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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

COSATU`s 21th Anniversary - "Tracing the footsteps of COSATU" - Achievements and Challenges address by Zwelinzima Vavi

7 December 2006


We are gathered here today to mark the 21st Anniversary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions – COSATU. I join the COSATU office bearers to welcome you in today’s activity to reflect on the achievement and challenges facing COSATU.
Normally humans are recognised as grown ups once they reach the magic 21 years of age. But COSATU is an extraordinary creature that was born extraordinarily big and became the fastest growing baby in the world.

In the years when it should have still been an infant, this giant baby fought some of the fiercest and hardest battles that helped defeat one the most feared oppressive and brutal governments in the world - the apartheid regime.

Born in the middle of the state of emergency and the counter-revolutionary violence the regime has initiated against the progressive forces in KwaZulu Natal, COSATU received a baptism of fire. Four MAWU shop stewards were burnt alive. Warlords surrounded the venue where the Congress was held threatening to attack the delegates. Our people were being killed, their houses grazed on the ground, entire families – including children - forced to be on the run.

This was followed by the most brutal attacks to be launched against the trade union movement and the democratic forces. The agents of the apartheid regime used warlords from the IFP, trying every trick in the book to intimidate members from being part of the COSATU unions. They stood at the gates to check their payslips and assault and even kill those known to be activists of COSATU. Through the draconian state of emergency the regime detained thousands of COSATU, UDF and other progressive formations activists throughout the country.

This “total onslaught” spawned formations like UWUSA, which worked with employers to try to undermine COSATU’s phenomenal growth. They failed. UWUSA did not see its first five years. Many other counter-revolutionary formations such as five madoda, mouth piece, and others could not slow down unionisation and intimidate workers away from COSATU, their movement.

The process of reflection we undertake today is informed by and builds on the rich analysis contained in COSATU documents, including:

This body of knowledge generated over many years represents our own efforts to analyse our character and role in our society and internationally. Talking about COSATU also means talking about the history of trade unionism in this country, which goes back many years – at least since the beginning of industrial capitalism.

Today I want to focus on COSATU’s key achievements both in the context of the struggle for liberation and in the post-apartheid society. We need to start by understanding what COSATU is and where comes from.

COSATU is a trade union movement drawing together workers from various industries and sectors of the economy. COSATU’s foundation was laid by the 1973 Durban strikes that marked the re-emergence of militant trade unionism in this country. The roots of these 1973 Durban strikes can be tracked back to SACTU in the 1950s and the ICU in the 1920s and even further, to the struggling unions that existed from at least the early years of the mines.

Still, above all COSATU draws from and is informed by the positions that shaped the radical trade union movement spawned by the 1973 strikes. Workers in those days knew that improvements in the workplace, by themselves, would never be enough. They saw the need to end apartheid and the deep-seated inequalities, mass poverty and mass unemployment to which it gave birth.

It is this history and our daily experience that underlies our deep-seated belief in the dialectical relationship between workplace and community struggles. We know that we cannot hope to win a better life for our members while we still face a crisis of unemployment and deprivation. We need unity, not just of workers, but of the working class to transform our society – to bring about a better life for all.

COSATU believes in the radical transformation of society and ultimately the building of a socialist society as an alternative to the exploitative and unfair capitalist system that now reigns in our country. In that respect, our vision only starts by our demands for improved conditions for workers in the capitalist society. Ultimately, we also work to build a new society to replace capitalism, one where the needs of our people shape our economy and not the drive of a few to make more profits.

This militant and radical approach to politics and society distinguishes COSATU from many unions in South Africa and in the world. It provides the standpoint from which COSATU engages with the state and capital and broader mass democratic movement.

Since the ending of apartheid, the question of how to take forward positions of the working class has undoubtedly become more complex. On the one hand, we have seen a virtual attack on workers’ traditional strongholds in manufacturing and the state-owned enterprise. The results have included mass retrenchments, with devastating effects on some unions. On the other hand, we have to engage on a host of complex policy issues as well as contesting with capital for influence on the state and indeed in some of our allies.

COSATU’s articulation of its role has undergone important adaptation particularly since the defeat of apartheid. This continues to be a subject of debate within our society and the broader movement. We hear different demands on COSATU from both inside and outside our movement.

  • Some people argue that COSATU must retain its militant posture of combining political and workplace struggles. In that vein, it must aim to shape the trajectory of democracy in favour of the working class at both the societal and workplace levels. This is fundamentally the position of COSATU itself.
  • A second position is that COSATU must concern itself with purely workplace issues and in that respect serve as a cork in the industrial relations machinery of the country. According to this perspective the trade union movement must return to the workplace ‘barracks’ and leave political issues to political parties.
  • A third perspective, pushed particularly by free market ideologues, is that trade unions should be dismantled or severely weakened as they interfere with the ‘normal’ operations of the market by unduly raising the price of labour. This is, of course, both unrealistic and ahistorical.

From both a historical and contemporary perspective, separating workplace struggles and broader political and societal struggles is untenable for the working class. Even conservative trade unions in other countries have political ambitions to ensure that those in control of the state favour workers. Democracy has also become much more complex, and trade unions have a stake in the character of democracy and represent and important constituency.

All over the world, trade unions play a vital role in the struggle for democracy and broadening democratic space. Liberal democracies have inherent limitations and society cannot rely on political parties only to deepen democracy, particularly to realise the vision of a participatory democracy. Power in a class-based society is uneven, even if people have the vote. If ordinary people do not organise – if workers in particular do not organise to engage on key strategic issues - the democratic space would be monopolised by the rich and wealthy. In the absence of trade unions the political space inexorably will be dominated by those with money and consequently access to media.

In short, trade unions are critical in a functional democracy because they give workers – the majority of our people – a voice. Workers and trade unions have a stake in the shape and direction of society, especially one as unequal as ours. A revolutionary trade union movement also has interest in deepening and opening the democratic space as a means to counter the hegemony of capital. This reality forms the background for COSATU’s role and its contribution in South Africa today.

From inception COSATU played a critical role in the struggle for the democratisation of South Africa. COSATU also articulated a vision of a democratic society both at the political and workplace level. We must remember that COSATU fought for the current Constitution and articulated a vision of a thoroughgoing democracy with a strong participatory element. In addition we fought hard for the inclusion of socio-economic rights as means of ensuring substantive equality. It is in this respect that we should understand COSATU’s insistence of the inclusion of workers rights in the Constitution.

Today we all appreciate the vital role of the Constitution in providing a framework for the radical transformation of our society. COSATU’s contribution should not be underestimated neither should it be forgotten.
Trade unions are but one of the actors in society and of necessity have to galvanise and work with others. COSATU has mastered the politics of coalitions building with progressive social movement, the democratic state and left political parties.

Naturally, COSATU is part of the tripartite alliance with the SACP and ANC. This alliance is born out of the common experience of oppression and determination to eradicate the legacy of racial capitalism and build a new non-racial and democratic society. COSATU considers the alliance as but one terrain and instrument of change and part of the democratic forces fighting for change. However, the Federation understand only too well the need to maintain its impendence even in the context of alliance politics. This goes back even to the day of the UDF where COSATU maintained a strong independent posture while forming part of the mass democratic movement.

COSATU and its predecessors have been at the fore front of changing labour regulation in this country. The Wiehahn Commission in the late 1970s was a direct product of the 1973 Durban strikes. COSATU challenged the apartheid regime’s attempt to reform labour legislation towards the late eighties in the form of a revised LRA. The apartheid regime was forced to grudgingly accept and recognise the need for, and the role of, black and non-racial trade unions. Up to about the Wiehahn Commission black workers did not have the right to collective bargain and freedom of association to form and join unions.

The new raft of labour laws introduced after apartheid was pioneered by COSATU and the liberation movement. We often forget that these laws had to be fought for and these battles shaped a broadly labour friendly labour regime. We are painfully aware however that workers’ rights are still constantly under threat. Capital has not given up its demand to dilute the labour laws and important sections of the state share the notion that our labour market is too rigid. New forms of work undermine the progressive labour legislation by removing a large chunk of the working class from the purview of labour laws. Poor enforcement also undermines the rights of workers, especially the unorganised and those in vulnerable sectors such as domestics and farm workers.

Many studies show that it pays to belong to a union. It is only when workers organise that they realise the full benefits extended by the law. For that reason, unions are important to realise the many rights entrenched in the Constitution and to improve workers lot at the workplace.
COSATU also plays an important role in the international trade union movement. It is held in high esteem in the international scene and many look to COSATU for answers. COSATU with its allies are gradually shifting the international trade union movement towards a more progressive platform.

Our major weaknesses is in driving this project consistently particularly in the African continent. Trade unions in Africa are weak and COSATU has a role to strengthen the trade union movement particularly in the SADC region. Above all this requires a sea change in how we understand and conduct international work

It goes without saying that the Federation has weaknesses and we are the first to acknowledge them. The Secretariat reports to the 9th National Congress point exhaustively some of the weaknesses of the Federation. Chief among these is failure to implement important decisions – particularly as they relate to building strong unions and recruiting the unorganised. The coherence of the Federation at times is put under enormous strain. In part this is attributable to divergent messages and pursuit of contradictory agendas that at time work against each other. The Federation faces a plethora of demands and this affects its priorities. As a casualty many of our programmes are implemented in a piecemeal and ad-hoc fashion.

Looking to the future we can say without any fear of contradiction that COSATU remains the biggest trade union movement in South Africa and the second largest in the entire continent. In this Congress we have definitely entered a new era compared to our previous Congress. The modest membership increase over the past few years is something to celebrate while at the same time ensuring that all our affiliates increase their membership. Due to the struggles we have waged, there indicators that show that relative shift in government willingness to engage and alter its policies. Capital remains however, entrenched in its dogmatic approach of free market fundamentalism. Nevertheless there is a growing realisation that our developmental challenges run deep and that the state, in particular, must take a more active role in ensuring shared growth.

COSATU’s clearly has many strengths and weakness the other inputs will pick up on these themes. I have tried to set a context within which today’s discussion should be located. However we must not lose sight of COSATU’s own self-reflection and resolutions when we analyse where we are and how we should move forward.