“To build a just and fair society”: Fosatu and the vision of a new South Africa, ca.1970s-1980s

02 November 2022

popularised the utopia of building a rainbow nation. The idea was to bring together all people of South Africa, in all their diversity, to work towards a new, common, non-racial and equal society. Indeed, the vision of these two struggle heroes was codified and became a core value of South Africa’s 1996 Constitution. Using the case of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu) active in the period 1979-1985, this article demonstrates that the notion of the rainbow nation has a long history predating the Tutu and Mandela moments. Among other objectives, Fosatu sought to create a just, fair, non-racial and apolitical society, albeit led by workers. This article, therefore, argues that rather than seeing Fosatu as an orthodox trade union underpinned by a “workerist” tradition and “economism” as is advanced in the existing literature, it can also be seen as an antecedent and advocate of a free society, creating and expanding the “public sphere” and realm of freedom and democracy in South Africa during apartheid. In emphasising worker control or giving power to members of a union, Fosatu sowed the seeds of participatory democracy that came to characterise South Africa, epitomised by a post-1994 parliamentary democracy. In this way, Fosatu foreshadowed the aspirations of the new, just and fair South Africa envisioned by Tutu and Mandela. Broadly speaking, the story of Fosatu’s aspirations and struggles has a wider and comparative significance in understanding the makings and role of civil society in the democratic struggle from a global south perspective. This article relies on narratives, correspondence and debates extracted from Fosatu papers and archives.