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André Walters brings our readers a compendium of all things trade unions in South Africa

One often hears, or reads, about labour unions and trade unions. What is the difference, one may ask? Is there a difference? Yes, there is.

Labour unions are voluntary, democratic associations of workers. Trade unions are organised for a specific trade or occupation, while industrial unions represent workers in a particular industry. In South Africa, the leading organisations among working people are, in fact, trade unions. So let’s concentrate on that category as we investigate this fascinating subject.

What are the main functions of a trade union?

It’s all about negotiation and organised guidance for members, and it boils down to the following:

  • Better pay;
  • Better working conditions, like more holidays or improved health and safety;
  • Training for new skills; and
  • General advice and support.

History of trade unions

Trade unions have been in existence here for many decades which, historically, date back to the 1880s. From the early days, trade unions were predominantly European male organisations. As time went by, trade unions became transformed. Trade unions began to open their doors to all workers of race and gender. In addition, trade unions became involved in politics, the economy, and other social activities, and this was largely encountered with resistance.

Trade unions also have a hallmark history, which is linked to the struggle against the apartheid system, the violation of human rights, and labour exploitation in the country. They also have been a vital agent of social transformation and they play a significant role of social responsibility, which was largely ignored in the past. People, in general, had negative perceptions about trade unions. Many assumed that trade unions served to endorse industrial unrest and create difficulties for employers. However, the main purpose of the trade unions is to be a watchdog over the relationship between employees and their employers. There are international and national statutory bodies which regulate trades unions.

In South Africa, trade unions are currently regulated under the Labour Relations Act, 1995 (the LRA). After 1994, the new democratic government in our country has broadly transformed the labour laws. The South African Constitution safeguards and guarantees workers the right to freedom of association and the formation of trade unions. These rights are also regulated in terms of the Labour Relations Act.

South Africa is a member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which sets international standards on the role of trade unions. SA trade unions have also been affiliated with various international conventions such as International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), World Federation Trade Union (WFTU), International Confederation Federation Trade Union (ICFTU-AFRO), which constitute international law and human rights law, and these have influenced the development of labour law in South Africa.

So, to summarise, a trade union is an association of workers whose main purpose is to regulate relations between employees and employers, including employers’ organisations.

Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)

COSATU is the largest trade union federation in South Africa, with 21 affiliated trade unions. It was officially launched on 31 December 1985. It is affiliated with the ITUC, WFTU, and ICFTU-AFRO. COSATU is also the member of Tripartite Alliance, which includes the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Communist Party (SACP), and COSATU. It has a revolutionary motto: “An injury to one is an injury to all.” This shows the vision the union has of then social solidarity that binds the working class. COSATU’s key leadership includes Zingiswa Losi as the President and Bheki Ntshalintshali as the General Secretary. Its office is located in Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa.

COSATU has enjoyed many great achievements. One of its greatest, and earliest, was the fight against apartheid. At the second national congress held from 14 to 18 July 1987, the Freedom Charter was adopted by the federation after the resolution was proposed by the National Union of Mineworkers. At the third congress, held from 12 to 16 July 1989, a resolution was adopted that called on the members of COSATU to join a campaign of “sustained action” against apartheid, in the week leading up to the 1989 General Election of South Africa. On 26 July 1989, COSATU led the National Defiance Campaign, in which facilities reserved for whites were invaded, and organisations that had been banned by the State declared themselves unbanned.

The Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA)

FEDUSA was founded on 1 April 1997. It is affiliated with the ITUC. Its key leadership includes Godfrey Selamatsela as its President. Its office location is in Johannesburg.

FEDUSA was established by the amalgamation of two federations, namely the Federation of South African Labour Unions (FEDSAL) and Federation of Organisations Representing Civil Employees (FORCE). FEDUSA’s establishment is very closely related to the fact that a growing number of employees from all walks of life felt the need for a much stronger, party-politically independent, non-racial, and stable trade union federation with unions who can advance the interests of employees and of the economy of South Africa in an independent and responsible manner. The Labour Relations Act (LRA), Basic Conditions of Employment Act, The Skills Development Act, and Employment Equity Act were all negotiated with the help of FEDUSA.

The Confederation of South African Workers’ Unions (CONSAWU)

CONSAWU is one of four national trade union centers in South Africa. CONSAWU is affiliated with the ITUC. Its key leadership includes Joe Mfingwana, its President. Its office location is in Centurion, Gauteng, South Africa.

The federation was established in 2003 by 21 trade unions, which identified themselves as ‘Christian Democratic’. It applied for membership for the government’s National Economic Development and Labour Council, but it was rejected for having a membership below 300 000. In 2006, it engaged in discussions about a merger with rivals the Federation of Unions of SA, although they later excluded CONSAWU from the talks, on the grounds that it was too right-wing.

By 2008, the federation claimed a total of 290 000 members, of whom nearly half were members of its largest affiliate, Solidarity. It affiliated with the International Trade Union Confederation. It was largely inactive by 2017, but attempted to revive itself with a promise of lower affiliation fees than rival federations. Solidarity has since withdrawn, along with the National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers, formerly its second-largest affiliate.

The aim of CONSAWU is to create centers to promote healthy lifestyles and choices for the youth, providing a safe haven for children whilst their parents/guardians/siblings work.

The National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU)

NACTU is a national trade union centre in South Africa. It was founded in 1986 and is affiliated with the ITUC. The NACTU office is located in Johannesburg.

National Council of Trade Unions represents twelve registered trade unions in all the sectors of the economy. They are part of the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) structures and participate together with other trade unions, organised business, and the government.

Formed in 1986, it has nearly 500 000 members today. NACTU is primarily focused on black empowerment. Unlike COSATU, which subscribes to a multiracial ideology and is closely tied to the African National Congress (ANC), NACTU says it “promotes black identity and endorses black exclusiveness” and it has been linked with the Black Consciousness Movement and the Pan-Africanist Congress.

NACTU is very active in pursuing legislative means to achieve its goals, but it is willing to resort to extra-parliamentary means when legislation fails. The main forum in which NACTU works with the government, business, and NGO interests to formulate social and economic policy is the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC). NACTU, COSATU, and FEDUSA represent labour interests within NEDLAC, and they often work together outside of NEDLAC as well.

The South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU)

SAFTU is affiliated with 21 trade unions, organising 800 000 workers. SAFTU was founded on 21 April 2017 and strives to achieve the following objectives:

  • Independence: Unions must be independent from employers (in the private and public sector) and from political parties. This does not mean that unions are apolitical.
  • Worker control and democracy: Unions must be worker-controlled and practice democracy, accountability, transparency and be tolerant. Within the federation affiliates must have autonomy but not independence, but differences of opinion must be tolerated.
  • Non-racialism and Non-sexism: Unions must fight for the maximum unity of all workers and reject all divisive and negative sentiment such as xenophobia etc.
  • Financial self-sufficiency, accountability and opposition, in word and deed, to business unionism, corruption, fraud and maladministration within its own ranks and in society as a whole.
  • Anti-imperialist and Internationalist: Unions must place a high priority on international solidarity.
  • Socialist orientation: Unions must be ready to engage in the transformation of our societies to counter capitalist exploitation, inequalities and poverty.
  • Militancy in Fighting for the Working Class and the Poor: Unions must be ready to actively campaign for change, and made links with all of the oppressed South Africans.
  • Effective Organisation and Representation: Unions must organise in the most effective manner to represent workers and serve their interests.
  • Solidarity with all workers in struggle for better wages and conditions or to save jobs.
  • Support for workers exposing corruption, e.g. PRASA and Midrand Municipality.

National Union of Mineworkers (NUMSA)

The NUMSA mission is to produce research and policy outputs of the highest quality in order to contribute to the quest for economic transformation in our country.

They also aim to be an effective vehicle for the union to contest for the voice of the working class in public discourse on policy issues.

  • NUMSA was formed in May 1987. It merged four different unions:
  • MAWU – Metal and Allied Workers Union
  • MICWU – Motor Industry Combined Workers Union
  • NAAWU – National Automobile and Allied Workers Union
  • UMMAWOSA – United Metal, Mining and Allied Workers of South Africa

NUMSA is active across a wide range of battlefields:

  • It is celebrating 35 years of ‘Metal Strength’
  • It has called for the freedom of Palestine
  • It has accused Eskom of using wage talks to scapegoat loadshedding

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU)

AMCU was formed in the post-apartheid South Africa. AMCU organises workers in the mining and construction sector in Mpumalanga, South Africa. In 1998, a breakaway faction of the COSATU-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) formed AMCU. It was formally registered as a union in 2001. According to press reports, the union sees itself as distinct from NUM in that it is “apolitical and non-Communist”.

Competition with NUM over bargaining rights, especially at the Impala Platinum and LONMIN mines in the Rustenburg area, culminated in the violent Marikana miners’ strike and what became known as the Marikana Massacre, in which police shot and killed over 30 strikers.

The AMCU now represents over 70% of LONMIN employees, compared to the 20% representation of the NUM. It is also the majority union at Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) and Impala Platinum. Its President is Joseph Mathunjwa.


The law gives you the right to join a trade union wherever you work. This right applies whether a union has been recognised or not. You’re protected from being disadvantaged for being a union member. Specifically trade union membership is an unlawful reason for:

  • Refusing you employment
  • Dismissing you
  • Selecting you for redundancy

And now, as a last thought about unions, we look at how they help people. Let’s call it the ‘Social Functions of Unions’.

Some unions have now started to undertake and organise welfare activities and they also provide a variety of services to their members, and sometimes to the community of which they are a part, which may include the following activities:

  1. Welfare activities are provided to improve the quality of work-life, including the organisation of mutual funds, cooperative credit societies for providing housing, cooperative stores, cultural programmes, banking and medical facilities and training for women in various crafts to help them to supplement their family incomes.
  2. Education: Education of members in all aspects of their working life, including improving their civic life, awareness of the environment around them, enhancement of their knowledge, particularly in regard to issues that concern them, their statutory and other rights and responsibilities and workers’ participation in management.
  3. Scheme, and procedure, for redressing grievances. Some central union organisations are also assisting the so-called ‘Government in implementing the Workers’ Education Scheme’.
  4. Publication of periodicals. This includes news letters or magazines for communication with their members, making the them aware of union policies and their stand on certain principal issues and personnel matters concerning members, such as births, deaths, marriages, promotion and achievements.
  5. Research: This is intended to mainly provide updated information to union negotiators at the bargaining table. Such research seeks to be more practical than academic, and it concerns problems relating to day-today affairs of the union and its activities and union and management relations.

Any thinking person must agree: unions have made and are continuing to make a huge difference in the workplaces of our country. We wish them well. May they flourish and become even more balanced and effective.

André Walters is a veteran broadcaster.

By Editor