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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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

The Building of a Non-Racial Trade Union Movement

For African workers in particular, the emergence of SACTU in March 1955 represented a new thrust in the history of workers' struggles in South Africa. As one African trade unionist described it, 'In the factory, the birth of SACTU was like rays of sunshine piercing through the dark.1 The 'dark' referred to here is the period during which the Trades and Labour Council (T & LC) dominated the trade union movement in South Africa. Although the T & LC Constitution had always stated that membership was open to all 'bona fide' trade unions, the needs of the majority of workers, the African workers, had never been properly served by this body.

Apart from the efforts of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) in the 1930s and 1940s, and the activities of the Council of Non-European Trade Unions (CNETU) in the Transvaal, there had not been any systematic attempt to organize African workers into trade unions. For all progressive-thinking workers and trade unionists, the dissolution of the T & LC therefore opened up new possibilities to determine the kind of trade unionism necessary for South Africa - that based on the principles of equality and unity of all workers in the struggle against class exploitation and national oppression.

From October 1954 until March 1955 a small group of progressive trade unionists threw all of their efforts into building this kind of trade unionism. The fourteen unions which had opposed the dissolution of the T & LC, representing workers in shops, chemicals, food, canning, textiles, jewellers, goldsmiths, baking, canvas and rope, tin, twine and bag industries, set up an interim committee immediately following the dissolution. At its first meeting, the committee passed the following resolution:

In pursuance of our desire to retain the principles embodied in the Constitution of the T & LC (1949) we delegates who attended the recent conference and voted against the resolution to dissolve ' the SAT & LC, agree on the establishment of a committee whose object shall be (a) to co-ordinate the future plans of the dissenting unions; and (b) to seek to organize a conference with the object of establishing a Trade Union centre as soon as possible, but not later than April, 1955, based upon the principle of non-discrimination on the grounds of race, colour or creed.2

The committee was renamed the Trade Union Coordinating Committee (TUCC). Among its members were many who later became SACTU activists - Don Mateman (TWIU), Aaron Mphahlele (A-TWIU), Cleopas Sibande (A-TWIU), Leon Levy (NULCDW) and Leslie Massina (A-LCDWU). From the beginning, the principles on which the committee was established were stated clearly:

Only a strong trade union movement can fulfil its task of defending and advancing the workers' interests. Only a united trade union movement can be strong. The interests of the African workers are in the long run no different from the interests of the Coloured, European and Indian workers.

It is to the advantage of the employers and their government to divide the workers in this country. Workers' salvation lies in unity and it is our duty to bring the knowledge home to our fellow workers.

We are determined to carry on a struggle against the policy of racial discrimination and to work for the achievement of a single Trade Union organization embracing all sections of the working class.

An extremely significant step was taken when the TUCC invited representatives of the CNETU to one of its earliest meetings. At that meeting, a resolution was passed proposing that the planned conference be called jointly by the two bodies. For, although the CNETU had concentrated on organizing Black workers exclusively, many of its leaders had since the mid-1940s seen the necessity for a united trade union movement. Both groups were firm in their commitment to this principle of unity; they refused to submit to the government and employers' attempts to divide the working class along racial lines. In South Africa, to defend this principle requires relentless struggle against a ruling class which has continued, by means of specific racist legislation, to smash any such attempts at unity. However, this principle has remained throughout as one of the fundamental policies of what is now known as SACTU.

The SA Trade Union Council (later TUCSA), on the other hand, accepted the government's Apartheid divisions and consciously embarked on a programme of excluding African trade unions from its ranks. In spite of this, the TUCC demonstrated an attitude that also became the basis of SACTU's policy towards TUC SA in later years.

The desire of the Committee is complete unity in the Trade Union movement, and it will endeavour to cooperate with any other body, which though differing on constitutional principles, is pledged to the same end. There is a great measure of common interest between the trade unions associated with this movement and those participating in the work of the Trade Union Council and it is sincerely hoped that close cooperation will be achieved on matters which affect all sections.3

For the moment though, the Committee was concentrating all its energies on preparations for the birth of the new trade union centre. Events moved quickly from October to March. Regular meetings of the TUCC were held and there was concern on the part of every member to maintain continuity, especially in the fight against the proposed legislation, the IC Bill. African trade unionists in particular wanted no delay in calling a conference to establish a new body which would represent their interests and fight for their rights as workers. The activities of the Committee during these five months centred on three areas: the planning of the conference; the revising of the Constitution of the T & LC (1949) to fit the objectives of the proposed new body, and discussion of how best to organize opposition against the IC Bill. The Committee also concentrated its efforts on popularizing the idea of a new trade union coordinating body; they drew up pamphlets to acquaint workers with the issues at stake and arranged meetings with non-affiliated African trade unions. The necessity to take the issues directly to workers at the factory level was expressed continually.

SACTU's Inaugural Conference - A Watershed in the Struggle Against Apartheid

The aspirations of progressive trade unionists from all parts of South Africa were finally realized on 5 and 6 March 1955 in Johannesburg at the Inaugural Conference of SACTU. Here, a handful of workers announced their intention of organizing the enslaved workers in the mines, docks, railways and on the farms, as well as in every factory and workshop. They announced, in fact, their intention to attack and bring down the bastion of White supremacy. Some 66 delegates from 33 Unions were present, representing a total of 41,253 workers of all races. As well, three Unions representing 11,350 had observer status and a further 51 representatives attended as either observer delegates or fraternal delegates from other organizations.

By far the largest group of workers represented came from the textile, laundry and food and canning industries.4 Other delegates spoke on behalf of thousands of workers from a wide variety of industries and concerns throughout South Africa - e.g. iron and steel workers, chemical workers, stevedoring and dockworkers, tin workers, rubber workers, tobacco workers, milling workers, those in the cardboard and paper industry, railway workers, mine workers and many more. The Conference itself was an exciting and historic event. One of the most significant documents to come out of the deliberations was the 'Declaration of Principles Adopted at the Foundation Conference of SACTU 'which lays down firmly the basic principles on which SACTU was built. Part of this document reads as follows:

The future of the people of South Africa is in the hands of its workers. Only the -working class, in alliance with progressive minded sections of the community, can build a happy life for all South Africans, a life free from unemployment, insecurity and poverty, free from racial hatred and oppression, a life of vast opportunities for all people.

But the working class can only succeed in this great and noble endeavour if it itself is united and strong, if it is conscious of its inspiring responsibility. The workers of South Africa need a united trade union movement in which all sections of the working class can play their part, unhindered by prejudice or racial discrimination. Only such a truly united movement can serve effectively the interests of the workers, both the immediate interests of higher wages and better conditions of life and work as well as the ultimate objective of complete emancipation for which our forefathers have fought.

We firmly declare that the interests of all workers are alike, whether they be European or non-European, African, Coloured, Indian, English, Afrikaans or Jewish. We resolve that this co-ordinating body of trade unions shall strive to unite all workers in its ranks, without discrimination, and without prejudice. We resolve that this body shall determinedly seek to further and protect the interests of all workers, and that its guiding motto shall be the universal slogan of working class solidarity: 'AN INJURY TO ONE IS AN INJURY TO ALL.'

These principles remain today as a foundation on which the working class movement in South Africa must be built and SACTU alone has remained true to these principles throughout its existence.

The Constitution presented to the Conference delegates was based on the old T & LC (1949) Constitution which had been revised and redrafted by a sub-committee of the TUCC.5 Further amendments were made to the Constitution at the Inaugural Conference and the Declaration of Principles adopted became the Preamble to the new SACTU Constitution (see Appendix I).

What was the significance of the new name which was adopted - 'SACTU'? During the Conference there was a lively debate over whether to keep the name of the T & LC or whether to change it completely. Those in favour of retaining the name argued that they wanted the new body to 'not only adopt the old T & LC policy but this time to carry it out'.6 Those against felt that there would be too many suspicions on the part of workers of the name 'SAT & LC (1955)'. Pious Mei, of the African Tobacco Workers Union, expressed their fears:

It is quite obvious today that we are being asked to go to the cemetery and dig up the ghost of the dead body which was killed in Durban.... We have come here to save the soul and the spirit of the workers, not to pacify those who have deserted us.7

Mark Shope, of the African Laundry, Cleaning, and Dyeing Workers Union, said that the old SAT & LC 'did not cater to African trade unions and therefore there should be no association with that body'. He moved and Stella Damons (NULCDW) seconded, that the new organization be called the South African Congress of Trade Unions.8 The vote was taken and the results were thirty-three in favour and twenty-six against, indicating that there was still a lot of sentimental attachment to, or pride in the legacy of the defunct SAT & LC. Some trade unionists obviously perceived this new body as merely a continuation of the old body, but comments made at the time by African trade unionists indicate that they regarded it as a much more revolutionary trade union body than the SAT & LC had been.

Among the various resolutions passed at this Conference, the one dealing with Organizing the Unorganized is particularly significant. If implemented, it too would signify a distinct break from the past practices of the T & LC. The resolution read:

This Conference affirms that its main task in the coming period is to initiate, stimulate and to undertake the organization of trade unions where none exist amongst South African workers and to strengthen trade unions which are in existence but require support.

The Conference recognizes that only by drawing into the ranks of organized labour the thousands of workers now unorganized, can the Trade Union movement make its maximum contribution to the working class struggle, for its liberation from exploitation and race discrimination.

Conference therefore instructs the NEC to take in hand without delay, a practical and determined programme for the recruiting and training of trade union organizers.9

In his Chairman's address to the Conference, Piet Beyleveld also stressed the importance of organizing the unorganized workers :

It must further be the task (of this Federation) to organize the vast masses of exploited and unorganized African workers and to educate the workers who misguidedly believe that they can safeguard their own rights while they exclude their fellow-African workers from the struggle.10

The tasks facing the newly-created SACTU were numerous and formidable, but the spirit in which the delegates left the Conference ensured that the challenge would not be taken lightly. The elected officials entrusted with the responsibility of seeing these tasks carried out were drawn from the ranks of both Black and White trade unionists, men and women. An Executive Committee of nineteen was elected, which included Pieter Beyleveld (TWIU) as President, Cleopas Sibande (A-TWIU) and Lucy Mvubelo (GWU-AW) as Vice-Presidents, Leon Levy as Treasurer and Leslie. Massina as General Secretary. Others serving on the first NEC were J. Nkadimeng, M. Shope, J. Fillies, P. M. Mei, I. Topley, C. Jasson, O. A. Olsson, W. H. Ross, A. Mahlangu, B. January, B. Nair, C. Mayekiso, V. M. Pillay and S. Damons.

Soon after the Inaugural Conference, in May 1955, the formation of SACTU was strengthened by the principled decision of the CNETU to dissolve and in turn merge with the new non-racial trade union centre. The resolution passed at the CNETU Conference on 5 May 1955 is of historical significance to the progressive trade union movement in South Africa.

This Conference of the Transvaal CNETU warmly welcomes the establishment of SACTU.

We consider that the workers of South Africa, both black and white, have reached the stage where the existence of a national, non-racial trade union coordinating body has become a prime necessity of the workers' movement. It is for this reason that the Transvaal CNETU has taken a leading part in convening and forming the South African Congress of Trade Unions.

Having achieved the establishment of SACTU, this conference now considers that the historic task of the CNETU has been accomplished and that its proud tradition of leading the struggle of the African workers will now be best carried on by the new national body.

It is, therefore, hereby resolved that all steps shall be taken without delay to merge the Transvaal Council of Non-European Trade Unions with the South African Congress of Trade Unions and the Executive Committee is hereby instructed to complete the merger in a spirit of brotherhood and solidarity.

SACTU and the Political Struggle

By clearly recognizing the link between the struggle for economic gains and the general political struggle, the founders of SACTU were calling upon the workers of South Africa to fulfil their historic role - to become the spearhead in the struggle for national liberation. Rejecting the slogan of 'no politics in the trade union movement', SACTU leaders refused to divorce the struggle for political rights and power from the day-to-day struggle for higher wages and improved working conditions.

In his address to the Inaugural Conference, the Chairman explained this clearly:

You cannot separate politics and the way in which people are governed from their bread and butter, or their freedom to move to and from places where they can find the best employment, or the houses they live in, or the type of education their children get. These things are of vital concern to the workers. The Trade Unions would therefore be neglecting the interests of their members if they failed to struggle for their members on all matters which afrect them. The Trade Unions must be as active in the political field as they are in the economic sphere because the two hang together and cannot be isolated from each other.11

The same principle was later enshrined as one of the main points in the Statement of Policy submitted to the First Annual Conference of SACTU held in Cape Town in March 1956:

SACTU is conscious of the fact that the organizing of the mass of workers for higher wages, better conditions of life and labour is inextricably bound up with a determined struggle for political rights and liberation from all oppressive laws and practices. It follows that a mere struggle for the economic rights of all the workers without participation in the general struggle for political emancipation would condemn the Trade Union movement to uselessness and to a betrayal of the interests of the workers.

Resolutions passed at the Inaugural Conference dealing with opposition to Bantu Education and the forced removal of Africans from their townships near Johannesburg (the Western Areas Removal Scheme), demonstrated that even at this early stage SACTU was fully committed to the wider issues of national oppression and lack of political rights among the Black (African, Indian and Coloured) community. Also, from the outset, SACTU allied itself with those groups involved in the struggle for national liberation in South Africa, led by the African National Congress (ANC), representing the most exploited group. SACTU realized that Black workers were exploited both as workers and as citizens, and that it was crucial to unite with the ANC, the South African Indian Congress (SAIC), the Coloured People's Congress (CPC) and the Congress of Democrats (COD) to overthrow the entire Apartheid system.

Hence, a major reason for adopting 'SACTU' as the name of the new organization was to ensure consistency with the other four Congresses. All five bodies were united together in late 1955 into the Congress Alliance. From this beginning, SACTU recognized that the ultimate aim of the workers' struggle was total liberation, freedom for all people from every kind of oppression and exploitation and the opportunity to build a free and democratic South Africa in which all could participate equally.

In 1955, Dan Tloome, though himself banned from trade union activity by this time, expressed the views of SACTU members:

There are two types of African trade union leaders. On the one hand, there is the Union leader who confines himself to trying to obtain the economic demands of his members; on the other hand, there is the trade unionist who sees in the worker a person who is both exploited and oppressed, arid realizes that in order to improve the position of the workers it is necessary to struggle for both political and economic ends. The latter are active members of the liberatory movement and share their valuable experiences with the political leaders.12

In a later chapter we examine in detail SACTUs role in the Congress Alliance during the 1950s and 1960s. Even in its first year of existence though, SACTU firmly allied itself with the other Congresses and participated in the Congress of the People held in Kliptown, in June 1955, where the Freedom Charter (see Appendix 11) was adopted. This marked the beginning of a close relationship between SACTU and the liberation movement which continues to this day.

A trade union movement, however, has specific tasks in the struggle. It is a class-based organization, not representing any one national grouping. SACTU, although an equal partner in the Congress Alliance, saw its major task as that of organizing the unorganized workers of South Africa. Only by organizing and uniting to defend their common interests against employers and the state, could they gain the strength necessary to win their demands and contribute to the struggle for eventual emancipation from the system of capitalism and Apartheid. The major force to be organized to advance this struggle was the African working class, those with nothing to lose but their chains, and everything to gain.

In 1955, SACTU, operating on a shoestring budget, with an affiliation fee of only 10s. per union, plus Id. per member per month, began to organize. From a body which represented an actual affiliated membership of 20,000 workers in 19 unions in 1956, SACTU through its organizing campaigns built up the membership strength to 46,000 in 35 unions by 1959. By 1961, 53,000 workers (including 38,791 African workers) affiliated through 51 unions to SACTU. After years of struggle and sacrifice, South African workers of all races, but especially African workers, had a coordinating body to represent their interests and fight for their rights as workers.


1 . Interview, Erie Mtshali.

2 . Minutes of meeting of the Interim Committee of Dissenting Unions, Durban, 7 October 1954.

3 . Quoted in Linda Ensor,'TUCSA's Relationship with African Trade Unions - An Attempt at Control, 1954-1962', Southern African Labour History, Raven Press, Johannesburg, 1978.

4 . The three largest unions (by branches) were represented as follows: FCWU (9,000); A-FCWU (3,600);TWIU (4,000); A-TWIU(3,100); NULCDW (2,626); A-LCDWU (2,000).

5 . Those involved in this important work included banned trade unionists (e.g. Eli Weinberg and Ray Alexander), Leon Levy and others whose names cannot be mentioned here.

6 . O. A. Olsson, Minutes of the Inaugural Conference of SACTU, Trades Hall, Johannesburg, 5-6 March 1955.

7 . Minutes, Inaugural Conference, SACTU.

8 . ibid.

9 . ibid.

10 . Chairman's Address, Inaugural Conference.

11 .  ibid

12 . M. Horrell, South African Trade Unionism: A Study of a Divided Working Class, South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), 196 1, p. 79.

Source: http://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/history/congress/sactu/organsta00.html

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to theThis resource is hosted by the site.