The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) was launched on 1 December 1985, at the height of the struggle against apartheid. As a federation, it brought together many of the unions formed after the wave of strikes at the beginning of 1973 which marked a renewal of trade union activity after a decade-long lull.

Background of the trade union movement

Although trade unions had a presence throughout the modern history of South Africa, Black trade unions never managed to establish a permanent presence until the emergence of unions in the later 1970s and 1980s. The Industrial Commercial Union (ICU), formed by Cements Kadalie in 1919, was the first real flowering of trade union activity among Black workers in the country. Although it could claim a membership of 100,000 at its peak in 1927, the ICU was moribund by 1930.

Further attempts at unionising Black workers took place throughout the period after 1930, including the CPSA-inspired African Federation of Trade Unions, the Trotskyite Joint Committee of African Workers, and the SA Railway and Harbour Workers Union in the 1930s. In 1940 the Co-ordinating Committee of African Trade Unions was established, and the next year saw the formation of the Food and Canning Workers Union, one of the most durable in the history of South African unionism.

The 1940s also saw the establishment of the African Mineworkers Union and the Council of Non-European Trade Unions (CNETU).

With the coming of apartheid, laws such as the Suppression of Communism Act hit unions hard. Black workers left the Trades & Labour Council to join the Trade Union Council of South Africa (Tucsa), which had an ambivalent relation to Black unions, often excluding them or keeping them in check in favour of its white members.

In 1955 the more progressive members of Tucsa formed an alliance with CNETU to establish the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu), which held its first annual congress in 1956. Sactu joined the ANC-led Congress Alliance, and took part in many of the resistance campaigns of the 1950s.

The state, sensing the threat that an organised Black union movement posed to apartheid, introduced the Industrial Conciliation Amendment Act in 1956 to prohibit Africans from joining registered unions.

Nevertheless, Sactu’s Pound-a-Day campaigns were spectacularly successful in 1957, but in 1958 the campaign drew limited response, and the ANC, which initially supported the 1958 strike, called for an end to strike action after the first day, causing tensions between the two organisations.

After the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, the ANC and SACP jointly formed uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in 1961, and most of Sactu’s leaders, who were also members of the ANC, joined the underground military organisation.

By 1959 Sactu had a membership of 46,000 in 35 affiliates. But state repression saw many Sactu leaders and members arrested during the early 1960s, and by 1965 Sactu was decimated, leading to frenetic debates about the relationship between unions and the liberation movements.

The period after 1965 saw little Black union activity, although some unions did come into being in the early 1970s, notably the Transport and Allied Workers union, the Sweet, Food and Allied Workers Union, the Paper, Wood and Allied Workers Union, and the Building, Construction and Allied Workers Union.

1973: Renewal of Unionism

It was the spontaneous wave of strikes, begun by dockworkers in Durban in 1973, which led to the renewal of union activity in the country. The state was unable to stem this renewal, and indeed it conceded that Black unions were here to stay when it implemented the recommendations of the Wiehahn Commission, allowing Black unions to become registered for the first time since 1956.

The years from 1973 to 1985 saw a surge of unionism unprecedented in South African history. The launch of Metal and Allied Workers Union (Mawu) in 1973 was followed in 1974 by that of the Chemical Workers Industrial Union (CWIU) and the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU).

The formation of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu) in 1979 brought another dimension to the union movement: while unions had always been part of the political project to achieve political rights for Blacks, questions about the relationship between unions and the liberation movements abounded ever since the demise of Sactu, and Fosatu saw its mission as the development of an independent union movement that would be more strategic in political engagement.

Fosatu was able to build the shop-floor capacity of all its unions, to the point that the union movement was able to bring the country to a standstill at crucial moments. But by the early to mid-1980s, unions were beginning to question Fosatu’s arms-length relation to politics.

There were huge differences between the various competing blocs in the union movement, and the divisions were based on a series of issues: whether unions should be general unions or more focused industrial unions; whether they should register; whether they should include white workers; whether they should engage in community politics; and whether they should have direct links to the liberation organisations such as the United Democratic Front (UDF), Azanian People’s Organisation ( AZAPO) and others.

The union landscape was populated by a range of blocs: there was Fosatu; there was Cusa, the Black Consciousness-aligned federation; and there were Coloured unions that had on-and-off relations to Tucsa, among others. But there was a clear recognition that unions would be more effective if they were united, and unity talks began as early as 1979, and accelerated from 1981 to 1985.

The first serious deliberations took place at the Langa Summit in August 1981, where 100 representatives from 29 unions met to discuss a united response to state attempts to divide unions and tame them. They also discussed the question of registration, an issue that was the cause of deep divisions, especially between the Congress-aligned unions which rejected registration, and the Fosatu- and Cusa-aligned unions who were eager to use the space opened up by registration.

The death of Neil Agget in February 1982 saw 100,000 workers observe a work stoppage for 30 minutes on 1 February 1982. Hs death precipitated a new urgency in talks about union unity.

April 1982 saw another union summit on unity, this time in Wilgespruit. The summit resolved to work towards a new, all-inclusive labour federation. A third summit, held in July 1982 in Port Elizabeth, saw bitter divisions over a range of issues, and failed to move toward agreement for the basis of a broad federation. A fourth summit in Athlone in April 1983 saw the unions agree that the proposed federation could embrace unions with different policies, and a feasibility committee was set up to look at the issues.

Political Developments

In the meanwhile, seven unions, known as the Magnificent Seven, joined the United Democratic Front, and the UDF was preparing to mount protests against the upcoming elections for the Tricameral Parliament in August and September of 1984. On 3 September, unrest broke out in the Vaal Triangle, in what became the most sustained challenge to apartheid governance in the history f the country.

Cusa, aligned to Black Consciousness organisations, was ambivalent about what was seen as a Congress-led protest. Cusa’s largest union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), was the fastest growing union, and its membership exceeded that of all the others combined. NUM began to break loose from Cusa and decided to join the proposed federation.

Students were also mounting protests, and called for workers to support them. The Transvaal Regional Stayaway Committee called for a two-day stayaway on 4 and 5 November, a call rejected by Azapo.

While many unionists joined the protests, Fosatu remained relatively isolated – although its members did join in the protests. In the Transvaal, the rank and file were becoming convinced that their union leaders were hostile to mass action. To correct this perception Fosatu sent prominent unionist Moses Mayekiso to join the stayaway committee.

The response to the stayaway call was massive, and about 800,000 workers heeded the call in the Transvaal.

Unity Talks Resume

Sactu convinced the UDF-aligned unions to resume unity talks, and within Fosatu some were arguing that these unions should be accommodated, and Fosatu proposed the reopening of talks.

On 8th and 9th June, 1985, a final summit was held at Ipeleng in Soweto, where a wide range of unions brought their national executive committees to deliberate on the way forward. Unions aligned to the UDF, Black Consciousness, and representing various positions on the nature of the federation, were represented by 400 delegates.

The meeting, chaired by NUM’s Cyril Ramaphosa, proposed a tight federation and set out five principles: non-racialism, ‘one union one industry’, worker control, representation on the basis of paid-up membership, and co-operation at national level.

The Black Consciousness Azactu unions disagreed with the non-racialism principle, and Cusa’s unions disagreed with the constitution, which had been circulated ahead of the summit, claiming they had not seen the document. In the end, the Azactu and Cusa unions rejected the federation, with the important exception of NUM, which signed up.

UDF aligned unions, although suspicious of the feasibility committee, were persuaded by the ANC and Sactu to join, which they did. The feasibility committee was expanded to include UDF unions, and it set about preparing for the launch of the new federation. Delegates considered various names and settled on the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), reflecting the historic link to the ANC and Sactu.

Cosatu is launched

On 30th November 1985, more than 760 delegates from 33 unions descended on the sports hall of the University of Natal, in Durban, to inaugurate the new trade union federation. After his earlier success as convener at Ipeleng, Ramaphosa presided over the launch.

The congress began to draw up a constitution, making amendments to a draft that had been circulated earlier, the most significant being the creation of the post of assistant general secretary. The constitution determined that workers would dominate all the federation’s structures; that a national congress would be held every two years and would be the highest decision-making body; that a central executive committee would meet every three months; and that an executive committee would meet every month.

The congress set out various resolutions:

  • To establish one union for each industry within six months.
  • To focus on the exploitation of women workers.
  • To call for the lifting of the state of emergency, withdrawal of troops from the townships and release of all political prisoners.
  • To continue the call for international pressure, including disinvestment.
  • To demand for the right to strike and picket.
  • To determine a national minimum wage.
  • To extend the struggle for trade union rights in the homelands.

The federation also elected its office bearers at the congress.

Elected office bearers at the congress
President Elijah Barayi
Vice president Chris Dlamini
Second vice president Makhulu Ledwaba
Treasurer Maxwell Xulu
General Secretary Jay Naidoo
Assistant General Secretary Sydney Mufamadi

The First year: 1986

The government and the right-wing Inkatha responded to the federation’s establishment by saying that Cosatu was nothing but a front for the ANC, its launch part of the ANC’s plan to make the country ungovernable. Jay Naidoo rejected the accusation, asserting that Cosatu was first and foremost a workers’ organisation.

Among employers, reaction was more mixed, the larger corporations seemingly unfazed by the development, while smaller companies sometimes pressured unions to switch to the Inkatha-organised United Workers' Union of South Africa (Uwusa), and withheld recognition if unions continued being affiliates of Cosatu.

Anti-apartheid organisations welcomed the launch of the federation: the UDF expressed enthusiastic support in a pamphlet; Sactu declared that it saw no reason for antagonism between it and the new federation; and the ANC appealed to the Black Consciousness federation, Azactu and Cusa, to work together with Cosatu, and hailed the launch of the federation in its annual January 8 statement.

Jay Naidoo travelled to Harare in Zimbabwe to attend a conference organised by the World Council of Churches, and met with ANC and Sactu officials for informal talks. Because of these talks, the federation was attacked by the government and Inkatha, who both reiterated the charge that Cosatu was a front for the ANC. This accusation came despite the fact that people from a broad range of organisations had been meeting with the ANC in Lusaka and Harare since 1984, including prominent black and white businessmen and white politicians.

Meanwhile, workers embarked on what would later be called ‘rolling mass action’, and in January alone 185,000 man-days were lost to industrial action. By the end of March, the figure rose to 550,000, a huge increase on the 450,000 total for 1984.

Strikes took place at Impala Platinum in Bophuthatswana, Anglo American’s Bank Colliery, at various mines in the Witbank/Middleburg area, in Pretoria (Pick n Pay), in Namaqualand (De Beers), Blyvooruitzicht in Carletonville, and on the East Rand (Hagie Rand).

Many miners were killed by police and mining companies’ private armies, who sought to prevent miners from holding meetings. These killings often resulted in strike action. Strikes took place in many sectors, including manufacturing and service sector. Workers flocked to join Cosatu, and the federation’s membership surged in the few months after its launch.

Cosatu’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) met for the first time at the Ipeleng Centre in Soweto from 7 to 9 February, to consider four proposals, all of them dealing with the federation’s relationship to political struggles. The federation sought to steer a middle path between populism and workerism.

Cosatu resolved to be politically active and to form alliances with political organisations, yet maintain its independence. The CEC agreed that Cosatu would meet with the UDF, and the two met on 18 February.

May Day 1986

May 1 1986 marked the 100th anniversary of International Labour Day, commonly referred to as May Day. While unions had tabled the date as one of the key demands throughout the early 1980s, employers had rarely conceded May Day as a paid holiday. The newly formed Cosatu now demanded that May Day be recognised as a public holiday, and called for a stayaway. It was supported by various organisations, significantly by the National Education Crisis Committee (NEEC) and the UDF, as well as many traditionally conservative organisations – such as the African Teachers Association, the National African Chamber of Commerce, and the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa (Seifsa), the metal industry employers’ organisation.

On May Day 1986, more than 1,5-million workers observed the call, joined by many thousands that included school pupils, students, taxi drivers, hawkers, shopkeepers, domestic workers, self employed and unemployed people. While the call was less successful in some regions, in the PWV area, the heartland of industry, the response was massive. Rallies were held in all the major cities, even though many of these were banned in advance by the state.

The media acknowledged that the majority of South Africa’s workers had unilaterally declared the day a public holiday, and Premier Foods became the first large employer to declare 1 May and 16 June as paid holidays. Following this, many other companies bowed to the inevitable.

Rightwing Reaction

Cosatu’s launch was perceived by the Inkatha Freedom Party as a threat, and the party launched its own union federation, Uwusa, at Kings Park Stadium in Durban. About 60,000 people, many not workers, attended the launch, bussed in by the IFP from all over the country.

Cosatu officials and offices came under attack by IFP and government forces. Offices were invaded in Madadeni and Newcastle; the house of Cosatu official Mathews Olifant was petrol-bombed; while other officials were abducted or arrested, and workers were attacked.

The state, for its part, declared a second state of emergency, and mounted a vicious campaign of detentions and crackdowns. Many unionists were arrested or harassed, including Jay Naidoo, whose house was raided by plain-clothes security police on the first night of the emergency, 12 June 1986.

In the first six weeks of the emergency, 2700 unionists were detained, the majority of them from Cosatu. Cosatu’s headquarters, Cosatu House in Johannesburg, was barricaded by the SADF, who monitored all movements in and out of the building.

But workers also retaliated. Hundreds went on strike to protest against the detentions. When five NUM regional leaders were arrested in Kimberly, 2000 workers at four mines went on strike, one of many such incidents.

Cosatu president Elijah Barayi, who was also the NUM’s vice president, was also detained, and the union initiated a national consumer boycott of liquor stores, bars and concession stores – and more miners at various mines went on strikes and go-slows.

Cosatu was prohibited from meeting outdoors, and other restrictions disrupted normal union processes – with the result that even business began complaining to the government that with union leaders in prison they were forced to negotiate with ‘mobs’.

Cosatu held a special meeting of its Central Executive Committee (CEC) on 1 July. Most of the delegates wanted to call for a stayaway, despite fears of dismissals and insufficient mobilising capacity. The ‘Day of Action’ was set for 14 July, but the response was disappointing. The UDF and other organisations had been unprepared for the call and failed to support the strike.

Disaster in Kinross

On 16 September a fire broke out inside a mine at Kinross, and about 180 miners lost their lives. Gencor, the mine owner, tried to play down the true nature of the disaster, releasing news of the incident late and under-reporting fatalities. They also prevented access to the media and union officials. In an official statement later, white miners who died were named, while black mining fatalities were announced thus: “Sotho 45, Shangaan (Mozambican) 21, Pondo 20, Hlubi (Transkei) 6, Swazi 8, Venda 1, Xhosa 29, Tswana 12, Malawi 15, Pedi 1.”

Wages and safety had always been the biggest concerns of mine workers, and the disaster caused deep anger. NUM called for a work stoppage on 1 October, and 325,000 miners heeded the call. A large number of industrial workers supported the call – as many as 275,000, according to Cosatu estimates.

The Stayaway and the Bomb

In May 1987 Cosatu launched its Living Wage Campaign, beginning on May Day, a Friday. To avert a union ‘victory’, the government declared the day a public holiday.

Cosatu joined the UDF and the NECC in the call for a two-day stayaway on 5-6 May 1987, two days set aside by the state for the white general election. More than 2,5-million people responded to the call. In the Eastern Cape the strike was 100% successful

The day after the strike, in the early hours of 7 May, Cosatu House was rocked by two bomb blasts. The bombs were placed near support columns in the basement, and the damage was so extensive that the building was declared unsafe. Cosatu, NUM, Pwawu, TGWU, Sarwhu and Mawu all lost their head offices.

In the aftermath, with the SABC launching a campaign of vilification that dared to present the blasts as the work of Cosatu itself, the federation launched a ‘Hands Off Cosatu’ campaign.

Mergers: One Industry, One Union

As part of one of its founding policies, Cosatu sought to bring all organised workers in each industry into a single union, and affiliates that had members in various sectors were expected to agree to the process of streamlining the federation’s membership. This proved to be easy in some instances, but a logistical and diplomatic nightmare in other cases. The food sector (Fawu) had been fairly successful in mergers by early 1987, as were domestic workers and transport workers (TGWU).

Construction workers came together in Cawu, chemical workers in CWIU, and Nehawu brought together hospital and education workers.

The metal workers’ unions merged on 23-4 May 1987 into the second largest union within Cosatu, smaller only than NUM. Numsa came into being with the merger of Mawu, Naawu, Ummawosa, Gawu, TGWU and Macwusa. Micwu, not a Cosatu affiliate, also joined up. Numsa began with 130,000 paid-up members, choosing as its general secretary Moses Mayekiso, who would complete 33 months in detention before taking up the position.

Ccawusa, TGWU and NUTW underwent more difficult attempts to form single industry unions.

The Freedom Charter

Cosatu held its second national congress from 14 to 18 July 1987. The most significant issue on the agenda was the proposal by the NUM that Cosatu, as the mineworkers had done, adopt the Freedom Charter. Despite a contrary motion by Numsa, which demanded that only large, mass-based socialist-oriented organisations be accepted as allies, the NUM resolution was adopted, although the federation was deeply divided by the move, many having a more critical relation to the Charter and Charterist political forces.

The Miners on Strike

The largest strike in South African history saw about 3,5-million mineworkers stop production in August 1987. Miners were tired of low pay, degrading tasks, the oppressive apartheid structure in the workplace as well as outside it. At the NUM’s annual congress in February 1987 the slogan ‘The Year the Mineworkers Take Control’ was adopted.

Representing the lowest-paid mineworkers in the world, NUM was determined to avoid earlier mistakes – such as split offers which gave different increases to different grades of workers – and push for an industry-wide agreement. Negotiations began in May 1987 and hit a deadlock soon after, and two conciliation boards failed to produce results. The Chamber of Mines, which was offering 17-23%, while NUM was demanding 30%, remained intransigent. In July, NUM’s members overwhelmingly voted for a strike, and the union announced on August 3 that an industry-wide strike would begin on 9 August.

On the night of 9 August, 75,000 workers failed to turn up for work on the night shift, and the next day a further 300,000 observed the strike call. Anglo American mines were affected more than any other. After reaching a peak of 340,000 by the second day, the number remained stable at 300,000 for the next two weeks.

Battles broke out around control of hostels and supplies of food, and workers were attacked in numerous ways: electricity to hostels was cut off, police were called in and opened fire with live and rubber ammunition, workers were teargassed and forced underground, and many were arrested.

The Reserve Bank withheld donations made to NUM from international supporters, and other banks prevented workers from withdrawing money from their accounts.

The strike was particularly successful at coal mines in the Witbank area, but miners throughout the industry held out for the duration. By late August, miners were being threatened with dismissal.

The chamber made a final offer on 26 August, on the 18th day of the strike, but NUM refused to accept. Anglo sent in its mine security in ‘hippos’ – armoured trucks – and workers were fired upon and many forced underground at Western Deep Levels. The next day Anglo dismissed 10,000 workers, and many were bussed back to the homelands. In total 50,000 workers were sacked.

Fearful of a defeat similar to the disastrous mineworkers strike of 1946, NUM announced on 29 August that it accepted the offer made on 26 August.

Consolidation and Turbulence

Following the huge mineworkers’ strike, Cosatu assessed the effects of the strike and considered why it had failed to mount support strikes. It set about strengthening its structures: a leadership code was set out and discussed; an education conference was held in October 1987 and education officers were appointed; an assessment was made of the federation’s strengths and weaknesses, and leadership and local structures were identified as weaknesses. The Living Wage Campaign was identified as Cosatu’s most important programme, with huge potential, but the campaign had not been adequately developed, and plans were made to take the programme forward.

But Cosatu was beset by other problems: violence in Natal was intensifying and forced the federation to turn its attention to the province instead of continuing with other work.

Meanwhile, amendments were being proposed to the Labour Relations Act (LRA) that sought to curtail strike activity and reverse gains made regarding job security. Employers in particular were putting pressure on government to curtail union powers, and Cosatu was forced to spend the next few years opposing these attacks on it effectiveness. CWIU, Ppwawu and Numsa in particular led attempts to oppose the amendments, but the unionists realised they were fighting a losing battle. The state, employers and even the coloured Labour Party were determined to push through the amendments. Nevertheless, Cosatu lodged a formal complaint with the International Labour Organisation.

Amidst all the turmoil, on 24 February 1988, Cosatu came under heavy restrictions when the government banned 17 organisations, including the UDF, South African Youth Congress (Sayco), Sansco, the NEEC and Azapo. Although Cosatu was not banned, it was prohibited from engaging in political activity.

The Special Congress and more strikes

To assess the effects of the bannings and the Labour Relations Amendment Bill, Cosatu held a special congress on 14 May 1988. Besides the federation’s 1324 delegates, leaders of the UDF, churches and other civil society organisations attended the meeting, which was held at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Delegates analysed the current situation in all its complexity – the political, economic and social aspects of the late 1980s, and concluded that apartheid was in crisis, and the regime was deemed unable to stem the demands for democracy.

Proposals regarding the forging of a united front were debated in a heated manner, most of the issues relating to relations between Charterist and non-Charterist organisations. A compromise resolution was eventually adopted, in which a committee would be set up to examine ideas for joint action, and delegates acknowledged that non-Charterists would have to be included in any decisions made.

Delegates also voted to call for three days of action, from 6 to 8 June 1988, to oppose bannings, restrictions and the measures used by the state to squash anti-apartheid opposition. It was billed as three days of ‘national peaceful protest’.

On 6 June, between 2,5-million and 3-million people observed the call and stayed at home. The level of the stayaway dropped in some areas on the two subsequent days, but in the Witwatersrand and Natal it was constant, as was the case in the Eastern Transvaal.

Cosatu was taken aback at the level of support for the strike, but there was concern about sectors that had not heeded the call. However, the massive show of support failed to halt ominous developments. Despite negotiations between Cosatu, Nactu (the Black Consciousness union federation), the South African Consultative Committee on Labour Affairs (Saccola), and the Department of Manpower, the Labour Relations Amendment Act became law on 1 September 1988. The anti-LRA campaign had effectively failed, and Cosatu’s leaders engaged in a process of assessment and introspection to determine the way forward.

Meanwhile, Cosatu set about organising the Anti-Apartheid Conference (AAC). It was to be held at the University of Cape Town on 24 and 25 September, with delegates from all over the country set to travel to the venue. However, the Black Consciousness and New Unity Movement groupings pulled out at the last minute. To make matters worse, the government banned the conference, and the idea had to be abandoned.

The Workers’ Summit

When Nactu, the Black Consciousness union federation, suggested holding a workers’ summit to discuss opposition to the newly enacted LRAA, Cosatu agreed, even though there was some dissent within its ranks. Despite agreements regarding the date of the conference – 4 and 5 March 1989 – Nactu pulled out late in February. But with arrangements underway, Cosatu decided to proceed with the event. Later, some Nactu unions broke ranks and decided to attend the summit, which took place on the appointed dates.

The summit was held at the University of the Witwatersrand, and about 700 delegates attended the meeting. Non-affiliated unions also attended the summit.

The summit resolved to come up with an alternative to the LRA to cover all workers, and to present Saccola with a list of six demands, while finding ways to avoid the industrial court and identifying and targeting employers who used the LRA against unions.

The Third Congress

On 12 July 1989 Cosatu held its third congress at the Nasrec hall on the outskirts of Soweto. Delegates openly exhibited the symbols of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe and the South African Communist Party. Sydney Mufamadi read out an address by the ANC’s Harry Gwala, who was unable to attend. The UDF’s Valli Moosa argued that the regime was being pushed into negotiations for a democratic future, and Frank Chikane reinforced the point.

The major topic was negotiations, and delegates set out minimum conditions before the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) would enter into talks with the apartheid government, now led by FW de Klerk (after PW Botha was taken ill and resigned as president).

The third congress, unlike the previous two, was marked by a more united federation, but once again the nature of alliances was debated. Plans were made for drawing up a worker’s charter and organising a campaign to drive the process. Women’s issues came to the fore, and various resolutions, for example a demand for maternity rights, were proposed and accepted.

The Final Straws

Once again, Cosatu called for a stayaway on 5 and 6 September 1989, and despite some confusion on the first day, workers by and large heeded the call, although not in numbers as large as the June stayaway. A consumer boycott was also called for, and it, too, was successful to varying degrees in the different regions.

The reunification of Ccawusa which had split into two factions was a major achievement for Cosatu.

Earlier, on 26 July, the MDM, Cosatu and the UDF, called for a National Defiance Campaign, and the response was overwhelming throughout the country. White facilities were invaded, and banned organisation declared themselves ‘unbanned’, initiating a period of open and mass defiance of apartheid laws. In mid-September, mass marches took place in Cape Town Johannesburg and Pretoria, with marchers openly flying the ANC flag. In Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape, a huge march seemed to dwarf those of the larger centres.

It was apparent that the government of FW de Klerk was introducing a new approach to the problems of the country, and by October all the Rivonia Trialists were released from prison, except Nelson Mandela, who was released on 11 February 1990.

Numsa workers at the Mercedes Benz plant in East London, working in their own time and sponsoring the project, built a special car for Mandela, a bullet-proof luxury Mercedes Benz sedan, which they put together in four days. The car was presented to Mandela soon after his release, which marked the beginning of a new, post-apartheid era in South Africa.

But the marches and protests didn’t end: more than 50 marches took place in the ten weeks following Mandela’s release, and strike levels approached those of 1987 as previously cautious workers celebrated their new-found power, notably domestic workers.

Cosatu in the post apartheid era

The period leading up to democracy and the coming of the new dispensation presented new challenges to the union federation. No longer necessarily an opponent of the state, the federation would go through various transformations to deal with new realities.

With the realisation that they would soon see the dissolution of the laws they had depended on to extract cheap labour from an unprotected workforce, employers also had to adapt to a new regime. Cosatu met with the ANC and SACP and the trio’s relationship was formalised into the Tripartite Alliance.

The post-apartheid period has seen Cosatu engage numerous campaigns, economic, social as well as political, notably in the unseating of South Africa’s second president, Thabo Mbeki, and the federation continues to wield enormous power in deciding the fate of the country.

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