by Michelle Friedman, Historical Papers Labour Archive Project, 2011
On the weekend of 14 and 15 April 1979, the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) was formed. It was an exhilarating event, full of hope and anticipation, and I well remember the exultant and inspiring singing of liberation songs which surged through the assembled shop steward representatives on those two remarkable days.
FOSATU soon began living up to the expectations that surrounded its birth. It became the first genuinely national non-racial federation of trade unions to have been formed in South Africa. Those that preceded it generally were coalitions of regional groups which retained distinct regional identities. FOSATU, by contrast, succeeded in synthesising and distilling the various regional working class traditions into a common consciousness and practice. This was a first.
FOSATU accomplished that goal partly by fostering a national leadership of organic intellectuals. This was one of its prime achievements and many such leaders moved into influential positions in government and society after 1994.
This in turn was achieved by the regular interaction and tight integration of local, provincial and national levels of the organisation, and by the education programme that FOSATU mounted for various levels of its leadership at different times of the year. One of the conspicuous characteristics of that leadership and of the organisation generally was a capacity to reflect, and in particular to recognise and learn from its mistakes. This was one of its hallmarks which allowed it to strategise exceptionally effectively within FOSATU and later within its successor COSATU.
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