Exploring Student-Worker Alliance: the role of COSAS in trade unions, 1979-1985

In 1982 the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) convened a crucial annual conference under the slogan, ‘student and worker unity’, which reflected the organisation’s recognition of the centrality of the working class in the struggle for emancipation. Two years later, FOSATU and COSAS, respectively the largest independent trade union federation and high school student organisation at the time, mobilised a regional general strike to pressure the apartheid government to accede to students’ demands, among others, for democratic Student Representative Councils (SRCs) and for an end to the occupation of schools by security forces. Supported by approximately one million workers and students

the historic stayaway brought the PWV, the country’s economic heartland, to a virtual standstill and was arguably a major turning point in the anti-apartheid struggle. Both events marked the growing convergence between workers and students, and built on the solidarity created especially during the Fattis & Monis, Red Meat, Wilson Rowntree, Colgate and Simba struggles. They were to an extent expressions of emergent inter-generational politics that was constitutive of the emancipatory politics taking shape at the time and which would come under severe strain in the late 1980s. These struggles also highlighted a strategic orientation by students to the independent trade union movement. This was especially the case with COSAS, which, from the early 1980s, became increasingly active in trade unions. In an important historic coincidence both COSAS and FOSATU were established in 1979.

This paper will examine the underlying reasons behind COSAS’ orientation to trade unions and the various roles played by its members in unions, from volunteering in union offices to actively building existing independent unions and contributing to creating new ones. It will explore the varied and sometimes opposing positions held by COSAS members in terms of the character of unions and which unions to support, causing their involvement to be viewed as either supportive or divisive by the broad union movement. The paper will compare the activities of COSAS in trade unions in three provinces/regions, namely, the PWV, Eastern Cape and Western Cape where important strategic differences emerged in relation to the organisation’s trade union activities.

Noor Nieftagodien

History Workshop

University of the Witwatersrand