On the last day of its founding congress held in Boksburg in Ekurhuleni, east of Johannesburg, delegates accused the African National Congress-led government of working with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) to intimidate unions not affiliated to Cosatu.
National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) deputy general secretary Karl Cloete accused the Free Market Foundation (FMF) of trying to "suppress" organised unions and urged the federation to take the FMF to the Constitutional Court.
Newly elected Saftu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said the efforts by some unions to frustrate Saftu's affiliates' rights to organise and exist should be resisted.
Government, even at state-owned enterprises, was doing everything it could, "assisted by the sweetheart unions", to undermine freedom of association, he said.
"Sapu [SA Police Union] spoke about the attempt even at public service level to always impose the hegemony of Cosatu onto all the workers. Cosatu unions are now the preferred champions of the status quo; they seek to protect the current status quo of low wages, [the] increasing gap between the highest and lowest paid workers, housing allowance, and outsourcing of workers.
"We declare Cosatu together with the ANC government as the enemy of all the democratic forces... the enemy of all the independent unions," Vavi told delegates. He said it was time to "out-organise corrupt unions".
"Demawusa, [Democratic Municipal and Allied Workers' Union of South Africa], victims of intolerance, were shown the door by Samwu [Cosatu affiliate the South African Municipal Workers' Union] for pointing out corruption within Cosatu as well as Matusa [Municipal and Allied Trade Union of South Africa]. This congress must salute these unions that were kicked out [of Cosatu] for calling for clean governance. We wish them very well in their endeavour to out-organise those corrupt unions who are sweethearts of management," he said.
Most of the unions at the conference were breakaway formations from Cosatu unions formed after dissatisfaction with the country's biggest trade union federation.
Demawusa and Matusa are breakaway unions from Samwu, while the National Transport Movement (NTM) broke away from the South African Transport and Allied Workers' Union (Satawu), among others.
Earlier, Vavi, a former Cosatu general secretary who was expelled from the federation, was nominated unopposed as Saftu general secretary.
The other top nominations, also unopposed, were Mack Chabalala for president, Nomvume Ralalala as first deputy president, Thabo Matose as second deputy president, and Motswari Letshogo as treasurer.
Vavi and Numsa were at the forefront of the formation of Saftu, first mooted in 2015 by a group of trade unions who advocated for a “non-politically aligned and worker controlled” federation following the expulsion of Vavi and Numsa from Cosatu.
Numsa was Cosatu’s largest union with over 400,000 members.
The Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Fawu) subsequently also left Cosatu in support of the expelled Vavi and Numsa in 2016 and is now a Saftu affiliate. The union had been at odds with Cosatu since the expulsions, accusing the federation leaders led by Sidumo Dlamini of being biased against Numsa and Vavi.
Saftu is now the country’s fourth union federation after Cosatu, the Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa), and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu).
Cosatu is still the biggest of the federations.