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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
Conducted by Howard Barrell,
I'll start with general queries and move to more specific things later. Looking at 1983-86, which is the period from the formation of the UDF through until the height of the uprisings. It's a period during which the unity talks [in the trade unions] achieve some considerable measure of success in the case of the major trade unions. Now, over this period, what is your understanding of the role played by the ANC-led alliance - the ANC, Sactu and SACP - in achieving worker and trade union unity over this period?
I think there are probably two parts to it. There is the formal, sort of policy aspect, and there's also the immense numbers of people who are attempting to follow what they understand to be policy. And so, it's difficult to separate out what role was played by, say, inside by people working directly in the name of the ANC and people who just saw themselves as fulfilling that policy and Sactu's of course.
There was a large number of people who believed that they were pursuing ANC or Sactu policy?
In pursuing the unity talks?
With unevennesses in their understanding, or differences or opinion as to what precisely the line may be?
Ja, well, of course, there was the aberration of the attempt to revitalise Sactu when it looked as if the unity which was to be Cosatu was really on the cards. People saw this as a threat to Sactu and the movement as a whole, and were defensive about it and therefore tried to set up something that would be pure Congress, and tried to revive Sactu. Ja, so I mean that was obviously a misunderstanding and, ja, and I would say a lack of confidence in our position.
OK, let's go back to the general again, now. What was the general drift, then, of ANC and Sactu and SACP formal policy on the unity talks?
Well, every effort was made to bring them to a successful conclusion. I think there were - I mean I heard that there were individuals outside that people came back and claimed to have spoken to, who said that, you know, it was a dangerous, and that the unions were by far dominated by ultra-left elements who were stronger than us, their unions were bigger than ours, and so on and so forth. But, I mean, the general policy was clearly in favour of unity. And I think that a lot of the old Sactu people around the country played a big role actually in assisting, in breaking that down, in working with membership who had learned to see themselves in opposition to some of the Fosatu unions, for instance, and working with the membership to bring them to an understanding that, you know, the future lay in unity, and that if we were confident inn our position we must go in and fight for our position within a united trade union movement.
And what was the line as it obtruded inside the country of the ANC, Sactu and the SACP on the breadth of this union unity? What was seen as the potential scope of it?
Well, I think it was to draw in all unions with black membership - [that] was the major thrust - and, I mean, right up until the very last the Azactu unions and so on, there was an attempt to draw them in, and people clearly wanted them in the unity talks, but not at any price.
What was the unacceptable price?
Well, the whole issue of non-racialism was really the issue.
So that was a key principle?
And were their other principled issue of a similar kind which were regarded as non-negotiable?
From our side?
You know, I think that most of the--. It's difficult to say. Obviously, the democratic formation of the trade unions and so on was crucially important. But that wasn't an issue. The Fosatu unions, in fact, were claiming that it was our unions which were not democratically controlled and structured. So that those issues did not become--. The issue that really became an issue was the non-racialism one.
Now, can we just go back to this attempt to--.
Sorry, just to go back on that. I mean for instance the issue of political alliances that trade unions had was not an issue.
Was not an issue?
Well, the Fosatu unions made it an issue. They said that the unions had to maintain the independence that they had. And that for them was a condition. But from our side it wasn't made an issue that, for instance, unions should affiliate to UDF or whatever.
Now, the process of unity talks went on for all of five or six years. When we get to 1983, there's been the death of Neil Aggett of the Food and Canning Workers' Union, which traditionally occupied this kind of halfway position almost between the so-called UDF unions and then the more independent worker unions. Now, the death of Aggett had apparently played some role in, say, evincing a common purpose, or a degree of potential communality between these two sets of forces which hadn't existed before. Is that correct? Or is one over-emphasising the Aggett death?
I think slightly perhaps, because I think it both assisted and it made problems in that I think that the union leadership there saw. The funeral was marked by the presence of ANC flags and so on. And I think that it was clear that the majority of the union membership supported the ANC and that this had been called into question so often, there was a unanimous statement of support or identification at that funeral. But, on the other hand, I think a lot of the union leadership, Fosatu-type union leadership were frightened by what had happened there. And there was a lot of talk about the power of symbols, and so on, to mislead workers, that workers would sort of be stormed or mobilised in a mindless way behind symbols and not understand what that meant for their organisation and for potential repression that would be poured down on the trade unions if they were seen to be aligned in any way with the exiled movement. So I think there was a hardening of attitudes among some of the Fosatu leadership after that funeral. And it particularly played into the discussions around the UDF's formation and the role of trade unions in that. Ja. Ja.
At the time of the UDF--.
Sorry, I think also some of our comrades were also quite ill-disciplined over that thing, and there was an attempt to assert: Well, here you are, you have been saying these things all along, but look. And a rather sort of silly rubbing of noses in it. And an overstatement of what it meant, and so on. And an attempt, in a way, to take over that funeral and to say--. I think that our comrades didn't actually always behave in a correct way.
Now, we are all familiar with the usual formulations from the ANC, Party and Sactu that the black working class is the leading social force. But, at that time, what in the broad ANC perspective seemed to be the importance of the formation of a united working class federation of trade unions?
You mean what level of priority was it given?
Ja, what priority was it given, and how did it seem to fit into a kind of developing, say, tactical perspective at the time? We are talking now about 1983.
It's difficult to say not having been outside, say, or in a position to assess the amount of resources ploughed into developing that aspect of things. But from inside, I mean there was a lot of material directed towards workers.
From the ANC?
Ja, ja. And, for instance, when this whole thing with the revival of Sactu came up, there was a major and rapid effort from outside to correct that thing, which had an enormous impact you know, and its impact wasn't restricted to the Western Cape, where this problem really arose; it was an impact nationally, where a document was put out, spelling out the role of trade unions, the kind of organisation that trade unions, what they are, and what potential role they can play, and then spelling out a lot of the sort of organisational structures and objectives that trade unions should have if they are to contribute. And they fed in quite well with what the Fosatu unions were saying, and that they were saying was not recognised by the ANC: the need to structure tightly, to have proper answerability of leadership, those sorts of things.
When does the movement come out, or Sactu come out clearly in favour of industrial unions as opposed to general workers' unions?
Gosh, I couldn't put an absolute thing on it, but I think probably, ja, I think, it probably was around the time of the formation of Cosatu - which was a bit after the, ja, fact.
So, until then there had been some...?
Ambivalence on that.
Mainly because there was a, you know, there was really not clarity on how the unorganised would be brought in. At that time there were huge sectors that hadn't been touched. And how those would be touched, those sorts of things were really, I think not very clear in Sactu's mind. There was an idea at one stage that what ought to happen is that there should be a Cosatu-type general union office situated in centres that would draw in unorganised workers, not according to industry but just generally, and then just distribute what there was to the established industrial unions. Which is not the path that Cosatu followed.
Now, to what extent would you attribute the aggravation that developed between the general workers' unions and the industrial unions, in the process towards the formation of this new federation, to what extent would you attribute that aggravation to, in fact, issues of personal fiefdoms within the union leaderships?
There was a lot of jockeying for dominance, political though not personal, I think. I mean I think within SAAWU we had some elements of that, of the need to hold on to a base for personal, you know to promote an individual. But I think on the whole it was mainly a jockeying based on the attempt to gain a political ascendancy. And from the part of some of the industrial unions there was a fear of the more politicised memberships of general unions coming in and disrupting the nice steady pace of things in those unions. And there was also a fear from some of the general unions - I mean the General Workers' Union, for instance, this doesn't apply to, but it would apply to SAAWU - where there was a fear that breaking up SAAWU would mean that that political tradition would disappear, it would be swamped in unions that were dominated by bureaucracy, legalism and so on, and that the membership would not be able to have an effect within those unions and that they would just be lost.
If we go to mid-1985, at that point, as I recall the history, SAAWU, GAWU, Orange Vaal General Workers' Union and a number of other unions from that tendency are actually out of the unity talks at that point. They had, I think, had been kicked out or had left earlier in the year and they were still out of those unity talks. Whereas Cusa, as I understand,...
Was still in, ja.
Was still in. Now, at that time, mid-, going on towards late 1985, the kinds of stories that were doing the rounds were that, in fact, the ANC, Sactu external and the Communist Party, more or less, cracked the whip and herded those elements...
Into the federation? To what extent is this, in fact, correct?
Ja, I think there is quite a lot of substance to that. Ja. I can't remember the issue exactly. There was a whole lot of, you know, for instance, attendances had fallen off...
[Break in tape]
[End of interview]