Charles Nupen was born on 19 June 1950 in Durban.
After starting a medical degree at the University of Natal, he switched to studying for a Bachelor of Arts with Political Science as a major in 1968/1969. Nupen states that his lecturer Rick Turner “Had a huge influence on my thinking and probably was the key to persuading me to go into student politics and become a student political activist” (LRC Interview, 2007: 1). In 1971 Nupen became involved in the Wages Commission that was established at the university by the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). The aim of the Wages Commission was to look into the working conditions of African workers in Durban and then make representation to the Statutory Wage Board. Around the same time Nupen and his fellow students started a worker’s newspaper called ‘Isisebenzi’ (the Worker). He was arrested a couple of times while delivering the newspaper for various issues such as being in a Black township without a permit. Nupen was elected president SRC President at Natal University and then president of NUSAS in 1973.
In 1974 Nupen was involved in a student campaign which called for the release of political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbkei and others on Robben Island. During his term as NUSAS president Nupen consulted closely with both Turner (who had been banished to King Williams Town) and Steve Biko. After his term as NUSAS president finished, Nupen returned to Natal University in 1975 to complete his law degree.
Nupen got married in 1975 and with his wife still studying at the University of Cape Town, he moved to Cape Town. He worked as an attorney with a small firm called Buchananas. During this time he spent his Saturdays giving advice to workers at the Western Province Workers Advice Bureau – the forerunner to the General Workers Union.
At the end of 1975 he was arrested with four others in what became known as the NUSAS trial. His co-accused were Karel Tip, Eddie Webster, Glen Moss and Cedric de Beer. They were charged under the Suppression of Communism Act for the campaigns they had run (such as the 1974 campaign) which was seen by the apartheid government as promoting the objectives of a banned organisation and carried a life imprisonment as a treasonable activity. The trial lasted until the end of 1976 and took place in Johannesburg. They were defended by Arthur Chaskalson, George Bizos, Denis Kuny, Raymond Tucker and Geoff Budlender.
Nupen spoke at Turner’s funeral in 1978 after he was assassinated at his home in Bellair, Durban. With the death of Biko and Turner, Nupen went on a speaking tour around the campuses with Donald Woods to raise awareness about their deaths and their contributions. At the end of 1979 Chaskalson invited Nupen to join the Legal Resource Centre (LRC) and so he moved to Johannesburg.
In 1980 he started working at the LRC, where he worked as an attorney for seven years. His involvement began with Pass Law cases, defending people who were charged with pass law offences. After this he began providing legal services to workers. Nupen was sent to the United States of America (USA) by Chaskalson in 1982 to meet with lawyers such as Clinton Bamberger and Reuben Clark III. In 1984 Nupen became involved in mediating disputes. The Federal Mediation Conciliation Service (FMCS) sent someone to South Africa to train a small group as mediators such as Nupen and Cyril Ramaphosa. It was during this time that Nupen started doing work on the side for the Independent Mediation Service of South Africa (IMSSA).
Nupen was appointed executive director of IMSSA in 1987. Between 1987 and 1995 Nupen managed the IMSSA’s growth into a national organisation and conducted several hundred mediations and arbitrations across South Arica and in all sectors of the economy. With the heightening political conflict, IMMA started conducting political mediation such as mediating between Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the African National Congress (ANC).
In the early 1990s, Nupen was asked to chair the Soweto Peace Committee. In 1994, Nupen was appointed a commissioner of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) assisting in the oversight of South Africa’s first democratic election. In 1995/1996 Nupen left IMSSA to assist in establishing the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration – the country’s first national public dispute settlement agency – and he served as the Commission’s first executive director. Nupen remained at the CCMA for three years.
Between 1998 and 2007 he divided his time between project managing with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and expanding his consulting business, Charles Nupen cc. During this period he facilitated labour law reform projects and the establishment of national dispute settlement agencies in several Southern African countries. In 2009 Nupen received the Tokiso’s Mediator of the Year award. Nupen’s company Charles Nupen cc merged with Alan Brews and Associates cc to form StratAlign Pty Ltd, of which Nupen is currently the executive chairman. It is a company that focuses on the development of human potential and performance in the workplace. He continues to work as an attorney and as an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) specialist. He is also the Chief Technical Advisor of the ILO, an adjunct professor of law at the University of Cape Town and serves on the board of Resource Africa, an NGO that promotes sustainable resource management in rural communities in Southern Africa.