Trade Unions in South Africa: Dramatic Change after Apartheid Ends

By Barrett, Jerome T. | Monthly Labor Review, May 1996 | Go to article overview

Trade Unions in South Africa: Dramatic Change after Apartheid Ends


Barrett, Jerome T., Monthly Labor Review


The current role of the South African trade union movement is the result of several dynamic events that have occurred during the decline of apartheid in South Africa. At the beginning of 1990, Nelson Mandela, an activist of the banned political party called the African National Congress, was still in jail; the largest black trade union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, was viewed as too "left-leaning" because of its connection to the African National Congress; exiled political leaders and trade union representatives, who might have returned to South Africa, were viewed as too old and out-of-touch to lead or cooperate with young leaders; the black trade union movement was not represented in the South African government; enacted labor legislation was extremely restrictive and punitive; violent strikes were the primary method available for achieving collective bargaining gains; no cooperation existed among trade union federations; the AFL-CIO's international program to support emerging trade unions was not allowed in the country; and a trade boycott by other countries restricted many South African exports.

By contrast, Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa in 1994 and the government now embraces the African National Congress as its political party. Ninety trade unionists participate as elected members of Parliament or hold top appointive positions. The South African trade union movement, the fastest growing in the world, is dominated by the Congress of South African Trade Unions which remains a trade union, despite its closeness to the African National Congress and the fact that many of its representatives have moved into government positions. Punitive labor laws are no longer enforced; instead, a comprehensive and progressive new law was passed by Parliament late last year, following a lengthy study and a tripartite consensus. Trade union federations are cooperating through tripartite mechanisms to decide many major issues.

Still another significant contrast between the old South Africa and the new South Africa is the allowance of foreign help. During the apartheid era, the AFL-CIO program that supported black trade unions was not allowed in the country. By 1995, however, an AFL-CIO office in Johannesburg directly supports and assists South African unions.

This report describes events that took place in South Africa during the 199(} 95 period which include the abolishment of apartheid.(1) It explains the evolution of South Africa's trade union movement during this period, and its role in governmental policies, economic development, civic activities, and social services.(2)

New politics, new society

In the forefront of all the political and economic changes in South Africa is the trade union movement. Many South Africans believe that the role played by their trade unions in replacing the South African government, ending apartheid, and preparing for the future, has been at least as significant as the role Solidarity played in-Poland. President Mandela recognized this and the need for the trade union's continuing role during the transition period. Re wrote:(3)

"COSATU has played an important part

in the negotiations leading to the

Peace Accord. . . I am struck by the

confidence and sense of responsibility

with which COSATU is rapidly adjusting

itself to shoulder the immense

responsibilities in preparing for democracy

and governance."

During the 1990-95 period, the trade unions were involved in numerous political activities, such as: getting the government to free political prisoners, developing a mechanism to create a new constitution, drafting the new constitution, educating South Africans about government processes and voting procedures, conducting public debate about democratic institutions, aiding in plans for the 1994 election, assisting in the first all-race election, conducting the successful election of the African National Congress party, forming the new "Government of National Unity," persuading the United States and other countries to lift the international trade ban, convincing foreign private investors to increase their investments in South Africa, and encouraging companies within South Africa to invest more in private development activities.

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