Lessons of the 1950s

6. The Birth of SACTU

The formation of a trade union federation based on the African workers and upholding clear principles of non-racial workers' unity, was long overdue. The South African Congress of Trade Unions, founded in March 1955, thus held enormous promise for the working class.

The old "official" trade union movement was dominated by a leadership reared in the worst traditions of craft unionism and racial sectionalism - interested only in advancing the privileges of a mainly white minority of workers, by methods of class-collaboration with the employers.

The attitude of that leadership had been summed up in their telegram replying to a request by an international trade union body for information about the 1946 African mineworkers' strike:

"Appears natives were misled by irresponsible people. Police methods controlling strike drastic but warranted. Such action was necessary to maintain law and order and prevent chaos."[29]

In almost every capitalist country, unskilled workers have had to take on their own shoulders the task of organising themselves, meeting with indifference or hostility from older craft unions. In South Africa, where craft and race privilege have reinforced one another, this was even more the case. The traditions of struggle by African mineworkers, the tradition of the ICU in the 1920s, the success of the CNETU during the second world war, showed the potential of organisation on this basis.

Within the official Trades and Labour Council (from which TUCSA was later to emerge), black workers were tolerated as second-class members and hamstrung in their organisation. Pleas to this leadership to give a lead in organising and mobilising African workers fell, not surprisingly, on deaf ears.

The Communist Party long pursued a policy of trying to change the Trades and Labour Council, but without success. As late as 1950, the CP criticised the CNETU for rejecting affiliation to the TLC.

In fact, the final impetus to the formation of SACTU came when the leadership of the TLC unions bolted the door against African workers, leaving the non-racial unions no alternative but to strike out independently. The Trades and Labour Council dissolved itself in 1954 and became "reconstituted" with a constitution barring unions with African members from affiliation.


The weakness of trade union organisation among black workers at that time was shown in the initial membership of SACTU. In 1956, the 19 affiliated unions had a total membership of only 20,000 - when 1 to 2 million African workers were potentially unionisable.

Of these 20,000, the majority were concentrated in three registered unions and their African "parallels": Food and Canning, Textiles, Laundry and Dry Cleaning. Unionisation in these sectors of black workers in the early 1950s had been relatively `easier' than elsewhere because in them production had expanded rapidly, allowing employers to make some concessions.

From the beginning, SACTU's policy reflected the understanding of worker activists that, to secure decent wages and conditions, the struggle could not be confined to an "economic" struggle with employers, but involved a political struggle.

However, what was not made clear - mainly because of the influence of CP ideas within SACTU - was that this political struggle necessarily required working-class leadership, and a programme for workers' power and the overthrow of capitalism, in order to succeed.

For this reason, when SACTU affiliated to the Congress Alliance, it was not to bring the Congress movement under organised working-class leadership and a workers' programme, but merely to provide worker support for the middle-class policies and methods long enshrined in Congress.

The building of SACTU into a fighting trade union federation embracing the mass of workers should have been made a central task - indeed the central task - for the Congress movement, with all its authority and resources. Mass industrial organisation was the only basis on which the employers and the regime could have been tackled effectively in the political arena too.

Clearly such a task was by no means an easy one. In an article welcoming the formation of SACTU, banned Textile Workers' leader Mike Muller pointed out some of the serious implications involved:

"It is childish self-deception to give out that the mere fact of the formation of this new trade union body is itself a turning point…Trade unions must not be 'post offices' referring complaints within the narrow limits of wage determinations and agreements to the Labour Department and Industrial Councils…But to take up a grievance, to lead the workers themselves to act on it unitedly, that is the lifeblood of trade unionism. To teach the workers by their own experience that they can change their own life is at the root of the conception of the political role of trade unions…

"The potential membership [of SACTU] is limited only by its means and ability to organise the unorganised workers. Besides this one task, all other tasks are of no consequence. It can stand on principles until it drops, it can campaign politically until it is winded, but if it fails to bring into the trade union movement a large proportion of the nearly one million unorganised workers, then its very survival is doubtful."[30]

To achieve its goals, SACTU needed to break through to organising the heavy battalions of industrial workers on a massive scale - in metal and engineering, in steel, in transport, and on the mines. But although these were identified as the critical tasks from early in SACTU's development, and although many worker-militants strove valiantly to take this work forward, the necessary headway was not made.

At its highest point, in 1961, SACTU's membership had increased to some 53,000, the majority of whom were still in light industry. Less than 40,000 were African workers.

This was not the result of any apathy among the workers. As SACTU's 1959 conference itself recognised, "the organising of more workers into effective new trade unions has not kept pace with the degree of consciousness prevalent among the workers."

Indeed, SACTU organising work in the 1950s was hard hit by state repression. But South African workers - as the 1970s showed vividly - have found methods of laying foundations for mass organisation, including in heavy industry, in the face of the most efficient repressive techniques by the state.

It is quite true that, as a result of the growth of industry, African workers had by the 1970s become far more numerous and were placed in a far better strategic position in industry than was the case in the 1950s. But if, already in the 1940s, 158,000 black workers could be organised in the CNETU, the opportunities certainly existed after 1955 for SACTU to organise many more.

Main problem

Really, the main problem was the political approach taken to the struggle for democracy, which was manifested in the whole Congress leadership, as well as in the leadership of the CP and SACTU.

This regarded the working class not as the spearhead of a struggle for power whose leadership would rally all the oppressed - but as merely "one component" in a "struggle with many fronts", that could achieve its aims with the support of the liberal bosses. Thus the building of the trade unions was not given the priority, in energy and resources, which it desperately needed.

The point is not altered by the fact that, in conference speeches throughout the decade, leaders like Mandela, Tambo, Sisulu, Lutuli, and others called on ANC members to build the trade unions and to become members of trade unions. As the NEC itself admitted in its report to the ANC's last conference as a legal organisation in December 1959: "ANC members and branches have not realised the importance of working in trade unions."

Whereas for workers trade unions are essential instruments, not only for defence of living standards but for schooling themselves in the struggle for power - for the Congress leadership they could not be allowed to become more than bargaining instruments with the employers. The "politics of the working class", as the leaders saw it, should be confined to supporting a democratic struggle led by the middle class.


Therefore SACTU's affiliation to Congress - instead of a means to consciously transform the ANC, which would have been quite possible with a Marxist understanding and leadership - became a means of subordinating the "independent" trade unions to Congress, to middle-class politics and leadership.

Political policies of class-compromise with liberalism always lead to a tendency to hold the workers' movement back even from the full pursuit of the economic struggle - for if workers become "too" self-confident and demanding, this might offend the liberal bosses.

As Nimrod Sejake, one of SACTU's most militant organisers on the Rand in the 1950s, recounted in the last issue of Inqaba, the response of the SACTU office to plans for calling a strike which had been prepared in nine metal factories simultaneously, was to say: "Nimrod, that is too much."


The reformist approach did not go uncontested within SACTU: the pressure from the working class, expressed particularly through SACTU's African worker activists, ensured this. In SACTU's early years, for example, this was evident in the debate over how to respond to the government's Industrial Conciliation Act of 1956.

This Act (taken together with the Native Labour Settlement of Disputes Act of 1953) completed the exclusion of African workers from the officially-recognised and state-regulated trade union system, and carried the racial division of coloured, Asian and white workers to new extremes. It banned the registration of new "mixed" unions, and racially segregated the membership of existing mixed unions.

To make a clear break from the past methods of "official" trade unionism, and to turn resolutely towards building powerful non-racial unions based on African workers, it was necessary for the SACTU unions to take a united stand against the terms of this law - even if that involved defying it. As was argued forcibly within SACTU by a number of activists, African workers had no option but to strike illegally to defend themselves. The restrictions imposed by law could not be made to operate if they were defied by the workers in a united way.

Oscar Mpetha summed up this position to the 1957 SACTU conference:

"The reason we are faced with an IC Act of this nature is because workers had accepted previous IC Acts, which gained them temporary advantages. We need not find ways and means of working within the Act. We could not leave the onus to a few unions. SACTU as a progressive organisation had to reject the Act…Why could we not negotiate from strength? Must we beg that a piece of paper will negotiate for us, that white workers should negotiate for us? Have we no confidence in our own workers that they will change the tide in South Africa? We must not underestimate their strength."

Mpetha's position was countered with the argument that the SACTU unions were still weak and thus could not defy registration.[31] In reality that is precisely why it was necessary to defy it. A clear lead was needed to educate the working class - still at a relatively early stage of building their movement - not only on the need to uphold without compromise non-racial unity of their organisations, but also to rely only on their own organised strength.

The Communist Party gave no clear direction on this central problem facing SACTU, and CP members in SACTU in fact pulled in different directions.

The leaders of the biggest registered unions in SACTU (including among them some prominent Communists) decided to accept registration on a racial basis, thus leaving the onus of any defiance of the law to the African workers alone.

This decision was made unilaterally, and without thorough discussion among the union members, despite the 1957 SACTU conference having agreed to postpone a decision in the hope of achieving a united stand.

Thus the Textile union amended its constitution to include coloured workers only; the Laundry union divided into separate single-race unions; and the Food and Canning union decided to confine membership to coloured workers, organising African workers in the parallel AFCWU.

Bitter battles

In the recession of the late 1950s these registered unions, just like the unregistered unions, were thrown into bitter battles against retrenchments and wage cuts - in which the registration certificate was no assistance at all. In fact the bosses and the state carried out a concerted attack on all the SACTU unions - to deny them stop orders, victimise their members, and break their shop-floor organisation.

While a Marxist policy is not a magic key, it would certainly have helped the class fighters who were the lifeblood within SACTU in their tremendously difficult work. With the aid of a Marxist understanding SACTU could have been built into a more powerful force, better able to defend all workers against attack.

Indeed, many opportunities did arise to build a mass trade union movement, in particular from 1957 when, as a result of the upsurge of the mass movement, SACTU launched its campaign for a national minimum wage of £1 a day.

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[29] Quoted in Simons and Simons, Class and Colour in South Africa, 1850-1950, Penguin, p. 578.

[30] Fighting Talk, April 1955.

[31] See the account by R. Lambert in South African Labour Bulletin, June 1983.

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