COSATU: Meaning, Affiliates, Policies, President, Membership & History

Unions, whatever the hue, have not always been with man. They were an invention to protect the interest of those willing to come under the umbrella. Unionism became especially important because employers usually look out for their interests and not those of their workers.

Thus popped the idea of unionism that has followed humanity to this day.


South Africa is one of the countries where unionism thing has long taken root, and the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU) stands out as one of the key unions of note in the country.

On December 1, 1985, amid a shower of rain, some unionists and anti-apartheid activists converged to forge a vehicle of common interest. COSATU was born by the time they dispersed. More on the organization follows in this article. So, tag along.

COSATU History

COSATU has got an interesting history that many, especially those deeply rooted in the anti-apartheid struggle, still look back at with a smile. The month was December, and the year was 1985. South African blacks had limited rights in their own country.

APartheid was at one of its worst, with Pieter Willem Both as president. Several activists and trade union groups linked up to better fight for better welfare as well as champion a nation they would be happy in and proud of. Since then, the group has continued to evolve.

COSATU Meaning

COSATU is the abbreviation for the Congress of South African Trade Unions. By that tag, it stands as the umbrella body for several unions in different industries.

COSATU Affiliates

As a labour collective, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is affiliated with several other similarly inclined unions, and they include

the Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA), the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU), the Azanian Congress of Trade Unions (AZACTU) and the SA Allied Workers’ Union (SAAWU).

In all, COSATU is affiliated with over 20 other unions.

COSATU Policies

since its inception in 1985, COSATU has had several policies, some of which favoured not only diversity in the workplace but also ensured that women are protected from sexual harassment in the workplace.

For instance, at its inaugural congress in 1985, it had made its commitment to fight sexual harassment in whatever form it might present. As a result, it was the initiator and one of the drafters of the NEDLAC Code, which soon became law.

COSATU President

Zingiswa Losi is the newly elected president of COSATU and the first woman in that position since the body was formed almost four decades ago.

She grew up in a family of activists, so it isn’t surprising that she should also take the activist path. By her own account, she became politically conscious at age ten when her two brothers went into exile. Much later, she herself would end up in exile, thanks to apartheid.

A trained soldier, she once served in the  South African Defence Force (SANDF).

COSATU Membership

COSATU membership is open to all workers and trade unionists. They just have to be registered members of the body or its affiliates.

Membership empowers them with several perks, including better working conditions, and the body stops at nothing in the battle to ensure that employers what they deserve.

Popular Questions

  • What is the function of COSATU?

As a trade union, COSATU has several functions, including improving the working conditions of workers, encouraging unionism and supporting its affiliates.

  • Which unions are under COSATU?

COSATU is an umbrella body of trade unions. The unions that fall under the COSATU umbrella include the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU), the Police Prisons and Civil Rights Union (POPCRU) and the Chemical Energy Print Paper and Allied Workers Union (CEPPWAWU)

  • What are the three largest trade unions in South Africa?

COSATU, with a membership of over 2.1 million people, is the single largest trade union in South Africa. Other equally large trade unions are the Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA)  and the National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU).

  • How much does it cost to join COSATU?

  • Who does COSATU represent?

COSATU represents the workers and trade unionists in the unions under its umbrella.

  • Who started COSATU?

No single person started COSATU. Instead, it was a meeting of several labour interests.

  • What did COSATU do during apartheid?

Most of the crop of older politicians in South Africa was actually part of the COSATU and its affiliate unions, including President Cyril Ramaphosa. He was general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) when Peter Botha held sway as president.

During apartheid, COSATU was actively positioned and involved in organizing protests against the racist government. As a result, it kept the momentum of the struggle against the apartheid state. Not surprisingly, most COSATU members also belonged to the ANC.

  • When did COSATU start?

COSATU started exactly 37 years ago, on December 1, 1987. It had been a powerful political force since then, when a great influence in government, especially in the government of the currently ruling African National Congress.

  • How was COSATU formed?

COSATU was formed to bring together many of the unions that were formed following the storm of strikes that swept through the then-apartheid enclave of South Africa.

Formed in 1985, COSATU is a federation of unions that no government has been able to ignore in almost four decades of its existence.

  • Who is the president of COSATU?

The current president of COSATU is Zingiswa Losi. A politician and member of the ruling African National Congress, she’s the first female president of the union — a personal milestone.

  • Is COSATU a political party?

COSATU is not a political party. The best description for it is a pressure group, and that’s because it’s a collective of people who might clamour for changes in government and policies for the benefit of its members and the society as a whole.

  • How do I join the COSATU union?

The section on Labour relations in the South African constitution states that every worker has a right to join a trade union.

The implication here is that anyone can join a trade union. In the case of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, perhaps intending members need only register with the body.

Interestingly, although COSATU has a website, there is no section showing where intending members might register or log their details for membership.

  • Why do workers join trade unions?

Workers join trade unions to protect their collective interests. On their own, as individuals, they cannot do that effectively. So they band together, which gives them the power to negotiate anything as a group, from better working conditions to pay raises.

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