Workplace Rights to Constitutional Rights in South Africa

The ILO has facilitated a roundtable discussion to review the struggle against apartheid leading to the process of democratization and change in South Africa. Looking at the role the Organisation played throughout this period which eventually brought unions and employers together in challenging the apartheid state.

    The Roundtable discussed the labour movement in South Africa and its influence in the anti-apar thied struggle that played a major part in the history of the country.  Participants coming from workers unions that were active during the struggle as well as from Employers organisations shared their recollections, which also included ILO's contribution in the liberation sturggle. 

    The Roundtable higlighted 
  • the role of trade unions, employers’ organizations, government institutions, the civil society and the international community – in particular the ILO – in securing this change in South Africa. 
  • the years when the government of South Africa had been compelled to leave the ILO, which continued to take specific action against apartheid.
  • the last decade of apartheid when strengthened internal action combined with external pressure to produce change, led to the adoption of a democratic Constitution and democratic elections.
  • Labour law reform and social dialogue, including the setting up of NEDLAC, and ILO technical assistance programmes to support this process following the change in 1994.     


    • The ILO has embarked on a history project to properly document the institution’s role in contributing towards social, political and economic development since its inception in 1919. In Africa, the project kicks off in South Africa with a roundtable discussion (actors, experts and historians) which seeks to highlight the ILO’s involvement with the various trade union formations and employers’ organizations during apartheid and the role it played throughout this period which eventually brought unions and employers together in challenging the apartheid state.
    • South Africa was a founding member in 1919.
    • The ILO’s formed part of a joint initiative between it and the United Nations but as time went on, the ILO moved away from the joint initiative and developed its own, distinct approach to apartheid taken advantage of its unique tripartite constituency.
    • The ILO opposed apartheid in various ways ranging from the positions taken by governing body on the discriminatory system and practical assistance to apartheid opponents. The ILO provided technical support to the liberation movements and the unions in exile.
    • In June 1963, the ILO Governing Body excluded South Africa from some of its trade committees. The next year, at its 48th session, the International Labour Conference unanimously approved the ILO’s Declaration concerning the Policy of Apartheid and its programme for the elimination of apartheid in the field of labour.
    • To avoid being officially excluded, South Africa withdrew from ILO in March 1964. The ILO was one of the first organisations to impose sanctions on South Africa, and the country remained outside for the next 30 years.
    • As political negotiations began to unfold, the ILO in 1990 invited Nelson Mandela to speak at the 77th session of the ILO’s national conference, where he paid tribute to ILO for its struggle against apartheid.
    After the 1994 elections, South Africa resumed its membership in the ILO. Regarding technical assistance, the ILO also approved, for example, a special allocation of US$1,000,000 for technical cooperation assistance to the country.
    • Once South Africa re-joined the ILO, the Organisation aimed to provide technical assistance especially around the drafting of new labour legislation and the creation of the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC).