The History of the South African Congress of Trade Unions

Ken Luckhardt and Brenda Wall

First published by Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1980



  1. Apartheid and the Black Working Class - the Problem Defined
  2. The Heritage of Struggle
  3. SACTU Appears Upon The Scene
  4. Ruling Class Response
  5. 'Asinamali' (We Have No Money)
  6. Organize or Starve!
  7. . . . But Not for Bread Alone
  8. Strikes and Industrial Actions
  9. Women Play a Leading Role
  10. SACTU and the Congress Alliance
  11. SACTU on the International Front
  12. State Repression
  13. Looking Back
  14. The History Updated
  15. International Links are Forged
  16. 'An Injury to One is an Injury to All'


This SACTU history project has reflected a sense of internationalism throughout its many stages. The primary researchers and co-authors, Brenda Wall and Ken Luckhardt, are Australian and Canadian respectively. Prior to this work, they were involved in the Free Southern Africa Committee, an anti-Apartheid support group based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. In September 1978, the researchers began a four month period of identification and retrieval of original SACTU documents and related materials which had been scattered throughout Europe, Africa and North America. Following this initial work, the next five months were spent in conducting life-history interviews with SACTU comrades in exile in Tanzania, Zambia, Swaziland, England and Canada. Another six months were devoted to writing and preparing the manuscript for publication.

The three chapters dealing with the post- 1964 SACTU history were drafted under the guidance of a SACTU Editorial Board. This Board was composed of SACTU National Executive Committee members Phyllis Altman, John Gaetsewe, Moses Mabhida and Eli Weinberg. The authors wish to express their sincere appreciation to all SACTU comrades and particularly the Editorial Board for their collective encouragement and assistance throughout every stage of the project.

Such a project requires the assistance of many organisations and individuals. Primary and secondary materials were obtained from the following sources: the British Library; Colindale Newspaper Library; DEFA Research, a department of International Defence and Aid Fund; Rhodes House Library, Oxford University; Marx Memorial Library; South Africa Research Project, Warwick University; the School of Oriental and African Studies; and Gwendolyn Carter, University of Indiana. Individuals deserving special mention for assistance with documentary materials include Shula Marks, Brian Bunting, Saru Naicker and David Hemson.

Historical photographs included in the text are taken largely from the personal collection of Eli Weinberg. Other photographs were taken from progressive South African papers of the day - e.g. The Guardian and New Age. Several people in the Publications Department of the International Defence and Aid Fund provided advice and expertise in the preparation of photographs, a map and cover design.

Funding for the project most clearly demonstrates the international solidarity that SACTU receives for its educational work. In Canada, the Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO), Canadians Concerned about Southern Africa (CCSA), Ryerson Sociology Department (Toronto, Ontario), the Free Southern Africa Committee (FSAC) (Edmonton, Alberta), the Woodsworth Irvine Socialist Fellowship (Edmonton) and Alyce and Dennis Bartels, all donated funds for various stages of the project. A special note of appreciation is extended to Nellie and Doug Miller and David Beer who have assisted the project from the CUSO office in Lusaka, Zambia. In Europe, the International University Exchange Fund (Geneva), Norwegian Council for Southern Africa and the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (Technical, Administrative and Supervisory Section, TASS), Britain contributed substantially. In New Zealand, the New Zealand Seamen's Union and the Wellington Amalgamated Watersiders' Industrial Union of Workers expressed their internationalism with financial supper`.

All these forms of assistance made possible the most important contribution - the recounting of the workers' struggles by the SACTU workers and leaders themselves.


The publication of this history coincides with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the South African Congress of Trade Unions. SACTU history does not start with SACTU's birthday, nor does it end with its silver anniversary. It is an ongoing process, because the South African Congress of Trade Unions represents the movement of the South African working class and that, as we know, will never stop until the workers have achieved their rightful place in society, namely not only as producers of all wealth, but also as owners of all wealth.

It is the custom of some governments to publish some of their hidden activities and documents after the expiry of a certain period. Some of these governments would not dare to publish all their machinations, since it would probably substantially influence their chances of survival. SACTU has never had hidden documents and never carried out secret diplomacy. The documentation in this book is from resolutions and decisions which were always published and were always open to public inspection and debate. Why, then, write it all over again? We found it necessary to reiterate the events of the past twenty-five years precisely because we invite public inspection of our record and, particularly, such a book is needed for the new generation of trade unionists which has grown up in South Africa. We ourselves are training new ranks of trade union leaders and it is important that they should examine our past and draw conclusions from it for the future. Perhaps we can thus equip them to be better trade union fighters.

This history is not a mere record of meetings, campaigns, resolutions and policy decisions. Behind this record there stand thousands, nay tens of thousands, of South African workers who took the decisions, attended the meetings, participated in the campaigns. Invariably, they suffered and made sacrifices in the pursuit of their ideals. Sleepless nights, anxieties, disruption of personal comforts and lives are a visible part of this record. Many paid the supreme penalty, many still languish in jails. In judging this record one must not forget these deep fountains of human courage, dedication and perseverance. This history is not just a memorial to a great organisation, but a tribute to all the brave, selfless men and women who were part of it. This is their history. They made it.

A word of thanks is due to those who wrote it and it is an expression of SACTU's international links of solidarity that the research, compilation and the writing have been done by an Australian and a Canadian, Brenda Wall and Ken Luckhardt. They have performed a meritorious service for the South African workers and we are grateful to them. Theirs was a labour of love and no one involved in the writing and preparation of this book derived any financial gain from it. Although they prepared the material, the book was edited by a SACTU Editorial Board appointed by the National Executive Committee. The final responsibility is therefore ours alone.

Our history continues. Perhaps this book should end with an incomplete sentence, a kind of unfinished symphony. The trade union movement in our country is on the move - new sections of workers are joining the unions, new unions are being formed, new leaders are arising. There are new tasks, and new pages of history are being written. The South African Congress of Trade Unions is there and it is playing its part in making decisions, in rendering help and advising, in leading and planning the onward march of the workers of South Africa. Out of their rich experience and tradition the workers founded SACTU which will go on to advance further to greater heights of organization and unity. Repression and terror by the racist oppressors have not been able to stem the trade union movement. Their plans to 'bleed the African trade unions to death' have failed in the past and will fail in the future.

The task before us at present is to equip and lead the workers in vital struggles against the attempts of the exploiting classes and their government to place upon the shoulders of the working people the burden of the immense costs of Apartheid and military expenditures. We will organize the workers to resist increases in rent and fares. We will lead the workers in determined struggles for higher wages to meet the costs of capitalist-created inflation. We will vigorously oppose the government's plans to turn every African into a foreigner in his own land; we will resist wholesale removals and we will fight with everything at our command against this regime whose objective it is to enslave our people forever and to deprive them forever of all rights of citizenship. Our struggle will not stop until the workers of South Africa have achieved their objective - total liberation of all who live in our country, irrespective of race and colour, total liquidation of all forms of domination and exploitation, and the establishment of a just and democratic society in South Africa.


Stephen Dlamini
South African Congress of Trade Unions

November 1979


Dear Friends,

The story that appears in these pages has never been fully told before. Many people have written about South African workers, but up to this day we have never heard from the oppressed workers themselves; they have struggled and sacrificed in silence. Now, for the first time, the workers' history, the history of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) has been written. The most striking aspect of this history is the fact that African workers have never ceased to organise, to resist, to commit their lives in struggle against exploitation and oppression under Apartheid.

Over the years, our people have confronted the fascist and racist regime in South Africa. It was not one man, nor one woman, not two people, but thousands. Many of those who participated in the struggle have died and some of them are serving long terms of imprisonment. I would like to commend the authors of this book for writing the story of all our gallant comrades.

I have often been asked questions such as why SACTU was formed; what has it achieved; what did it stand for and what does it stand for today? This book provides invaluable information which answers all these questions. I therefore wish to recommend that you read this book and, more importantly, use it effectively in your support of the struggle of the workers and people of South Africa.


John Gaetsewe
General Secretary

November 1979


SACTU dedicates this book to the following comrades who gave their lives in the workers' struggle:

Viola Hashe (Vice-President, SACTU; Secretary General of the South African Clothing Workers Union). One of the militant leaders of SACTU and the ANC, Hashe was banned from trade union activities in 1963. She died after a short illness in 1977.

Wilson Khayinga and Zinakile Mkaba (Port Elizabeth Local Committee members). These two men, along with V. Mini, were executed in November 1964 for alleged sabotage and complicity in the death of a police informer. Their execution set a precedent in South African legal history as three other men were hanged for the actual murder.

Elijah Loza (Chairman, Cape Western Province Local Committee). Loza died in detention on 2 August 1977 after sustaining injuries at the hands of the security police.

Leslie Massina (General Secretary of SACTU; Secretary, African Laundry, Cleaning and Dyeing Workers Union). Massina died in 1976 of natural causes in Swaziland, where he had lived in exile following his release from the Treason Trial in 1961.

Caleb Mayekiso (Secretary, Port Elizabeth Branch of the South African Railway & Harbour Workers Union). Mayekiso died in jail in 1969 of 'natural causes' (according to the police), although he was in good health when detained.

Vuyisile Mini (Executive Member and Organizer, Port Elizabeth Local Committee). Mini is remembered as one of SACTU's most militant leaders. He was hanged, along with Khayinga and Mkaba, in November 1964.

Mary Moodley (Organizer, Food and Canning Workers Union). Moodley was active in both trade union and political struggles throughout the 1950s and 1960s. She was banned in 1963 and spent the next sixteen years restricted to the area of Benoni. She died of natural causes in October 1979.

Joe Morolong (Commercial and Distributive Workers Union, Cape Town). Morolong was a trade union organiser who spent almost one third of his life and half of his adult life in jail or under restrictions. Residents of Detshipeng Reserve, the remote area to which he had been banished, reported that he was murdered in November 1977.

Lawrence Ndzanga (SACTU National Executive Committee; Organizer, South African Railway and Harbour Workers Union). Ndzanga died in the police cells on 9 January 1976 while detained without trial under the Terrorism Act. His wife, Rita, also a SACTU trade unionist, was in detention at the time of the murder of her husband; she was refused permission to attend the funeral, although she was later released with no charges laid.

'Looksmart' S. Ngudle (Commercial and Distributive Workers Union, Cape Town). Ngudle was a SACTU leader in the Western Cape. His death on 5 September 1963 was officially recorded by the Apartheid regime as 'suicide by hanging'. An inquest was called for when a cellmate insisted on reporting details of Ngudle's treatment in jail. To prevent this, the state banned Ngudle (as a banned person cannot be quoted) and he became the first South African to be banned after death!

Our dedication pays tribute not only to these courageous leaders but also to countless other workers who have been killed in the course of the struggle for trade union rights in South Africa. To all of these fallen comrades, SACTU says: 'HAMBANI KAHLE (Go Well)! To SACTU leaders presently incarcerated in the prisons of Apartheid and to the militant workers carrying forward the programme of SACTU, we say BASEBENZI MANYANANI (Workers Unite)!


Twenty-five years ago, in March 1955, the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) was founded at an Inaugural Conference in Johannesburg. For a quarter of a century, SACTU has distinguished itself as the first non-racial trade union coordinating body, promoting the common class interests of all workers, regardless of race or colour. SACTU has also been in the forefront of the political struggle against the national oppression of all Black people in South Africa - Africans, Indians and Coloureds. The purpose of this book is to commemorate SACTU's twenty-fifth anniversary and in so doing call upon all progressive forces, in South Africa and throughout the world, to redouble their efforts to bring an end to the Apartheid system.

The history presented in these pages is necessarily incomplete. Hundreds of SACTU documents have through the years been confiscated in raids carried out by the South African state; they are stored in government buildings, unavailable to the millions of Black South Africans who are deprived of the opportunity to study and learn from the struggles of the recent past. Far more important than the loss of recorded history are the many comrades, veteran trade union leaders, who are forced to waste their lives rotting in the prisons of Apartheid. Their crime? That of struggling for a free and democratic South Africa, devoid of all forms of racial oppression and class exploitation.

For these reasons, the complete history of the workers' struggle against Apartheid, led by SACTU, can only be told after liberation. The prison gates will be flung open wide and the state archives will become a people's library accessible to all friends of the Revolution. Only under those conditions will all aspects of this long struggle - the gains, the setbacks and the sacrifices - be available for critical analysis and investigation.

These realities should not cause despair, but instead should inspire everyone to work that much harder for the day of liberation when not only the rich history of the South African struggle can be fully recorded but the new society of the future created. This book, based on all existing SACTU documents and materials available outside South Africa, is meant to be another step forward in this process. The primary purpose is to pay tribute to the dedication of SACTU workers through a documentation of the role that SACTU has played in the liberation struggle for the past twenty-five years.

For those readers not familiar with the Apartheid system, it is important at the outset to explain certain terminology. As Hilda Bernstein has stated:

The language of apartheid is a totally necessary part of its ideology. Without the special words and phrases that have been created, the ideology would disappear, because it is not a theory constructed on the basis of reason, but an expedient developed to disguise the truth and erected on the basis of a special language.

The opponents of apartheid are forced into a semantic trap: once you begin to use the language of apartheid, you have already accepted something of the premise. Yet it is impossible to write about South Africa today without using some of this special, and totally misleading, language.1*

This book avoids the 'language of apartheid' to the extent possible. Africans, Indians and Coloureds (people of mixed parentage) when referred to collectively are spoken of as 'Blacks'. Blacks are not described as 'non-Whites,' except where that paternalistic terminology has been used in historical quotations. To use the term 'non-White' or 'non-European' (which is only slightly less obnoxious in the South African context) is to define the majority of the population in terms of the minority, the oppressed in terms of the oppressor. Similarly, the term 'Bantu', Apartheid's term for African people, is completely avoided except where discussing government legislation or quoting government officials.

In addition, 'pass laws' refer to Apartheid legislation which requires all Africans over the age of sixteen to carry a pass (reference) book at all times and produce it on demand. It is the 'pass laws' which constitute the greatest burden for the African people in that they restrict the freedom of movement and choice of occupation. 'Pass-bearing' Africans are further oppressed by a mass of regulations and legislation, generally referred to es 'Influx Control,' which controls the number of Africans entering, residing or working in the urban areas. Finally, Africans may be forced to leave a prescribed area (that is, one considered 'White', but where in fact a large number of Africans live and work); this forced removal is commonly known as being Endorsed out'. Other expressions which are peculiar to South Africa are defined in the text itself.

* See notes at end of each chapter.


1. H. Bernstein, For Their Triumphs and Their Tears: Women in Apartheid South Africa, International Defence and Aid Fund, London, 1978 (rev. ed.), p.5.


1919 Formation of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa (ICU)

1924 Introduction of Industrial Conciliation Act

1941 Formation of the Council of Non-European Trade Unions (Transvaal) (CNETU)

1941 Formation of the African Mine Workers Union

1946 August,  African Mine Workers strike

1948 Rise of the Nationalist Party to state power

1950 Introduction of the Suppression of Communism Act

1952 Defiance Campaign Against Unjust Laws

1953 Introduction of the Native Labour (Settlement of Disputes) Act

1954 October, Dissolution of the South African Trades & Labour Council (SAT & LC)

1955 5-6 March, Formation of the South African Congress of Trade Unions

1955 June, Congress of the People (Kliptown)

1956 9 August, Women's march to Pretoria to protest against the Pass Laws

1956 Introduction of Industrial Conciliation Act 1956

1957 7 January, Beginning of Alexandra Bus Boycott

1957 26 June, Congress Stay-At-Home

1957 £1 -a-Day Campaign initiated by SACTU

1958 14 - 16 April, National Stay-At-Home

1959 31 May, Beginning of Potato Boycott

1959 October, Formation of the Federation of Free Africa Trade Unions of South Africa (FOFATUSA)

1959 November, Formation of the All-African Trade Union Federation (AATUF)

1960 21 March, Sharpeville massacre

1960 30 March, Unlawful Organizations Act used to ban the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC)

1960 March—April, Nation-wide strikes in response to banning of the ANC

1961 Port Elizabeth Bus Boycott

1961 29-31 May, National Stay-At-Home

1962 7 February, Beginning of International Solidarity Campaign

1962 Introduction of the Sabotage Act

1963 International Labour Organization (ILO) voted to expel South Africa

1963—4 Repression under the 90 and 180-day detentions


IC Act
SC Act
Tvl IS & MWU
African-American Labour Centre
African Food and Canning Workers Union
African Furniture, Mattress and Bedding Workers Union
African Federation of Trade Unions 
African Mine Workers Union
African National Congress (South Africa)
African Textile Workers Industrial Union
All-African Trade Union Federation
American Federation of Labour-Congress of Industrial Organizations
Bantu Laws Amendment Acts
Cape Western Province-Local Committee (SACTU) 
Central Native Labour Board 
Communist Party of South Africa   
Congress Alliance
Congress of the People
Coordinating Council of South African Trade Unions
Cost of Living Allowance
Council of Non-European Trade Unions (Transvaal)    
Farm, Plantation and Allied Workers Union
Federation of Free African Trade Unions of South Africa
Federation of South African Women
Food and Canning Workers Union
Garment Workers Union of African Women
Garment Workers Union
Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa
Act Industrial Conciliation Act
International Confederation of Free Trade Unions
International Defence and Aid Fund
International Labour Organization
International Metalworkers Federation
Iron and Steel Corporation of South Africa
Local Committee (SACTU)
Langeberg Ko-Operasie Besperk
Management Committee (SACTU)
Metal Workers Union
Natal Indian Congress
Natal Sugar Industrial Employees Union
National Consultative Committee (Congress Alliance)
National Executive Committee (SACTU)
National Organizing Committee (SACTU)
National Union of Clothing Workers
National Union of Commercial Travellers
National Union of Distributive Workers
Act Native Labour (Settlement of Disputes) Act (1953)
Orange Free State
Pan-Africanist Congress
Port Elizabeth
Poverty Datum Line
Public Utilities Transport Corporation
Shop and Office Workers Union
South African Clothing Workers Union

South African Coloured People's Organization/Congress
South African Confederation of Labour
South African Congress of Democrats
South African Congress of Trade Unions
South African Federated Chamber of Industries
South African Federation of Trade Unions

South African Railway and Harbour (Non-European) Workers Union
South African Indian Congress
South African Institute of Race Relations
South African Trades and Labour Council
South African Trade Union Council/Trade Union Council of South Africa
Suppression of Communism Act (1950)
British Trades Union Congress
Transvaal Iron, Steel and Metal Workers Union
Textile Workers Industrial Union
World Federation of Trade Unions


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