In 1990, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) formed an alliance. The alliance was formed after an agreement was reached to work together as Revolutionary Alliance (Tripartite Alliance). COSATU has been involved in the liberation of the country and has fought for the interest of the marginalised working class before the formation of the tripartite alliance.

Since the transition to democracy, the relationship between COSATU and the ANC has been contested due to policy differences between the federation and the party.  In 1991, COSATU held a congress where it pledged itself to developing a programme for restructuring the economy that would lead to high-wage system in the short term, and in the long term to socialism. The ANC came to power in 1994. In 1995, the ANC adopted the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). The RDP was the first South African socio-economic strategy, adopted and implemented by African National Congress (ANC) government under the leadership of the late Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki as the vice president. The programme came after intense discussions between COSATU, the SACP and other civil society organisations in the country.

The ANC's main purpose in developing and implementing the RDP was to address the huge socio-economic problems brought about by Apartheid government. Most importantly, the ANC government’s intention was to reduce poverty and address the massive shortfalls in social services across the country.

In June 1996, the ANC government adopted a redistribution strategy to drive economic growth. The Growth, Employment and Redistribution Policy (GEAR) was implemented, with the aim of wealth-trickling down to the poor. The policy was adopted without any consultation with COSATU, SACP and other civil society organizations. GEAR was in line with the neoliberal policy encouraged by the Washington-based Bretton Woods Institutions, the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The first few years of democracy saw the contestation within the tripartite alliance intensifying. COSATU was not in favour of the GEAR policy. COSATU argued that the policy was not in the best interests of the working class; rather it advanced the interests of the capitalist class. In his address in July 2007 to an ANC policy conference, vice president, Thabo Mbeki, warned both COSATU and SACP not to attempt to tell government what to do. He further reminded them that ANC is not a socialist party.  

Thabo Mbeki succeeded Nelson Mandela as the President of South Africa in 1999. He continued with the GEAR policy. The federation was not happy with the President’s policy position, as well as his stance on HIV/AIDS. The Mbeki led government became the centre of contestation and it led to division between the government and the tripartite alliance. Thabo Mbeki resigned as the president of South Africa on September 2008.   

Jacob Zuma was appointed the president of South Africa. . In 2010, Jacob Zuma’s government launched the New Economic Growth Path (NGP) which aimed at creating employment, equity and enhancing economic growth. Its principal target was to create five million jobs by 2020. The government viewed the NGP as a commitment to prioritise employment creation in all economic sectors.

Again, COSATU was not happy with the NGP. COSATU’s report response to the NGP titled “Government’s New Growth Path Framework: One Step Forward, two steps Backward”, argued that the NGP document failed to locate itself within the historical positions of the ANC on economic policy. COSATU maintained that the points of departure should be the Freedom Charter and the RDP, but none of these policy documents were mentioned.

Since 1994, COSATU has led, hosted and supported many campaigns which vary from labour related issues to non-labour related issues. In 1994, the ‘Basic Condition of Employment Act’ campaign was initiated.  The campaign focused on improving working conditions of what COSATU called the most vulnerable working class: domestic, farm workers, labour broker workers and women. It looked at improving working hours, maternity leave, abolishing child labour and other working conditions. The ‘Constitution’ campaign was also aimed at influencing the amendment to the Constitution of the country by drafting a Constitution that would also cater for and protect the needs of the working class. COSATU’s, major achievement on the Constitution campaign was around the exclusion of the lock-out clause in the Constitution.  

In 1998, COSATU held a ‘Women and the Job’ summit.  The primary focus was on the improvement of the quality of life and status of women. The campaign on “violence against women’ was also initiated. It focused on key areas such as rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, the shop steward’s role, women’s right and violence against women. . In 1999, the ‘Public Sector Workers Fight for a living wage’ campaign was held by COSATU.

Other campaigns that COSATU held since the transition to democracy were: HIV/AIDS campaign, job crisis campaign which addressed the issue of job losses, workers unite against redlining campaign which focused on the Banks and their services to the people and the anti-privatisation protest action campaign were also held. COSATU also participated in democracy campaigns in Zimbabwe and Swaziland where Zimbabweans and Swaziland citizens campaigned for democracy.

In 2014, COSATU joined forces with the South African Council of Churches, the National Taxi Alliance and National Association of School Governing Bodies in the fight against the e-tolls. In 2015 it was part of a ‘Swaziland campaign to free Mario Gathers, a petition was signed by hundreds of organizations, which demanded the release of Swaziland political activists Mario Masuku and Maxwell Dlamini.

The Federation has office bearers who are democratically elected at its National Congress. A National Congress is held every three years where six National Office Bearers are elected for the following portfolios: President, first Deputy President, second Deputy President, National Treasurer, General Secretary and Deputy General Secretary. The 2015 COSATU office bearers are:

President: Sdumo Dlamini

First Deputy President: Tyotyo Jame

Second Deputy President: Zingiswa Losi

General Secretary: Zwelinzima Vavi

Deputy General Secretary: Bheki Ntshalintshali

Treasure: Freda Oosthuyse

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