In the late 1980s, the union movement played a significant role in bringing about the end of apartheid. They adopted a stronger political role in fighting against apartheid, but also called for countrywide stay aways which showed that the unions had the power to cripple the economy. However, union activity took place amid increasingly harsh state action. The many restrictions placed on the trade unions led to widespread feeling of demoralisation.
COSATU believed that it was important to restore faith in the union movement. It held a special conference in May 1988 to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses and to strengthen its structures further. A leadership code was established and discussed. The delegates also called for a three-day stay away to protest the Labour Relations Bill. The success of this stay away did much to revive the spirit of the trade union movement.
Further conferences discussed the political role of COSATU and its decision to join in a broad anti-apartheid alliance with the UDF and other anti-apartheid organisations. At a Workers Summit in 1989, COSATU, NACTU and independent unions agreed to work for greater unity among the working class and to take joint action against the Labour
Relations Act. COSATU also believed that it was important to provide education for its members. It appointed education officers who held workshops dealing with the role of trade unions, but also on wider issues such as HIV-AIDS.
During the 1980s, the trade union movement received widespread support from the international community. The various anti-apartheid movements overseas pledged solidarity with the union movement and held their own protests in support. Also, trade union organisations in various countries supported the growing labour movement by holding solidarity protests and by forcing some of their companies to withdraw from South Africa or place pressure on their South African branches to improve wages and working conditions. This support also boosted the morale of the labour movement.
Exhibitions in the classroom
Reading the past:
Source: Support from the Canadian Solidarity Mission to Southern Africa. November 1990. Archived as SAHA collection AL2457_M188.8.131.52.
Read some of the letters of support from international organisations in the source. Imagine that you are a member of an international trade union. Write your own letter of support to COSATU.
Think about the role of songs during protest. Nkosi Sikelele Afrika was often sung during workers’ protests and at the end of meetings. Why do you think this was the case?