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COSATU unites!


"We have to make it clear to all that a giant has risen which will confront all who stand in its way as COSATU will not stand for defeat."

- Elijah Baray, the first president of COSATU.




On December 1, 1985, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) the largest federation of trade unions in South Africa, was formed.

COSATU adopted many of the principles of FOSATU. It committed itself to both non-racialism and workers control. Under the slogan of “One Industry, One Union’, COSATU aimed to create a strong union in every industry, by trying to unite smaller unions into a single one. Within five years it had united the original 33 unions into 13 larger and much stronger unions, with a membership of over 700,000 workers. COSATU began to organise workers in areas where unions were not yet legally recognised, in farms, in domestic service and in the public sector. This contributed to its growth. As the numbers of unemployed people rose, COSATU began to work with the unemployed and dismissed workers. It set up cooperatives where unemployed workers could earn some money and develop skills.

COSATU also recognised that it had a political role to play. At the launch, COSATU decided not to affiliate to any one political organisation but rather chose to engage in political struggles through alliances with community organisations, the civics and other progressive movements. COSATU adopted the Freedom Charter as its guiding document. It participated in a number of campaigns. One of its most important campaigns was the Living Wage Campaign where millions of workers went on strike to demand wage increases and a decent life.

The initial COSATU logo selected by the majority of workers was modified to reflect and acknowledge the central role played by women workers. This logo also inspired many artists and poster makers of the day.


Exhibitions in the classroom 

Reading the past:

Read the text above and answer the questions:

• Identify three reasons why COSATU became the largest trade union federation in the country.

• Is COSATU a political party? Give reasons for your answer.


Making connections between the past and the present 

Elijah Baray, the first president of COSATU, said at the formation of COSATU that “a giant has risen” (See statement above)

• What do you think he meant by this?

• Find out about COSATU today? Do you think that it can still be referred to as a giant?

• Is there conflict within the organisation today? If so, describe the nature of the conflict.




 NEXT: COSATU strikes back 


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