About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, 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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

4. Workers organise against apartheid

The price of freedom

The myth of the anti-apartheid convergence

Attitude to the trade unions

Mayday voetsek!

Liaison committees

"The committee shall not by resolution or otherwise, reverse or amend any instruction given by management, nor can it interfere with any disciplinary action undertaken by management".

"meet any approaches from persons allegedly representing the Bantu workers, employers should not accept stop orders from black unions or allow these organisers into 'the work precincts for recruitment purposes'. In the event of an illegal strike employers should not, under any circumstances attempt to negotiate until work has been resumed."

"notify the nearest South African police station 'if at any time it appears that law and order are in danger'."

It is obvious here that the SB (security branch) were called in at the request of Leyland management in an attempt to block the organisation of workers at the Elandsfontein plant into the Metal and Allied Workers Union. The activity of the security branch in detaining the secretary and in confiscating pamphlets from workers was clearly designed to intimidate workers."

"Shop stewards were moved out of their departments and isolated from other workers. Some foremen attempted to prevent workers speaking to each other in the factory. There was also an attempt to introduce discrimination along racial lines within the workforce. A group of four coloured workers were called into the office and told that management preferred them to the African workers. The coloured workers were urged not to ally with African workers but to join a registered union which by law they were permitted to do. Rumours also spread through the factory that the African workers were going to attack the coloured workers."

"We feel obliged to negotiate within the framework of the law and cannot opt out of industrial agreements which apply to the whole industry. This does not imply that we are happy with the existing industrial relations legislation. We believe it needs drastic revision."

Wiehahn and union "recognition"

BTR Sarmcol

Companies should ensure that all their employees irrespective of racial or other distinction are allowed to choose freely and without any hindrance the type of organisation to represent them. Secondly, that employers should regularly and unequivocally inform their employees that consultations and collective bargaining with organisations which are freely elected and representative of employees are part of company policy. Thirdly, that should black African employees decide that their representative body should be in the form of a trade union, the company should accept this decision. Trade unions for black Africans are not illegal and companies are free to recognise them and to negotiate and conclude agreements with them. Consequently the company should allow collective bargaining with organisations freely chosen by the workers to develop in accordance with internationally accepted principles. Employers should do everything possible to ensure black African employees are from or join a trade union. Steps should be taken in particular to permit trade union officials to explain to employees the aims of trade unions and the advantages of membership; to distribute trade union documentation and display trade union notices on the company's premises; to have reasonable time off to carry out their union duties without loss of pay and to organise meetings. And finally, where works or liaison committees already operate, trade union officials should have representative status on these bodies if employees so wish. However, the existence of these types of committee should not prejudice the development or status of trade unions or of their representatives"

1986 Impala Platinum strike

"The history of violence in the mining industry of South Africa". The article was compiled for a meeting of the National Executive Committee of the NUM held on 25 August 1995, which was prompted by outbreaks of violence on mines in that year. See Annexure 18.

The 1988 amendments to the LRA

     "It was a direct result of pressure from the employers... They asserted a lot of pressure to have the law changed."

State clampdown on COSATU - business refuses to intervene

"indicated acceptance of political unionism, adding that curtailment of freedom of expression should only be imposed by the Courts" but denied that they had the clout to persuade the government to withdraw the clamps.

"devastating attack on the Labour Relation System..." They refused to reject the Bill.


Dismissal of strikers

Dismissal during stayaways

     "The responsible employer should seek to divorce politics from labour relations. The stayaway is clearly a political matter and the employers should make it clear that political demonstrations will not be countenanced."

"This meant 6 000 workers were going straight into unemployment; many face malnutrition in the homelands, where there is no chance of a job."

"Whatever happened to us, we knew it might happen. But we are not prepared to be satisfied today if our children will suffer tomorrow .... The struggle is not just for us today. It is also for our children tomorrow. We are ready to fight to the last drop of our tears."

Use of police during strikes

National OK Bazaars strike, 1990

Homelands - cheap labour and repression

"What is increasingly apparent is that big capital has begun to involve itself in decentralisation. In the Botha era, the increasing influence within the state of Afrikaner capital and a pro-capitalist military leadership have brought about a convergence of capital and the government. This was expressed by the 1979 Carlton Conference and the 1981 Good Hope Conference. Big capital has accepted the principle of decentralisation, firstly because it has accepted the political argument of the government in favour of strengthening the bantustans. Given that capital does not want one-person-one-vote, it must join the government in the search for political alternatives. Secondly, incentives make decentralised investment painless and profitable. The private sector's commitment to decentralisation is apparent from its involvement in the DBSA, Small Business Development Corporation and the Government's Planning and Advisory Committee and Regional Development Advisory Committees."


"The second meeting was chaired by Mr Palmer, from KIC (a metal company resisting recognition in the area). At this meeting he explained why he does not want any meeting with NUMSA. He asserted that 'the unions are one of the terrorist organisations who threaten the lives of people'..."



"This is to inform you that neither the CCAWUSA, or any other trade union or employers organisation, being unions or organisations of another country are permitted to operate in Bophuthatswana."

"I trust you will take note that your Union has no standing in terms of legislation shortly to be published, to carry on activities in this country and that these, if the allegation is correct, must cease forthwith or the consequences faced (sic)."

Sweetheart unions

"We have 95% membership but we don't have some elementary trade union rights at this factory - like stop orders - because of the company being part of the industrial council. The IC says only TWIU is entitled to stop order rights. So we lodged a court case at the industrial court. We lost. The TWIU union opposed us despite the fact that they have only 9 members out of the 426 at the factory. They told the industrial court that it would set a precedent, which would undermine the entire Industrial Court structure. We have now referred the matter to the Supreme Court."

Nullify the closed shop of SATU, and give credibility to attack SATU and employers alike.

Allow the introduction of demands such as 'alternative public holidays', 'the conversion of the pension fund to a provident fund', and that 'employers demand the release of all political detainees'.

     PPWAWU would gain access to NIC funds and information.

"PPWAWU's progress on organising our industry (particularly the smaller employers) will be slowed down..."

"Satu will demand plant level recognition agreements... and this is likely to entrench the 'status quo' in the industry."


"A gang of UWUSA supporters knocked off early and 20 minutes later Haggie nightshift workers were attacked at the station. One worker died. When the shift left the following morning, workers were attacked again, and one critically injured. Workers believed the attacks were linked to an UWUSA member who was recently shot dead in Katlehong. Workers then threatened to strike unless management solved the problem. A meeting was convened by management of all parties, and it was agreed that peace was necessary. Some days later a shop steward was shot dead.

"Management says, if you stop the overtime ban you will stop the violence. Supervisors say the same thing. This sounds almost like a threat. We reject this argument - we have never forced anyone to engage in the ban."

"The letter accused us (NUMSA) of causing suffering to the company and the workers through the overtime ban. It stated that we must die, or not return to the company in January."

     "Management seems to recognise UWUSA because they are always referring to them. But we have never been notified of their shop stewards."

Response to organisational rights

Covert operations

S A Police vs COSATU

Dirty tricks


Harmony Mine


Smear pamphlets and false letterheads

"unemployed" as a result of our victorious stay-away to report to the federation's office for financial assistance.

"SA Trade Union Monthly Titbits", and workers returning from underground found them throughout hostels. Its appearance within the hostels indicated management involvement

Other covert action the Harms and Hiemstra Commissions of Inquiry

The Hiemstra Commission

     the Congress of South African Trade Unions;

     the Transport and General Workers Union;

     the Municipal Workers Union of South Africa;

     the Unemployed Workers Co-ordinating Committee;

     the Health Workers Association;

     the Media Workers Association of South Africa;

     the Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers Union.

"We find the following factual allegations as proved undercover agents of the Security Department infiltrated trade unions and various voluntary associations active in leftist politics. They reported on confidential proceedings as well as on private affairs and movements of individuals. It seems as if there was electronic surveillance of people but it is not beyond doubt. Information obtained was passed on to Military Intelligence and there was close co-operation with the military.

     The gathering of information was done by pretending to be interested in the organisation and by winning the trust and confidence of the office bearers. Information so gained was reported to superior officers and sifted by the processing section. By this deceit they betrayed the trust of those who welcomed them into the organisation."

Commission Report: Chapter 5, page 75

"In our view the infiltration of and spying on trade unions, other organisations and individuals perpetrated by the information section of the Security Department, constituted such wrongful intrusion upon the privacy of their targets. Covert eavesdropping on the private meetings and confidential conversations of others, is manifestly unlawful. Can it be any different if the intruder were to gain access to those private meetings and became a party to those confidential conversations by dishonest trickery and deceit? Clearly not."

Commission Report: Chapter 5, Page 80

The Harms Commission

"the project is similar to those which gave financial underpinning to Inkatha rallies and UWUSA". According to a letter to the security police controller of the operation, its object was to "promote peace on the labour front and economic growth by means of depoliticising actions". It used "apparently neutral figures to intervene in the labour arena".

"the SAP has decided to employ Pienaar and that his role would be to co-ordinate all legal aspects and assist clients in labour negotiations, telephone enquiries and Industrial Court litigation".

"with the exception of still to be finalised individual contractual obligations".

"the former security branch attempted through the Liaison Bureau for Labour Relations Services CC to counter labour unrest and promote sound labour relations. It must be borne in mind that during 1989 widespread labour unrest occurred which led to disruption and substantial economic losses. Intimidation was rife and relations between workers and employers steadily deteriorated. The SA Police are of the opinion that the activities of the Bureau made a valuable contribution towards improving relations between employers and workers".

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