Trade Unions In South Africa

South Africa’s trade union movement, the largest and most disciplined on the African continent, has played an influential role in determining labour market and industrial relations policies in the country.


Its role in dismantling apartheid legislation and practices in the workplace remain one of its major achievements. During the apartheid era it succeeded in showing employers the benefits of negotiating with employees through their representative unions. The fruits of these negotiations included agreements on union recognition, wages, conditions of service, workplace restructuring and retrenchments. Trade unions are recognised in the Constitution, which provides for the right of workers to join trade unions, and for unions to collectively bargain and strike. The Labour Relations Act has given workers and their unions redress through mediation, conciliation and arbitration.

South Africa accepts that strong trade unions are necessary for effective collective bargaining, which is an important way of regulating industrial relations and of determining workers’ wages and benefits. Trade union representation is now an accepted facet of industrial practice. Almost all sectors of the economy, including the public service, have representative unions which engage employers over issues affecting their workforce. All workers and active job seekers have the right to join and be active in trade unions. And they are legally protected against discrimination by employers for being union members

Progressive policy

Industrial relations policy is regulated through labour legislation that is negotiated at the statutory National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac). Trade union federations, employer bodies, the government and civic organisations are represented in Nedlac, which debates and tries to reach consensus on social and economic policy issues. South Africa’s post-1994 labour legislation is among the most progressive in the world, providing for different institutions to settle disputes, ensure fairness in the workplace, and nurture sound, co-operative industrial relations.

Three main union federations

As of October 2015, there are 184 registered trade unions and 23 trade union federations in South Africa, according to the Department of Labour. Some of the oldest unions include the South African Typographical Union (SATU), registered on 15 October 1924; the National Union of Leather & Allied Workers, registered on 16 March 1926; and the Trawler & Line Fishermen’s Union, registered 8 April 1944. The three prominent trade union federations with affiliates operating in the different sectors of the economy are the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa), and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu). Although the three federations and their respective affiliates compete for membership, they co-operate in forums such as Nedlac. They have also embarked on joint campaigns, including demonstrations against amendments to the Labour Relations Act. All three are registered with the International Trade Union Confederation.

1. Congress of South African Trade Unions Cosatu is the biggest of the country’s three main trade union federations, with a combined membership of 2.2 million workers grouped into 20 affiliated trade unions. The majority of their members are in the mining and quarrying sector, followed by the public sector in community, social and personal services, and electricity, gas and water supply (2012 figures, Cosatu draft organisational report, PDF). Cosatu was launched in 1985, but was registered in 1986 following unity talks between unions and federations that had previously competed with one another. It believes in non-racialism, worker control, paid-up membership and international worker solidarity. It also subscribes to the principles of “one industry, one union” and “one country, one federation”. It has entered into an alliance with the ANC and the South African Communist Party, referred to as the tripartite alliance.

2. Federation of Unions of South Africa Fedusa is the country’s second-largest trade union federation, claiming 375 000 members organised into 18 affiliates. Its biggest affiliate union is the Public Service Association, with nearly 200 000 members. Fedusa was formed in 1997 following a merger between the Federation of South African Labour Unions and the Federation of Civil Servants. It describes itself as socially democratic and politically non-aligned.

3. National Council of Trade Unions Nactu is South Africa’s third-largest trade union federation, comprising about 19 affiliate unions with a combined membership of nearly 400 000. It was formed in 1986 as an amalgamation of the Azanian Confederation of Trade Unions and the Council of Unions of South Africa. It aims to build a united worker movement in the country, and believes in the creation of a just society in which political power is in the hands of workers.


Written by How South Africa

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