During the late 1970s and early 1980s the issue of drawing up a Workers’ Charter became a leading item on the agenda of the South African labour movement. It developed as a response to pressure from the Congress Alliance for unions to formally adopt the 1955 Freedom Charter.

Many within the labour movement felt that the Freedom Charter did not sufficiently cover the interests of workers. For example, the Freedom Charter did not include one of the most basic worker rights: the right to strike. More importantly, its critics insisted that the Freedom Charter paved the way for national liberation but not for an end to capitalism. A Workers’ Charter was proposed as a more radical alternative -- one that would prioritise the interests of workers, or the working class more generally, and pave the way towards socialism. But possibly most importantly, it was the political implications of adopting the Freedom Charter that caused much of the scepticism from certain groups of trade unionists and workers. Adopting the Freedom Charter meant that unions would effectively submit themselves to the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) in the liberation struggle.

This article looks at the history of different workers charters in South Africa and explores why the call in the 1970s and 1980s for unions, and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in particular, to adopt and champion a Workers’ Charter  was such an important moment in South African history.

Earlier Workers’ Charters in the South African labour movement

It is important to recognise that Workers’ Charters have a long history in the South African labour movement. COSATU were not the first to draw up such a document. Two earlier Workers’ Charters existed that are worth noting:

-       1913: A Workers’ Charter for white workers

The first Workers’ Charter in South Africa was drawn up in 1913 by white unions in the Transvaal. It was a year of high militancy on the mines that ended in the infamous 1913 Mineworkers’ Strike. More than 20 people were killed during the strike which is said to have resembled a mini civil war between white mineworkers and armed Dragoons (police or military mounted on horseback). Black mineworkers came out to strike in solidarity, but by that point the military offensive was in full force and managed to drive them back underground. Despite a small section of the white labour movement promoting unity between black and white workers, the overall character of the movement was a racist one. The demands put forward during this strike applied to white mineworkers and would become the central demands that were found in the 1913 Workers’ Charter. The Charter was mainly concerned with putting forward basic workplace demands and ensuring job protection for white workers. An eight-hour day, limited overtime, healthy working conditions, and a greater government role in negotiations were the Charter’s core demands.

-       1944: A Workers’ Charter calling for socialism

In 1944 the South African Trades and Labour Council (SATLC), a white-dominated but multiracial federation, drew up their own Workers’ Charter. This charter differed significantly from the 1913 version in two important ways. Firstly, it applied to workers of all races and embodied the principles of non-racialism. Secondly, it went far beyond basic workplace demands and called for an end to capitalism and the implementation of socialism.

More specifically, this charter called for the right to employment, decent housing, food and clothing. It also called for the right to free education and freedom of speech, association and movement. By going beyond narrow workplace issues this Workers’ Charter was effectively a charter for the interests of the broader working class. But despite the progressive and even revolutionary nature of their Workers’ Charter, the SATLC’s approach was to negotiate for reforms to parliamentary laws. They embarked on a ‘National Charter Campaign’ that included organising factory meetings and meetings with the Prime Minister. This approach reflected the SATLC’s optimism about the outcome of World War II, whereby they believed that the government would grant major concessions to the working class to protect itself against the potential growth of working class militancy. This indeed became the case in many countries in the post-War years as the working class across much of the globe won major gains from their respective governments, leading to the establishment of “welfare states”. However, with the rise to power of the National Party in 1948 it became clear that major concessions would only be granted to the already better off white working class, while the growing black working class would be met only with further repression.

As a result of the demand for socialism in the 1944 Workers’ Charter many of the SATLC’s more conservative unions revolted. Then with the emergence of the Apartheid regime they eventually left and by 1954 formed the Trade Union Council of South Africa (TUCSA) -- a majority white “sweetheart union” that closely aligned itself to the apartheid government. In 1955 many of the unions that had remained in the SATLC went on to form the South African Council of Trade Unions (SACTU) -- a non-racialist formation that committed itself to both economic and broader political struggles. SACTU faced massive repression from the state and was eventually forced into exile, where it joined the Congress Alliance. But without the ability to organise workers its influence within the country waned. As a member of the Congress Alliance it adopted the Freedom Charter and closely aligned itself with the politics of the ANC. Its predecessor’s (the SATLC) Workers’ Charter was for the most part forgotten.

Late 1970s and 1980s: Reviving the demand for a Workers’ Charter

The question of a potential Workers’ Charter began to emerge in the labour movement once again in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

With most political parties including the ANC banned and in exile, the anti-apartheid struggle had been taken up and strengthened by the growing student, community and workers’ movements. Together they were referred to as the “mass movement”. Trade unions in particular were the biggest organisations of the black working class and were often found to be at the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle. The ANC remained an important organisation in the hearts and minds of ordinary people, largely because it had taken up arms against the apartheid regime through Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). But in terms of fighting the day-to-day oppression of the apartheid regime in this period the ANC was largely absent. Among other organisations of the black working class unions became the central means through which to struggle against apartheid and capitalism. From outside the country the ANC recognised the importance of bringing trade unions and other mass organisations under the umbrella of the Congress Alliance. This would largely be achieved through the ANC’s creation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983.

The UDF would serve to unify the different factions of the liberation movement, but it would also importantly mean that the ANC would remain relevant within the country. Representatives of the Congress Alliance and some unionists who were supporters of the Alliance began to call on unions to adopt the Freedom Charter as a guiding document. This led to fierce debate within the labour movement as a whole, as some unionists and workers believed that the Freedom Charter did not cover workers’ issues significantly enough. Others insisted that even if implemented thoroughly, the Freedom Charter would not do away with capitalist production -- meaning that any post-apartheid society would remain an exploitative one based on class divisions. Socialists within the labour movement were also very wary of de facto accepting the ANC (a nationalist organisation) as the head of the mass movement by adopting the Freedom Charter. Some of those who objected the adoption of the Freedom Charter called for the unions to draw up a new Workers’ Charter -- one that would advocate for a socialist programme, much like the SATLC Workers’ Charter of  1944.

Late 1970s and 1980s: Workerists versus populists (or charterists)

The debate between the Freedom Charter and a Workers’ Charter was one of many that raged within the labour movement at the time. It was part of a range of debates that caused a rift in the movement between two groups that would become known as ‘populists’ (or ‘charterists’) and ‘workerists’. In the strictest sense, the populists believed that the unions should first and foremost contribute to the broader struggle for national liberation, and the ANC was often viewed as the rightful leader of the liberation struggle. In the 1980s populism simply meant uniting as many forces opposed to apartheid as possible, across class and race lines, and under a ‘popular front’ led by the ANC. The workerists believed that the priority of the unions should be to build and strengthen shopfloor structures and in doing so grow their unions and and contribute to a better organised mass movement as a whole. They rejected the idea that the unions or the mass movement should be led by the ANC or any nationalist party.

Although there were definitely individuals and groups within the labour movement that stuck rigidly to the basic premises of either ‘workerism’ or ‘populism’, the two categories eventually largely became slurs with which to criticise or discredit arguments or individuals. Many within the labour movement would have held positions that were somewhat more complex than these. For example, not all those who proposed a Workers’ Charter could be considered workerists in the strictest sense. Many believed that unions should fight political struggles away from the workplace. But they also insisted that adopting a Workers’ Charter would allow unions to develop a programme through which to fight for socialism. 

1987 - 1990: Populists within COSATU emerge victorious

COSATU had formed in 1985 and from its inception had established itself as a giant of the labour movement. Its predecessor, the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU), followed a more workerist approach to trade unionism, focussing largely on labour-related issues and building strong, worker controlled, democratic union affiliates. COSATU was formed to unify a wider range of unions and better strengthen worker struggles, but also as a means to contribute (in a political sense) more powerfully to the mass movement in the anti-apartheid struggle. COSATU would thus become the site through which the fight between workerism and populism would most strongly play out. And as a result of its sheer size and its growing political authority amongst the working class, decisions taken by COSATU would have a strong bearing on the direction of the labour movement and the mass movement as a whole.

At COSATU’s  2nd  National Congress in 1987 the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) placed the adoption of the Freedom Charter on the agenda. NUM was  founded in 1982 and claims to be the first union to have adopted the Freedom Charter. As a union it emerged outside of the FOSATU tradition and had always looked to position itself as a political force in the liberation struggle. With leaders like Cyril Ramaphosa it sought to closely align itself with the ANC. The proposal to adopt the Freedom Charter was met with opposition from the delegates of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA). NUMSA was previously affiliated to FOSATU and had, just prior to the 1987 Congress, taken a decision to adopt a Workers’ Charter. The NUM emerged victorious and COSATU formally adopted the Freedom Charter by the end of the Congress. This was considered a precursor to aligning with the ANC, which it officially did once the ANC was unbanned in 1990.

1990: COSATU eventually draw up a Workers’ Charter

Despite its official adoption of the Freedom Charter the struggle for COSATU to adopt a Workers’ Charter was not over. COSATU eventually drew up a Draft Workers’ Charter by 1990 after initiating the “Workers’ Charter Campaign” a year earlier. Although it did not go on to replace the Freedom Charter to become the Federation’s primary guiding document, the Workers’ Charter would still significantly shape post-apartheid labour landscape. The rights and demands that are laid out in this document would greatly influence COSATU’s approach (as an Alliance partner) during negotiations with both the apartheid government and big capital in the transition period. Much, but by no means all, of the content of the Workers’ Charter can be seen in the post-apartheid Constitution, Bill of Rights and broader labour laws that were settled on in these negotiations.

But it is has to be asked: was the eventual creation of a Workers’ Charter a victory for its original proponents, or was it just a case of smoke and mirrors from the Federation leadership? The answer seems to be two-fold. A bit of both. On the one hand, the forces within COSATU that advocated for a Workers’ Charter and that advocated for a more direct socialist programme than the Freedom Charter were significant. Their arguments resonated with workers far and wide. The COSATU leadership would not have been able to just ignore the calls for the creation of a Workers’ Charter.

On the other hand, however, the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP) came on board and themselves began to promote the drafting of a Workers’ Charter. They suggested that it would ‘feed into’ the programme of the Freedom Charter during negotiations for a ‘new South Africa’. This seemed like an about-turn, since the ANC and SACP had vehemently opposed the idea of a Workers’ Charter for years. Sections of the SACP in particular had previously attacked NUMSA, or their predecessor: the Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU), concerning the compilation of a Workers’ Charter -- accusing them of being ‘workerists’. Eventually the SACP actually drew up a proposed draft of a Workers’ Charter of their own, as did SACTU. In some sections, this was seen as a political manoeuvre meant to ingratiate the SACP and the Congress Alliance as a whole with the working masses. But it was also an admission of the fact that the strength of the workers’ movement had dragged the political position of the Congress Alliance to the left. They could not afford to leave workers’ demands off of the agenda during negotiations.


Cosatu’s workers’ charter brought women’s issues to the fore.

Proponents of the Workers’ Charter believed that, as the creators of wealth, workers should be the shared owners of that wealth. This is derived from a Marxist understanding of the Labour Theory of Value -- which insists that surplus value is created primarily through the labour of the worker. The capitalist or the boss is understood to simply “appropriate” (or steal) the surplus that should belong to the workers who create it.

Proposals on the Workers Charter: On 12 July 1989 COSATU held its third congress at the Nasrec and the major topic was negotiations, and delegates set out minimum conditions before the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) would enter into talks with the apartheid government, this congress also debated the nature of the Alliance. In this congress Plans were presented for drawing up a worker’s charter and organizing a campaign to drive the process. Women’s issues came to the fore, and various resolutions, for example a demand for maternity rights, were proposed and accepted.



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