During apartheid, the municipal workforce was deeply divided along racial lines. This meant that trade unions in this sector were racially segregated. The White, Indian, and Coloured workers belonged to the different trade unions. In other words, there was a trade union that only organized White or Indian or Coloured municipal workers. The different races were not accommodated by the same trade union. For example, the White workers belonged to the South African Association of Municipal Employees(SAAME), the Coloured workers joined the Cape Town Municipal Workers Association(CTMWA) and the Indian municipal workers were part of the Durban Integrated Employees’ Society (DIMES). During the apartheid period all the trade unions which organized Coloured, White, and Indian workers were recognized by the municipalities for many years.
Moreover, collective bargaining was almost exclusively the preserve of unions representing White, Coloured, and Indian workers. On the contrary, the black workers under much of the apartheid period were not organized into trade unions, because the labor laws did not allow them to join trade unions. At the same time, the collective bargaining for black workers was therefore almost non-existent. But this changed slightly after the Durban strike of 1973, especially in the 1980s with the amendments to the Labour Relations Act. In other words, the exclusion of black workers from trade unionism did not last for many years. After the 1973 Durban strikes, these laws started to change.
Thus, the origin of SAMWU can be traced back to the 1973 Durban strikes. Amongst the outcome of this strike was the establishment of a commission of inquiry in 1979, chaired by Professor Nic Wiehahn. This commission suggested that black trade unions should be recognized by the government as they posed a greater threat outside the formal system of industrial relations than inside it (Maree,1998). As a result, new labor laws (e.g. Industrial Conciliation Amendment Act of 1979) were introduced permitting the black workers to form or join a trade union of their choice. Subsequently, many black trade unions sprung up in the period following the Durban strike wave. In many sectors black workers organized themselves into trade unions in order to fight against rampant racial exploitation and oppression.
In the local government sector, many black trade unions were formed after the 1973 Durban strike with the purpose of organizing municipal workers. Amongst these municipal unions was the Transport &General Workers Union(T&GWU)formed in 1973, the General Workers Union of South Africa(GWUSA) founded in 1981, and the South African Allied Workers Union(SAAWU) formed in 1979. These unions were known as general unions because they organized workers beyond the local government sector. Other unions formed in this period included the industrial unions that only focused on organizing the municipal workers. Some of these industrial unions included the Municipal Workers Union of South Africa(MWUSA) which was formed in 1981.
Some of these unions which organized in the local government sector, for example, TGWU was affiliated with the Federation of South African Trade Union(FOSATU) when it was formed in 1979. The majority of trade unions that were affiliated with FOSATU were often labeled by the ANC or its aligned organizations as workerist, meaning that they shunned broader politics and only focus on shop-floor issues. In fact, FOSATU avoided ANC nationalist politics or SACP Stalinist politics, instead, it was more focused on working-class politics. Hence, it stayed out of the United Democratic Front (UDF) which was formed in 1983, because it believed that the UDF was controlled by the black middle class or nationalists and too close to the ANC. In other words, TGWU together with many trade unions which were part of FOSATU were not supporters of the ANC or SACP ideology.
By contrast, the community-based or populist unions which organized in the local government sector opted to join the UDF and stayed outside of FOSATU. These unions included SAAWU, GWUSA, and MWUSA. Unlike TGWU or other FOSATU affiliated unions, the community unions were fairly openly aligned to the ANC traditions and prioritized political and community campaigns (Sithole, and Ndlovu,2006). They were quick to adopt the Freedom Charter (a symbol of support for the ANC). The majority of these unions operated as general unions and did not organize along the lines of the industry( Van Kessel, 1995). For example, SAAWU was a general union and organized workers in the metal, building, food, motor, electrical, rubber, plastic, chemical, printing, distribution, municipal, power stations, railways, health, transport, furniture, education, services, paper, and wood sectors.
The majority of UDF and FOSATU unions joined COSATU when it was formed in 1985. However, almost 460 000 workers who formed COSATU in 1985, came from FOSATU. At the same time, the key COSATU founding leaders such as John Gomomo, Chris Dlamini, Moses Mayekiso, Jay Naidoo, Alec Erwin, and Ronald Mofokeng were former FOSATU leaders. Most trade unions in the local government sector joined COSATU when it was formed. Amongst them were the T&GWU, GWUSA, SAAWU, and MWUSA, including the old Cape Town Municipal Workers’ Association(CTMWA). The CTMWA was the only union that did not owe its existence to the Durban strike. It was formed in 1928 but registered in 1942 and organized Coloured workers in the Cape Town City Council. In the 1980s the CTMWA ideologically was closer to the New Unity Movement, a Trotskyist leaning movement.
COSATU one of its founding principles was “one union -one industry”. This meant that COSATU’s objective was to establish only one union in each industry. For example, COSATU wanted to have one affiliated trade union in the local government sector. In other words, COSATU wanted its affiliated unions to cover an entire industry and not compete with each other. This principle envisioned COSATU affiliates to be industrial rather than general unions. This was a pre-condition for affiliation and this policy had been applied rigorously ( Baskin, 1991). On 13 January 1987, a COSATU meeting was held in Johannesburg to discuss progress in merger talks. This meeting established three general principles:
- No individual should become an obstacle to the unity of workers.
- Any affiliate not prepared to accept and carry out the guidelines will be considered expelled.
- Only merged industrial unions would have a right to participate in the national congress in July(Baskin,1991:23 ).
Consequently, COSATU resolved to facilitate a merger of all its affiliates in the local government sector into one national union. Hence, COSATU played a pivotal role in facilitating the merger of trade unions that organized municipal workers in the 1980s. COSATU wanted its affiliates in the municipal sector (MWUSA, SAAWU, GWUSA, CTMWA, and TGWU) to talk with each other, with the ultimate aim of establishing one national municipal trade union. These five trade unions despite organizational and political differences saw the need for a unity-build new national union. However, the road to putting together five unions was not easy. The five unions had different traditions and organizational cultures which leads to misunderstandings and tensions (Ernstzen,1991). These differences sometimes engendered deadlocks in merger talks. Fortunately, these differences were overshadowed by a strong commitment to put into effect the COSATU policy of one union-one industry.
After the protracted unity talks amongst COSATU affiliates in the municipal sector, SAMWU was formed in Cape Town at the National Congress that happened on 23-24 October 1987. SAMWU was formed as a result of the merger of five unions, namely, SAAWU, CTMWA, GWUSA, and MWUSA. SAMWU was a product of a merger of five local government unions, the biggest of these being the CTMWA. In other words, SAMWU was born after the merger of an old colored trade union based in Cape Town and post-1973 non-racial but predominantly black Unions (Buhlungu 2001,79). Most importantly, as Rudin(1996:49) pointed out SAMWU when was born was, ‘the first national, non-racial and class-conscious municipal trade union in South African history’.