The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) will hold its 11th National Congress in Midrand, Gauteng on 17 – 20 September 2012.

National Congress is convened every three years and comprises of the federation’s six national officer-bearers and delegates from each of the 19 affiliated unions. Each affiliate is entitled to one (1) delegate for every 750 members. This means the bigger the union’s membership, the bigger its delegation to congress.

National Congress is charged with receiving the opening and closing addresses from Cosatu’s president (Sdumo Dlamini), the secretariat’s report from its general secretary (Zwelinzima Vavi at present) and the financial report from the federation’s treasurer.

The secretariat’s report details Cosatu’s activities since its last congress (and previous gatherings); it also makes recommendations going forward. Delegates at the event can comment and debate on the report.

National Congress also has the power to amend the federation’s constitution and elect the six national office-bearers.

Cosatu was established in 1985 following unity talks, which began in 1981, between unions and federations opposed to apartheid. Less than half a million workers, organised in 33 unions, were represented at the launch.

The launch of Cosatu took place at the height of uprising against apartheid. Following intense debate on the relationship between the fight against apartheid and the struggle of socialism (an economic system that is based on state ownership of capital), the Vaal Triangle uprising in 1984 took place. This represented the first sustained entry of the unionised working class in the direct political struggle against apartheid. At that time, South Africa’s largest federation, Fosatu (Federation of South African Trade Unions, was said to be influenced by political ideologies, which were suspicious of the dominance of nationalism (the ideology that nations should act independently, and not collectively, to attain their goals) within trade union movement.

The upsurge in factories and townships, as well as the strong influence of Fosatu, ensured that the policies endorsed by the first conference of Cosatu were oriented to meeting the needs of the black working class.

Cosatu played a leading role in the struggle against apartheid, organising various effective wage strikes. They also organised general strikes and mobilised support in factories and towns across the country.

At its inception, in December 1985, the federation was composed based on these principles:

Non-registration

Shop floor bargaining

Binding federation policy on affiliates

Worker control

Non-racialism

Participation in community issues and rejection of reactionary bodies, both nationally and internationally.

In addition, Cosatu functions of the principles of paid-up memberships (as the body strives to be self-sufficient), one industry, one union (uniting workers across all sectors) and international worker solidarity.

Elijah Barayi was the organisation’s first president (and served until 1991). Jay Naidoo was the first general-secretary. Mbhazima Shilowa was elected general-secretary in 1997. Zwelinzima Vavi was Shilowa’s deputy. Other key leaders included Jay Naidoo and Cyril Ramaphosa.

Cosatu played a leading role in the struggle against apartheid, organising various effective wage strikes. They also organised general strikes and mobilised support in factories and towns across the country.

The most authoritative account of its early years is a book called Striking Back, written by a former Cosatu leader Jeremy Baskin. In the book Baskin covered the period from 1985 until the release of former president Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990.

Cosatu currently has 2.2 million members in 19 unions (2 191 016); about 1.8 million of these members are fully paid-up.

Zwelinzima Vavi is Cosatu general-secretary and Sdumo Dlamini president.

– By Ronesh Dhawraj, SABC News research