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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Address by Zwelinzima Vavi - Durban Exhibition Center

1 December 2005

Zwelinzima Vavi salutes 20 years of workers struggles led by COSATU

Comrades and friends

We build factories, railroads, museums, glass buildings and other forms of infrastructure but we are too poor to utilise them. We build cars that we can’t afford. We build mansions only to leave the areas where these are created to reside in our residential areas where poverty, unemployment, AIDS and crime maim our families. We prepare their food in restaurants and their homes, and indeed it smell well, but if we taste it too much we are punished for theft. We make their suits but we can’t afford to buy th2€€em for ourselves. We make their furniture but we cannot afford it too. We nurse and teach their kids but our own must cope with poor conditions in public hospitals that remain under funded and understaffed. For centuries we created wealth which we did not enjoy.

It is these conditions that led to workers twenty years ago to create this federation – COSATU – on 1 December 2005. It is these conditions that persist that make the need to continue organising and uniting workers a necessity. As we meet to celebrate COSATU’s 20th birthday, we can all proudly congratulate ourselves on our magnificent 20-year history of struggle.

The prophetic words of Cyril Ramaphosa at COSATU’s launch in 1985 - “A giant has arisen” - ring true over those 20 years. The launch of COSATU was a historic feat, the culmination of decades of struggles and tireless effort to build non-racial, non-sexist and democratic trade unions in South Africa.

We are using this anniversary to reassert our unwavering commitment to our founding, 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.

The new giant arose at the height of the struggle against apartheid. Its birth signalled both the confidence of the working class and the coming of age of the post-1973 labour movement. We broke with the reformist agenda of the old unions and reconnected with the militant, progressive labour history embodied in the South African Congress of Trade Unions - SACTU.

Our first years were characterised by hectic political activism. We played a central role in the mass democratic movement that took on the apartheid government. Union activists and shop stewards led community struggles. When scores of activists were detained or forced underground by the state of emergency, COSATU remained the main force still able to carry high the liberation flag.

This vital role played by COSATU inevitably attracted repression and violence from the apartheid state. We suffered police harassment, detention, murders and the bombing of our headquarters. We lost many of our finest members and leaders. As we mark our 20th anniversary we dip our flags in honour of the countless heroes and heroines who paid the ultimate price to nourish the tree that bore the fruit of freedom. We also pay tribute to the army of ordinary workers, shop stewards and leaders who built this strong federation of workers.

Comrades and friends

In those early years COSATU faced three interrelated challenges:

To build a strong and militant union movement that would be a home to all workers;
To represent workers’ interests against the employers; and
To challenge the might of the apartheid state.
Thus, from the start, COSATU blended political and workplace issues. We have always understood the link between struggles at the point of production and political power. We are a transformative trade union movement, in contrast to unions that restrict their role to workplace struggles.

COSATU fought for recognition from employers and led spectacular battles to advance the workers’ interests. The Living Wage Campaign took forward workers’ yearning for better pay and working conditions. COSATU successfully blocked the imposition of the apartheid Labour Relations Act in 1989.

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

In the past ten years, with the transition to democracy, COSATU had to adjust to a new political climate and face new political and organisational challenges. We faced the dual reality of a democratic government combined with largely unchanged socio-economic relations, as local and international capital used its power to lobby for conservative economic policies, with overt and covert threats against the ANC government.

COSATU has 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 - because democracy and political power will be hollow if we do nothing with the inherited patterns of accumulation and production. We have a duty to transform the economy on the basis of an employment creating industrial policy.

The legacy of under-development, poverty, unemployment and inequality remains firmly entrenched in our society, still largely defined in terms of race and gender. It is encouraging that government is willing to consult on its economic strategy but we must do more to ensure that the strategy is aligned to the needs of the working class.

More importantly we must ensure that this strategy is not geared towards a narrow goal of achieving high growth. We must ensure that economic policy addresses the basic problems of the workers and the poor. So-called ‘trickle-down’ strategies have not only failed but have perpetuated previous inequities, with only modest changes.

Capital has reaped enormous profits through the super-exploitation of workers. CEOs are raking in millions, regardless of the companies’ performance. When company profits fall, they still get their bonuses and are paid even more generously when profits increase.

The same bosses keep pressing for economic strategies that protect their accumulated power and wealth. They have launched a sustained attack on workers’ rights enshrined in the labour laws, which of course they justify as being in the ‘national interest’.

COSATU’s challenges to the ANC government’s macroeconomic policy and privatisation ultimately led to acrimonious debates between the ANC and COSATU, and almost plunged the Alliance into annihilation. But by the mid-2000s, we 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.

Comrades and fellow workers

Organisationally, the last ten years showed first extraordinary growth and then stagnation and even decline, though we are confident that this is now being reversed. Trade union density in South Africa is high – close to 40% - a remarkable achievement compared to other developed and developing countries. Yet some of our unions, particularly in the private sector, are battling to represent over 50% of the workers in their sectors. 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 strike was historic for championing the interests of these workers. NUM and NUMSA also concluded deals to protect these workers.

The labour movement remains fragmented with several federations scrambling for members. We are observing the latest proposed merger between FEDUSA, NACTU and CONSAWU. I hope that this could be a step towards greater unity and not an anti-COSATU coalition, which could only comfort the employers.

No unity is possible if it seeks to exclude or even gang up against the majority of organised workers. More than 50% of all workers who belong to unions are members of COSATU. The leadership of the federation to be formed must relate to this as a reality. Their coming together should be seen as the first steps towards realisation of our shared dream for “one country one federation”.

We appeal to the new leadership of this formation, and the independent unions, to talk with us on how to achieve our historic goal of one-country, one federation.

From our point of view anyone outside our ranks is unorganised. We shall continue to seek to unite and organise workers. We must reach our goal of being a home to 4 million workers between 2009 and our 2015.

The twentieth anniversary celebrations happen in the context of other important occasion. Today is the world AIDS Day and we are in the middle of the sixteen days of activism against women and children abuse.

It is important that we meet the needs and aspirations of all our members, in particular women. COSATU has among the best policies on gender equality and there is visible, albeit limited and uneven, progress to achieving gender parity.

For the first time in its history COSATU has an affiliate led by a woman President – Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya of NEHAWU. At least 30% of COSATU NOBs are women and we also boast two women general secretaries, of DENOSA and PAWUSA.

Yet we are still a male-dominated union movement, particularly in leadership structures. We must redouble our efforts to implement strategies to encourage women leadership and empowerment and remove the barriers to their participation.

COSATU must also still battle to take forward the aspirations of women workers, take up gender struggles in earnest, and not let women’s issues be subordinated to the broader strategic goals but be addressed specifically. COSATU joins the rest of the progressive forces in condemning in the strongest terms the continued violation of women and children’s rights. In particular we condemn rape of women and sexual abuse of girl children and boys.

Comrades and friends

Despite the many challenges we face today, COSATU remains a dynamic and vibrant trade union movement. We can boast many achievements through our 20 years. We have built large, strong, industrial unions. We are truly a home to all workers, from blue-collar to professionals, from private to public.

The Federation is also a school of politics, economics and organisation and has produced many fine activists and leaders now active in other spheres of society. Some of them are here in Durban today!

My personal experience bears this out. Everything I know I learnt from the struggles of workers. The movement’s resilience is in part explained by the reproduction of leadership trained in the trenches and our investment in union education. Many of today’s national leaders are former shop stewards – a remarkable achievement in such a short time.

Internal democracy and worker control is another important legacy. Workers participate in all decisions of the federation and affiliates and hold leaders accountable. The practice of mandate-seeking and reporting back keeps our movement democratic.

Throughout its history COSATU has been characterised by open, vigorous and democratic debate, at the end of which the movement rallies behind democratically reached decisions. We must not be tempted to stifle this tradition. It is what keeps our movement vibrant and democratic.

COSATU has built strong links internationally and has always understood that national struggles must link with workers’ struggles elsewhere. International solidarity is the lifeblood of the trade union and working class movement. Many of our leaders are now at the helm of global union federations.

Some observers thought that COSATU would not survive the loss of experienced activists through the 1990s. After all, many other civil society formations have gone under. In fact the federation is stronger now than at its founding. After the faith-based organisations, COSATU is the biggest organisation in civil society. It is certainly the largest movement in terms of paid up membership – far bigger than any other organisation with members.

It boasts 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.

History is littered with examples of post-colonial society’s failures to advance the interests of the working class and the poor. Only when the working class speak and acts in its own interest will we transform the state and other institutions of power and ensure that they have adequate resources and political will to drive a far more radical process of change.

We must also build the alliance as a political centre that drives transformation. The alliance, led by the ANC, remains the only political force that can lead and transform South African society. The challenge is to ensure that it actually drives and rallies our people behind transformation. COSATU members and leaders must do everything to build a strong ANC and SACP, and the mass democratic movement.

But as a workers organisation we must maintain our independence from the state, employers and political parties. Indeed more than any one, we have jealously guarded against attempts to reduce us into a conveyer belt. We think and act independently and the history and the past eleven years in particular is littered with countless examples that show we are only servants of our members not anyone else.

We have a lot to be proud of as we look back over the last 20 years of COSATU’s history. Not only have we developed a vibrant trade union movement; we have defied the employers and the apartheid state. We have one of the finest trade union movements in the world, respected and revered by both friends and foes.

This is the time to rededicate ourselves to the cause of the working people. We must preserve the best of our traditions and avoid the temptation of crass materialism and careerism at the expense of the workers. We must maintain the unity and solidarity of our movement and above all keep our cool heads even under extreme provocation.

We raise our red flags in salute of countless leaders and members who made an immense contribution to the strengthening of COSATU - Elijah Barayi, Chris Dlamini, Jay Naidoo, John Gomomo, Connie September, Cyril Ramaphosa, Moses Mayekiso, Petrus Mashishi, and countless others former COSATU and her affiliates National Office Bearers.

As part of these celebrations, we are saluting the tremendous role played by our predecessors in SACTU, including its leaders John Nkadimeng, Moses Kotane, JB Marks, Steven Dlamini, Ray Alexander Simons, Gana Makhabeni, Vuyisile Mini, Oscar Mpetha, and also Billy Nair, Rita Ndzanga, Curnick Ndlovu and Archie Sibeko.

Our generation is privileged to have this fine asset and must do more to preserve and nurture it and take it to new heights. We must bequeath a much stronger COSATU to our children and future generations.

Forward to the next twenty years!

Amandla ngawethu – kopano ke matla