Before there was the Congress of South African Trade Unions, today’s COSATU, there was FOSATU. FOSATU was set up in 1979. There had been strikes and struggles in the 1970s, starting with a big strike wave in Namibia from 1971-1972, which was then a South African colony, then a big strike wave starting in Durban 1973, which spread around the country. Although we remember 1976 for the bravery of the youth and students, we must remember that the 1976 uprising also involved general strikes by the black working class, mass stay-aways.
And as the working class started to flex its muscles, and to organise new, independent unions, the need for unity was felt. In 1979, at Hammanskraal, FOSATU was set up. The flag of FOSATU was red, black and gold, with a hammer, a spanner and a spade. FOSATU grew quickly, despite repression by the apartheid state. Leaders and activists in FOSATU were banned, jailed; some, like Andries Raditsela, were murdered by police. There was continual intimidation, and employers would fire workers for going on strike or “agitating” at work. Unemployment is not just about money: unemployment is a weapon of the bosses, and this weapon was used many times against FOSATU.
Renewal and crisis in South African labour today: Towards transformation or stagnation, bureaucracy or self-activity?
South African unions are large but fragmented, substantial but politically weak. They represent different political traditions and all are marked by serious organisational problems. They have little impact on the official public sphere. The unions need to work towards realizing a stateless, classless, self-managed society without hierarchy, based on political pluralism and freedom.
by Lucien van der Walt (ZACF)
Published in “South African Labour Bulletin“, 40 (5): 46-48
In these grim times, both globally and locally, it is important to reaffirm the centrality of workers’ education, and the need for a strong working-class movement. Ordinary people have immense potential to change the world, and steer it in a more progressive direction than that promised by capitalists, populists and the political establishment, writes Lucien van der Walt.
by Pitso Mompe (ZACF)
Trade unions have played a major role in defending workers’ rights against the bosses and politicians, also in advancing workers’ interests. This is why, even today, workers are still loyal to their unions. However, there are obstacles within the unions – one being the union bureaucracy, of paid and full-time officials. This can develop its own interests, undermining the unions.
This is a challenge faced by many unions. This bureaucracy is at times unable to represent workers’ grievances effectively: they often spend more time fighting amongst themselves for certain positions within the union instead of for workers’ rights. Due to this bureaucracy, which is structured hierarchically, higher positions hold more power, including in terms of decision-making. Those in leadership are often full-time and recieve much higher salaries than those of the workers they represent. This means they often want to prevent union actions that threaten their own positions, like long strikes.