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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Central Exec  |  Reports

The Report of the September Commission on the

Future of the Unions

to the Congress of South African Trade Unions, August 1997



Chapter 1: The September Scenarios

Chapter 2: What kind of trade union movement do we want? A programme for social unionism

Chapter 3: Democracy and alliances: a political programme for transformation

Chapter 4: Reclaiming redistribution: our economic vision, goals and strategies

Chapter 5: Democracy for delivery: transforming the public sector

Chapter 6: From apartheid to democracy in the workplace: strategic engagement for change

Chapter 7:New workers, new members: organising new sectors and layers of workers

Chapter 8: Building a movement of women workers

Chapter 9: Transforming ourselves to transform society: building effective organisation

Chapter 10: Building the engines of COSATU: restructuring the Federation

Chapter 11: Phase Two of the September Commission

Appendix 1: Examples of industrial targeting: the plastics sector and the forestry products sector
Appendix 2: List of submissions to the September Commission on the future of the unions
Appendix 3: Research commissioned by the September Commission
Appendix 4: List of acronyms



The Commission Report is a beginning

In 1996 the Central Executive Committee of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) discussed the fact that the political transition to democracy in South Africa posed new challenges for the trade union movement, which had emerged during the struggle against apartheid. The economic challenge, too, was enormous. On the one hand, there was the imperative of national economic development to overcome the legacy of apartheid. On the other were increasing global economic pressures.

Accordingly, the CEC established the September Commission on the future of the trade unions in early 1996, with a mandate to investigate the changed political and economic conditions in South Africa and assess whether COSATUís policies and strategies were appropriate to these new conditions. The Commission was to present its report to COSATU and its affiliates for discussion as part of the congress preparations. The report would then be tabled at the congress for debate and adoption.

The CEC appointed twelve trade unionists and two ANC MPs who were former trade unionists as Commissioners, with COSATU vice-president Connie September as chairperson. The other commissioners were Abraham Agulhas, Mbhazima Shilowa, Enoch Godongwana, James Motlatsi, Nelson Ndinisa, Sipho Kubheka, Sheila Sikiti, Herbert Mkhize, Mxolisi Nkosi, Freddie Magugu, Jeremy Baskin, Philip Dexter and Susan Shabangu. Karl von Holdt was appointed senior researcher at NALEDI to co-ordinate the work of the Commission, and to commission relevant research.

The Commission came under the same pressures as COSATU during this period. Apart from the daily pressure of ongoing union work, four Commissioners left the unions during 1996 to take up positions in various branches of government. By the end of 1996, the Commission had effectively lost eight members. The National Office Bearers, recognising the importance of the commission and the need to strengthen it, appointed John Gomomo, Ronald Mofokeng and George Nkadimeng as additional members. Neil Coleman, COSATUís Internal Relations Secretary was appointed to co-ordinate the relationship of the Commissionís work to COSATUís existing policies.

The September Commission at work  -   Photo:  William Matlala
The September Commission at work - Photo: William Matlala

The work of the Commission took three forms: research commissioned from NALEDI and other research institutes; consultations with trade union activists, primarily at discussions in worker forums convened in all regions and in the form of submissions; presentations and interactions with key analysts, politicians and business-people, including a wide range of submissions (see Appendix 3); and, most important, discussion, brainstorming and analysis within the Commission itself.

The process of debate and analysis within the Commission took shape through a process of scenario-planning. The first six months of the Commissionís life focused on discussion of forces in society that are beyond COSATUís control (although COSATU could certainly influence them), and how they might develop in future. We discussed political, economic and cultural trends and uncertainties in our society. This discussion culminated in the construction of three scenarios for the future of South Africa (Chapter 1). Because the scenarios focus on the world beyond COSATU, COSATU is relatively absent from them as a social actor.

The scenarios served to provoke discussion in the Commission - and more broadly in COSATU - about the different futures that might confront COSATU, and about the possible options for strategic responses. The Commission came to the conclusion that a powerful, proactive union movement driving a programme of social and economic transformation is the optimal strategic response (Chapter 2).

We identified the three strategic priorities for building and strengthening COSATU as, firstly, developing a coherent political, economic and social vision and corresponding strategies, secondly, building organisation, and thirdly, building capacity. As we discussed and developed these ideas, they took the form of chapters 3 to 11.

Chapter 3: Political vision, goals and strategies

Chapter 4: Economic vision, goals and strategies

Chapter 5: A vision, goals and strategies for transforming the public sector

Chapter 6: A workplace vision, goals and strategies

Chapter 7: Strategies for responding to the labour market changes which characterise globalisation.

Chapter 8: Strategies for building women leadership and participation in COSATU,

Chapter 9: Strategies for building effective organisation

Chapter 10: Recommendations for the reform of COSATU structures, to ensure that it is able to implement the recommendations made in other chapters.

Chapter 11: Important issues that the Commission was unable to consider, and that we recommend should be referred to Phase Two of the September Commission.

We decided not to deal with the issue of capacity separately. The recommendations in every chapter include recommendations to build capacity; and chapters 9 & 10 are by their nature concerned with the capacity of union organisation.

The September Commission regards the report as a beginning, rather than an end, for four reasons.

Firstly, in the course of discussions with trade unionists from other countries, we discovered that other trade union centres which had undertaken similar processes of strategic planning for the future, had set aside 3-4 years. COSATU, with typical ambition, had set aside 18 months. As we worked it became clear that we had allowed ourselves too little time to conclude many of the debates and research projects that we had started. Necessarily then, the Commission would be a beginning rather than an end.

Secondly, we hope that our report stimulates serious debate about the future of labour and the future of our society. In this sense, the report signals the beginning of a debate, rather than its end.

Thirdly, we hope many of the Commissionís recommendations are implemented. However, they will have to be rigorously assessed and modified or even abandoned if necessary. In this sense the report is a beginning to a programme of implementation.

Finally, we hope that the report stimulates further research and policy development in the labour movement. As noted above, there is much that we have left undone.

The Commission consults with Comrade Mandela  -   Photo:  William Matlala
The Commission consults with Comrade Mandela - Photo: William Matlala


Many people and institutions have contributed to the work of the Commission. We would like to thank NALEDI for providing a base for co-ordinating the Commissionís work. Adam Kehane of the Centre for Innovative Leadership facilitated the scenario-planning phase of our work. His low-key but razor-sharp and witty facilitation helped us through many log-jams on the way to clarity. Arne Pape, research director at FAFO in Norway, was seconded to work with the Commission for two months. His insights were always stimulating, and were of great value in developing our analysis of COSATUís structures and proposals for reform (Chapter 10). We would like to thank him, FAFO, and LO Norway for facilitating his stay in South Africa. We also thank Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) for releasing Bethuel Maseramule to work with the Commission for three months, and Bethuel himself for his valuable participation in discussions, sharpened by his years of experience as a union regional secretary, and for his contribution to the success of Commission meetings and workshops.

We also thank the many activists, political leaders, former unionists, business people and analysts who made presentations or held discussions with the Commission: amongst others, President Nelson Mandela, Ministers Jay Naidoo and Alec Erwin, NEDLAC Director Jayendra Naidoo, SACP Deputy General Secretary Jeremy Cronin, Vincint Maphai of the HSRC, Anglo-American director Clem Sunter, David Lewis of the Labour Market Commission, Richard Hymen from Warwick University, and senior government officials and former trade unionists Les Ketteldas and Bernie Fanaroff, and a number of former trade unionists who are now MPs or MPLs.

Research was commissioned from several institutions and individuals, more than we can thank here. All research undertaken for the Commission is listed in Appendix 2. We would like particularly to thank NALEDI and SWOP for their research support, and Rob Rees, James Heinz, Roselyn Nyman and Templeton Filita at the former, and Sakhela Buhlungu and Ian Macun at the latter, for the research projects that they undertook and their ongoing interaction with the Commissionís work. Owen Crankshaw at the Centre for Policy Studies undertook major research on labour market trends for the Commission. Christian Sellers, at the time Research Officer at CWIU, produced valuable research and provided ongoing comments and ideas on industrial strategy.

Long-time union educators Chris Bonner and Bobby Marie convened a workshop on organisational development for the Commission, and contributed invaluable ideas and comments to Chapters 9 and 10. Thirty union shop stewards attended a two-day workshop on workplace strategies. Chapter 6 could not have been written without their contribution.

We would like to expressed our gratitude for the administrative support the Commission received from Nonhlanhla Tshabalala, Personal Assistant to the COSATU General Secretary, Dolly Vundla at NALEDI, Ann Delport at SACTWU, and Crystal Dicks at the COSATU Parliamentary Office. The Commission could not have functioned without them.

The Commission would like to express particular thanks to the Commission Chairperson, Cde Connie September, and Commission co-ordinator, Cde Karl von Holdt, for their commitment and the long hours they put in to ensure the Commissionís success. Finally, we thank FNV Holland and LO Norway for the financial support that made the Commission possible, FES for financing the shop steward seminar and Umanyano Media Services and Louise Oppenheim for editing the Commission Report under difficult conditions and shifting deadlines.

Maud Khumalo,CWIU shop steward, puts forward her views at a seminar for shop stewards convened  -   Photo:  William Matlala
Maud Khumalo,CWIU shop steward, puts forward her views at a seminar for shop stewards convened - Photo: William Matlala


Connie September (chairperson)

Mbhazima Shilowa

Herbert Mkhize

Freddie Magugu

Philip Dexter

Susan Shabangu

John Gomomo

Ronald Mofokeng



Karl von Holdt

Neil Coleman