Different types of Trade Unions in South Africa

Different types of Trade Unions in South Africa

By Tinyeko Captain Ndhlovu, Curator; DITSONG: National Museum of Military History

April 31, 2021



Trade unions in South Africa (SA) have been in existence for many decades, which is historically date back into 1880s. From the early days trade unions were predominantly European men organisation. As time goes trade unions get transformed as new Non-European trade unions were established. Trade unions began to open its doors to all workers of race and gender. However, trade unions get involved in politics, economy, and other social activities, which was largely encountered with resistance. This article focuses of the historical development of trade unions and the different types of trade unions in South Africa

The historical development of trade unions

Trade unions have a hallmark history, which is linked to the struggle against apartheid system, the violation of human rights and labour exploitation in the country. They also have been a vital agent of social transformation and played a significant role of social responsibility which was largely ignored. People in general had negative perceptions about trade unions. Most they are assuming that trade unions served a little purpose other than to endorse industrial unrest and create difficulties for employers. However, the main purpose of the trade unions is to be a watchdog over the relationship between employees and their employers. There are international and national statutory bodies which regulates trades unions.

In South Africa, trade unions are currently regulated under the Labour Relations Act, 1995 (the LRA). Post 1994, the new democratic SA government has broadly transformed the labour laws. The South African Constitution safeguard and guarantees workers the right to freedom of association and the formation of trade unions. These rights are also regulated in terms of the LRA. South Africa as country is the member of International Labour Organisation (ILO) which sets international standards on the role of the trade unions. SA trade unions have also been affiliated with/and endorsed by a various number of international conventions such as International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), World Federation Trade Union (WFTU), International Confederation Federation Trade Union (ICFTU-AFRO), which constitute international law and human rights law, and these have influenced the development of labour law in South Africa

Definition of trade union: “An association of workers whose main purpose is to regulate relations between employees and employers, including any employers’ organisation” – the LRA. “Any organisation, whose association involves of workers, which seeks to organise and advocates their members’ interests both in the workplace and society, and, in specific, seeks to regulate their employment relationship through the direct process of collective bargaining with employers/management” – the Salamon


Different types of SA trade unions

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is the first largest trade union federation with 21 affiliated trade unions in South Africa. COSATU was founded on the 30 November 1985 and officially launched on the 31 December 1985. It is affiliated with the ITUC, WFTU, and ICFTU-AFRO. COSATU is also the member of Tripad Alliance, which is African National Congress (ANC), South African Communist Party (SACP) and COSATU. It has revolutionary motto quoting “An injury to one is an injury to all” reveals the vision the union has of social solidarity that binds the working class. COSATU key leadership include Zingiswa Losi President, and Bheki Ntshalintshali General Secretary. Office location at Johannesburg, Gauteng South Africa.


The Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA) is the second largest national trade union centre federation or confederation in South Africa. FEDUSA was founded on the 1 April 1997. It is affiliated with the ITUC. Its key leadership include Godfrey Selamatsela, President and Riefdah Ajam, General Secretary and Martle Keyter Deputy Secretary. Office location at Johannesburg, Gauteng South Africa.

The Confederation of South African Workers’ Unions (CONSAWU) is one of four national trade union centres South Africa, CONSAWU is affiliated with the ITUC. Its key leadership include Mr. Joe Mfingwana, President; Mrs Thelma Louw, Deputy President; Mr. Khulile Nkushubana, General Secretary. Office location at Pretoria Centurion, Gauteng South Africa.

The National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU) is a national trade union centre in South Africa. It was founded in 1986 affiliated with the ITUC. Its leadership include Narius Moloto, General Secretary. NACTU office is located in Johannesburg Gauteng South Africa.


The South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) is of the second largest trade union confederation in South Africa with 21 affiliated trade unions organising 800,000 workers. SAFTU was founded on the 21 April 2017. Its key leadership include Mac Chavalala, President, Nomvume Ralarala, First Deputy President and Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary.


Trade unions in South Africa has developed from the European men organisation to the labour movements that has open doors to all workers of race and gender. South Africa have a strong background legislation which has developed from wore to better since the first the trade unions were established in the country. Trade unions got involved into politics and struggle against the apartheid system, violation of human rights and against the labour exploitation. Finally, the new democratic era, post 1994, has ushered the freedom for all workers to associate and join party of their own choice. South African Constitution and Labour Relations Acts of 1995 regulates these rights and trades unions. Today we are proudly having large federations which are COSATU, FEDUSA, NACTU, CONSAWU and SAFTU. Most trade unions in the country affiliated with these large federations. For instance, at Ditsong Museums of South Africa an Agent of Department of Sport, Art, and Culture (DSAC), have two official trade unions which are NEHAWU which is affiliating to COSATU and SAPTU which is affiliating FEDUSA


  • Labour Relations Acts of 1995
  • Trade union Training Authority Act of 2000
  • Salamon, M. Industrial Relations Theory and Practice 3ed (1998)

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