Trade union banners on a march to Trafalgar Square
Trade union banners on a march to Trafalgar Square calling for a freeze on investment on 6 March 1977. Copyright © Andrew Wiard/Report

British trade union support underpinned the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the 1980s. By 1990, 43 national trade unions, including every major union, were affiliated to the AAM. The AAM worked at every level of the  movement. It lobbied union leaders and held conferences and workshops for rank and file trade unionists.


In the early years it worked with sympathetic unions like the draughtsmen’s association DATA to promote resolutions at the annual Trades Union Congress calling for sanctions and support for the liberation movements. The TUC was slow to respond and for many years its policy was influenced by the white-dominated South African union federation TUCSA (Trade Union Council of South Africa).

In 1981 the TUC changed its policy and called for UN sanctions to force South Africa to withdraw from Namibia. From the mid-1980s, it played a leading role in campaigns for the isolation of South Africa and the release of Nelson Mandela.


With the growth of independent trade unions in South Africa in the 1970s, British unions supported their sister unions in their demands for recognition. They worked with the AAM to put pressure on British companies that exploited black South African workers. They provided training and finance for South African unions.

The AAM worked closely with SACTU (South African Congress of Trade Unions). After the formation of COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) in 1985, it hosted visits to Britain by COSATU leaders.


British trade unions campaigned for the release of imprisoned union members in South Africa and Namibia. In the late 1980s, they joined with Southern Africa the Imprisoned Society (SATIS) to set up the Joint Campaign against the Repression of Trade Unionists.

Many trade unionists took action at local level. They included NHS workers in Portsmouth who refused to handle South African medical supplies, Ford workers who stopped the import of pick-up trucks and journalists at the International Publishing Corporation who persuaded management to reject South African government advertisements.


Trade unions continued their support for peace and development in Southern Africa after the 1994 South African election by working with the AAM’s successor organisation Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA) and through bilateral links with unions in Southern Africa.

British trade unionists supported a worldwide Week of Trade Union ActionBritish trade unionists supported a worldwide Week of Trade Union Action against Apartheid in January 1977. Copyright © Andrew Wiard/Report