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Before the discovery of gold in the late 1800s, small beginnings of the making of the working class in South Africa had begun. The key to the process was the disruption of traditional forms of social organisation of the African indigenous peoples.

The opening of a refreshment station in the Cape in the 1600s saw the gradual displacement and conquer of the Khoi and San peoples who had inhabited the area for a long time before the Europeans embarked on commercial voyages around the world. This expansion of world trade played an important role in the growth of commercial agriculture. There was therefore a growing need for more land and labour.

The need for labour on the farms and the persistence of subsistence farming by Africans was clearly an obstacle in the development of commercial farming by Boer and British colonists. This is what was behind the trail of cattle and land dispossessions in the hinterland of the Cape. In Natal the shortage of labour on the sugar farms was resolved by the importation of indentured labour from India. From the 1850s, taxes and various 

pieces of labour legislation like the Locations Acts were introduced to force Africans off the land and to go and work on the farms for a money wage.


It was mining, and the discovery of gold in particular, that was to demand rapid and large scale uprooting of peasants and their transformation into wage earners. Small, independent diggers were quickly replaced by bigger capitalist companies who had a large capital base for big and concentrated operations. So, from the beginning the mining industry was characterized by a monopoly of ownership.

The deep level nature of South African mining required a lot of investment in machinery and skilled labour. As part of dealing with the high costs in production there was a need for a large pool of cheap labour. It was during the mining period that the migrant labour system was relied upon as a backbone of the economy in South Africa. This meant that, besides the few skilled workers that were imported from Europe, the mining industry was characterized by a large concentration of black cheap labour. Control over the supply of black labour would over the years continue to be at the center of state legislation regarding the movement of Africans between the countryside and the cities.

Even though attempts were made to enlist indentured Chinese labour, it became clear that the long-term future of the mining industry depended on ensuring a reliable and cheap source of African labour. The number of African workers rose from 15 000 in 1890 to 19 000 by 1912. The struggles of African workers against the mining monopolies would be waged independently of the White working class who had organized into craft unions to protect their skilled positions and to fight for job reservation. In later years the mine bosses and the state would deal a crushing blow to the White working class (1922 miners' strike) to safeguard the extraordinary profitability of the gold mines.


The development of the mining industry had laid a solid basis for the growth of the manufacturing sector of the economy from the 1920s onwards. The growth of this industry was also strengthened by the protectionist policies followed by the Pact government of 1924. In the 1940s Gold mining was to be surpassed by manufacturing in terms of size of sector and the number of workers employed. Hundreds of thousands of workers joined trade unions and craft unions were forced to allow membership of semi-skilled workers. White women joined the ranks of the industrial working class also.

The expansion of the manufacturing industry meant an increase in mechanization and usage of semi-skilled labour. The state invested heavily in infrastructure to support the development of manufacturing and capitalism in general. Hence the establishment of parastatals in this period. Continued high profitability levels in the gold mining industry played a very critical role in providing general financial support to the development of capitalism in South Africa. But the growing organization of the working class had to be dealt with if the profitability of capitalism was to be secured. The Pact government put in place an array of socio-political and labour laws to entrench the racial division of the working class and further destroyed the militancy of White workers.

The growth of the manufacturing sector ushered in the first industrial unions in the history of South Africa and created the conditions for mass politics in the African working class. The growth of the manufacturing sector and the changes this brought about to the nature of the working class meant that craft unions were increasingly becoming a thing of the past. Industrial unionization was on the rise. The South African Industrial Federation was active in the Rand Revolt, for example.

When the South African Trade Union Council was formed in 1925, this development represented greater co-ordination between the emerging unions in the growing manufacturing sector. This changing composition of the workforce was reflected in the evolution of the Garment Workers Union from a craft union. The growth of industry and the increase in the number of workers also made non-racial worker action a possibility in the 1920s. Within the constraints of the racially divisive labour legislation of the time, there were creative organizational ways of building greater unity. It is in this period that we have the phenomenon of parallel unionism. It is also in this period that African workers formed the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union, ICU, which started off as a militant general union but declined over time.

Important in this period was also the role played by the International Socialist League in also organizing African and other non-White sections of the working class. The Industrial Workers of Africa was formed in this period. Internationally, especially in Europe and Asia, this period was characterized by socialist revolutions.

The increase in the social weight of the African working class was to lead to the re-orientation of the Communist Party away from the increasingly racist White working class. Their involvement with the ICU, however, led to a conflict with the increasingly conservative leadership and they were finally expelled. The ICU itself did not live long after these organizational problems and soon disintegrated in the early 1930s.

Parallel to the existence of the ICU various industrial unions for Africans came into being and in 1928 the Federation of  Non-European Trade Unions was formed. The strategy was to consolidate worker power in the various industries as opposed to going the general unionism route of the ICU. In the 1920s the growth of the manufacturing industry increased the power of African workers. It was the impact of the Great Depression that was to undermine the strength of these industrial unions. Only two of its affiliated unions lasted through the depression. The 1930s saw another round of attempts at union organization as workers had gained experience of this in the preceding period. The tradition of striving for co-operation between the different racial sections of the working class continued to be pursued by radical activists.

In 1930 the South African Trades and Labour Council was formed from a coming together of unions with vastly different traditions. There were conservative craft unions, White racist industrial unions, white dominated racially mixed industrial unions and non-racial industrial unions. These differences were later to lead to the collapse of the SATLC. Initially the constitution of the SATLC provided for a block vote system which made it easier for the conservative unions to dominate. But when this was changed to a system of voting by industrial grouping the more progressive militant activists gained control of the NEC in 1938.

From this time on the union body adopted a more militant position on various matters. For instance there was the establishment of Local Committees to facilitate non-racial working class solidarity. This allowed for independent initiatives of solidarity of the kind that was demonstrated during the 1946 mineworkers' strike. It is important to note that there were always tensions. In 1944 it was this strong position of the industrial unions that made the SATLC to adopt the Workers' Charter as a step in the struggle for socialism, “as our form of government, which will bring emancipation to the working people from exploitation and oppression and will place the common people in control of South Africa.

The experience of the Second World War and the militancy of the period finally drove these unions apart. In 1947 the first unions broke away. A much bigger split occurred when these unions had to deal with the passing of the Suppression of Communism Act in 1950. By 1952 the SATLC had been severely weakened.

The other more decisive question was one of choosing between pursuing an alliance with the conservative craft unions and throwing their lot with, and staking their future on, the militant African trade unions. In 1954, the executive chose the re-establishment of an alliance with the craft unions at the expense of African workers. A split occurred.

Following this split a process of re-groupment was to lead to the formation of SACTU, which was to take up the struggle for non-racial industrial unions through the remainder of the 1950s and into the 1960s. When the Federation of  Non-European of  Trade Unions crumbled in the immediate aftermath of the Great Depression, it was to take almost a decade for a new co-ordinating body to be formed. In 1941, in the middle of the intensity of the war effort, the Council of Non-European Trade Unions was formed. CNETU played a very big role in the 1954 formation of SACTU, years after the SATLC split.

The 1950s were years of increased repression and resistance in South Africa, with the Nationalist Party having come into power in 1948. Growth in the mining industry during the World War 2 had not translated into increased profitability. The manufacturing industry did not expand. The “Reserves” could no longer support the people living there, and this created problems for the continued justification of the cheap labour system. Apartheid policies of the NP would ensure greater control of the working class for the capitalists to maintain and increase their profits. The passing of a myriad of racist laws that affected every aspect of black life in South Africa signaled a determination by the ruling class to totally crush all opposition and remove all obstacles to the profitability of the capitalist system.

It is against this background that the 1950s were characterized by high levels of political mobilization that involved labour and political organizations across the national spectrum. SACTU got involved in the Congress Alliance with organizations like the ANC. The union federation continued the tradition of strong industrial unionism and was explicit in its policy stance of a need for radical political transformation. The close links with the political movements meant that SACTU was to be specially affected by the banning and imprisonment of many activists in the early 1960s. By the mid-1960s the political and labour movements had been successfully crushed by the Apartheid regime. However, the militant traditions and experience of SACTU were to live on into the next round of democratic and militant trade unionism of the 1970s.

The 1960s were a decade of unprecedented economic growth in South Africa as the country became more attractive to foreign direct investment. The political and labour market environment was also conducive to high rates of profitability. It is during this  decade that the industrial base of the economy was to be greatly increased and consolidated as the state also embarked on a programme of expansion of parastatals. This is also the period when there was an increase in the number of monopolies and multinational companies. Union organization was dominated in this period by White racist trade unions and conservative multi racial bodies like TUCSA. This made it more difficult for workers to benefit from the economic growth and to resist the power of the bosses and the state.


The mass strikes that spread from Durban to other areas of the country in 1973 and the rapid growth of the factory based union organization have their roots in what had happened to the economy in the 1960s:

  • The growth of the economy increased the size and power of the working class. The number of women workers also increased.
  • Capital intensive industry meant far larger factories with greater numbers of workers. It also meant an increased demand for semi-skilled and supervisory labour. This meant a strengthening of the bargaining power of African workers.
  • Monopoly capitalism meant that many workers in different parts of the country could unite and confront the same boss.
  • The visible signs of advanced industrialization and economic growth had continued, right through the 1960s, to be in stark contrast to the generally, and relatively, low levels of African working class incomes.

As the strike wave spread to other industrial centers, cities and towns of the country, workers realized that organization and not just militancy was important in consolidating their power. They formed trade unions. In many cases they were assisted by service organizations, many of which were staffed by young White intellectuals. Various registered unions in TUCSA assisted in the formation of the General Factory Workers Benefit fund which laid the basis for worker organization in Natal. It made representations to the Wage Board regarding wage determinations, especially of new unskilled workers.

Some of the unions that emerged from the GFWBF were the Metal and Allied Workers' Union (MAWU) and the National Union of Textile Workers (NUTW). The new style of mass based organizing and factory centered union organization were strengths that would soon affect the internal life TUCSA. African workers, who had been readmitted in 1973, began to demand a meaningful role within the conservative union federation, and this was to be the beginning of a decline that was to lead to the demise of TUCSA in the 1980s.

The resilience of factory based organization proved its advantage when the new unions were able to survive another round of intensified state repression that was a response to mobilization that was initiated by Black students in 1976. When their leaders had been detained workers in a factory would demand to meet directly with the management to deal with their issues. The struggle for recognition meant a lot of sacrifice by workers and it happened that certain managements would find it tactically advisable to talk to the new unions. But in some cases like the Heinemann factory on the East Rand these struggles ended in cruel defeats for the workers.

The inexorable forward surge of the new union movement forced the government and bosses to find new ways of controlling the unions. The endorsement of the recommendations of the Wiehahn Commission meant an opening of the legal space for the unions to consolidate their power.

The state, however, required them to register to enjoy these newly acquired rights. When FOSATU was formed in 1979 it took the decision that registration had advantages in that it would allow unions to build their strength.

It soon became clear that the state strategy was not able to kill the militancy of the workers. This is why the bosses and the state continued to feel threatened by the new movement. The early 1980s saw the emergence of other unions and federations as workers pushed on for more organization and unity. By 1984 there was CUSA, SAAWU and AZACTU as well.

Like in previous rounds of struggle in South Africa, for workers and their trade unions the environment within which they operated remained politically charged. The struggles of workers at the factory floor never really evolved in isolation from the struggles in the townships. Rising unemployment, fuelled by a spate of retrenchments, low wages, the collapse of Bantu Education and rising rents were some of the issues that brought the movement together. The intensification of the struggle against apartheid needed a strong and united movement and the unions were to play a very important role in this. The government wanted to implement some political reforms as a solution to the economic and political crisis that was faced by capitalism.

It is at this point that we see the emergence of formations like the National Forum (NF) and the United Democratic Front (UDF). Even though some unions did not get directly involved in these bodies, they encouraged their members to take part in community struggles. In the mid-1980s workers in the country succeeded in building giant federations like COSATU and NACTU. This was the period when the question of working class leadership had already been settled in the hard fought battles that came immediately before this. Even though these two federations did not formally affiliate to any of the banned political movements like the ANC and the PAC, their allegiances were quite clear from early on.


The 1980s were a very intense period in the history of South African politics. The Apartheid regime was intent on stemming the tide of political rebellion as it continued to find a solution to the political and economic crisis of capitalist rule. In their attempts to advance and consolidate their position the unions made sure they remained true to the tradition of industrial organization. The many unions that had sprung up in the preceding years were encouraged to combine into larger and stronger industrial affiliates.

There were serious attempts to organize the unemployed and to form a co-operative movement as an organizational response to the effects of the economic crisis. The unions began to broaden their agenda at the workplace and started taking up issues of Health and Safety. The role of culture in organization, something that had been recognized earlier by some of the FOSATU unions, began to be appreciated.

The role women played in the labour process had by now become a fact of life. Women had also been part of the hundreds of thousands that had flocked into unions, and some of them had steadily demonstrated the capacity of women workers to lead. To strengthen this tendency women members organized their own forums within the unions to ensure that women's issues became union issues in reality.

In this way unions and the federations were made to include women's and gender issues in their collective bargaining strategies. The holding of Women's Congress by COSATU in 1988 was a recognition of the importance of this issue.

As part of the attacks on the mass movement the state initiated a process of reversing some of the organizational, labour and social gains by coming up with amendments to the Labour Relations Act. Even though a federation like COSATU had in 1987 adopted the Freedom Charter as its guiding policy, something that located it formally in the tradition of the Congress Alliance, the union movement was able to forge unity in the fight against the Labour Bill in the same year. This is also the time when violence was used against the Miners' and the Railway Workers' strikes and the Living Wage Campaign. The momentum of the anti-Labour Bill mobilization and the unity of workers across federations finally led to the holding of the Workers Summit in March 1989, where workers formulated their own Labour Relations Act.

By the close of the 1980s there were clear signs that the apartheid state was embarking on further attempts at political liberalization as a continuation of attempts to resolve the crisis of capitalist rule. This time they had realized the centrality of a settlement that had the blessing of the weakened but politically undefeated Black masses. They now had to talk to the genuine leaders of the rebellious masses.

The political dialogue and the negotiations that were initiated by the Apartheid state generated a lot of hope on the part of the masses and demanded the attention of all social sectors. The role of the union movement would become very critical to the agenda of the mass political movement as it had been the only sector to emerge from the repression of the late 1980s organizationally intact. It was, therefore, to be the sector to be heavily relied upon in the process of mass mobilization. The working class was the section of the population that the ruling class would have to weaken as it strove to resolve the crisis of capitalist rule.

In 1990 the state unbanned the major political organizations of the masses, released the leaders from prison and allowed exiles to return to the country. The confidence demonstrated by the state rested on the internal balance of forces that favoured the ruling class. They had been able to deal with the insurgency of the mid-1980s, and internationally imperialism held sway as socialist forces, with the Soviet Bloc crumbling, were on the retreat.

The CODESA negotiations and how the Apartheid state responded to the overall demand for majority rule was a clear indication that the ruling class was determined to ensure that the democratization process would have a monopoly capitalist imprint. Where the reformist leadership showed signs of bowing to pressure from below the ruling class was always ready to unleash violence on the working class. The mass movement in this period began to retreat from previously held radical and socialist positions. Mass struggle began to be subjected to the considerations of the negotiations process.

The process was characterized by a long list of compromises by the leadership and an avoidance of confrontation with the state on the issue of state violence. This approach continued even though the masses demonstrated their preparedness to fight. The early 1990s saw an upsurge in struggle as workers were settling old scores on the factory floor.

New layers of the working class came to the fore as struggles against privatization, retrenchments and growing unemployment became generalized. The compromises by the leadership caused some sections of the labour movement to start the famous discussion on the Workers' Party.

As the ANC moved closer to governmental office, a lot of its positions on socio-economic and political questions had been watered down considerably. It was not long after it had come to power that the masses began to taste the fruits of the compromise deal at CODESA. The government's economic policy (GEAR), a replacement of the RDP, was clearly a continuation of the Normative Economic Framework of the previous government. The foreign policy of the ANC government showed that it was willing to embrace dictators like Suharto and behave like a mini-imperialist power in the sub-region. The ANC's approach to the national budget has consistently showed its commitment to the interests of big capital.

This shift on the part of the leadership had a demobilizing effect on the working class and its organizations. From the beginning of and even before, the tenure of the new power there were clear tendencies towards bureaucratization and centralisation of power, both in government and in the ANC as an organization. Moreover, there was a growing merger between the two in terms of policy making.

The responses of the labour movement (COSATU playing a prominent role of course) to this drift towards a neo-liberal framework by the ANC did not help in ensuring that the broad working class remains mobilized and politically effective. The formal relationship between COSATU and the ANC meant that opposition to the neo-liberal policies of the ANC was not rigorous and consistent. Struggles against the amendments to labour laws ended in a compromising position for workers. Opposition to the privatization of state enterprises and job losses remained half-hearted and episodic in nature. As a result of this workers continued to lose ground to a more confident management at workplace level.

The debate on globalisation and its effects on working class communities has not translated into concrete mobilization and organization on issues such as casualisation and growing unemployment. Collaboration between COSATU and the communities around issues like the budget has remained at the level of lobbying. Globalisation and how it affects urban and rural communities has not been on the agenda of the labour movement and, as a result, this has not assisted in the strengthening of emerging social movements. In certain cases there is hostility to these independent initiatives.

Union international affiliation and the participation of South African unions in international struggles is an area that has continued to generate debate in congresses as workers have demanded that international policy resolutions have concrete meaning in this era of globalisation. There have been times, though, when South African unions have been involved in international actions around specific issues.

The debates on the Workers' Charter and the Workers Party have taken place also within a process of searching for alternatives to the capitalist framework of the ANC. There was talk of the need for a Conference on Socialism. For some the SACP had to play a leading role in this process, for others the Party was too much in the pocket of the ANC to be able to lead this process. Yet the unions mobilized for an ANC electoral victory in 1999.

In this period we also saw the continuing disparity between the large numbers of women workers in the unions and the few key positions they hold in the movement. There was also a marked decline in enthusiasm and capacity to sustain a tradition of workers' education. Organisational weaknesses began to manifest themselves in the emergence of new unions catering for neglected sectors and workers looking for better service. Some of these unions belonged to FEDUSA. The gap between leadership and workers began to widen as the union culture began to also involve investment activities.

Given these weaknesses, the big question is whether unions will be able to continue the militant and democratic tradition as we enter a new century. In what ways will workers carry forward the traditions of the 1970s and 1980s? 

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