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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

COSATU`s 20th Anniversary "20 years of heroic struggle for a better life for all"

27 November 2005

By Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions

1 December 2005 is COSATU’s 20th birthday. We approach this historic anniversary inspired by our history of struggle to overcome the many challenges which have faced the working class and the liberation movement over those years. We were always guided by a vision of a union movement committed not only to defending its members but to social transformation, in South Africa and internationally.

We will use the 20th anniversary to reassert our unwavering commitment to our socialist principles. As we face our next 20 years, we are confident and united, armed with Consolidating Working Class Power for Quality Jobs – Towards 2015, the document adopted by COSATU’s 8th national congress to carry us forward to our 30th Anniversary in 2015.

At the height of the struggle against apartheid, a new giant arose to represent the interests of workers. That giant was COSATU. Its birth signalled both the confidence of the working class in its struggle against employers and the apartheid state, and the coming of age of the post-1973 labour movement.

Our movement broke with the reformist agenda of the unions then in existence and reconnected with the militant, progressive labour history that was embodied in the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU).
At its foundation, COSATU faced three interrelated challenges that marked its distinct form of trade unionism. They were, first, building a strong and militant union movement that would be a home to all workers; second, representing workers’ interests against the employers; and third, challenging the might of the apartheid state. From the start, COSATU blended political and workplace struggles to unify workers and build a strong and vibrant movement.

Although the context has changed, since the transition to democracy COSATU continues to play a central role in shaping the political, economic and political landscape as well as advancing the interest of workers in the workplace.
The first ten years of COSATU, from 1985 to 1995, was a period of consolidation and the fight for recognition by both employers and the state. It was also shaped by hectic political activism, in which COSATU’s vital role attracted repression and violence from the apartheid state.
In the world of work, COSATU fought for recognition from employers and led spectacular battles to advance the interests of the working class. COSATU’s Living Wage Campaign took forward workers’ yearning for better pay and working conditions. COSATU also challenged apartheid labour laws and successfully blocked the imposition of the apartheid Labour Relations Act in 1989.

COSATU played a central role in the mass democratic movement that took on the apartheid government in the 1980s. Activists and shop stewards from the labour movement led community struggles. They were active in almost all formations of the democratic movement. When scores of activists from the democratic movement were detained or forced underground by the state of emergency, COSATU remained as the main force still able to carry high the liberation flag.

COSATU challenged the economic agenda of the apartheid state through the anti-privatisation, fuel-price and anti-VAT campaigns. The apartheid state grudgingly came to the table to discuss these matters, leading to the formation of the National Economic Forum, the predecessor of NEDLAC. This concession was historic, as it forced the apartheid government to negotiate economic policy. It stopped attempts fundamentally to restructure the economy on the eve of the democratic breakthrough.

The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), the Alliance programme of action from 1994, started in vigorous debates within COSATU. The RDP was adopted by the ANC as its electoral platform in 1994. Subsequently the state moved away from key elements of this progressive vision, notably through GEAR. Still, the RDP continues to provide a core vision for the Alliance.

In the past ten years, with the transition to democracy, COSATU had to adjust to a qualitatively new political climate. This period was fraught with political and organisational challenges.

COSATU faced the dual reality of a democratic government combined with largely unchanged socio-economic relations. Local and international capital used its power to lobby for conservative economic policies, with overt and covert threats against the ANC government. COSATU had to combat the agenda of capital and manage the intricate politics of supporting an ally in government, while simultaneously challenging deviations from progressive policies.

The fact that the state employs many COSATU members further complicated the situation. Particularly in the late 1990s, COSATU public sector unions were pitted against the democratic state’s policy of holding down wages as part of its conservative fiscal policy.

The history of the 1990s will go down as one in which COSATU challenged the ANC’s government macroeconomic policy and privatisation and increasingly represented public-sector workers. Ultimately this set of challenges led to acrimonious debates between the ANC and COSATU, and almost plunged the Alliance into annihilation.

By the mid-2000s, the democratic movement and the Alliance had found new ways to live with the conflict. On the one hand, the state began to admit the need for stronger intervention to ensure equality and employment creation. On the other, the Alliance became more willing to tolerate disagreements. Still, maintaining the unity of the democratic movement in the face of growing class differentiation remained a central challenge.

Organisationally, the last ten years showed first extraordinary growth and then stagnation and even decline. Between the Eighth National Congress and July 2005, membership in the Federation dropped by 2, 7% or almost 50 000 members. The biggest declines were in NEHAWU, which lost 50 000 members or almost one in four, and in NUM, which lost almost 40 000 members. CEPPWAWU lost 8000 members. While NUM and CEPPWAWU suffered at least in part from job losses, the decline in NEHAWU needs more analysis, since it probably reflects the recent divisions.

Trade union density in South Africa is high – close to 40% - a remarkable achievement compared to other developed and developing countries. Still, some of our unions, particularly in the private sector, are battling to represent over 50% of the workers in their sectors. Even in the formal sector, some industries are barely organised, notably agriculture, domestic work, retail and security services.

Casual workers are also not fully organised by the labour movement. The 2003 SACCAWU Shoprite trike was historic for championing the interests of this section of the working class. NUM and NUMSA also concluded deals to protect these workers.

The labour movement remains fragmented with over three federations scrambling for members. Unions are also competing with bogus organisation that seeks to represent workers. Some lawyers and unscrupulous individuals masquerade as trade unions.

The recruitment campaign should contribute towards the goal of organising two million members to achieve the goal of four million members by 2015. Unity talks with independent unions as well as the Federations are also essential and in practice workers are beginning to act together. COSATU, NACTU and COSATU act together at NEDLAC. NACTU and FEDUSA unity talks are a positive development, though so far they have chosen to exclude COSATU.

In racial terms, COSATU still represents the black and predominantly African working class. Increasingly, however, white workers are also joining COSATU unions. Many still prefer FEDUSA aligned unions or more recently Solidarity. We need a better understanding of the changing role of white workers in the labour movement. Presumably they are forced by the loss of protection from the apartheid state, which exposes them to the brutality of capitalism from which they have been shielded for decades.

COSATU is still a male-dominated organisation, despite sizeable portion of women members. Given the size of its women membership, COSATU has the potential to form the bulwark of a mass women’s movement. It is an ongoing challenge to translate the mass participation of women into an organic force that can pursue women’s demands in the workplace and in society.

Visibility and representation of women members in the senior leadership structure has improved somewhat. However, we are far from achieving gender parity, and the advances we have recorded are always under threat. We did not ensure adherence to the quota system adopted by Eight National Congress. Because there are relatively few women in leadership or the shop steward movement, when one leaves they are often hard to replace.

Moreover, COSATU must still mount significant battles to take forward the aspirations of women workers. Because women’s issues are subordinated to the broader strategic goals rather than addressed specifically, the movement is failing to take up gender struggles in earnest.

COSATU’s key strength is its ability to be far-sighted and from time to time reflect on the challenges it faces. The September Commission Report was the first comprehensive analysis of the challenges facing COSATU after 1994 and how to confront them. It laid out a bold and ambitious programme for political, social and economic policy reforms, as well as a programme for improving and reforming the organisation. The establishment of the Central Committee is directly linked to the recommendations for the September Commission Report in 1997. The establishment of the Organisational Review Commission in 2000 resulted in an ambitious programme for Organisational Development and laid the foundation for the mid-term vision contained in the 2015 Plan.

In short, despite the many challenges we face today, COSATU remains a dynamic and vibrant trade union movement that can boast many achievements through its 20 years. Some observers thought that COSATU would not survive the loss of experienced activists through the 1990s. After all, many other formations of civil society have gone under. In contrast, COSATU is stronger now than at its founding. Its resilience testifies to the depth of leadership developed over the past two decades and before. It is ordinary members and thousands of shop stewards that keep the Federation intact.

COSATU is the biggest organisation in civil society after the faith-based organisations. It boast a coherent and vibrant internal organisation and has adapted relatively well to the new dispensation with very limited casualties. It faces many challenges yet it is willing to confront them honestly, with the sometimes brutally open debates for which it remains famous.

We raise our red flags in salute of countless leaders and members who made an immense contribution to the strengthening of COSATU. We salute Elijah Barayi, Chris Dlamini, Jay Naidoo and all NOBs elected at the founding Congress for laying the foundation that ensured we travel the first twenty years.

As part of these celebrations, we have and we will salute the tremendous role played by our predecessors in SACTU, including its leaders John Nkadimeng, Steven Dlamini, Moses Kotane, JB Marks, Steven Dlamini, Ray Alexander Simons, Vuyisile Mini, Oscar Mpetha Rita Ndzanga, Gana Makhabeni and countless others. We also hope our provinces will recognise many others as part of our 20th Anniversary commemorations.