SAMWU mourns the passing of its founding General Secretary, John Ernstzen

23 November 2022

SAMWU mourns the passing of its founding General Secretary, John Ernstzen

The South African Municipal Workers’ Union (SAMWU) has today learnt with a heavy heart the passing of its founding General Secretary Comrade John Ernstzen, after a long illness. Comrade Ernstzen, who served the union as its General Secretary from 1987 to 1994 passed away on 22 November 2022 aged 82.

Born on 10 August 1940, Comrade Ernstzen began his working career at a factory in Cape Town where he was dismissed for his radical stance against workplace injustices. During his time at the factory, Comrade Ernstzen was involved in organizing workers, educating them of their rights and fought along with other workers for better conditions, a fight which led to a strike led by a very young and vibrant Ernstzen.

Comrade Ernstzen, a unionist and activist at heart, loved workers and sought to see their conditions in the workplace changed for the better. Out of love and passion for workers, Comrade Ernstzen volunteered as an organizer for the Cape Town Municipal Workers’ Association (CTMA) and later elected as CTMA General Secretary. While leading the CTMA, Comrade Ernstzen played a key role in bringing together unions in the country in the formation of the Congress of the South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and was in the first NEC of COSATU.

In October 1987, several unions organizing in the local government sector converged to form the South African Municipal Workers’ Union and elected Comrade John Ernstzen as the union’s first General Secretary. As SAMWU and municipal workers in general, we are at great pain for the loss of Comrade Ernstzen which happened just a month after the union which he played a pivotal role in its formation celebrated its 35th anniversary.

Throughout his illustrious career and leadership of SAMWU, Comrade Ernstzen built self-confidence amongst municipal workers in the country, he was in the forefront of the 1993 municipal national strike over salaries and wages. He further played an important role in the formation of the South African Local Government Bargaining Council (SALGBC) which enabled workers in the sector to negotiate salaries, wages and conditions centrally.

As SAMWU, we convey our since and heartfelt condolences to the Ernstzen family, we wish them strength and comfort during this difficult time. The leadership of SAMWU will in due course visit the Ernstzen family to pay respect, tributes and thank the family, in particular his widowed wife for having have not only released him but also supported in servicing and championing the interests of municipal workers throughout the country.

May the revolutionary spirit and soul of Comrade John Ernstzen!

Issued by SAMWU Secretariat

Dumisane Magagula
General Secretary
076 580 4029


Papikie Mohale
National Media Officer
073 710 0356