The post-1973 period created a space for academics, students, and activists to contribute in a structured way to the building and strengthening of the trade movement in South Africa. In the early 80s, independently funded service groups and research units, based at universities but outside of formal university structures, were established. The University of Natal saw the creation of a several initiatives such as Cultural and Working Life Project (CWLP), Industrial Health Unit (IHU), Trade Union Research Project (TURP), Worker Resistance in Natal, and Youth and Unemployment Project. Simultaneously, ad hoc volunteer structures, such as the Labour Monitoring Group, were formed during national stayaways to collect data to counteract state media disinformation. The work of these groups, multi-disciplinary in nature and based on collaborative learning, was driven by the articulated needs of the emerging labour organisations. Research provided working class organisation with evidence to support their demands, cultural engagement contributed to mobilisation of the un-unionised and the broader dissemination of the issues facing workers, and direct health and other services to workers and their communities went some way to improving living and working conditions. By 1994, these service groups had transformed into research units with a primary objective of supporting the policy development and implementation processes of the post-independent government.

This paper is part of a current research undertaking to document the history of these initiatives and to reflect on factors that contributed to the successes of this unique alliance. Emerging themes include a shared sense of social justice, pursuit of a common objective, collaborative determination of agendas, a culture of continuous and shared learning, and a leadership that was positioned to transcend the gap between academia and activism. Reflections on possible revitalisation of this type of momentum are more complex and diverse, except for the perception that the gap between academia and activism has widen over the past two decades and that there are lessons from the past that need consideration.