COSATU mourns the passing of veteran trade unionist and SAMWU Founding General Secretary Cde John Henry Ernstzen: 1940-2022

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) mourns the passing of veteran trade unionist and the first General Secretary of SAMWU Cde John Henry Ernstzen.  We send our heartfelt condolences to his union, family, and friends.

Cde John Henry Ernstzen was born in what is now Bo-Kaap on 10 August 1940, the youngest of four brothers. He went to school at St Pauls Primary in the area. The family moved to Woodstock when he was in his teens, and he was one of the first intakes at Harold Cressy. He completed JC (Grade 10) but had to leave school as his father was ill and he needed to work to support his mother.

His first job was as an apprentice at a furniture factory in Woodstock. He started when he was just 17 and joined the union almost immediately. At 18, he became one of the youngest shop stewards ever. In his fourth and final year as an apprentice, the workers at the factory went on strike. As an apprentice, he was not allowed to strike but supported the workers in his own way by mixing the “thinners” for the paint incorrectly, so that the furniture did not dry.

He was arrested for “industrial sabotage but the union’s attorney, a then young Dullah Omar, who became Minister of Justice in the first democratic cabinet got him out of jail.

However, he was fired and in 1962, and he began working for the Cape Town Council in the Parks and Forestry department. He joined the Cape Town Municipal Workers Association (CTMWA)as an organiser in 1962.

CTMWA was a union that was formed in terms of apartheid legislation with an “A” branch for whites and a “B” branch for coloured workers but that did not allow African workers because they were not allowed to belong to unions.

The union was essentially a benefit society but Cde Ernstzen with the other group of young reformers pushed for the union to take up worker issues in a more forthright way. He became part of a Caretaker Committee after the old guard was ousted in 1964 and was appointed General Secretary in 1968.

He played a pivotal role in the formation of both SAMWU and COSATU. He was elected as the First General Secretary of SAMWU.

After the 1994 election, he was appointed as an advisor to Minister Zola Skweyiya, Minister of Public Service and Administration. Thereafter he was appointed to the Public Service Commission, as well as to the Judicial Service Commission and in 1999 he became Deputy Chair of the PSC under Professor Stan Sangweni.

Ernstzen passed away after a long illness on 22nd November 2022, at his home in Heathfield. He is survived by his wife Val.

The funeral will take place at 09h30 Saturday 26 November at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. 

May his Soul Rest in Peace!

Issued by COSATU   

Sizwe Pamla (Cosatu National Spokesperson)
Tel: 011 339 4911
Fax: 011 339 5080
Cell: 060 975 6794