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A long and winding road leads to Cosatu

Unity is often like a frog,” said a worker. “Every time you think you have it in your hands, it jumps out.” This is very true. After four and a half years of talking, fighting and planning, 33 trade unions have joined together under a big new federation. This new federation is called Cosatu and it stands for the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

Cosatu was born on the 30th November at a big meeting at the university in Durban. Nearly 450 thousand workers will belong to the new federation.

“A federation brings unions together under the roof of one organisation,” says one worker leader. “The federation keeps unions united at all times and lets workers fight battles together. And in these struggles the unions will be loyal to each other – just like a man and a woman who get married.”


Trade unions met to speak about the new federation for the first time in 1981. They met in Langa in Western Cape. “This was a meeting that made history,” says Moses Mayekiso from MAWU.

“The meeting in Langa started the ball rolling for what we have today. The meeting was important because the unions came together after many years and said they still wanted unity.”

If the unions all wanted unity, why did the birth of Cosatu take so long? “It was difficult to get unions with different ideas together,” says Dave Lewis from the General Workers Union. “The unions all had their own histories and they had learned different lessons from their own struggles. Some unions have different ways of organising to other unions. Also some unions are old and some are new. These are some of the reasons why we took so long.”

“If you want something that is real and not just for show, it takes a long time,” says Mayekiso.

“There were political differences among the unions. People did not trust each other. Unions used to leave the talks and then come back. All these things made us go slowly. But we think that it’s good that the Federation took so long. The long path has helped us to work out many of our differences.”


The unions met every year in different places around South Africa. Not all the meetings were good. Like when unions walked out of the meeting in Port Elizabeth in 1982 saying: “There is no way that unions can come together under one organisation.”

At this meeting workers fought about the new law that said that unions must register. Some unions said that the registration will make workers lose control of their union. Other unions said that workers can never lose control – if unions are well organised. Some unions did not agree with this and left the meeting.

In 1983 the trade unions tried again. They met in Cape Town. This time they went forward. They chose a committee to go and help them find ‘unity’. They also agreed how the new federation would work. “1 am sure that in a short time a federation of all trade unions will be started,” said Dave Lewis after the meeting.

But once again trade union unity slipped out of the workers’ hands. It took another two years to find unity.

Mayekiso smiles as he talks about some of the fights. “I remember the Wilgespruit meeting where there were problems with the constitu­tion. Some unions walked out. But after a lot of talking we sorted out the problem.”

Dave Lewis agrees. “Wilgespruit was an important meeting. We agreed that the workers must control their unions. We also agreed that unions in Cosatu will have a say in the running of Cosatu – and they will still be free to run their own union.”


At the Soweto meeting in 1985 many trade unions that left the talks were invited again. Also invited was AZACTU. It was the first time that the Azanian Con­federation of Trade Unions was invited. They told the meeting that they did not agree with some of the old unions in the talks.

AZACTU said they believed in black leadership. They do not believe in whites should be leaders of unions or political organisations that have mostly black members. Another big group of trade unions called CUSA agreed with AZACTU. Over 100 thousand workers belong to CUSA.

CUSA and AZACTU asked the meeting to agree to black leader­ship. The other unions refused and said that AZACTU and CUSA must agree to non-racialism ­ when the colour of a person’s skin is not important.

The meeting in Soweto was stopped so that everybody could think about things. They agreed to meet again in Johannesburg.

When the unions met again, AZACTU was left out of the talks. CUSA refused to go to the meeting. They said that some of their member trade unions were invited to the meeting and some were not. They said they did not like this “divide and rule” way of doing things.

Then the National Union of Mine­workers (NUM) decided to leave CUSA. NUM is the biggest union in the country and CUSA lost a very strong member. NUM said that CUSA was not serious about unity. NUM decided to join Cosatu .

Both AZACTU and CUSA say they are still interested in unity. Piroshaw Camay, general secretary of CUSA, told Learn and Teach that CUSA still wants to talk about unity with Cosatu . “We sent our best wishes to Cosatu ,” says Camay. “We hope the new leaders of Cosatu will meet with us soon so that can we can unite all workers in South Africa.”


Cosatu has just been born but already it is a giant. But workers and their leaders know that this is just the beginning.

Many thousands of workers do not belong to any union. These workers must be organised. Thousands of other workers belong to useless “sweetheart” unions that sleep with the bosses. These workers must be brought into real unions. And Cosatu must keep on talking to CUSA and AZACTU. Until these two groups join, there will be no real worker unity.

There is much work to do. A big start has now been made. But we are sure that one day the sun will rise for the workers .


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