'The Future is in the Hands of the Workers': A History of FOSATU

On the weekend of 14 and 15 April 1979, the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) was formed. It was an

exhilarating event, full of hope and anticipation, and I well remember the exultant and inspiring singing of liberation

songs which surged through the assembled shop steward representatives on those two remarkable days.


FOSATU soon began living up to the expectations that surrounded its birth. It became the first genuinely national

non-racial federation of trade unions to have been formed in South Africa. Those that preceded it generally

were coalitions of regional groups which retained distinct regional identities. FOSATU, by contrast, succeeded in

synthesising and distilling the various regional working class traditions into a common consciousness and practice.

This was a first.


FOSATU accomplished that goal partly by fostering a national leadership of organic intellectuals. This was one of its

prime achievements and many such leaders moved into influential positions in government and society after 1994.

This in turn was achieved by the regular interaction and tight integration of local, provincial and national levels of the

organisation, and by the education programme that FOSATU mounted for various levels of its leadership at different

times of the year. One of the conspicuous characteristics of that leadership and of the organisation generally was

a capacity to reflect, and in particular to recognise and learn from its mistakes. This was one of its hallmarks which

allowed it to strategise exceptionally effectively within FOSATU and later within its successor COSATU.


The impulse to place the organisation and its struggles in context was evident from the very moment of its founding.

I myself gave an introductory lecture on the history of black trade unions in South Africa. The purpose of this was to

point to past failures, past mistakes and present opportunities, in order to learn from what had gone before, not only

in South Africa but in Africa at large (not what academic historians are supposed to do).


History, along with industrial relations, labour law and political economy, featured centrally in all the Federation’s

education programmes thereafter and helped endow that organic intellectual shop steward leadership with a

capacity for analytical reflection and an ability to strategise its way into a better future. Combined with strong factory

floor organisation, democratic workers’ control and tactical finesse, this propelled FOSATU forward to become the foremost worker organisation in the country up until the formation of COSATU (which it played a leading role in

forming) in 1986.


In one sense, FOSATU itself is now history. In another sense, however, it is not, since it has been almost wholly

forgotten by trade unionists, political activists and the wider South African public. This may partly be due to the fact

that its many achievements were accomplished in the short span of six years, and have in a sense been absorbed

into COSATU. Beyond that, however, has been the active down-playing of the role of this internal struggle in the

ANC’s version of the road to freedom. With the exception of the exhibition from which this book emerged, the 30th

anniversary of the forming of FOSATU was totally uncommemorated or remarked upon. Much the same was true of

the 25th anniversary of the UDF a few years before. The compilers of this book hope that the story it tells will help to

redress this pervasive neglect.


Professor Philip Bonner

NRF Chair of History, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

Document Type: 
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Michelle Friedman
University of Witswatersrand