Trade unions

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Trade unions in South Africa

South Africa has a vibrant trade union movement that played a major role in the struggle against apartheid.


The major trade union federation – the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) – is a political alliance partner of the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC).

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) was launched in December 1985 after four years of unity talks between unions opposed to apartheid and committed to a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa. At the launch they we represented less than half a million workers organised in 33 unions. We currently have more than two million workers,

There are at least three other national trade union federations that adopt a more politically independent stance.

Unions under the new constitution (1996)

Section 23 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 and the Labour Relations Act, 1995 guarantee the right of individuals to form, join and participate in the legal activities of trade unions.

All public sector workers may belong to trade unions except workers who are employed by the National Defence Force, the National Intelligence Agency and the South African Secret Service. In terms of the Labour Relations Act, it is illegal to prevent or pressurize a worker from forming or joining a trade union.

Theatre and Unions

The Performing Arts Workers' Equity (PAWE) is a member of COSATU, but it is relatively weak. In accordance with COSATU’s policy that there be one union representing one industry, PAWE and the Musicians Union of South Africa (MUSA) are in the process of merging to form one union – the Creative Workers Union of South Africa (CWUSA) - to represent the entertainment industry. This initiative is relatively new, and it will be a while before the union has developed sufficient credibility and national membership to be a force.



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