor as well as in the unions have been taken up by the federation and its affiliates. Progress has been made on such things as childcare, parental rights and, more recently, sexual harassment at work and in the unions.
  • Cosatu has contributed to the development of respected women leaders, three of whom now serve in the national assembly of the new parliament.

But a lot still needs to be done. The following areas are crucial and still need to be developed:

  • Large sections of working women are unorganised, especially in the low-paid sectors of the economy where there is a concentration of women, such as part-time, casual, temporary and subcontracted work. As yet attempts to organise this layer of women workers are inadequate.
  • Women are still grossly under-represented in decision-making structures of the unions. This problem has been aggravated by the departure of leading union women to government and other organisations.
  • Gender issues are under-researched in South Africa. Few unions have recorded figures and so most statistics are guesses. And, while areas and issues have been identified, research is yet to be carried out.
  • More discussion is needed on labour’s strategy for the further emancipation of women. Issues and campaigns have been taken up, primarily with short-term focusses, in a piecemeal fashion. Developing a strategy to transform existing power structures that lie at the root of women’s subordination is crucial. In addition, the task of linking day-to-day practical campaigns to strategic long-term objectives still needs to be thought through.

Shafika Isaacs of Trade Union Research Project (TURP)


[su_spoiler title=”Economic policy” icon=”folder-1″]

Cosatu was born into an economic crisis which affected workers most seriously. High inflation and rapidly rising unemployment resulted in an onslaught against the living standards of working people.

The political crisis of the apartheid regime had also led to South African businesses embarking on an ‘investment strike’. Businesses were sending their money out of the country or were speculating on the stock exchange – not to protest against apartheid, but to protect their profits.

At the same time, during the mid to late eighties, the apartheid regime was embarking on a programme of unilateral economic restructuring, in preparation for the end of apartheid rule. This was to ensure that, even if minority political domination came to an end, the economic privilege and power which formed the core of apartheid would still be protected.

Elements of this restructuring included privatisation, reduction of company tax, trade liberalisation, deregulation, and large-scale borrowing to indebt a future state. These steps were intended to prevent a democratic government from implementing a programme of fundamental economic transformation.

Workers had no say

Cosatu was faced with the challenge of developing an economic programme to defend working people against these attacks. Struggles for a living wage would prove ineffective if workers’ pay packets had to stretch further to support more people because of rising unemployment, while each Rand earned could buy less and less. Cosatu had to act both from a defensive point of view – to stop measures which would be harmful to workers – and from a proactive point of view – campaigning for policies which would be in the interests of working people.

Workers in South Africa have historically been excluded from all economic decision making. On national economic questions, a cosy relationship between big corporations and the apartheid state ensured the protection of white minority privilege and super-profits. Issues such as subsidies to companies, trade agreements, industrial policy and taxation were settled by these players. Workers were never asked their opinions.

The situation was the same within industries. The development of each sector was determined, not by the country’s long-term economic needs, or the needs of the people who sweat to turn the wheels of the economy. Rather, the large corporations were driven to maximise short-term profit, and government sought to ensure the economic base for its bureaucracy and the social welfare needs of the minority.

The mining industry was a typical case. Our mineral resources were plundered for export, with no long-term plans for the development of the industry. Workers’ health and lives were expendable, and no concern was exhibited to secure jobs, or to expand the job creation potential of the industry.

The regime also did little to protect the long-term economic interests of the country, but simply regarded the industry as a ‘cash-cow’ which could be milked to service apartheid.

Generally, at the level of the workplace, workers were simply expected to be onlookers, while decisions affecting their lives were taken by others. The employers’ failure to invest in new plants, equipment, training, research and the development of new products, all had profound effects on workers and the economy. But company decision making was regarded as the ‘prerogative’ of management – it was their right to manage or mismanage without interference.

Putting a stop to unilateral restructuring

Until 1992, on the economic terrain, Cosatu focused on resisting unilateral economic restructuring by the regime. This included the campaign against the privatisation of state assets. In 1991 Cosatu spearheaded a campaign, which included a national general strike, against the unilateral imposition of VAT, and other economic restructuring. The campaign had major ramifications.

It placed the demand for a progressive taxation system on the national agenda, establishing that the trade union movement was not only concerned with the interests of its members, but of all working and poor people. The campaign showed the determination of the trade union movement to stop unilateral restructuring and it ultimately led to the formation of the National Economic Forum, a tripartite forum for the negotiation of economic issues.

In the process which followed, Cosatu took part in discussions both about the structure of the tax system, as well as the budgeting process and the allocation of state resources.

Cosatu also entered, very late in the day, into negotiations to limit the damage of the imposition of the agreement on trade and tariffs (GATT) on our industries. The federation was also part of negotiations on the setting up of a labour intensive public works programme and other job creation programmes. An attempt was made to reach agreement on the setting up of centralised bargaining forums, and the involvement of unions in formulating industry policy.

These initiatives were weakened by a hostile, anti-worker government, and the reluctant participation of employers. The trade union movement had also not yet developed the capacity to enter this terrain effectively.

Policy formulation

In the late 1980’s, Cosatu initiated a process of economic research and policy formulation. Various research projects and Cosatu workshops identified the structural problems in the economy. The findings were published in a Cosatu Education publication – Our Political Economy: Understanding the Problems.

Together with its allies, Cosatu formulated an economic development strategy which was in every respect the opposite of the apartheid growth path. Apartheid had been based on the use of cheap labour, the exclusion of the majority from basic services and infrastructure, the entrenchment of power and privilege for a few, a low skills base, reliance on the exploitation of raw materials, production of luxuries for a minority market and extensive state protection and subsidies to business.

The alternative growth path proposed by the democratic movement saw the raising of living standards for the majority of people. This path would bring people into the mainstream of the economy, as the key to unlocking the country’s economic potential.

The main elements of this approach involved:

  • a massive investment in the training and development of our people;
  • the comprehensive extension of basic services and infrastructure throughout the country;
  • adding value to our raw materials (beneficiation);
  • large-scale redirection of investment into productive capacity, technological innovation and research;
  • the reorientation of our manufacturing sector to produce affordable commodities for the mass market – locally and regionally;
  • rural development and land reform.

The perspective goes beyond South Africa’s borders, recognising that this strategy can only succeed if the region as a whole is developed.

The creation of sustainable jobs and public works programmes to service, particularly the unemployed youth, was seen as the priority.

The state in this scenario is a key actor in helping to direct the economy through selective strategic interventions. Allowing market forces to dictate would simply reproduce the apartheid growth path.

Finally, the transformation process needs to be driven by the participation of ordinary people through their organisations. This is not just desirable, but fundamental to its success.

Growth through redistribution

This people-driven growth path came to be known as the “Growth through Redistribution” approach, although some felt that this slogan didn’t fully capture the economic restructuring element of the strategy.

Cosatu’s Economic Policy Conference in March 1992 outlined the framework for this approach.

The conference saw this growth path as a major advance in promoting working class power in society and, in that sense, as a qualitative advance towards socialism. This was particularly in relation to:

  • the promotion of worker control and involvement in strategic decision making at all levels of the economy;
  • the reassertion of the central role of state ownership in providing for basic needs;
  • attempts to bring about an element of planning and social regulation in relation to key areas of the economy.

By 1993 Cosatu began to enter into discussions with its allies on the adoption of a comprehensive programme for the reconstruction of the country. Cosatu convened a Special National Congress in September 1993 to debate the adoption of a programme for reconstruction and development. This laid the basis for what ultimately became the RDP – the programme of the ANC-led alliance, and the mandate on which the ANC was elected to govern this country. Central to the RDP is the economic growth path which had been developed by the democratic movement.

Economics of a democratic South Africa

The advent of a democratic government in 1994 saw the introduction of the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac). This institution involves trade unions and other major stakeholders in civil society in negotiations with business and government on key socio-economic and labour market issues.

The new government was inaugurated in a world climate extremely hostile to the policies advanced in the RDP. At the same time, powerful local forces, including business and the old bureaucracy, were promoting an agenda at odds with the RDP.

The ‘neo-liberal agenda’ as it has come to be known, prescribed the drastic reduction of the role of the state, the adoption of free market policies, the lifting of all trade barriers, privatisation, and financial policies which made rapid development very difficult. Powerful institutions such as the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the IMF, were dictating economic policies to governments, particularly in the developing world.

In this context, Cosatu embarked on a two-pronged strategy of campaigning for measures to defend workers against the effects of these policies while attempting to combat them.

At Cosatu’s Fifth National Congress in 1994, and Cosatu’s International Policy Conference in 1995, resolutions were adopted calling for campaigns to restructure the World Trade Organisation and international financial institutions, and to campaign for a social clause in trade agreements to limit the exploitation of cheap labour and the abuse of trade union rights in developing countries. Positions were also adopted to oppose the unplanned lifting of tariffs in a way which threatened industries and jobs, but called for a co-ordinated approach to combine industrial policy with tariff policy to ensure the strengthening of our industries.

Congress also called for the introduction of a Social Plan Act to compel employers to contribute to a fund to retrain and assist workers displaced by restructuring. Campaigns would also be undertaken for worker control of pension and provident funds to end speculative use of these funds, and ensure that they were invested in job-creating productive activity. Congress also committed Cosatu to ensure the restructuring of the taxation system to relieve working people of the unfair burden, and to ensure the budget reflected new priorities. Congress made specific proposals to ensure that workers are more effectively involved in economic decision making at national, industry and workplace levels.

Both Congress and the CEC strategy workshop in October 1995 emphasised the defense of jobs and job creation as the priority of the trade union movement. A national conference on alternatives to retrenchments will be called to focus on ways to retain jobs. Cosatu will place job creation as a priority on all agendas, from policy discussions in parliament and Nedlac, to industry and workplace negotiations.

Finally, Cosatu has committed itself to press for the convening of a summit of Southern African states and trade unions, to formulate a regional development strategy. This recognises that the RDP can never succeed if South Africa is surrounded by poverty-stricken neighbors. The economic future of the region is indivisible and questions such as migration cannot be addressed effectively outside of a regional economic framework.

Neil Coleman, Cosatu internal relations officer


[su_spoiler title=”Cosatu’s Founding Unions” icon=”folder-1″]

  • Amalgamated Black Workers Union (Abwu)
  • Building, Construction and Allied Workers Union (Bcawu)
  • Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union of SA (Ccawusa)
  • Commercial and Distributive Workers Union (CDWU)
  • Cleaning Services and Allied Workers Union (CSAWU)
  • Cape Town Municipal Workers Association (CTMWA)
  • Chemical Workers Industrial Union (CWIU)
  • Food and Canning Workers Union (FCWU)
  • General and Allied Workers Union (Gawu)
  • General Workers Union (GWU)
  • Garment Workers Union of SA (Gwusa)
  • Health and Allied Workers Union (Hawu)
  • Metal and Allied Workers Union (Mawu)
  • Motor Assemblers and Component Workers Union of SA (Macwusa)
  • Municipal Workers Union of SA (Mwusa)
  • National Automobile and Allied Workers Union (Naawu)
  • National General Workers Union of SA (Ngwusa) and the Retail and Allied Workers Union – Pretoria (Rawu)
  • National Iron, Steel and Metal Workers Union (Nismawu)
  • National Post Office and Allied Workers Union (Napawu)
  • National Union of Textile Workers (NUTW)
  • National Union of Mineworkers (Num)
  • Paper, Wood and Allied Workers Union (Pwawu)
  • Retail and Allied Workers Union – Cape Town (Rawu – CT)
  • SA Allied Workers Union (Saawu)
  • SA Domestic Workers Association (Sadwa)
  • SA Mineworkers Union (Samwu)
  • SA Railways and Harbour Workers Union (Sarhwu)
  • SA Scooter, Transport and Allied Workers Union (Sastawu)
  • SA Textile and Allied Workers Union (Satawu)
  • Sweet, Food and Allied Workers Union (SFAWU)
  • SA Textile Workers Union (Satwu)
  • Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU)
  • United Mining, Metal and Allied Workers of SA (Ummawosa)


[su_spoiler title=”Cosatu and the UDF” icon=”folder-1″]

Mufamadi says Cosatu explored relationships with a range of political organisations. “In 1988 I was sent to Cape Town to have a meeting with the New Unity Movement, to explore possibilities of working together around specific issues. At the time we were trying to organise the Anti-Apartheid Conference (AAC). The New Unity Movement put forward conditions which in our view were calculated to make a working relationship impossible. Similarly with the black consciousness movement.

“But in the UDF, Cosatu found a ready and willing ally around common struggles. Both Cosatu and the UDF were satisfied with a working relationship on programmes that were defined jointly, without Cosatu having to affiliate to the UDF. The Freedom Charter also became a document which both sides felt could lay the basis for joint programmes.”

At Cosatu’s 1988 Special National Congress large delegations from Sayco and the UDF were observers with full speaking rights. Mufamadi explains: “The state of emergency ate away at the organised strength of many organisations”. “Both Sayco and the UDF were restricted in such a way that it was impossible for them to hold broad, representative meetings of their structures. It was a subtle way of hitting at Cosatu, and an attempt to sever our relations with the MDM.

“The state detained layer upon layer of shopstewards. There was also the bombing of Cosatu House and raids on union offices. There was a fear psychosis. The UDF and its affiliates, and Nactu, were all hard hit. It was necessary to respond. The special congress gave us an opportunity to broaden the anti-apartheid forces, and gave a voice to the restricted organisations. We were also formulating a programme for the AAC and resolutions to be debated there.

“The AAC was banned shortly before it was due to start. But the state overlooked the fact that we had already established a team of people representing the organisations attending the special congress. They continued their work of consulting with organisations around an AAC, and the issues to be debated there. So the work of the AAC could continue, albeit at a less public level.”

Talks with the ANC

In 1989, Mufamadi and Mayekiso went to Lusaka to talk to the ANC. Mufamadi explains: “The ANC released constitutional guidelines for debate and discussion in its own ranks. In July 1989, at another Cosatu Special National Congress, we adopted the constitutional guidelines. We also agreed on convening the Conference for a Democratic Future (CDF), which sought to achieve the objectives of the AAC. Mayekiso and myself were sent to talk to the ANC prior to the adoption of the Harare Declaration.

“Cosatu had decided to talk to the ANC and not wait for the outcome of the CDF. It was necessary for us as Cosatu to engage with the ANC and to know on what basis the ANC was putting forward its positions in the document. It was Mayekiso’s and my responsibility to report back to Cosatu on the ANC’s views. However, we still had to take Cosatu’s views to the rest of the democratic movement in the CDF.”

Coordinating role

A central dilemma for Cosatu has been the balance between its coordinating role and an interventionist one, says Naidoo.

“There were many times when we as office-bearers could see a problem. We knew what to do. But an affiliate would argue that they are autonomous.

“In the interests of unity and servicing members, Cosatu needs a more pro-active vision. There are very powerful affiliates, and there are weaker ones. That’s been our history. How does the experience of an Num or Numsa help the organisation of nurses? That is Cosatu’s responsibility – to translate the experiences of the federation and its affiliates into practical value for the rest of the working class.”


Cosatu had the advantage that, by the time it was formed, the rest of the world had been mobilised to support the anti-apartheid struggle, says Mufamadi.

“You had anti-apartheid movements right around the world – in the Americas, Europe, Australia, Japan and Africa. Unions were prominent in this movement, campaigning for sanctions and boycotts of South African products, for example, dockers refusing to handle cargo to or from South Africa.

“Many of our founding affiliates had links with unions abroad. But Cosatu decided not to affiliate to the WFTU, ICFTU or WCL.

“The birth of Cosatu made properly co-ordinated solidarity action possible. In our Hands Off Cosatu campaign we could count on support from all of these international bodies. They shared with us their resources and their experiences.”

Cosatu also played a key role in mobilising support for the sanctions campaign, though this was not always easy. “We did what we could to prepare in terms of policy and organisation. But when your job’s on the line, it’s a different story,” said Naidoo. “But workers understood that the cause of retrenchments, low wages and bad working conditions was the apartheid government.

“To win better laws and rights, we had to get rid of the government. It took us a long time to come to the point of calling for sanctions. We were criticised by our allies and our enemies for that. But because people were in daily contact with the shopstewards, because they trusted Cosatu to represent their best interests, workers were won to the position in favour of sanctions.”

Future challenges

A key challenge for Cosatu is to organise professional workers, says Naidoo. “Economic innovation is the cutting edge of the new economy. We have to bridge the gap between professional and blue-collar workers. We have to restructure the collective bargaining system and link it to the broader social wage, to training, career-pathing and industrial restructuring.

“Our industries are exposed to competition. How do we create jobs and improve conditions in such a situation? The future of the formal economy rests on high productivity and high wages. But what do we do about the millions of unemployed? It is about engaging the state and business. In Nedlac, Cosatu can now influence the budget of the country, industrial policy and trade and tariff policy.”

The question is, says Naidoo, can Cosatu develop the skills, people and policies to participate effectively? “In defending workers’ interests , Cosatu will come up against questions of technology, productivity and competitiveness. Maybe we need fewer unions with bigger resources to deal with this. We need to start developing Cosatu’s policy capacity.”

Mufamadi says that the new flag flying over the Union buildings does not mean the end of our struggle. “The task of democratisation still lies ahead. It must be driven by workers. The experience of Cosatu during the years of struggle must be emulated by the broad democratic movement, the participation by rank and file in formulating programmes, making leadership accountable to rank and file, renewing mandates, etc.

“Our capacity to deliver is still limited. But at least now we have representative government at local level in most parts of the country. Cosatu members in local government carry these traditions with them.”


[su_spoiler title=”Allies in the Community” icon=”folder-1″]

Over the years there has been much debate about Cosatu’s relationship with the community – the place where workers and their families live alongside other residents and interact with each other in a myriad of different ways.

While trade unions organised workers around shopfloor issues, civic organisations organised around problems facing workers and other residents in the townships where they lived.

Most community-based organisations straddled different class origins and aspirations. In apartheid South Africa, these organisations could not be blind to the powerlessness of the oppressed and most were therefore overtly political.

Many were in alliance with township-based student, youth, women’s and other organisations.

Some strands of the democratic union movement which had begun to emerge in the late seventies were suspicious of community-based organisations. They preferred to emphasise shopfloor-based and “pure” working class organisation.

Another strong union tradition believed unions had to defend the working poor and the unemployed, not only in their workplaces, but also where they lived.

Union members, it was argued, were not only workers in the workplace, paid low wages and refused union recognition. They were also residents living in the apartheid ghettoes, paying high rents for matchbox houses and governed by puppet local councils. Workers were parents of children who were victims of apartheid education and who were shot at and jailed for demanding democratic SRCs. Their families languished in bantustan dumping grounds as apartheid policy denied them the right and the means to live together.

In short, the interests of workers in the factories, mines, shopfloors, farms and kitchens of apartheid South Africa were inextricably linked with those of the oppressed and exploited in the society as a whole. The working people therefore had to build alliances in order to destroy the apartheid system.

At a time when the ANC and the SACP were still banned and exiled, the emerging trade union movement had a unique depth of organisation and potential to mobilise. It was this which many in the mass democratic movement were keen to harness in the battle against apartheid.

The UDF was formed two years prior to the launch of Cosatu. It generated unprecedented enthusiasm, mobilisation and mass organisation and pulled together organisations previously confined to different sectors or local areas. However, it was still young, and a target of state repression.

“Through Cosatu, workers will take their rightful place in the liberation movement to free our people from oppression and exploitation,” said the UDF at the time of Cosatu’s launch.

UDF-aligned unions such as Saawu, Gawu and Macwusa had cemented close ties with civics and political organisations. Others such as GWU, FCWU and CWIU had won community backing for consumer boycotts in support of worker demands (Fattis and Monis, Wilson Rowntrees, Colgate and the meat boycott).

Joint action between unions, community organisations and the UDF took the form of opposition to the tricameral parliament, local council elections and the Koornhof Bills, boycotts in protest against rent and bus fare increases and in support of student demands for democratic SRCs, as well as appeals to the township unemployed not to scab during strikes.

In the early eighties many worker leaders and officials of Fosatu affiliates, as well as some independent unions such as the Cape Town Municipal Workers Association (CTMWA), were not comfortable with developing ties with community structures.

Fosatu general secretary Joe Foster’s speech to the August 1982 Fosatu congress cautioned against ‘unprincipled’ alliances with ‘non-worker groups’. This did little to persuade political activists of the time that in the emerging trade union movement (or Fosatu at least), they had a willing ally. These unions, on the other hand, feared jeopardising hard-won, factory-based organisational gains that were just beginning to be reflected in the development of shopsteward councils.

But growing township-based mass struggles began to sweep aside any moves to isolate trade unions and their members from their communities. In many areas, students and youth, led by Cosas and UDF-aligned youth congresses, were at first most active in the resistance and bore the brunt of security force action. It was up to workers and other residents to join in the battle.

One event symbolised the easing of the suspicion some Fosatu leaders held towards alliances with community groups.

The November 1984 call for a stay-away to protest, among others, the presence of troops in the townships, the education crisis, rent increases, and the dismissal of SFAWU members at Simba, came in the heat of unity talks, a year before the launch. The unions could no longer remain non-aligned and unresponsive to the wave of struggle that was sweeping the townships.


[su_spoiler title=”Policy debates in Cosatu” icon=”folder-1″]

At Cosatu’s launch, the question of an official political direction for the new federation was left to the first Central Executive Committee (CEC) meeting two months later. However, the tone of speeches at the launch left no doubt that the majority of unions and labour movement activists aligned themselves with the Congress tradition. This was reinforced by general secretary Jay Naidoo’s trip to Harare to meet with the ANC, a meeting between the executives of Cosatu and the UDF, and a fuller meeting in March 1986 between the leadership of Cosatu and the ANC and Sactu in Harare.

Cosatu’s first CEC meeting eventually adopted a resolution which incorporated elements of all the political resolutions submitted to the launching congress. However, this debate continued to rage, both within the federation and in the broader mass democratic movement.

At civic level, Cosatu’s launch gave impetus to the task of building organisation in communities. Many activists argued for a trade union approach to structures (building organisation from the lowest level) and practices (mandates and report-back). However, this was easier said than done, particularly in a state of low-level war. Student, youth and civic activists were regularly detained and even killed. Venues were refused, meetings were often broken up or attacked by security forces.

“From ungovernability to people’s power” and “build organs of people’s power” became the rallying cry. For a while street committees, people’s courts and later self-defence units mushroomed. These generated new layers of leadership to replace those picked off by repression. Pockets of rudimentary alternative governance began to fill the vacuum left by the destruction of apartheid rule.

These new forms of organisation were often able to give direction to mass struggles and to defend communities against third force attacks.

But as activists shifted to formal political organisation, especially after the unbanning of the liberation movements, these institutions collapsed.

While workers had always been part and parcel of community and political organisations, the unbanning of the ANC and the SACP saw Cosatu enter formally into the tripartite alliance.

Debates over the decade

During the ten years following its launch, three issues related to Cosatu’s political stand were intensely debated, both inside and outside Cosatu:

  • the adoption by Cosatu and its affiliates of the Freedom Charter;
  • the issue of ‘two hats’, being an official or office bearer of both Cosatu and other organisations;
  • the nature of the tripartite alliance.

Cosatu adopted the Freedom Charter at its second congress in 1987, but did not affiliate to the UDF. Although it had political overtones, the two hats debate was a much more practical issue. Organised workers wanted to make sure that their leaders and officials carried out their union responsibilities, they did not want to deny them office in political organisations.

At Cosatu’s 1989 special congress, the debate on the form of opposition to the state emerged in the ‘united front’ versus ‘broad front’ debate. These were questions which gripped the entire federation, compelling workers – through their affiliated unions – to make political choices long before they got the vote.

Community campaigns

While unions were often asked to support community campaigns, Cosatu and its affiliates also enlisted community support for workplace struggles.

An example of this was during ‘siyalala’ or sleep-in strikes. Residents in areas closest to the factories would bring food, water, newspapers, toiletries etc. to strikers.

Consumer boycotts of white towns were another a key tactic used by an alliance of unions and community organisations in the eighties to mobilise support for their demands.

Stayaways were another well-used form of joint action between unions and communities. Some were initiated by students and communities and others by Cosatu. Given that an effective stayaway was one heeded by all sections of the community, the key to success was clearly broad consultation. This lesson was learnt as far back as the fifties and again during the 1976 student uprisings.

The anti-VAT campaign probably stands out as the clearest example of Cosatu’s capacity to mobilise a broad section of society in action against unpopular policies. At Cosatu’s initiative, a range of organisations within civil society reached agreement on a set of demands to negotiate with government. Government’s failure to respond to a reasonable compromise offer led to the November 1991 stayaway.

Since the April 1994 elections, the stayaway tactic has been used rather tentatively. Cosatu’s Wits region called a half-day stayaway in support of labour’s demands around the LRA Bill earlier this year. The federation had stated its intention to mobilise broad support for its position on the LRA. While this was achieved with the tripartite alliance, this support did not reach down to a mass-level within the communities.

In Kwazulu/Natal, Cosatu initiated a half-day stayaway on November 1 in protest against that province’s failure to hold local government elections.

The unemployed

The federation’s four-year experiment with building organisation among the unemployed ended in 1991, when it dissolved the National Unemployed Workers Coordinating Committee, which had been set up in 1987.


Hostels housing pre-dominantly Zulu-speaking migrant workers are another area of weakness. Initially many union members lived in hostels. But Inkatha forced-recruitment campaigns made it difficult for hostel dwellers to openly declare their membership of Cosatu unions.

In addition, township residents and hostel dwellers have tended to regard each other with mutual disdain.

The state-inspired violence against ordinary people – commuters, residents, worshippers and shebeen patrons – exacerbated these tensions. Despite these difficulties, many hostel dwellers have remained loyal members of Cosatu affiliates.

Solidarity forever?

While Cosatu’s relationship with the community was particularly close in the years of the anti-apartheid struggle, it is doubtful that the federation is any closer to communities today. Strikes involving nurses, teachers and municipal workers have highlighted the need for mobilising work in communities. This would help ensure that workers do not become isolated in their demands. While many support the struggles of public sector workers, township communities are often hardest hit by disruptions to health services, schooling, and municipal services such as refuse collection and sanitation. In addition, some Cosatu locals and regions have taken it upon their shoulders to help find solutions to the problems of crime and endemic taxi violence in their areas.


It had been hoped that the emergence of Sanco as the national umbrella organisation for the civic movement would cement a relationship between Cosatu and local communities. This has not happened on a national basis.

In some areas, in the November 1995 local government elections, candidates with Sanco links stood in opposition to ANC candidates. There is also a lot of room for improving relations between Sanco structures in the formal townships, and informal settlements. And Sanco and the ANC are at odds with traditional leaders in some areas. In many of these disputes, members of Cosatu affiliates are to be found on both sides. These factors have inhibited closer ties between Cosatu and the civic movement.

Local government

Many shopstewards and officials from Cosatu affiliates have been elected to serve in local government. These councillors bring with them a strong democratic tradition, and a commitment to serving people.

This is bound to impact on the relationship between elected councils and the communities they are meant to serve.

The success of the RDP, and thereby local government, will depend on implementation at local level. This process will also be crucial in rebuilding ties of solidarity.

The future

Cosatu’s main task is to protect the interests of its own members. At the same time, the federation has always committed itself to act in the broad interests of the working people and the unemployed. The federation initiated the RDP and has been an important force in pushing for its implementation.

But the playing field has changed and the challenge facing Cosatu is a much more complex one.

Numsa general secretary Enoch Godongwana argues that township communities remain a critical support base for Cosatu.

“During various strikes in 1994 and 1995, as well as during the LRA campaign, there were attempts to isolate Cosatu as an elite group and to mobilise the unemployed against us. It is critical for us to develop an agenda which is not sectional, or looking after our own members only. We need to ensure that our views are the views of society as a whole. That is what our opponents are trying to do. But we will only succeed in this if we interact with the youth, with women, with civil society and the communities.”

Without this support, Godongwana argues, Cosatu runs the risk of becoming marginalised, as has happened with labour movements in other countries.

“The challenge for Cosatu is to carve a role for itself in South Africa. We need to pronounce on the problems of our society and begin to put forward our own solutions, such as on unemployment. We must show that capitalism does have weaknesses.”


[su_spoiler title=”Central Executive Committee” icon=”folder-1″]

Central Executive Committee

Click here for relevant documents.

Here is what the 2006 Constitution says about the Central Executive Committe

1. Purpose, powers and duties

The Central Executive Committee (“CEC”) manages the affairs of the Federation between meetings of the NC and CC and has such powers and duties which customarily vest in an executive body, which includes in relation to –

  • policy – giving broad direction concerning organisational, political and educational issues within the Federation;
  • membership – admitting or refusing to admit applications for membership to the Federation;
  • employment –
      • creating positions of employment within the Federation;
      • determining conditions of employment;
  • property, finances and the annual report –
    1. approving the Federation’s budget;
    2. determining budgetary guidelines;
    3. establishing and funding projects and activities in accordance with the aims and objects of the Federation;
    4. considering and approving the annual audited financial statements and balance sheet and annual report; and
    5. submitting the documents referred to in sub-clause above to the NC;
    6. opening and operating a bank account in the name of the Federation into which all monies raised in the name of the Federation shall be placed, and to administer such funds;
    7. acquiring, either by purchase, lease or otherwise, any movable or immovable property on behalf of the Federation and selling, letting, mortgaging or otherwise dealing with or dispose of any movable property belonging to the Federation; and
    8. appointing auditors of the Federation.
  • structures –
    1. establishing sub committees and determining their nature, membership and scope;
    2. approving, rejecting or amending recommendations from sub committees of the Federation; and
    3. making regulations concerning the composition, meetings, Office Bearers and role of the Shop Stewards Councils.
  • provinces –
    1. establishing or dissolving provinces;
    2. demarcating the jurisdiction of the provinces where 2 or more affiliates have established significant organisation;
    3. further delegating powers to the Provincial Congress and Provincial Executive Committee (“PEC”);
  • leadership –
    1. filling vacancies in the positions of NOB’s; and
    2. adopting or amending, a leadership Code of Conduct;
  • legal
    1. authorising legal or other assistance to affiliates in terms of the aims and objectives of the Federation; and
    2. instituting and/or defending legal proceedings in the name of the Federation, appointing attorneys to act on behalf of the Federation and appointing any person to sign any document in connection therewith on behalf of the Federation;
  • miscellaneous
    1. assisting the General Secretary in the exercise of his/her duties;
    2. dealing with matters specially delegated to it by the CC;
    3. referring decisions having major policy implications to the CC or NC.

2. Composition

The CEC must be composed of the –

  • NOB’s;
  • Chairperson and Provincial Secretary of each province; and
  • representatives from affiliates such that there are –
    • two national leaders, one of whom must be a member of the affiliate, from each affiliate with less than 80 000 members;
    • four national leaders, two of whom must be members of the affiliate, from each affiliate with more than 80 000 members.

3. Meetings

Ordinary meetings

  • The CEC must meet at least four times a year.
  • The General Secretary consults the NOB’s and decides on the dates, and agenda for the meeting.
  • The General Secretary notifies all affiliates, not less than 21 days prior to date of the meeting.
  • No meeting of the CEC may be invalidated only because any member did not receive the notice and agenda.

Special meetings

  • The NOB’s or not less than 1/3 of the affiliates on requisition, can request a special meeting of the CEC.
  • The General Secretary must give not less than 7 days notice to the affiliate unions of the special meeting.
  • The meeting may only discuss those issues which necessitated the calling of this meeting.

4. Quorum

The quorum must include representation by at least –

  • half of the affiliates in good standing; and
  • half of the delegates who must be members of affiliates.
  • If after 2 hours of the time fixed for the meeting, a quorum is not present, the meeting must stand adjourned.
  • The General Secretary must decide on a time and place, provided that the meeting must be called and held sometime between 14 to 21 days thereafter.
  • The General Secretary must send written notice to affiliates of the adjourned meeting.
  • The members present at the adjourned meeting form a quorum.

5. Speaking and voting rights

The NOB’s, the Chairperson and Provincial Secretary of each province have speaking rights but no voting rights.

The representatives from affiliates have full speaking rights and voting rights.

6. Decision making

The meeting makes a decision if –

  • the motion is duly seconded; and
  • a simple majority of people vote in favour thereof unless otherwise provided for in this Constitution.

The decisions are made by show of hands or by ballot if the meeting so decides.

If less than a simple majority vote in favour of a motion, or as otherwise provided for in this Constitution, then the motion lapses.

If the CEC cannot meet because of circumstances beyond its control, a decision can be made by way of a resolution signed by a simple majority of the affiliates or as otherwise provided for in this Constitution.


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