Timeline of the Labour and Trade Union Movement in South Africa 1980 - 1990


The launch of Cosatu in 1985. From right to left are Jay Naidoo, Sydney Mufamadi, Elijah Barayiand Chris DlaminiThe launch of Cosatu in 1985

The 1980s witnessed a convergence of forces in the trade union movement as they formed themselves under an umbrella union in various sectors where they worked. Unions such as NUMSA, NEHAWU, CAWU, CCAWUSA and SADWU were formed often by several trade unions that merged. Numerous strikes broke out in the early part of the decade across a number of industries. Over the decade, the labour movement consolidated its position with the formation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in 1985. The vibrancy of trade unionism in the 80s was accompanied by increased police brutality on trade unionists, for instance the death of Neil Agget in detention and the arrest of six leading women trade union activists in 1981 among other forms of state sanctioned harassment. All this pointed to the state’s nervousness about an emboldened trade union movement whose activities reflected a sense that the edifice of Apartheid was crumbling.  
The Apartheid government bans the collection of contributions by and on behalf of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU). The ban is aimed at preventing funding which in turn will cripple the activities of the labour organisation.
The National Automobile and Allied Workers' Union (NAAWU) is formed bringing together three unions in the motor assembly industry.
Some dissatisfied members of NAAWU break away and form another union, the Motor Assemblers and Components Workers Union (MACWUSA).
7 May, Meat workers under the Western Province General Workers' Union (WPGWU) at the Table Bay Cold Storage go on a 12 week crippling strike which paralyses meat supply to Cape Town.
22 May, Workers and Farmtex and Nortex in Pinetwon, Durban, go on strike over wages.  The police fight running battles with workers and arrest their leaders. In the aftermath of the strike, six thousand workers are dismissed. 
16 June, About 3 500 African and Coloured workers go on strike at Volkswagen in Uitenhage after a magistrate bans a report back meeting led by FOSATU on the wage negotiations.
3-5 July, A strike by 680 Public Utility Transport Corporation (PUTCO) drivers breaks out in Johannesburg as workers demand a wage increase. 
11 July, Simon Cele a shop steward at Farmtex is shot dead at a bus stop by a killer wearing a hood over his face.
14 July, Migrant workers go on strike at SASOL in Secunda with 18 000 workers heeding the call to down tools. Workers were protesting against the shooting of a worker following heightened security after the bombing of the area by uMkhonto weSizwe (MK).
24-29 July, 10 000 Municipal workers go on strike in Johannesburg demanding a 75% increase and the recognition of the Black Municipal Workers Union (BMWU).
August, Workers at the Post, a newspaper go on strike over pay successfully compelling the employer to award an increase to both journalists and non journalists.
14 September, The Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA) is formed, with 9 affiliates. CUSA originated from the Urban Training Project and the Consultative Committee of Black Trade Unions.
October, 1 100 African workers go on strike to protest against a racist foreman. They are subsequently fired from work but are reinstated after negotiations with the SAAWU worker’s committee.
24 October, Workers at the Cape Herald go on strike over pay and are joined by other members of the Media Workers Union of South Africa (MWASA) countrywide. 
November, The Chronicle becomes the first company to recognise South African Allied Workers' Union (SAAWU).
November, Between 1700 and 1800 workers at Allied Publishing go on strike to protest the dismissal of three workers.
February, About 500 black workers and SAAWU members are sacked from the Wilson Rowntree factory in East London after a strike over unfair dismissals of their colleagues.
March, Thozamile Gqweta president of the SAAWU narrowly escapes assassination when his house is destroyed arsonists.
SAAWU engages in a recognition dispute with Wilson-Rowntree.
8-9 August, The Langa Summit is held at the St Francis Cultural Centre Township in Cape Town where 100 representatives of 29 unions meet to discuss worker issues and their response to broader political issues affecting them. Thozamile Gqweta serves as chairman, Government Zini as vice chairman and David Lewis as minute secretary.
27 November, Emma Mashinini a leading trade union activist and secretary of the Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers' Union (CCAWU)is arrested and detained for six months by the security police.

Emma Mashinini

5 February, Neil Agget a trade union organiser dies in detention
11 February, 100,000 workers observe a work stoppage for 30 minutes on after the death in detention of Neil Agget.
April, Trade unions hold a second summit at Wilgespruit to discuss the possibility of a super-federation. The delegates resolve to work towards a new, all-inclusive labour federation.
April, FOSATU holds its second congress at Hammanskraal near Pretoria to review progress since its inauguration.
24 April, A second unity summit by the trade union movement meets at Wilgespruit in Johannesburg. The summit was chaired by Jan Theron while Government Mini servs as vice chairman.
June, Two unions with a combined membership of 11 000 workers pull out of the Trade Union Council of South Africa (TUCSA).
3-4 July, A third summit, held in July 1982 in Port Elizabeth, sees bitter divisions over a range of issues, and fails to move towards agreement of the basis for a broad federation.
5 December, The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is established. Amongst its founder members are James Motlatsi who becomes the union’s first President, Elijah Barayi who became its Vice Presidentand Cyril Ramaphosa who became its first General Secretary.
9-10 April, A fourth summit in Athlone in April 1983 sees the unions agree that the proposed federation could embrace unions with different policies, and a feasibility committee is set up to look at the issues. Edmund Makupa and David Lewis serve as chair and secretary respectively. Unlike the previous two summits, the Athlone summit consisted on shop stewards from FOSATU affiliates. 
Dissatisfied members of NAAWU break way and form another union, the United Mining, Metal and Allied Workers of South Africa (UMMAWOSA).
May, The NAAWU successfully negotiates and secures an agreement for 12 weeks of maternity leave at the Pretoria based Sigma automobile manufacturer.
May, Trade unionists and unions aligned to the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) philosophy launch the Azanian Confederation of Trade Union (AZACTU).
1 September, The Vaal Triangle erupts on the day the Tricameral Parliament is inaugurated, and the unrest continues for months, prompting the government to declare a State of Emergency.
September, NUM declares its first ever legal strike after the Chamber implements a 14% offer increase.
4-5 November, The Transvaal Regional Stay-away Committee, calls for a two-day stay-away and students call for workers to support a stay-away. Azapo, critical of Congress-aligned activity, rejects the call. FOSATU, perceived to be hostile to mass political activity, sends Moses Mayekiso to join the stay-away committee. About 800,000 workers heed the call in the Transvaal alone.
December, The South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) warns CCAWUSA, CTMWA, CUSA, FCWU, FOSATU and GWU not to proceed with the formation of a new federation without the general workers union.
8-9 June, A final summit on union unity is held at Ipeleng in Soweto, where a wide range of unions bring their national executive committees to deliberate on the way forward. Unions aligned to the UDF, Black Consciousness Movement, and others representing various positions on the nature of the federation, are represented by 400 delegates. Chaired by the NUM’s Cyril Ramaphosa, the summit agrees on five principles: non-racialism, ‘one union one industry’, worker control, representation on the basis of paid-up membership, and co-operation at national level. While Cusa and Azactu unions fail to agree and reject the federation, the NUM – a member of Cusa – breaks loose and joins the federation.
30 November, More than 760 delegates from 33 unions descend on the sports hall of the University of Natal, in Durban, to inaugurate a new trade union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). The congress appoints the following office-bearers:
President                                 Elijah Barayi
Vice president                         Chris Dlamini
Second vice president             Makhulu Ledwaba
Treasurer                                Maxwell Xulu
General Secretary                   Jay Naidoo
Assistant General Secretary   Sydney Mufamadi
January, In its annual statement on 8 January, the ANC hails the formation of Cosatu and appeals to the Black Consciousness bloc, Cusa and Azactu, to work together with the new federation.
Members of Cosatu embark on a series of strikes. In January alone 185,000 man-days are 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. Workers flocked to join Cosatu, and the federation’s membership surged in the few months after its launch.
18 February, Cosatu’s Executive Committee meets with the United Democratic Front (UDF).
April, Cosatu sends a delegation to the meeting of Socialist International in Botswana where they meet with representatives of International Confederation of Trade Unions (ICFTU).
29 April, Apartheid government security forces raid Cosatu headquarters and confiscate a number of items.
1 May, Marked the 100th anniversary of International Labour Day, and Cosatu demands that May Day be recognised as a public holiday, and calls for a stayaway. 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. The call was particularly successful in the PWV region, and in the larger cities.
1 May, The United Workers of South Africa (UWUSA), a trade union aligned to the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) is launched in Durban. A B Mtshali was elected as president and Dumisani Dludla as general secretary.
Premier Foods becomes the first large employer to declare 1 May and 16 June as paid holidays, and others soon follow.
1 June, The Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU) is launched from a merger of Food and Canning Workers Union(FCWU), Sweet, Food and Allied Workers Union(SFAWU0, Retail and Allied Workers Union (RAWU) and part of General and Allied Workers' Union(GAWU).
12 June,  The state, on the defensive after a spate of political challenges, declares a partial State of Emergency in the country, and the home of Cosatu general secretary is raided, but he is elsewhere. Up to 2700 unionists are detained throughout the country, and Cosatu House in Johannesburg is barricaded by the SADF. Cosatu president Elijah Barayi, who was also the NUM’s vice president, was also detained.
1 July, Cosatu’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) holds a special meeting. Most of the delegates call for a stayaway, and 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.
16 September, A fire breaks out inside a mine in Kinross, and 180 miners die. Gencor, the mine owner, tries to play down the true nature of the disaster, releasing news of the incident late and under-reporting fatalities. They also prevent access to the media and union officials.
1 October, The NUM calls for a work stoppage and 325,000 miners heed the call. As many as 275,000 industrial workers support the call.
October, Cosatu vice president Chris Dlamini leads a delegation to conference jointly hosted by the Zambian Congress of Trade Unions and the ICFTU.
5 October, The National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU) is formed in Broederstroom after a merger between the Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA) and the Azanian Confederate of Trade Unions (AZACTU).
31 January,  The Construction and Allied Workers Union (CAWU) is formed  after the merger of the Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU), South African Allied Workers' Union (SAAWU), Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), Brick, Clay and Allied Workers Union (BRICAWU)  and part of Garment and Allied Workers' Union (GAWU).
February, At the NUM’s annual congress in February 1987 the slogan ‘The Year the Mineworkers Take Control’ is adopted.
22 April, Police shoot and kill three strikers at the offices of Cosatu in Germiston. 
May, 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.
5-6 May, Cosatu, the UDF and the NECC call for a two-day stayaway, the same two days set aside by the state for the white general election. More than 2,5-million people respond to the call. In the Eastern Cape the strike was 100% successful.
7 May, In the early hours of the day after the strike, Cosatu House is all but demolished by a bomb. The building is declared unsafe, and Cosatu, NUM, Pwawu, TGWU, Sarwhu and Mawu all lose their head offices.
Cosatu launches a ‘Hands Off Cosatu’ campaign after the SABC and right wing newspapers launch attacks against the federation in the media.
24-25 May, Metal work unions Mawu, Naawu, Ummawosa, Gawu, TGWU and Macwusa join forces to launch the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), the second largest union in the federation after NUM.
28 June, The South AfricanAllied Workers' Union(SAAWU), GAWU, and Health and Allied Workers Union (HAWU) combine to launch the National Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU). 
28 June, The Retail and Allied Workers' Union (RAWU) and the Hotel and Restaurant  Workers Union  (HARWU) join forces to form  the  Commercial Catering and Allied Workers' Union(CCAWUSA) with about 55 000 members.  However, the union does not last due internal divisions.
14-18 July, Cosatu holds its second national congress and the NUM proposes that the federation adopt the Freedom Charter, a move opposed by Numsa. The congress adopted the motion.
July, Workers go on strike at Mercedes Benz.
An estimated 11 000 workers at OK Bazzars and Hyperama go on strike across the country under the leadership of CCAWUSA.
August, The NUM launches the largest strike in South African history on 9 August, and more than 300,000 mineworkers down tools for 21 days until the 29 August, when the NUM announced that it accepted a wage offer made on 26 August. More than 50,000 workers were dismissed, and many were bussed back to the homelands.
3-4 October, The Progressive Teacher’s Union (PTU) hosts a meeting with various teachers’ organisations in Johannesburg to discuss unity.  In attendance were the National Education Union of South Africa (NEUSA), Progressive Teachers’ League (PTL), Mamelodi Teachers Union (MATU), Western Cape Teachers Union (WECTU), Democratic Teachers’ Union (DETU), and Education for an Aware South Africa (EDUSA), Eastern Cape Teachers’ Union (ECTU), East London Progressive Teachers Union (ELPTU), and the Port Alfred Progressive Teachers’ Union (PAPTU).
29-30 November, The South African Domestic Workers Union (SADWU) is formed as an affiliate of Cosatu in Cape Town after bringing together domestic worker unions from the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Natal. Florie de Villers was elected as the union’s first general secretary.
The South African Railway and Harbour Workers’ Union (SARHWU) embarks on a six week strike after a worker was arbitrarily dismissed.  


24 February, The government bans 17 organisations, including the UDF, South African Youth Congress (Sayco), Sansco, the NEEC and Azapo. Although Cosatu is not banned, it is prohibited from engaging in political activity.
14 May, Cosatu holds a special congress at the University of the Witwatersrand to consider the effects of the February state crackdown and the Labour Relations Amendment Bill. The federation’s 1324 delegates are joined by leaders of the UDF, churches and other civil society organisations attended the meeting. The congress concluded that apartheid was in the throes of a major political, economic and social crisis. Delegates set an agenda for three days of national strikes from 6 to 8 June, billed as a ‘national peaceful protest’.
6 June, Between 2,5-million and 3-million people observe the stayaway call. The first day of the strike was the most successful, but in the Witwatersrand, Eastern Transvaal and Natal the stayaway was constant.
1 September, Despite negotiations between Cosatu, Nactu, the South African Consultative Committee on Labour Affairs (Saccola), and the Department of Manpower, the Labour Relations Amendment Act (LRA) becomes law. The anti-LRA campaign had effectively failed, and Cosatu’s leaders engaged in a process of assessment and introspection to determine the way forward.
Nactu proposes holding a Workers’ Summit on 4 and 5 March 1989 to discuss opposition to the newly enacted LRAA. Cosatu agrees to heed the call despite some opposition, but in February Nactu pulled out of the plan. Cosatu decided to go ahead with the summit, and some Nactu unions broke away from their federation’s position and attended the summit. About 700 delegates attended the summit, which was held at the University of the Witwatersrand. 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.
12 July, Cosatu holds its third congress at the Nasrec hall on the outskirts of Soweto. Delegates openly exhibit symbols of the ANC, uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and the South African Communist Party (SACP).  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. Delegates set out preconditions for any negotiation process
26 July, The Mass Democratic Movement (MDM), Cosatu and the UDF, call for a National Defiance Campaign and the response throughout the country was massive. White facilities were invaded, and banned organisation declared themselves ‘unbanned’, initiating a period of open and mass defiance of apartheid laws.
October, The South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (SACTWU) is launched after successful talks between ACTWUSA and GAWU.
9 November, CCAWUSA is dissolved and in its place the South African Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU) is launched. Duma Nkosi is elected as president, Miller Moela as deputy president Chris Mohlasi as the second deputy president, Papi Kganare was elected as general secretary and Crosby Booi serves as the national administrative secretary.
5 November, The Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPRCU) is launched.
May, The Tripartite Alliance between Cosatu, the ANC and the SACP is formed after the unbanning of political organisations.
6 October, The South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) is launched in Johannesburg. 

• MacShane, D,  Plaut, M,E and Ward, D (1984),  Power!: Black Workers, Their Unions and the Struggle for Freedom in South Africa,(Nottingham),  pp.34-47
Nldovu, S.M, and Sithole,J, Trade union summits and the formation of COSATU, 1980 -1990 in The Road to Democracy in South Africa, Volume 1980 -1990, Part 2, (Pretoria-Unisa Press), pp.913-941
• Leach, G, (1986),  South Africa: No Easy Path to Peace, (London), p.148
• Bendix, S, (1989), Industrial Relations in South Africa, (Cape Town), p.206

Last updated : 23-Jan-2013

This article was produced by South African History Online on 18-Jan-2013

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