About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

1. Introduction

1. COSATU is a trade union federation representing 18 affiliated unions with a combined paid up membership of 1,8 million workers. It was founded in December 1985, bringing together 33 affiliated and unaffiliated unions which have since been merged in line with our policy of one union, one industry - one country one federation.

2. From its inception, COSATU vowed to engage in struggles with other progressive organisations to bring about democracy in our country. A core feature of that heroic resistance was the tireless struggle by the working people for better working conditions as well as to challenge both employers and the state policies of apartheid. We were determined to wage a relentless struggle for the basic rights of workers to be regarded as human beings, both on the factory floor as well as in the land of their birth. Any attempt to divorce the link between the struggle for basic trade union rights on the factory floor from the broader struggle for human rights in society was not only undesirable but impossible in the South African context.

3. We remain of the view that apartheid with its form of institutionalised racism masked its real content and substance - the perpetuation of a super-exploitative cheap labour system. We all know that the primary victims of this system were the black working class and the primary beneficiaries the white ruling elite. To deny this reality today would be a perversion of truth, reconciliation and justice.

4. The development of an industrial and mining economy required the forced conquest of the indigenous African people. The colonial period sowed many of the seeds of political oppression we saw entrenched in apartheid legislation later. The formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 was the acquiescence of the British Crown to the dispossession of the African majority. The systematic denial of trade union rights to black workers in the earlier industrial years was designed to subjugate and entrench an inferior status on black workers. The enforcement of the migrant labour system destroyed the family fabric of millions of black families in Southern Africa. It was a gross human rights violation that will take us many generations to recover from.

5. The Industrial and Conciliation Act of 1924 entrenched the racial exclusivity of white workers acting in concert with the white bosses and a white ruling clique. Security legislation throughout the pre-democracy period was used to ensure the brutal suppression of the rights of black workers. Enforcement of the Communism Act and other apartheid laws in the 1950's forcibly removed many key trade union leaders from their positions. It was used to victimize any workers who spoke out against the system of apartheid.

6. In the sixties South Africa recorded one of the highest economic growth rates in the world. Much of this came on the back of the brutal suppression of the rights of the majority, the Sharpeville shootings and the banning of the ANC and PAC in 1960. This period saw the National Party government implementing a host of totalitarian measures, including repressive security legislation giving almost unlimited power to the security forces and resulting in the arrest, imprisonment and execution of many trade union activists.

7. The Bantustan system was implemented in earnest. In cities, Africans were simply temporary workers. Labour laws were tightened further with the twin aims of controlling workers and channelling their labour to meet the needs of the bosses. Real wages declined for black workers. For ten years strikes were virtually unheard of.

8. The golden age of apartheid brought no fruits to the enslaved black workers and lead to the outbreak of the mass strikes of 1973. This was a spontaneous reaction to the super exploitation and poverty that black workers faced. The response was predictable. Co-operation between the police and the bosses in crushing strikes, often violently, was commonplace. Mass arrests and dismissals were the order of the day. There was no discernible action by the bosses to distance themselves from the naked brutality of the apartheid system.

9. The 1976 Soweto uprisings, the rejection of toothless liaison committees and the struggle for the right to genuine trade unions forced the apartheid state and employers to rethink their strategies. The apartheid state responded by appointing the Wiehahn Commission which sought to combine reforms with repression. It sought the co-option of the minority black urban workers through the granting of Section 10 rights. At the same time, it entrenched racial divisions amongst workers. Trade unions which had essentially white executives were allowed to register, while those that were dominated by a black militant, mainly migrant and hostel-based leadership could not register. Those independent trade unions that did register insisted on the principle of non-racialism and refused to exclude migrant workers. The fact that we today have non- racial and democratic trade unions is as a result of struggles by workers and not through the solidarity of the bosses.

10. At the same time, trade unions were targeted by the national security management system created by the generals and police chiefs which served to co-ordinate all the components of the "total strategy" to ensure the maintenance of apartheid rule. Input and representation on the secretive security structures extended beyond state security organs to include members of the business community, town councils and local industry.

11. In addition, the Stratcom wing of the security branch usually dealt with operations affecting trade unions. These operations included violent and non-violent methods. Operations ranged from disappearances and abductions to theft of trade union subscriptions to a major wave of arson and bombings of our offices. In was in this period that our headquarters, COSATU House, was destroyed in a bomb blast, a crime that the apartheid state now acknowledges it committed.

12. As if this was not enough, on 24 February 1988, the regime effectively banned 17 organisations. The state also promulgated far-reaching restrictions against COSATU, in effect declaring its political activity illegal. While we were not ourselves banned, we were now denied rights to express our political vision. As will be explained later, this clampdown on COSATU was never opposed by the business community. In fact, they refused to condemn the state for its actions. These are the same people who today would want us to believe that they were opponents of apartheid.

13. The role of business during the period under review has been one in which they have co-operated with the apartheid state and taken measures to undermine and crush the trade unions. That fact that trade unions survived is due entirely to the strong organisation and commitment of thousands of workers, despite the suffering and sacrifices endured. As COSATU, we dedicate this report to the men and women who fought both employers and the regime to bring about change in our country. These are the faceless mine workers, unknown women in the farms and domestic service, those workers who were killed in strikes and other political activities, the dismissed workers who were fighting for better rights and working conditions as well as those women who remained in the rural areas and refused to be broken by the migrant labour system.

How soon we forget!

14. Talking to white South African business people about the past 50 years in our land reveals attitudes reminiscent of those expressed by German businessmen just after World War II. It would appear that none of them ever supported apartheid and its institutions, profited from it, or (worst of all) ever voted for the National Party. This makes many of us wonder how a system which no one ever supported, survived for so long.

15. Listening to current accounts, it would seem that South African businessmen (for they are mainly white men) courageously and openly opposed the National Party and its obscene apartheid policies at every turn. Indeed business - just like the National party - has claimed for itself the mantle of the force which effectively brought apartheid to its knees!

16. Then there are those few businessmen who have somehow escaped this rampant historical amnesia and still remember some of their past actions. They appear genuinely embarrassed both by the claim that business interests destroyed apartheid and by the enormous profits made from apartheid. This group now tends to claim that they had no alternative - they were simply obeying the law. Like millions of Germans who were "only following orders", their only crime, it seems, was cowardice.

17. The idea that the private sector's chief sin, if indeed there were any, was that it failed to "speak out against a system that was against economic logic" is spurious. Capitalism in South Africa was built and sustained precisely on the basis of the systematic racial oppression of the majority of our people.

18. Our submissions will show that employers collaborated with the apartheid regime from the outset, supported apartheid in all its manifestations and benefited from apartheid capitalism with its exploitative and oppressive nature. All of this was at the expense of working people and the black community. We will also submit that, while they pay lip service to reforms, they remain opposed to change that will bring about real economic empowerment to the majority in the country. Historical records show that:

Ø. far from being innocent of racial oppression, it was precisely the captains of industry, particularly those associated with the diamond and gold-mining industry, who pioneered many of the core features of what later came to be known as apartheid;

Ø. far from spontaneously eroding racial oppression, profit-driven economic growth in South Africa coincided with the deepening oppression and dispossession of the majority;

Ø. even in the final two decades of apartheid rule, in the midst of a deepening economic crisis, a sometimes wavering business community in South Africa generally collaborated heavily and benefited enormously from a close relationship with the minority regime.

19. Indeed, the historical record does not support business claims of non-collaboration. A vast body of evidence points to a central role for business interests in the elaboration, adoption, implementation and modification of apartheid policies throughout its dismal history. The South African Police and Defence Force were armed and equipped by big business. Apartheid's jails were constructed by big business, as were the buildings housing the vast apartheid bureaucracy. Apartheid's labour laws, pass laws, forced removals and cheap labour system were all to the advantage of the business community.

20. For much of its history, apartheid was enormously profitable, and South African business fell over itself, not just to secure state contracts and subsidies, but to sustain the cheap labour policies which underlay such profitability. Viewed in simple monetary terms, there is absolutely no doubt that the major beneficiaries of 40 years of apartheid policy were business interests, including many of its self proclaimed liberal representatives.

21. It must be acknowledged that a few individual businessmen and companies did speak out against apartheid before it became fashionable to do so. However, hardly any of them declined to partake of the vast profits created by decades of cheap labour policies. With a few honourable exceptions, very few of them recognised the right of black workers to organise in trade unions until more than 30 years after the NP came to power. While they were willing to negotiate with white workers and to recognise their unions, black workers were persecuted for daring to organise themselves into trade unions, or to be seen to be questioning, let alone challenging, the decision of the "baas". Few declined to use punitive labour legislation against black workers. Almost none of them stood aside from the chase for state contracts and subsidies, particularly those associated with the armaments industry.

22. This is in the main due to the fact that over and above its specific policies, apartheid reflected a mind set, an almost philosophical consensus, a discourse of natural privilege, shared by the vast majority of white South Africans, including liberal business. These themes pre-dated apartheid and remain prevalent in the discourse of business, even in the new South Africa. This was a racialised mind set of self and other. It was a discourse which classified South Africans into sets of racial categories - seeing one as naturally superior and skilled and the other as inherently inferior and backward. The terms of this dualised discourse have changed over time. In the 1940s, it was depicted as the division between the so-called "civilised" and "primitive" sections of the population. Today it is characterised as the so-called "first world/third world" dichotomy in the population.

23. Despite the changes in terminology, two things have remained constant in this discourse. The first is that, at least since the adoption of the "civilised labour policy" in the 1920s, these are overwhelmingly racial and class categories. While a few educated and wealthy blacks have recently been granted admission to the "first world group", we all know that the so-called "third world population" refers to poor and dispossessed black South Africans. Indeed, much of the discussion about the possible growth path for the South African economy focuses on the obstacles to growth represented by fact that this "third world population" unrealistically aspires to "first world" living standards. Seldom however, are we told that our "first world population" lives way beyond the means of what remains a relatively poor country.

24. The second is that whatever its current terms, this dichotomy has justified the privileges and power of one group and the dispossession and poverty of the other as somehow inherent and in the natural order of things. This has meant that these profound inequalities of power and privilege were never described as the result of human agency, of conscious political, economic and social policies adopted by the "first world population" which held a monopoly of power and privilege. Rather, such vast differences are seen as somehow natural to the human condition. It is for this reason that, even in the new South Africa, attempts by the black majority to change the existing distribution of wealth and income in their country somehow runs counter to nature. The myth continues that only those in the "first world population" know how to bring about social change.

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