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The call for a non-racial union

When the National Party came into power in 1948, they introduced the apartheid laws aimed at controlling the black population. Many of the laws aimed at weakening the position of black workers. These included the following:

• African trade unions were not recognised and therefore were not allowed to strike.

• They were not allowed access to the industrial councils, which is where most important decisions were taken about workers (white unions actively participated in the councils).

• They were no longer allowed to sit at wage board determinations.

• Racially mixed trade unions were not allowed to exist.

• The Minister of Labour had the right to reserve any job for a particular race group.

The factors made it difficult for trade unions to organise effectively.

Nevertheless, a new trade union movement emerged in 1955 with the formation of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), with 20,000 members from affiliated unions. SACTU organised workers on a non-racial basis and argued that politics and economics could not be separated in the working class struggle against exploitation and oppression. Therefore, it organised workers in the workplace but it also took up broader political issues as part of the struggle against apartheid

After the Congress of the People, 156 leaders from the Congress Alliance were put on trial for treason. Many of SACTU’s leaders were on trial or were banned. SACTU continued to work for improved conditionsfor workers despite the severe restrictions placed upon it. One of its SACTU’s campaigns was the pound-a-day campaign which called for a massive stay away from work on the 26 June 1957. This was very widely supported. SACTU was able to make some gains and by the early 1960s, its membership reached 55,000.

Exhibitions in the classroom 

Making connections between the past and the present:

Source: 'Workers of South Africa! Unite and fight for a living wage!'- COSATU pamphlet, date unknown  

In 1994, the new democratic government stated that the new South Africa would be based on the principles of the Freedom Charter. Locate a copy of the Freedom Charter and compare the demands of the working class to those in the cartoon (source above). Do you think that these principles have guided the treatment of the working class and the labour movement today? Find out what is the same and what is different.



NEXT: Tightening the noose with labour reforms

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