Congress of South African Trade Unions

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU or Cosatu) is a trade union federation in South Africa. It was founded in 1985 and is the largest of the country's three main trade union federations, with 21 affiliated trade unions.[note 1][1]

Congress of South African Trade Unions
Founded30 November 1985
HeadquartersJohannesburg, South Africa
  • South Africa
Key people
Zingiswa Losi, president
Bheki Ntshalintshali, General Secretary
A COSATU organised protest in Cape Town calling for an end to state capture and for the prosecution of those involved in the administration of President Jacob Zuma.


Founding and early history

On 30 Nov 1985, 33 unions met at the University of Natal for talks on forming a federation of trade unions.[2] This followed four years of unity talks between competing unions and federations that were opposed to apartheid and were "committed to a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa." COSATU was officially established on 1 December 1985.[3][4] Among the founding unions were the affiliates of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU),[5] the small National Federation of Workers,[6] and some independent unions, notably the National Union of Mineworkers. Elijah Barayi was the organisation's first president and Jay Naidoo the first general secretary.[2]

Several resolutions were passed at this first meeting that defined the aim of the federation and how the federation operates, namely:[2]

  • To establish one union for each industry within six months.
  • To focus on the exploitation of women workers.
  • To call for the lifting of the state of emergency, withdrawal of troops from the townships and release of all political prisoners.
  • To continue the call for international pressure, including disinvestment.
  • To demand for the right to strike and picket.
  • To determine a national minimum wage.
  • To extend the struggle for trade union rights in the homelands.

On 5–6 May 1987 a strike as part of COSATU's Living Wage Campaign was held coinciding with 1987 General Election. More than 2.5 million workers took part in the stay-away. On 7 May 1987, in the early hours of the morning two bombs exploded near the support columns in the basement of the federation headquarters, COSATU House. The resulting damage caused the building to be declared unsafe.[2]

Fight against Apartheid

At the second national congress held from 14 to 18 July 1987, the Freedom Charter was adopted by the federation after the resolution was proposed by the National Union of Mineworkers[2]

At the third congress held from 12 to 16 July 1989, a resolution was adopted that called on the members of COSATU to join a campaign of "sustained action" against apartheid, in the week leading up to the 1989 General Election of South Africa.[7]

On 26 July 1989, COSATU, the United Democratic Front and the Mass Democratic Movement, instigated the National Defiance Campaign, in which facilities reserved for whites were invaded, and organisation that had been banned by the state declared themselves 'unbanned'.[2]

Post apartheid activities

The COSATU congress decided in 2012 to affiliate with the class-struggle oriented World Federation of Trade Unions, while maintaining its membership within the International Trade Union Confederation.

During the 2016 congress that was held in Durban, Michael Mzwandile Makwayiba, president of COSATU affiliate NEHAWU Michael Mzwandile Makwayiba was elected President of the World Federation of Trade Unions.

Cosatu experienced a large drop in membership after 2012, although it remained the largest trade union federation.[8][9]


Current affiliates

The following unions were listed by COSATU as their affiliates:[10]

UnionAbbreviationFoundedMembership (2014)[11]
Agricultural Food and Allied Democratic Workers UnionAFADWU2016N/A
Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers' UnionCEPPWAWU199980,331
Communication Workers UnionCWU199922,007
Creative Workers Union of South AfricaCWUSA2014N/A
Democratic Nursing Organisation of South AfricaDENOSA199681,319
Liberated Metalworkers' Union of South AfricaLIMUSA2015N/A
National Education, Health and Allied Workers' UnionNEHAWU1987277,317
National Union of MineworkersNUM1982270,649
Police and Prisons Civil Rights UnionPOPCRU1989149,339
Public and Allied Workers Union of South AfricaPAWUSA196717,146[12]
South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers UnionSACCAWU1975120,352
Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers UnionSACTWU198985,000
South African Democratic Nurses' UnionSADNU19958,655[12]
South African Democratic Teachers UnionSADTU1990253,039
South African Emergency Personnel's UnionSAEPU2006N/A
South African Medical AssociationSAMA19988,166
South African Municipal Workers' UnionSAMWU1987161,490
SASBO – The Finance UnionSASBO191666,539
South African Security Forces UnionSASFU1999N/A
South African Transport and Allied Workers UnionSATAWU2000152,254

Former affiliates

UnionAbbreviationFoundedLeftReason not affiliatedMembership (1985)[13]Membership (1993)[14]
Amalgamated Black Workers' UnionABWU19841986Merged into TGWU1,000N/A
Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers' Union of South AfricaACTWUSA19871989Merged into SACTWUN/AN/A
Brick, Clay and Allied Workers' UnionBRICKAWU1987Merged into CAWU748N/A
Cape Town Municipal Workers' AssociationCTMWA19281987Merged into SAMWU11,097N/A
Chemical Workers' Industrial UnionCWIU19741999Merged into CEPPWAWU20,70041,462
Cleaning Services and Allied Workers' UnionCSAWUMerged into TGWU850N/A
Commercial and Distributive Workers' UnionCDWU1,600N/A
Construction and Allied Workers' UnionCAWU19872001Merged into NUMN/A24,300
Food and Allied Workers UnionFAWU19862016DisaffiliatedN/A121,534
Food and Canning Workers' UnionFCWU19411986Merged into FAWU26,455N/A
General and Allied Workers' UnionGAWU19801987Merged into NEHAWU19,076N/A
General Workers' UnionGWU19771986Merged into TGWU20,000N/A
General Workers' Union of South AfricaGWUSA19811987Dissolved2,905N/A
Health and Allied Workers' UnionHAWU1987Merged into NEHAWU1,111N/A
Hotel and Restaurant Workers' UnionHARWU19261990Merged into SACCAWUN/A
Institute of Public ServantsIPSN/AN/A
Metal and Allied Workers' UnionMAWU19731987Merged into NUMSA38,789N/A
Motor Assembly and Component Workers' Union of South AfricaMACWUSA19821987Merged into NUMSA3,100N/A
Municipal Workers' Union of South AfricaMWUSA19821987Merged into SAMWU9,249N/A
Musicians Union of South AfricaMUSA19942014Merged into CWUSAN/AN/A
National Automobile and Allied Workers' UnionNAAWU19801987Merged into NUMSA20,338N/A
National General Workers' Union of South AfricaNGWUSA19846,037N/A
National Iron, Steel and Metal Workers' UnionNISMAWU19801986Merged into MAWU976N/A
National Post Office and Allied Workers' UnionNAPAWU2,163N/A
National Unemployed Workers Co-ordinating CommitteeNUWCC19871991DissolvedN/AN/A
National Union of Metalworkers of South AfricaNUMSA19872014Expelled[15]100,000253,796
National Union of Printers and Allied WorkersNUPAWO19841987Merged into PPWAWUN/A
National Union of Textile WorkersNUTW19731987Merged into ACTWUSA23,241N/A
Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers' UnionPPWAWU19741999Merged into CEPPWAWU11,85637,951
Performing Arts Workers' EquityPAWE2014Merged into CWUSAN/AN/A
Post and Telecommunication Workers' AssociationPOTWA19861996Merged into CWUN/A23,081
Retail and Allied Workers' UnionRAWU19841986Merged into FAWU3,830N/A
South African Agricultural Plantation and Allied Workers UnionSAAPAWU19952004Merged into FAWUN/AN/A
South African Allied Workers' UnionSAAWU19781987Merged into NEHAWU25,032N/A
South African Domestic Workers' AssociationSADWA19811986Merged into SADWU4,500N/A
South African Domestic Workers' UnionSADWU19861998DissolvedN/A16,172
South African Football Players UnionSAFPU19972016DisaffiliatedN/AN/A
South African Mineworkers' UnionSAMWU19831987Dissolved3,029N/A
South African Railways and Harbours UnionSARHWU19362000Merged into SATAWU8,22041,081
South African Scooter Transport and Allied Workers' UnionSASTAWU19811986Merged into TGWU4,700N/A
South African State and Allied Workers' UnionSASAWU20002015DisaffiliatedN/AN/A
South African Textile and Allied Workers' UnionSATAWU19841988Merged into GAWU1,900N/A
South African Tin Workers' UnionSATWU1937581N/A
Sweet, Food and Allied Workers' UnionSFAWU19741986Merged into FAWU19,596N/A
Transport and General Workers' UnionTGWU19732000Merged into SATAWU11,00038,036
United Mining, Metal and Allied Workers of South AfricaUMMAWOSA19831987Merged into NUMSA8,335N/A

Expulsion of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa

On 8 November 2014, Irvin Jim, the general secretary of the largest COSATU affiliate,[16] the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), announced that the union had been expelled from the COSATU after a vote at a special central executive committee had been convened resulting in a 33–24 vote in favour of the expulsion.[15][17] NUMSA was charged with violating the constitution of COSATU[18]

On 6 November 2014, an urgent legal application by NUMSA to prevent the special central executive committee from being convened was postponed by South Gauteng High Court, thus allowing the meeting to take place.[19]

On 10 November 2014, 7 unions announced they were voluntarily suspending their participation in COSATU's decision-making bodies due to the expulsion of NUMSA and called for a special national congress to be convened.[1]

Irvin Jim described the expulsion as "a dark day for workers".[16]


COSATU is part of an alliance with the ANC and the South African Communist Party, called the Tripartite Alliance. COSATU's role in the alliance has been the subject of debate, since the organisation has been critical of some of the ANC government's policies. While some affiliates have argued for greater independence from the ruling political party, others have argued that the arrangement gives COSATU a political influence beneficial to its members."[20]

Labour and social movements

South Africa has one of the largest incidence of HIV/AIDS in the world, with a 2005 estimate of 5.5-million people living with HIV – 12.4% of the population.[21][22] In 2020, around 20.6-million people in eastern and southern Africa were living with HIV.[23] The trade union movement has taken a role in combating this pandemic. COSATU is a key partner in the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), a registered charity and political force working to educate and promote understanding about HIV/AIDS, and to prevent new infections, as well as push for greater access to antiretrovirals. In 1998, COSATU passed a resolution to campaign for treatment. "It was clear to the labour movement at that time that its lowest paid members were dying because they couldn’t afford medicines", says Theodora Steel, Campaigns Coordinator at COSATU. "We saw TAC as a natural ally in a campaign for treatment. We passed a formal resolution at our congress to assist and build TAC.[24]

Notwithstanding the formal alliance of COSATU with the ruling ANC party, it has been at odds with the government, calling for the roll-out of comprehensive public access to antiretroviral drugs.[25]

Abahlali baseMjondolo offered a strong statement of support to the 2010 Public Sector Worker's strike.[26]

The wheel in the logo represents the economy. The gold colour of the wheel represents the wealth of the country. The figures pushing the wheel, consisting of two men and a woman carrying a baby, represent the challenges that workers face namely, racial and gender oppression as well as economic exploitation. These figures are black as they represent the black majorities struggle against racial oppression. The figures are holding a red flag that represents the working class.[27]

The slogan on the logo is "An injury to one is an injury to all" signifies the vision the union has of social solidarity that binds the working class.[27]


In October 2004 and February 2005 COSATU sent delegations to Zimbabwe to judge conditions in that country before the 2005 Zimbabwe parliamentary elections. They were expelled from the country on both occasions.

COSATU has arranged protests and border blockades against the regime in Harare.

In 2016, COSATU voiced support for #ThisFlag protestors in Zimbabwe, stating "heavy-handedness of the Zanu-PF regime in dealing with perceived enemies was similar to that of Operation Restore Order/Murambatsvina in 2005."[28]

Palestine activism

In 2020 COSATU voiced their solidarity with Palestinian peoples on 15 May (Nakba Day) and have linked the Palestinian right to land to COSATU's struggle against apartheid in South Africa.[29][30] In 2021 Palestinians protested against an Israeli court ruling which stated that residents of Sheik Jarrah need to be evicted from their homes in Jerusalem.[31] Israeli troops attacked Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan, a holy month for many Palestinians. COSATU marched to the US Embassy in Sandton, Johannesburg as a show of support for Palestinians, stating that the US government needs to recognize the sovereignty of Palestine as well as the gross human rights violations against Palestinians.[32]

Current officeholders

National Office Bearers:[33]

  • President: Zingiswa Losi
  • First Deputy-President: Mike Shingange
  • Second Deputy-President: Louise Thipe
  • Secretary General: Bheki Ntshalintshali
  • Deputy General Secretary: Solly Phetoe
  • Treasurer: Freda Oosthuysen

Provincial Secretaries:[34]

  • Eastern Cape: Xolani Malamlela
  • Free State: Monyatso Mahlatsi
  • Gauteng: Dumisani Dakile
  • KwaZulu-Natal: Edwin Mkhize
  • Limpopo: Gerald Twala
  • Mpumalanga: Thabo Mokoena
  • North West: Job Dliso
  • Northern Cape: Orapeleng Moraladi
  • Western Cape: Melvyn de Bryn

See also

Further reading

  • Jeremy Baskin, Striking Back: A history of Cosatu, Routledge (September 1991), an account of COSATU's early years from 1985 until the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990


  1. One Union expelled, and seven Unions voluntarily suspended their participation in COSATU


  1. "More unions quit Cosatu's exec body". Retrieved 9 April 2018.
  2. tinashe (8 December 2011). "Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)". Retrieved 9 April 2018.
  3. South African History Online. "Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu)". Retrieved 15 July 2013.
  4. Cosatu. "Brief History of Cosatu". Archived from the original on 27 June 2018. Retrieved 15 July 2013.
  5. Friedman, Michelle (2010). "The Future is in the Hands of the Workers": A History of Fosatu (PDF). Johannesburg: Mutloatse Heritage Trust. p. 122124. ISBN 978-09869833-1-3. Retrieved 15 July 2013.
  6. "Directory: South Africa's Independent Unions" (PDF). South African History Online. Retrieved 15 March 2021.
  7. Wren, Christopher S. (17 July 1989). "South African Labor Federation, Defying Pretoria, Calls for Protests". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 19 December 2017. Retrieved 4 November 2021.
  8. "Organisational Report on the Federation's Activities Consolidated Departmental and Provincial Reports Towards the COSATU 13th National Congress". COSATU. Retrieved 7 March 2021.
  9. Ashman, Sam (2015). "The Social Crisis of Labour and the Crisis of Labour Politics in South Africa". Revue Tiers Monde. 224 (4): 47. doi:10.3917/rtm.224.0047. S2CID 155766018.
  10. Figure is for 2012
  11. Baskin, Jeremy (1991). Striking back: A history of COSATU. London: Verso. p. 55. ISBN 0860913457.
  12. Catchpowle, Lesley (2002). A Case Study of the South African Municipal Workers' Union (SAMWU) in the Western Cape (1992-1997) (PDF). Greenwich: University of Greenwich. Retrieved 18 March 2021.
  13. Hunter, Qaanitah (8 November 2014). "Numsa expelled from Cosatu". Mail & Guardian. Retrieved 9 April 2018.
  14. "Numsa will fight expulsion from Cosatu | the Citizen". Archived from the original on 8 November 2014. Retrieved 8 November 2014.
  15. "Numsa's expulsion from Cosatu 'painful'". Retrieved 9 April 2018.
  16. "No fair hearing for Numsa, says Jim". Retrieved 9 April 2018.
  17. "Numsa expulsion: Cosatu meeting to go ahead". Retrieved 9 April 2018.
  18. Zuma slammed as strike builds, The Star, 28 August 2010
  19. "2006 Report on the global AIDS epidemic". UNAIDS. Archived from the original on 12 July 2006. Retrieved 11 July 2006.
  20. "Country profile - South Africa". ILOAIDS. Retrieved 11 July 2006.
  21. Pillay, Yogan; Venter, Francois; Hassan, Fatima (30 March 2022). "What is the use of anti-HIV injections when those who need it most can't use it?". Bhekisisa. Retrieved 30 March 2022.
  22. "Stepping back from the edge" (PDF). UNAIDS. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 February 2006. Retrieved 11 July 2006.
  23. "South African Union Boss Demands Government Supply Anti-AIDS Drugs". The Retrieved 11 July 2006.
  24. Hospitals blocked as South African unions resume massive strikes, Sipho January, Observer, 19 August 2010
  25. "History of COSATU". Archived from the original on 27 June 2018. Retrieved 9 April 2018.
  26. "Cosatu breaks ranks with ANC over Zim protests". News24. Retrieved 30 March 2022.
  27. "COSATU condemns Israel impunity and annexation of Palestinian territories". Retrieved 30 March 2022.
  28. Lynk, Michael (25 March 2022). "Israel's 55-year occupation of Palestinian Territory is apartheid – UN human rights expert". United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. Retrieved 30 March 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  29. "Israeli-Palestinian Conflict". Global Conflict Tracker. Retrieved 30 March 2022.
  30. Ndlovu, Siyanda (18 March 2021). "Cosatu bashes US foreign policy on Palestine, Israeli territories". The Citizen. Retrieved 30 March 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  31. "National Office Bearers". Archived from the original on 10 August 2012. Retrieved 9 April 2018.
  32. "Welcome to the Congress of South African Trade Unions website". Archived from the original on 9 April 2018. Retrieved 9 April 2018.
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