About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Congress Of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)

This trade union federation was formed on 30 November 1985 after more than four years of negotiations between, among others, the Council of Unions of South Africa (Cusa), the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu), the Azanian Congress of Trade Unions (Azactu) and the SA Allied Workers' Union (Saawu). Azactu and Cusa, which both supported the black consciousness ideology, withdrew from the negotiations, while the "workerist" group, Fosatu, and the "populist"-orientated groups, which at that stage were already affiliated to the UDF, formed Cosatu. Cosatu is dominated by populists, also known as Charterists, who identify with the ANC and SACP, while the "workerists" in Cosatu are not affiliated to any political group and belong mainly to industrial trade unions. The "workerists" believe that organisations such as the ANC will also oppress the workers should they come into power. In July 1987 this faction within Cosatu op-posed the acceptance of the Freedom Charter as a guideline for the liberation struggle.

Cosatu is concerned about the economic and social welfare of all its members, but because of the organisation's close ties with the UDF, its political activities have increased. Numerous stay-aways and strikes to protest against the state of emergency, elections and national days of commemoration among others, were launched by Cosatu in cooperation with the UDF. Cosatu also supports the sanctions and disinvestment campaign against South Africa. Two important campaigns were initiated by Cosatu. In 1987 it launched the"Living Wage" campaign.

The most important principles ac-cording to which Cosatu functions may be summarized as follows:

Independent democratic control of the workers.

Non-racial working-class unity.

One trade union, one industrial structure.

National cooperation under the motto "An injury to one is an injury to all".

Because of its political involvement, Cosatu was subjected to strong action from the state - office-bearers were detained by the police, meetings were prohibited and documents confiscated. In reaction to this, it launched the "Hands Off Cosatu" campaign. New state of emergency regulations introduced on 24 February 1988 curtailed Cosatu's political activities. These restrictions were lifted on 2 February 1990.

During discussions between the ANC/SACP and leaders of Cosatu in April 1990 it was decided that Cosatu would formally be included as the trade union arm of the SACP/ANC alliance. (The implication of this is that Sactu will disappear from the scene.)

Cosatu has a strong national and regional structure, and, with more than 1 million members, is the largest and strongest trade union federation in South Africa. Its president is John Gomomo, and Jay Naidoo is the general secretary. The organisation's membership includes industrial trade unions in nearly all the industrial sectors (14 trade unions are affiliated to Cosatu). The following important trade unions are affiliates of Cosatu:

q     SA Clothing and Textile Workers' Union of SA general secretary: J Copelyn.

q     Chemical Workers' Industrial Union general secretary: R Crompton.

q     SA Commercial, Catering and Al-lied Workers' Union acting general secretary: P Kganare.

q     National Union of Mineworkers general secretary: M Golding. (Due to his election as secretary-general of the ANC Cyril Ramaphosa resigned this position.)

q     National Union of Metalworkers of SA general secretary: M Mayekiso.

q     Transport and General Workers' Union general secretary: N Nhleko.

From 1989 to the end of 1990 Cosatu membership grew from 971 000 to 1155 000. In the same period the membership of one of Cosatu's largest affiliates, the National Union of Mineworkers, rose from 212 000 to 247 000.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.