South African trade unions had a decisive role in the political life of the territory that became the Union of South Africa and later the Republic of South Africa. Such a role was both formative and reactive: since their inception in the 1880s trade unions attempted to shape the body politic, its legislation, its inclusions and exclusions, its bill of rights and a whole range of social rights. They had a formative role to play in the construction and the destruction of the country’s Racial Order. They also reacted to policy and law in all periods, creating serious challenges that continue well into the post-Apartheid period.

Key words: migratory labour system; labour process; cultural formations; tripartite alliance