Delegates at a SACTU Congress

The SACTU decision to create formal links with the ANC was based on their argument that the struggle for a living wage and working conditions was political.  

SACTU was explicitly non-racial. It organised through semi-clandestine factory committees, raising awareness among workers about the Congress of the People (COP) and the Freedom Charter. SACTU emphasised the importance of worker education and of politicising workers.

By the end of 1966, the armed wings of the liberation movements within the country were smashed. Most of these organisations’ leaders were imprisoned, banned, banished or forced to flee into exile. Almost all the leaders and shop stewards of the SACTU and the PAC aligned Federation of Free African Trade Unions of South Africa (FOFATUSA) affiliates were also leading members of the ANC’s and PAC’s armed wings. With the diminishing of the revolt, many of the SACTU unions collapsed or were absorbed into the white led, conservative Trade Union Council of South Africa (TUCSA). 

Tucsa Third Congress, 1957

The repression of SACTU led to a severe decline in African worker organisations. However, in the 1970s, a number of “non-political” parallel African trade unions existed and by 1975, they claimed a membership of 29,000.

The largest of these was the National Union of Clothing Workers (NUCW), led by Lucy Mvubelo (who broke from SACTU in 1957), with a membership of 18,000 to 23,000.

The NUCW organised solely around “bread and butter” issues, members on strike were told to return to work and to leave negotiations to union officials. At the same time, they had sound financial controls in place. Routinely, the NUCW would send its union minutes to the security police at John Vorster Square, which diminished its credibility.

The TUCSA claimed it stood for “moderate, non-racial unionism” but in the 1960s, TUCSA after its initial decision to bar unregistered unions in 1954, accepted nine unions with parallel African branches to affiliate.  In 1969, TUCSA passed a resolution to exclude African unions from its ranks.

A resolution to amend the constitution to exclude Africans from TUCSA membership was passed at its 1969 annual conference.

In 1974, the TUCSA constitution was again amended and a resolution was passed to allow membership of all ‘bona fide’ unions. For the next ten years, TUCSA had limited success in organising the increasing number of African workers entering industry. The Council eventually disbanded in 1986.

At various points in its history, TUCSA’s constitution barred unregistered unions from membership. From the outset, TUCSA was vociferous in its opposition to Government’s amendments to the Industrial Conciliation Act (ICA), and in particular, the clauses which threatened to split unions with a ‘mixed’ membership. They were also consistent in their calls for the recognition of African workers as ‘employees’ under the ICA.

TUCSA’s concern was in trying to defend industries where African workers could potentially undercut organised workers. While some TUCSA unions had made efforts to organise African workers into parallel unions in their respective industries, generally the parallel union was controlled and dictated to by the aptly named ‘parent’ union. By contrast, those SACTU unions, which remained, registered and formed parallel unions, were generally more democratic in their administration, and separate unions in name only.

TUCSA unions, to which the majority of Indian workers belonged, attempted to establish African unions on a parallel basis in the 1960s, which were largely rejected by African workers. These unions, including the parallel to the Natal garment union, battled to survive and by the late 1980s had mostly either fallen into ruin or had been absorbed into a more progressive union grouping.

Two leading TUCSA officials, Eric Taycke and Loet Douwes-Dekker, resigned from the TUCSA and in 1971, started the Urban Training Project (UTP). The UTP was formally inaugurated in May 1972, to provide worker education and to assist small African unions. The UTP was based in Johannesburg and established branches in Natal and the Eastern Cape.

However,by the early 1980s, TUCSA’s membership grew to over 500,000 in an attempt to co-opt African workers into parallel unions.

In 1972, the UTP helped form a transport union following a strike at the PUTCO bus company and also the Laundry and Dry Cleaning Workers Association in Johannesburg. The UTP also set up a coordinating body of several Transvaal-based African unions, working closely with the Catholic Church. These unions were the remnants of FOFATUSA and adopted a non political stance.  They focussed on ‘bread and butter’ issues which they argued will allow them to build strong and democratic union structures and avoid state repression.

In 1972, Albert Dhlomo and Griffiths Mxenge, two former ANC Robben Island prisoners, together with Harry Gwala started a discussion about reviving SACTU. Trade unionist and political activist, Omar Badsha, was initially approached to help set up an office for this project.  However, he argued that this was not a wise move and that they ought to work in strengthening the General Factory Worker Benefit Fund (GFWBF), an existing trade union initiative with which he was closely aligned. Harold Nxasana and Alpheus Mthethwa were then approached to start an office and to recruit workers – but due to security police harassment of members the initiative failed.

Last updated : 03-Feb-2014

This article was produced for South African History Online on 03-Feb-2014