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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Congress  |  COSATU Speeches

Closing address to the COSATU Special Congress by Willie Madisha, incoming COSATU President

20 August 1999

Viva COSATU, Viva!
Viva SACP, Viva!
Viva ANC, Viva!
Viva the Alliance, Viva!

Comrades, it falls to me to say a few words to bring this Special Congress to a close.

Vote of thanks

First a word of thanks. For myself, and on behalf of the new Executive you have just elected, we thank you for the trust you have given to us. To serve in the leadership of COSATU is a great honour. It is also a great challenge. With your continued support we can rise to meet that challenge.

I also need to thank all those who made possible this Special Congress - a difficult task coming so soon after the elections` campaign, and with a skeleton staff left to run the Federation:

  • First, to the Congress Preparations Committee - our thanks go to each of you - for the leadership you have shown at this difficult time.
  • Also, thanks to the staff of COSATU House, who handled the technical arrangements; in particular our appreciation goes to Comrade Rose Makwane the National Administrative Secretary for her work in coordinating Congress arrangements.
  • To the staff of Gallagher Estates, our thanks for your warm welcome and assistance.
  • Thanks to EISA for ensuring that our elections were free and fair.
  • To our generous sponsors - who we mentioned by name in the opening ceremony - we remember you and we appreciate your support.
  • Last night we expressed our heartfelt appreciation to the out-going executive members These are comrades who have given years of service to this Federation, and are now deployed to the parliamentary arena -where we believe they will continue their service to the working class movement and to the cause of socialism.
  • To our guests:
    • From the ANC,
    • From the SACP,
    • From other fraternal and allied organisations,
    • From international labour organisations,

your presence here has contributed to the work of this Congress. We hope we have been able to benefit mutually from the discussions and exchanges of the last few days.


  • Lastly, I need to thank you, the delegates; the 2,500 worker leaders present here today - representing the 17 affiliates, with a combined membership of more than one-and-three-quarters of a million workers. The success we claim for this Congress would not have been possible without your co-operation and hard work.


In this movement we are not afraid to confront our weaknesses. I need to refer briefly to some of the short-comings during this Congress.

Listening to the comments by delegates, it is clear to me that our pre-Congress work was still not adequate. As a result we sometimes became bogged down in issues of process; we were overwhelmed by some of the documentation; at times our discussions lacked focus; and precious time was not always utilised optimally.

We give this solemn undertaking: that in the preparations for Congress 2000, these weaknesses will be addressed. This is a collective responsibility. We welcome constructive criticisms and suggestions from comrades in this respect.

Accelerating change: deepening the NDR and transforming society to build socialism

The ANC led government has articulated a programme of priorities to accelerate transformation of our society. As workers we support this objective. It is the contention of COSATU, as stated in the resolution of this Congress and previous Congresses, the Central Committee and various other structures, that without this thoroughgoing transformation of our society there will never be peace, stability, prosperity, and the better life for all we have striven for.

For this reason the leadership you have elected have a major challenge and tremendous responsibilities. We will have to ensure that this vision of transformation is clearly developed, in the smallest of detail and given programmatic expression, to avoid any possibilities of failing you, the delegates who have elected us.

It is also the contention of this and previous Congresses that transformation is about building socialism. Under capitalism we can never resolve the contradictions in our society, the legacy of gender, racial and class oppression and exploitation that apartheid has left us.

Challenges facing the Federation

This Congress has deliberated on the main challenges facing the Federation. Policy has been affirmed and reaffirmed. We have debated the programme of action. It remains for me - together with the General Secretary and the rest of the Executive - to provide the leadership which is expected of us, and to facilitate implementation. Clearly comrades, this requires the close co-operation and assistance of the affiliates and our allies.

Let me sketch out some of the main areas which need to be addressed:

Building our federation

History has demonstrated that unless workers are united and led by a progressive trade union centre they will never realise the objectives they set out for themselves. In our country workers are still divided on racial grounds and organised in predominantly racially-based unions and federations. It is imperative that we change this and built a giant, united, progressive COSATU that unites all workers.

It is important that we also highlight and prioritise the predicaments of women in the workplace, farm workers and differently abled workers. Addressing the apartheid wage gap must also simultaneously ensure that we address the gender wage gap and discrimination against the differently abled at work.

This Federation also has clear policy to accelerate the movement of women into the decision-making structures at every level.

To do this we must prioritise and focus on improving the basic service that members pay for; that is, assisting them at the workplace to deal with wage bargaining, unfair dismissals, discrimination at the workplace, restructuring at the workplace and other such matters. What has distinguished COSATU and made workers flock to the affiliates of the federation has been the ceaseless and fearless championing of workers rights and interests. We must jealously guard this reputation.

Of course COSATU has done this in the tradition of progressive unions and federations before it by having a clear political understanding of the broader interests of workers and the working class as a whole. By locating itself in this manner COSATU has shown that the claims by the capitalists and its agents that it is a federation of a labour aristocracy are cheap lies and propaganda. COSATU has always and will continue to represent the broader political interests of the working class, not by replacing its allies, the ANC and SACP, but by strengthening the Alliance. The reason we have confidence in the Alliance, and are determined to make it work, not because of sentiment, but because of a shared strategic programme.

Strengthening the Alliance

It is true that we must not take the Alliance for granted or assume its relevance without continually reviewing this position. There are contradictions in our society, which have an impact on the Alliance. That is why we reiterate that the Alliance must be made up of strong, independent organisations that debate and decide broad political strategy and policy.

The truth is, comrades, that we as leaders, at national, provincial, and branch level, have neglected the Alliance. We have taken each other for granted. A key challenge for this leadership will be to ensure that the Alliance finds the time to meet regularly, discusses and debates key political issues and policy, and finds a common vision and programme that is implementable to take our revolution forward.

As working class leaders we will have to mobilise to ensure that our members, the workers of this country, are the key leadership in the ANC and the Party, at all levels of society. We must be in the forefront of the struggle to consolidate the NDR, the struggle for socialism, at work, at home, and in our leisure time. That is the tradition of this federation, the Congress tradition. In this we defeated the Apartheid regime.

Comrades have identified the core political issues which face us, in particular:

  • the need to revitalise and strengthen the Alliance, on the basis of the independence of each partner and the mutual respect of each for the other;
  • the need - as workers and socialists - to raise the concerns of working-class communities within the Alliance. Comrade Terror, it seems we can`t avoid these medical metaphors: I am talking about the injection of working class content and character into our political work at every level;
  • One thing we need to clarify, especially for the media. When comrades from the leadership of the ANC take us to task, we should welcome this as an opportunity to debate and clarify issues.
  • Similarly, when workers raise concerns - in this forum - about the direction we are moving in, or, about particular policies which affect them negatively, that is their right. Comrades, if workers cannot raise these things here - in this parliament of the working class - then there is something wrong. Let`s not paper over any cracks.
  • And comrades, when the Minister of Labour - Comrade Membathisi Mdladlana - takes us to task when we fail to support progressive initiatives; when we fail to make submissions around crucial issues of policy, let us address the problem.
  • The real question regarding the Alliance, comrades, is how do we take this process forward? This congress has proposed that an Alliance Summit be held as a matter of urgency. For as long as this forum fails to meet, the tensions will be allowed to fester. This is where we can best address our differences.

Economic policy

COSATU cannot support conservative fiscal and macro-economic policy, which leads to job losses and undermines the commitments for greater social delivery we made in the Election Manifesto. We thought towards the end of last year we were starting to emerge with a new consensus in the Alliance on macro-economic issues. This must be urgently taken forward in the next Alliance Summit.

Comrades, it is not only our caps that we want to see manufactured in this country. We also need economic policy which is home-grown, and not manufactured in Washington, or elsewhere.

We strive for policies, which are rooted in the real needs of working people and their families. As workers, we will not keep quiet on policies which severely disadvantage our members, and which have not been properly debated with us as COSATU.

Earlier, Comrade Terror, argued that if the patient does not improve, you go back to the surgery for a different prescription. Of course "surgery" has another meaning: "to cut and remove". Let me leave the matter there for the present.

The Jobs Campaign

Comrades, the central campaigning focus to emerge out of this Congress must be around job retention and job creation. We have to defend ourselves against this "bloodbath" which Comrade Blade refers to. In the process, it is crucial to combat attempts by the bosses to portray this as a selfish struggle on behalf of those fortunate enough to have jobs - a so-called "labour aristocracy".

We are tired of being lectured about:

  • The need for labour market flexibility meaning job insecurity and casualisation;
  • To accept job losses today, in the hope of degraded employment in the future;
  • To tighten our belts, and sacrifice for the bigger picture.

And what is this bigger picture? - simply that the fat cats get fatter; the rich get richer.

But, we also have to join hands with the vast majority of our people who remain poor - the unemployed and the informal sector - together with the organised labour movement in a single struggle. We have to convince them; we have to win them to the socialist alternative.

The Federation has adopted a programme - it is for us to implement.

The Federation must evolve a strategy that will stop the capitalist class from using clauses of the Insolvency Act to circumvent the LRA and the legal procedures that must be followed during retrenchments. The ERPM is a case in point.

Equally, people must be dissuaded from believing that retrenchments in the public service are justified because of the notion that the public service is bloated, and therefore workers must be retrenched even prior to a scientific skills audit. We welcome the congress proposal and resolution that there must be a moratorium on retrenchments until proper procedures and a skills audit are formalised and negotiations entered into between employers and the unions.

Ideological struggle and the orientation of the federation

As a famous revolutionary once said, the correct line will come from correct theory. To make this theory practice, to orientate the trade union movement and the broader working class movement, we must aggressively contest ideas in our society.

Exaggeration of debates and differences, in an attempt to portray them as fundamental schisms are partly a result of attempts by reactionary forces to undermine the vision and policy of the movement, in favour of the interests of the powerful in our society. This progressive vision is hegemonic amongst the people and supported by the majority of South Africans - but the institutions of our society, the press, media, even key officials within government departments and parastatals, and certainly in the private sector, do not support this vision of our Alliance. The problem we face is one of ensuring that our ideas, ideas that favour the working class as a whole, become the dominant ideas of our time.

This means that we must debate, debate and debate again in the Alliance, until we agree, or agree to disagree. But we must involve our people in these debates. We must go to the ground and report to our people, not only during elections, but regularly, how we are progressing as COSATU in achieving the living wage our members desire and in eradicating the apartheid wage gap. The ANC must address our people on how we are progressing at the level of government, what the constraints are, what we can do to assist in achieving the objectives of the revolution. We must ensure the Party addresses the masses on our progress towards our socialist objectives. In every sense of the slogan, let us make this transition one that is truly people centred.

Public sector restructuring

I need to make the following points:

  • As COSATU, and the Alliance we remain committed to public sector restructuring by which we mean:

    • Increased social delivery to the mass of working class and rural communities;
    • The transformation of public sector employment to overcome previous racial and gender inequality; and
    • The development of a work ethic which promotes greater service and efficiency.
  • By restructuring, we do not mean whole-sale downsizing, outsourcing and privatisation.

With regard to the current dispute in the public service, Congress has spoken forcefully in its declaration on the matter.

I need only to emphasise the following points:

  • As COSATU, we see no contradiction between the fight for a living wage and improved service delivery. In fact, we believe the two go together.
  • The unilateral actions of the state set a dangerous precedent for other employers to follow. The effects of this will be felt by every affiliate in this room, and by the millions of workers throughout this country.

We have a slogan made famous by our predecessor - SACTU - during the great struggles of the 1950s:

An injury to one, is an injury to all!

Today, that slogan is more relevant than ever before.


In conclusion, comrades, let me remind you again of your revolutionary tasks in the current conjuncture:

  • To build COSATU for the next millenium;
  • To build the SACP To build the ANC.

By doing this, we also:

  • strengthen the Alliance,
  • we deepen the National Democratic Revolution, and
  • we lay the foundations for socialism.

Finally, comrades we face a new enemy the HIV / AIDS epidemic. As worker leaders we also expect you to lead on this matter. In every speech, in every meeting, in every structure, HIV / AIDS education must be a part of that. The lives of millions of workers and their families are at stake.

Farewell comrades. Travel safely.