A Site of Activism in Cape Town
Community House, a historic site of living heritage located in Salt River, Cape Town, is the home of the Labour Research Service (LRS) since the 80s. As a founding tenant, Community House is dear to LRS. It is a symbol of our organisation's over 30 years service to the labour movement in South Africa.
In the mid-1980s, apartheid South Africa saw heightened repression, the revival of the workers’ movement and an intense struggle for liberation.
Trade unions and civic and service organisations needed a base from which the struggle could be waged. The Western Province Council of churches (WPCC) and an NGO, the Social Change Assistance Trust (SCAT), purchased the Community House site, a dilapidated auto-workshop in Salt River in Cape Town. Salt River area marks the origins of industrial unions in the Western Cape, and it's known for its textile and light metal factories.
After two years of renovations, Community House was officially opened on 21 August 1987.
Agents of the apartheid state bombed it eight days later.
Despite this, a base of support and collective mobilisation for a diverse range of organisations was established.
Regarded as a safe haven for the activities of the liberation movement, workers could converge on Community House. They not only fought for better wages and working conditions but for equality for all, and against all repressive laws.
By 1988, every major mass-based organisation faced bannings and restrictions. In July 1989, the Mass Democratic Movement declared a countrywide defiance campaign against these bans and restrictions. In September 1989, Community House witnessed the planning and preparation of the historic ‘purple rain’ march, which saw 100,000 people through the streets of Cape Town. The defiance campaign proved a turning point, and by February 1990, political organisations were unbanned.
Post-1994, the labour movement’s role has been to actively voice and redress the racial, social and economic inequities facing South Africa, and Community House has been the site of dissonant voices that have steered the course of the new democracy.
In 2010, Community House was declared a provincial heritage site.
It is the only site in South Africa that provided and continues to provide a collective home for those involved in the broader labour movement. Since its inception, the Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU, its union affiliates and organisations servicing and supporting workers, have been the backbone of Community House.
A number of labour and community activists are commemorated in the halls and foyers within Community House. Their commemoration represents the histories of thousands of others who were detained, tortured and killed by the apartheid regime.
The meeting halls, in particular, are a vast repository of memory. Over time, they have witnessed the activities of thousands of workers on strike, in meetings and launching campaigns. Here the campaign for a non-racial Labour Relations Act was launched; the strategies of striking workers from the Vineyard Hotel were developed, as well as those of the bus drivers, railway workers, hospital workers and teachers on strike in the 1990s.
The halls have witnessed the release of political prisoners from Robben Island; they were the nerve centre of the first election campaign of the ANC in 1994, they have hosted cultural workers, training workshops and meetings and the painting of innumerable banners. These halls have hosted countless community activities such as weddings, funeral wakes, 21st birthday parties and karate classes.
Community House shaped and continues to shape the socio-political landscape of its extended communities and our country. It remains what its founders envisioned it to be, a vibrant centre for social change and community action. The building continues to house various organisations engaged in struggles for social change.
For information on booking a venue at Community House, visit www.communityhouse.org.za