Congress of South African Trade Unions

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COSATU logo.svg
Full nameCongress of South African Trade Unions
Founded30 November 1985
Key peopleZingiswa Losi, president
Bheki Ntshalintshali, General Secretary
Office locationJohannesburg, South Africa
CountrySouth Africa
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.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (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]


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 was the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU).[5] 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.

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.

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[edit]

At the second national congress held from 14–18 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 12–16 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.[6]

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]

Affiliated Trade Unions[edit]

The following unions are listed by COSATU as their affiliate unions:[7]

The following affiliated unions have suspended their participation in COSATU due to the expulsion of the National union of Metalworkers of South Africa.[1]

The following union has been expelled by COSATU.[8]

Expulsion of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa[edit]

On 8 November 2014, Irvin Jim, the general secretary of the largest COSATU affiliate,[9] 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.[8][10] NUMSA was charged with violating the constitution of COSATU[11]

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.[12]

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".[9]


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. COSATU's former secretary general, Zwelinzima Vavi, has described Jacob Zuma's government as a "predator society."[13]

Labour and social movements[edit]

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.[14][15] 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.[16]

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.[17]

Abahlali baseMjondolo offered a strong statement of support to the 2010 Public Sector Worker's strike.[18]


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.[19]

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.[19]


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.

Current officeholders[edit]

National Office Bearers:[20]

  • 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:[21]

  • 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[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • 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. ^ a b c "More unions quit Cosatu's exec body". Retrieved 9 April 2018.
  2. ^ a b c d e f 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. 122–124. ISBN 978-09869833-1-3. Retrieved 15 July 2013.
  6. ^ sahoboss (16 March 2011). &Q#n-against-apartheid "COSATU intensifies campaign against apartheid" Check |url= value (help).[permanent dead link]
  7. ^ "Microsoft Word - Document1" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 23 August 2012. Retrieved 10 August 2018.
  8. ^ a b Hunter, Qaanitah. "Numsa expelled from Cosatu". Retrieved 9 April 2018.
  9. ^ a b "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 8 November 2014. Retrieved 8 November 2014.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  10. ^ "Numsa's expulsion from Cosatu 'painful'". Retrieved 9 April 2018.
  11. ^ "No fair hearing for Numsa, says Jim". Retrieved 9 April 2018.
  12. ^ "Numsa expulsion: Cosatu meeting to go ahead". Retrieved 9 April 2018.
  13. ^ Zuma slammed as strike builds, The Star, 28 August 2010
  14. ^ "2006 Report on the global AIDS epidemic". UNAIDS. Archived from the original on 12 July 2006. Retrieved 2006-07-11.
  15. ^ "Country profile - South Africa". ILOAIDS. Retrieved 11 July 2006.
  16. ^ "Stepping back from the edge" (PDF). UNAIDS. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 February 2006. Retrieved 11 July 2006.
  17. ^ "South African Union Boss Demands Government Supply Anti-AIDS Drugs". The Retrieved 11 July 2006.
  18. ^ Hospitals blocked as South African unions resume massive strikes, Sipho January, Observer, 19 August 2010
  19. ^ a b "History of COSATU". Archived from the original on 27 June 2018. Retrieved 9 April 2018.
  20. ^ "National Office Bearers". Archived from the original on 10 August 2012. Retrieved 9 April 2018.
  21. ^ "Welcome to the Congress of South African Trade Unions website". Archived from the original on 9 April 2018. Retrieved 9 April 2018.

External links[edit]