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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Address on the occasion of the 1999 National Productivity Awards by General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi at the National Productivity Institute

6 September 1999

Members of the Board
Ladies and gentlemen

This is a historic moment, both for me and for COSATU. From the day the NPI was established until shortly before the democratic South Africa came into being there was very little, if any relationship that existed between this institute and the black working class formations, such as COSATU. Today COSATU is not only in a position to accept an invitation to attend, but to deliver a keynote address to this important function - the awards banquet to honour this year's outstanding achievers in improving productivity.

This is an indication that tremendous progress has been made in bridging the gap that formerly existed between COSATU and the NPI. Put in context, this reflects the tremendous strides that we as a nation are making in the transformation of our state and its institutions so that the needs of all our people, irrespective of their political affiliations, creeds and religious backgrounds can be taken forward. COSATU today sits in the NPI board.

However, the progress that I am referring to does not in any way mean that the challenges to change the past have been adequately achieved. The work to transform NPI and other institutions remains ongoing. It is in this context that I welcome this invitation. It presents us with an opportunity to observe what the National Productivity Institute is doing to facilitate an improvement of the standard and quality of living of all, especially the workers that COSATU represents.

Productivity of labour and capital is one of the key challenges that we face in our efforts to build a new democratic culture and ethos, and also to position the South African economy on the path of growth and equity.

Apartheid robbed us of many things. One of these was a more honest debate around the important matter of productivity. In those dark days, productivity was seen as a blunt instrument of Afrikaner bosses motivated by hatred to kick black workers around because they were not being "productive". These pseudo managers often sent workers experiencing problems with their machines straight back to work with only one tip to follow - "maak a plan".

So for too long black workers, in particular, saw "productivity" as just another means of humiliating them as subhuman, and of exploitation. In a democracy and in a globalising economy COSATU sees productivity as a very important objective.

Labour has however been raising very pertinent questions in the spirit of this debate of our times. I believe that those questions are even more important in the context of today's deepening job losses and the displacement of workers by new technologies. The challenges presented in the form of questions are : - how can we not make productivity a feared word associated with job losses and poverty? - how can we motivate workers to fully embrace the need for increased levels of productivity?

I am raising these questions because I think it will be unfair for workers to improve productivity only to find themselves out of their jobs as a result of these improvements. Equally we must at all costs avoid mere one-sided benefits to the employers and shareholders, as this will discredit our endeavours to make this matter a joint campaign. This is why we unsuccessfully attempted to sign a productivity accord with the employers and government on productivity in the run up to last year's Presidential Job Summit.

Let me therefore use this opportunity to make a call to business community for the revival of our discussion on this matter, with the view to signing a special productivity accord. Such an accord should explicitly recognise that there is a need to increase both capital and labour productivity. It should take into account that according to the Reserve Bank's quarterly reports, labour productivity has risen in South Africa since 1991 by more than 15% overall. The same cannot be said about management productivity. Central to this accord should be a agreement on how productivity gains can be shared between workers and shareholders.

We have rejected in the past attempts by some unscrupulous employers wanting to link our wages with productivity. Up to 95% of productivity improvements can be contributed by improved efficiency of management through such means as the use of technology, training of the workforce to use the changing technology, initiating workplace re-organisation, etc. So if the employer used a machine that keeps on breaking every second day, then workers cannot be punished for that management inefficiency.

Perhaps the biggest challenge this NPI board is facing is to facilitate this productivity accord between labour and business. I hope that you can live-up to that challenge.

We are aware that a new Board exists and the Productivity Advisory Council is in place, all of which have been constituted democratically and with participation of labour, business and government. This we commend, but it marks only the beginning of a process. We shall have to thoroughly transform this institution, its image and role.

The NPI needs a clearly defined programme to serve as the basis for an engagement with all stakeholders. To date there is nothing on the table, despite the new structures having been put in place. If the NPI wants the message of productivity to sink in, then it must itself operate productively. A string of board meetings and endless consultation can hardly be said to represent "productivity".

We need to have a systematic programme that both guides and assists specific industries and plants to enhance the various factors of production. The Workplace Challenge is one way in which the vision of productivity can be operationalised by ensuring the participation of all role players with a shared commitment to the long terms survival of industries within South Africa.

In conclusion, we take the opportunity to congratulate those who have displayed a commitment to productivity improvement, and in whose achievements we celebrate today. Clearly they have done this under difficult challenges as I have outlined already.

We wish the NPI a success on the challenges that lie ahead. We commit ourselves to work with the institution in our shared objective- improving the quality of life of all people.

Once more thank you very much.