History of Labour Struggles & Organization in South Africa

On 1 May 2011 South Africa will enjoy Worker's Day (effectively a May Day holiday). Worker's Day celebrates the role played by Trade Unions, the Communist Party and other labour movements.

The history of working people, and particularly Black workers, to organise is inextricably tied to the struggle against racism and national liberation. The roots of Trade Unionism and Socialism can be traced back to the vast influx of majority White workers who came to Southern Africa from across the globe in the search of fortunes and work in the wake of the discovery of diamonds and later gold.

The story of labour is also the story of forced labour. A vast number of people were forced through intimidation, taxes, colonial and capitalist expansion to become wage labourers in White owned mines, industries and agriculture. It is also the story of the descendents of slaves, indentured labourers from Asia and the poor and prosecuted minorities of Europe, arriving in Southern Africa and joining Black working people in the fight for the right to a decent wage, equality, fraternity and freedom.

This feature on labour will be regularly updated alongside features on Land, Migrant Indenture, Slavery and the Liberation Struggle. Labour struggles still continue today with the organised working class and the poor continuing to struggle to overcome the massive inequalities, unemployment and the economic, political and social legacies of apartheid.

Early History 1500-1800
Resources and Features

Colonization and Slavery in South Africa SAHO feature

Colonialism/slavery/labour, Turning Points (Book 2) A textbook series commissioned by the Department of Education, produced by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and STE Publishers, and simultaneously published on the SA History Online website.

Land Dispossession History: Conquest 1600-1800s SAHO feature and exhibition

Convict Stations & labour in the Cape Colony 1800s
SAHO feature

Indian Indentured Labour in Natal 1860-1911
SAHO feature

Labour and the Mineral Revolution 1886-1940s
Resources and Features

There are different ways to tell every story, and the same is true of history. For instance the story of the gold mining industry has often been told as the story of 'progress' - modernisation , technological achievements, an expanding economy: It is most often related to as the story of the 'Randlords', men like Cecil John Rhodes and Barney Barnato. Told that way, the story shows how they were able to gain fabulous wealth - and, at the same time, shape the future of a country.
The same story can be told a different way, as in this. We tell it as the struggle for survival of those whose hands made the wealth, the workers who came to Egoli. Some of these workers were white, and this is their story, too. The great majority were black. When gold production began, their lives were drawn into a system. The system developed until it affected every part of their lives, from the cradle to the grave.
Extract taken from the introduction to Luli Callinicos' book 'Place in the city'

Migration, Land and Minerals in the Making of South Africa 1800s, Turning Points (Book 3)  
A textbook series commissioned by the Department of Education, produced by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and STE Publishers, and simultaneously published on the SA History Online website

Industrialization, Rural Change and Nationalism 1900s, Turning Points (Book 4)
A textbook series commissioned by the Department of Education, produced by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and STE Publishers, and simultaneously published on the SA History Online website

A history of Mining and Labour on the Witwatersrand
SAHO feature

Working Life - Factories, Townships and Popular Culture: 1886 – 1940
SAHO Feature adapted from the book by Luli Callinicos

Gold and Workers, 1886 – 1924
SAHO Feature adapted from the book by Luli Callinicos

All That Glitters by Emilia Potenza
Classroom Style Feature written for SAHO

Chinese Miners on the Rand
SAHO History through Pictures Feature

Land Dispossession
SAHO Feature, sections on ‘The Roots of Segregation 1860-1910’ and ‘Control 1910-1948’

Wilfrid H. Harrison - Memoirs of a Socialist in South Africa 1903 – 1947
SAHO Online Book, especially note chapters on Labour Party and Socialism

Labour Struggles in South Africa: The Forgotten Pages - A book by Evangelos A. Mantzaris
SAHO Online book about forgotten pages of South Africa's rich worker history from 1903 to 1921. It includes socio-historical analysis of the Cape Town ‘answer” to the Bolshevik Party (the Industrial Socialist League). Jewish Trade unionism in the Mother City at the turn of the 20th century and Uncovers the struggles and tribulations of various sections of the working class against exploitation and poverty.

Rand Rebellion of 1922
SAHO feature

African miner workers strike 1946
SAHO feature

Labour during Apartheid 1948 - 1990s
Resources and Features

A delegation of women from the Food and Allied Workers Union participate in the Congress of South African Trade Unions cultural day, Johannesburg. July 1987 © Jeeva Rajgopaul. 1987

‘Land, Labour and Apartheid’
SAHO Liberation Struggle Feature

A Place in the City (The Rand), 1940s
SAHO Feature adapted from the book by Luli Callinicos

The History of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU)
SAHO feature, includes the online book ORGANISE... or STARVE!  

'Wanted, A Living Wage', Durban Strikes of 1973
SAHO feature