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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Speech by the COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, at CWUSA Congress

8 September 2007

The Acting President, comrade Mabutho Sithole
The Acting General Secretary, comrade Oupa Lebogo
The entire Interim Leadership Structure
The Stalwarts in the industry present here today
Comrades, Compatriots and Friends gathered here today

Please accept Revolutionary Greetings from the National Office Bearers and the entire membership of COSATU.

We are gathered here today in this important month of September to witness the birth of a giant - a union that can bring together all our cultural workers, giving them a voice. And we desperately need that voice. Like any union, your first duty will be to defend your members, to improve their pay and conditions. But your second duty is to working people as a whole, to defend and take forward the culture of the South African working class.

September is an important month for workers. This month saw the Vaal Triangle uprisings on 3 September 1984, the Kinross Mine Disaster in 15 September 1986, the Jeppe Train Massacre in 13 September 1990. It is in this very same month in which comrade Thozamile Ggqwetha and Zamiwonga Kati, both of them the ANC stalwarts, died in 2006. It was in this month, on 6 September 1963, that Comrade Looksmart Solwandle Ngudle died in detention.

Comrades may we all rise to observe a moment of silence for all those who died for our liberation, for all those who left us in the creative industry, for the recent and untimely death of Gift Leremi.

When we remember these comrades who have passed away, it is an expression of appreciation for their contribution to our cause. It is a statement of commitment by us, the living, that we shall take up the spear and move forward. When we summon comrade Looksmart Ngudle and Thozamile Gqwetha from the grave we invoke the memories of our struggle which we dare not allow people to force us to forget. These are the painful memories which continue to remind us that we cannot afford to make mistakes. These are the memories we must recall, when we think about our past; we must pass on the memories, and build them into our history: we must sing about them as we march in the struggles we face today. We cannot be intimidated to abandon these memories as we see others attempting to do today.

We will continue to sing the songs that associate us with this past: both because we remember our joys and victories, but also because they remind us of the sacrifices and the pain we went through. They inspire us and motivate us to confront the difficulties of the moment. The songs of our people do not have a sell-by date.

Who says you only sing to express the present? Yes, we sing to reflect on the present, we also sing to project and generate hope for the future. We also sing to remind ourselves about the past and to draw strength from the victories of the past, so that in difficult times we can gain strength to soldier on.

When we sing Umshini Wami we express our memories of our past struggles. It gives those of us who still have a reason to struggle an inspiration to soldier on. It does not mean we will take up arms today - but it reminds us of the heroism of those who fought apartheid, and inspires us with their example.

Perhaps some others have arrived in the Promised Land. But the working class and the poor have not arrived to there yet. These songs of our struggle make a single statement that the struggle continues!

Our Jobs and Poverty Conference in June identified poverty, growing inequality and continued high unemployment as the major problems still facing workers and the poor. We still see unemployment at extraordinarily high rates. Many of those with jobs struggle to survive on one or two thousand rands a month. South Africa remains amongst the most unequal countries in the world.

In these circumstances, creative workers - like all workers-- also need to take sides. They have to give a voice to those who remain oppressed and disempowered. They have to reflect on the realities of our society and our people, not on the fantasies of the rich whether in South Africa or overseas. Culture gives workers courage, it helps us understand our situation, it helps us mobilise. We cannot make it into a plaything or a mere distraction from the realities of our people. Culture does not always have to be serious, of course, or realistic - but ultimately it has to be rooted in the realities of our people, in their daily lives, struggles and celebrations.

The creative industry is critical for our struggle and for our country. It provides a critical opportunity to build our nation and to uplift and empower our people, especially our youth. You assembled here must work to ensure that its power is never abused.

There are two threats to working-class culture.

The first threat is the unwillingness of the state to accept criticism and support independent culture. The SABC is showing clear signs of returning to its previous role as a broadcaster for the state, not the public. Increasingly our government, and the SABC, talk about controlling and limiting what the public broadcaster can or should convey to our people. Equally serious, state support for the arts provides resources for a few big formal institutions. Meanwhile, the people`s arts remain underfunded, both within community institutions such as community centres, local theatre groups, music groups, and as "local" cultural forms of expression, including creative works in most of our national languages, traditional dance and music, and oral poetry and literature. We recognise the efforts of the Department of Arts and Culture under Dr Pallo Jordan to turn this situation around, but more can and must be done. As union for cultural workers, we need to engage with government to find ways to redress these imbalances.

The second threat that confronts working class culture is the reality that most creative industries today are big business -- that our creative cultural workers find their pay and their jobs within this framework. Worldwide, the creative industries are the fifth largest industry. South Africa`s entertainment industry is valued at approximately R7,4 billion. Film and television alone are worth R5,8 billion and have a strong technical base of skills and infrastructure. More than 100 000 people are employed within music, film and television. A further 1, 2 million people earn their living through crafts and related trade sectors. Like businesses everywhere, management often decides what to produce and how to produce it, rather than the creative workers in the industry.

Take music. The core of the South African music industry employs approximately 12 000 people. The majority of these are the artists and composers who produce music. They form the creative foundations of the industry. The gross turnover of the core of the South African music industry is approximately R900 million, with industry experts estimating that the entire industry is worth R2 billion. How much of that actually ends with creative workers?

The biggest challenge though, we must point out is that the world market is dominated by six multi-national companies - BMG, EMI, Universal, Polygram, Sony and Warner - who between them accounted for 78% of global sales in value terms in 1996 and not much has changed since.

Together these five companies controlled 92% of the South African market. BMG, Polygram and Sony came back into the country before and immediately after the 1994 elections. Prior to this the South African market was controlled between EMI, Gallo Africa and Tusk Music. The entry of three of the world`s largest music multinationals has meant opportunities, but also imposed a different set of global trade challenges, including the management intellectual property rights.

When these multinationals make money, where are the real workers? The answer is that they are given peanuts to allow them to reproduce themselves - to survive and produce the music that the industry is willing to sell. How much space do these multinationals provide for our people to express themselves, to develop and portray our values and aspirations as Africans and as working people?

This industry like all others creates a fertile ground for high rates of accumulation by the owners and managers of industry, at the expense of workers. In fact it explains why most creative workers, like all other workers, remain propertyless till their death; while those who manage their creative work remain filthy rich. Even in the creative industry we still have the world of the haves and the world of the have-nots.

Comrades these are the challenges which all of us have to take head on!

The congress must, among other things, discuss this problem of the creative workers who remain permanently casual workers, without benefits. Today, our creative workers get paid for piece-work, by the song or performance or the part in a play; they have to negotiate as isolated individuals with large businesses for each job that they do. Congress must come up with strategies for how to engage the Department of Labour to find ways to make sure that you are defined as workers as per the Labour Relations and benefit from Social Security provisions.

Comrades we are tired of reading about another singer or another artist who has died a pauper. This congress must address and try to find answers as to why most of our artists die poor when the owners of the multinationals remain unbelievably rich.

Why is there lack of progress in equity and transformation of the creative industry, across all sectors? Our observation is that there are black artists playing a pivotal role in the industry. We want to see a situation where the entire industry has been transformed to a level were black artists have ownership of the value chain of the industry; and an industry where black artists, not business managers, decide what we create.

Some artists still live with the illusion that they are not workers and they can manage these challenges of the industry on their own. This congress would have failed if did not come up with strategies to reach even these most ignorant of workers in the industry.

This Congress will also not have done its work if does not discuss how government can be committed to investing in the creative sector.

We know for a fact that in Cuba, as early as 1959, several new cultural institutions were founded that would become important to the development of art and culture across Latin America: Casa de las Americas, the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industry (I.C.A.I.C.), the National Theatre, the National Ballet, the National Symphonic Orchestra, and the National Folkloric Group. The literacy campaign also raised Cuban capacity to fully engage in the arts and culture.

These developments enhanced the life of the Cuban people. But what has most characterised cultural development in Cuba is the massive participation and access to arts and culture that is available to the Cuban people. We say this knowing that our South African government is doing everything it can to draw lesson from relevant international experiences.

In our country today, we can identify two ways to challenge the power of the multinationals which dominate cultural industries. One is through the state, which can provide funding for popular culture, including the context of public works programmes and the SABC. The other is through the development of co-operative production facilities, which can provide alternative employment and production of culture. Even these co-ops will at least initially require state support. We need to be creative and courageous in developing demands and proposals in these areas.

Comrades and friends,

In building our nation and taking forward our struggle, cultural workers have a tremendous history to build on. Our struggle was always rooted in the people`s culture, from toyi-toying to singing to murals, the poster movement and community drama. Our people continue to cry out for culture that meets their needs and helps them deal with their realities. We must never underestimate the importance of cultural workers in these areas. Your union must fight for space for South African creative workers, as well as a better life.

May every word uttered in this Congress by each delegate help to build this glorious union of the creative minds in our country. May every resolution taken help to take forward the struggle for the rights of the workers in the creative sector.

We wish you all the success in your deliberations!