The union, formerly known as the South African Electrical Workers Association (SAEWA), was founded in Cape Town in 1929 as a branch of the Electrical Workers Association of the United Kingdom. By 1937, the union was registered as a trade union. By this time, SAEWA had established more branches in Johannesburg, Durban and the goldfields of the Highveld.
During the next decade or so, SAEWA gained recognition as a representative trade union for electrical workers across most economic sectors and obtained official recognition with the Chamber of Mines. During the post-war years of the 1940s and early 1950s, SAEWA was a founding member of a few industrial councils that exist to this day, such as the Industrial Council for the Metal Engineering Industry (MEIBC) and the Industrial Council for the Electrical Contracting Industry (NBCEI).
During the 1950s, when the Nationalist Party regime replaced the Conciliations Act of 1924 with the Labour Relations Act of 1956, the face of labour relations in South Africa changed. This ushered in a period which severely limited and undermined the rights of workers in general, but particularly Black (African) workers, as only White, Coloured and Indian workers were allowed to form and participate in trade unions, albeit with limited rights.
The situation persisted until 1979, when the then State President, PW Botha, commissioned Professor Nico Wiehahn to investigate labour relations in South Africa and to make a recommendation to Parliament. The Commission, known as the Wiehahn Commission, recommended that all workers, including Black (African) workers, should be allowed to form and participate in trade unions. The recommendation was accepted by the National Party regime and caused for a huge leap forward towards a democratic South Africa, as it paved the way for the formation of COSATU which, in consequence, established a structured network of branches and an organisational hierarchy that was easily exploited by the political liberation movements, ultimately resulting in the first democratically elected government in 1994.
Since 1994, with the promulgation of the Labour Relations Act, Act 66 of 1995, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, Act 75 of 1997, the Employment Equity Act, Act 55 of 1998 and the Skills Development Act, Act 97 of 1998, the face of labour relations changed once again. Although these new laws ushered in an era of general freedom in the workplace, they did not really consider the rights of minority interest groups, such as recognition for unions that represented specific occupations, trades or professions. These fundamental changes in the nature of industrial relations caused much turmoil amongst organised labour, and many of the old “traditional” unions have had to close down because of their organisational inability to embrace a new union culture, ethos and ethic. SAEWA was one of only a few, if not the only trade union, that recognised the changing role of trade unions, and we embraced the new era with a new philosophy – a philosophy that dictates that a trade union should become an organisation that provides professional services to a broad spectrum of diverse members.
The Future of Labour Relations in South Africa
Over the past three years, we have seen the rise of a few radical and militant trade unions, such as AMCU in the Platinum belt of North-West province. These unions are populistic in nature and simply make the “noises” and brand the “slogans” that stir up emotions amongst the exploited and desperate working class. In reality, these unions are simply peddlers of “slogans” and they have very little real depth of policy to change the life of the working class for the better. AMCU has, for five years, promoted their slogan of “A minimum wage of R12,500 per month for Mine Workers”. However, after five years of branding this slogan, after countless violent strikes, after millions of Rands lost in wages and production, and after the tragic killing of 34 workers, this goal has still not been reached! At some point, the workers will realise that they are not only exploited by financial capitalists, but also by the union leaders claiming to be their liberators.
We have also seen the fragmentation of the once mighty COSATU after a breakaway faction led by NUMSA decided to form its own new “Federation”. All of this is, of course, simply political play with individuals seeking positions of political power and importance, along with the financial or perceived financial prosperity linked to such positions. The factions that broke away from COSATU therefore do not really serve the interests of the working class in general, nor even the interests of their membership in particular. It simply seeks to serve the interests of their political bosses who rely on the support of the membership masses to achieve their goals of reaching political office.
Finally, we have seen the formation of at least one, but probably more than one, trade union “sponsored” by Government and/or business. These “artificial” trade unions were started with the sole purpose of reducing the power of two specific populist trade unions, namely AMCU and NUMSA. Of course, it is unlikely that any of these trade unions will succeed in the long term, but have rather served their purpose to disrupt the organisational activities of legitimate trade unions in the short term which, in turn, will demotivate workers to become unionised, leaving them exposed and exploited in the long term whilst causing irreparable harm to the organisational structures and potential achievements of legitimate trade unions.
It is our view that, in future, trade unions must become professional service orientated organisations with the sole purpose of serving the needs of its membership, while remaining liberated of political influences and independent from business. Successful trade unions must be moderate in their views and policies in respect of politics, economics, social responsibility and human rights. To serve its members best, a trade union must be politically independent and non-prescriptive to its membership, support Sustainable-Capitalism, play an active role in our communities by supporting social programmes and, above all, have an unyielding belief in human freedom and dignity.
View the SAEWA Constitution 2017