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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Trade unions

The political value of trade unions lies in the fact that they can exercise pressure on industry through strikes and stay-aways, which may lead to civil unrest. Labour movements seldom agree on political issues and this lack of worker solidarity diminishes the organisations' ability to play a meaningful role.

Trade unions in South Africa have a long history. The first was established in the 184os in the newspaper industry. The influx of British trade unionists during the country's transition from a pre-capitalist agricultural society to a capitalist mining society made a major contribution to the formation of trade unions.

The history of the development of trade unions is well known, as is the series of strikes which played an important role in the development of a trade union policy. Besides the formation of a "white workers' movement" in the twenties, the period was also characterized by an increase in black trade union activities. During World War Two the National Party took a strong socialist stand, which probably explains the support the party received from the working class in the 1948 election.

The rapid growth of the black labour force in the forties led to industrial conflict and a proliferation of trade unions which posed a serious threat to the NP. After the report of the Botha commission of inquiry into industrial legislation, the Bantu Labour (settling of disputes) Act was promulgated in 1953. All racially mixed trade unions were prohibited and job reservation discriminating against blacks was introduced. Blacks were excluded from the definition of employer and accordingly from the negotiation system, and all strikes by blacks were declared illegal. Black trade unions therefore had no legal recognition.

By the mid-fifties two black trade union groups had emerged, namely the Trade Union Council of South Africa (Tucsa) which included blacks in a subordinate relationship, and the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu) which adopted a progressive point of view. From the out-set Sactu took a political view of the trade union struggle, linking itself to the ANC. After the banning of the ANC, Sactu's activities were also curtailed by the government and it was forced to continue its activities abroad.

After this a period of calm descended on the labour field. It was only in 1973 that spontaneous strikes occurred which, together with the Soweto riots of 1976, dramatically in-creased political awareness among black workers in South Africa. Conditions in the labour field deteriorated to such an extent that by 1979 the government was forced to consider labour policy reforms.

The government's response to the labour problems and the challenges created by an independent black trade union movement, was to appoint the Wiehahn and Riekert commissions of inquiry (both were appointed in 1977). The Wiehahn commission's report led to a total restructuring of labour relations. Two years after its appointment the Wiehahn commission recommended that all black trade unions should en-joy the same legal rights as white trade unions. This proposal was accepted by the government. The commission's recommendation that the statutory colour bar (job reservation for whites guaranteed by law) be dropped was also accepted in industry.

In the period following the implementation of the Wiehahn report organised labour in South Africa changed drastically. As a result of the commission's re-commendations, labour legislation was amended to give black trade unions access to those statutory industrial relations structures protecting blacks against victimization because of trade union membership. At the same time, statutory job reservation was scrapped and sexual equality introduced in labour legislation. The industrial court was set up to establish the concept of a fair deal in industrial relations. The development of collective bargaining practices led to an increase in pay disputes. During the eighties black trade unions were often harassed by the police because of their political activities, and many trade union leaders were detained.

The chief component of industrial relations legislation is the Labour Relations Act, which was extensively revised in 1988. The most important amendments focused on the definition of unfair labour practices and the procedural requirements to re-solve disputes. In September 1990, after two years of negotiations, Cosatu, Nactu and Saccola concluded an historic agreement, which rejected in principle the 1988 amendments to the Labour Relations Act, and acknowledged the importance of both employers and employees in drawing up labour legislation. This new spirit of cooperation has encouraged the notion of a "social contract" in which the workers, capital and the state jointly manage the economy.

By 1990 more than 2,5 million workers, of whom more than 2 mil-lion were blacks, belonged to trade unions. At the same time major changes in the organisation of trade unions were introduced. Whereas the trade union movement was dominated in the late seventies by Tucsa with a mainly white, coloured and Indian membership, two mainly black trade union federations dominated the scene Io years later. These two federations are the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu).

A number of independent trade unions, constituting the largest segment of the organised labour force, play an important role in the trade union movement. However, white workers, especially artisans, are still an important element in the labour force. Some of these white organisations have opted to remain exclusively white, while others have a limited non-white membership. In general, however, the influence of the white trade unions has diminished.

The formation of a new trade union coordinating body, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions/Federasie van Onafhanklike Vakbonde, with a potential membership of about 3,5 million and including more than 176 independent trade unions, is a strong possibility for 1991. Important principles on which this new federation, consisting mostly of former Tucsa affiliates, will be based, are non-alignment to political parties, strong anti-sanctions views, and non-violent actions.

Employers in industry have a few significant associations, but no national body with the same clout as Cosatu or Nactu. The three nationalgroups representing the trade are the South African Chamber of Business (Sacob), formed in 1990 with the amalgamation of the Association of Chambers of Commerce (Assocom), the Federated Chamber of Industries (FCI), the Afrikaanse Handelsinstituut (AHI) and the National African Federated Chamber of Commerce (Nafcoc). Sacob and the AHI bodies cooperate with specific trade unions in the South African Employers' Consultative Committee on Labour Affairs (Saccola), which represented employers in the debate with Cosatu and Nactu on labour legislation.

There are several prominent trade union coordinating bodies.

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.