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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Congress  |  COSATU Speeches

Opening address to COSATU Special Congress by Peter Malepe, Acting President

18 August 1999

Delegates from affiliated unions
Distinguished guests from the Alliance partners
Distinguished guests from the Mass Democratic Movement and Labour Service Organisations
Former COSATU leaders
Representatives of various institutions who sponsored the congress
Ladies and Gentlemen

This marks the beginning of the Special National Congress. The most important thing about this Congress is that it heralds the start of a new era for COSATU and the trade union movement in general. Congress delegates must take note of the fact that the train is just about to move none of our members should be left waiting at the platform.

In my view this is one of the most important gatherings in COSATU`s history. This watershed Special National Congress must live up to the expectations - not only of our members, but of the liberation movement as a whole. We are meeting to launch a new campaign we have dubbed "The consolidation of COSATU to meet the challenges of the new millennium".

We are meeting at a very challenging period for workers and the working class. This Special National Congress, whilst forced onto us by our new conditions, comes at an opportune time in our history. As we say good bye to this century, every organisation should be asking the question: Can we survive the new millennium? And, what is it that we must do to reposition ourselves to meet the challenges of the next century, in a context of a continuously changing and complex environment of globalisation and the era of technology?

We invested time and resources in the September Commission. The recommendations of this historic Commission were discussed in our 6th National Congress. In addition to that we developed an impressive organisational strategy at this Congress. We spent four days developing comprehensive socio-economic policies in the inaugural Central Committee.

Our central challenge is to harness the directives from all these important events into a concrete and implementable programme. We must emerge here not with a bible-sized document on the way forward, but with a short, precise and integrated programme of action that will help us to reposition COSATU to meet the challenges of the new millennium.

Let me reflect for a moment on some of our organisational weaknesses. Over the past decade we have seen a declining service provided to our members. This is as a result of a combination of factors. Chief among these factors is the decreasing level of resources we commit to the development of Shop Stewards who are the backbone of a trade union movement, as well as our failure to have a focused development of our officials and those in leadership. In a situation where nobody is equipped adequately, the lines of responsibility become blurred. The Organiser becomes a troubleshooter, running like a beheaded chicken to workplaces to represent members in disciplinary cases when that is the role of a Shop Steward. A Treasurer spends hours in trying to balance financial books when that is the role of an accountant. The General Secretary represents members in arbitration cases or spends hours writing minutes when that is the role of a bureaucrat.

In this scenario, an Organiser does not know the number of workers in his/her area of responsibility nor the potential membership for the union. The Shop Stewards scream at the inaccessible Organiser who has not pitched up in the workplace to fill in an appeal form arising from a disciplinary action taken against a worker who participated in a COSATU protected action when the very Shop Steward should know how to take the matter up himself or herself.

What follows from this crisis are divisions that consume all our energy, as stagnation prevails with no one having a sense of direction. The Office Bearers taken up by all this have no time to think strategically and take the union to new heights.

Secondly, we are losing some of our traditions that made us the giant of the 1980`s and 1990`s. Central to this is the fact that increasingly we attach no importance to worker control, report-back and mandates. Leadership thinks that it is a strength to take decisions without even checking the thinking of second layer leadership and membership. Increasingly, leadership takes decisions and then does not even have the decency of reporting back to those they represent. This happens at all levels, including amongst Shop Stewards. As this takes hold, the gap between all these layers of leadership widens. As the gaps widen we begin to rely heavily on pamphlets, posters, television, radio and print media to communicate our decisions to members. Because all of these do not answer questions, some campaigns fail to take off. This, as we all know, happens not because of malicious intent on the part of the leadership, nor does it indicate a lack of commitment on the part of the membership, but is a reflection of the gap I have referred to.

I exaggerate all these things deliberately in order to drive a point home to every one of yourselves who are so deeply honoured to be representing thousands of our cadres who wish that they could be here today. I am saying all this to ring alarm bells signaling a wake up call to every leader, every official, every Shop Steward and every member that the consolidation of COSATU and its repositioning will not happen if we do not tackle these weaknesses.

Political situation and elections

On the 02 June 1999, our people pushed the coffin of apartheid deeper underground. Our people have spoken. We are entering our sixth year of democratic rule. Our people want transformation to be accelerated. They did not vote so that they can continue to be unemployed, homeless and trapped in poverty and ignorance as Mbhazima Shilowa has correctly observed. They are tired of all the evils of apartheid and its cousin - capitalism. They want to create a new society based on caring and solidarity. They have chosen the ANC to lead the way to the realisation of their dreams.

I want to use this opportunity to thank you COSATU cadres for the role that you played in ensuring a decisive ANC victory in these elections. I know that this took a lot of sacrifice on your part. I know that without your contribution, the victory of the forces of change over the forces that want to stall change would not have been so overwhelming. Thank you very much for your marvelous work.

There can be no doubt that the Alliance came out more united from this election. Our organisations undoubtedly were strengthened. The campaign helped us to reconnect in a dynamic way with our people. Suddenly, the role of our cadres in this period was clarified resulting from less back stabbing into a spirit of comradeship united in the face of a stubborn common enemy. We became aware of destructive tensions that exist in some localities.

I am highlighting all these positive lessons because they themselves present a set of challenges to the Alliance. That challenge has to be, how can we sustain this momentum not only for the next round of local government elections but because of our commitment to a people centered transformation where our activists are in the forefront. How do we create space in government, parliament and our organisations so that our people can help shape their own destiny and be masters of their fate?

These questions must be answered in our discussion on the organisational and political programme of the Alliance. We must deal with these challenges, lest we correctly get accused by our people of using them like a tap that we open and close at will so that they become dependent on us as leaders. This is selfishly projecting ourselves as the alpha omega of transformation. Refusal to open this space for our people can also be interpreted as a deliberate move on our part to retain the status quo so that they do not threaten our monopoly of power. We need them simply to fill the ballot box. Only leaders who lack confidence in themselves and who fear that their direction will be challenged if they open this space, seek to keep members out of policy formulation.

The election manifesto is very clear and unambiguous. The programme is a traditional and progressive one, that seeks to fundamentally transform our society so that the masses of the people can realise their dream for a better life for all.

This Special National Congress`s challenge is make a contribution on how the directives of this manifesto can be reduced into a five-year, implementable programme for the government and for society as a whole. Most importantly, our task is to ensure that we map out a role for COSATU and the Mass Democratic Movement so that in partnership with our government, we lead society in implementing the manifesto.

As we enter the new millennium, we take pleasure in the dwindling power from the extreme white right wing that posed a severe threat in the run up to the 1994 elections. This force is now so segmented and faced with internal strife that it no longer has the same level of capacity that it enjoyed a few years ago. Gone are the days when almost every second day a lunatic from Ventersdorp would threaten us with civil war and bloodbath.

This does not however mean that these white working class families have suddenly embraced transformation. They remain the victims of apartheid mentality. They hate even the mention of the word transformation. Realising that a physical confrontation is no longer a viable option and that they can no longer force a volkstaat down the throat of the majority, they have now found another political home to represent their fears. They have found a political home that hates transformation as much as they do, and that is bent on defending white privileges accumulated from apartheid. This political home, the champion of disgruntled white aspirations is undoubtedly the Democratic Party of Tony Leon.

The need to continuously analyse these political events can not be over-emphasised as they help to answer correctly the three questions - who we are, where are we coming from and where are we going to? The balance of forces must be consistently reviewed so that all of us do not necessarily see the political landscape with the same pre-1994 eye, and thereby develop a perpetual siege mentality.

On other fronts we face daunting challenges. These include extremely high levels of poverty, in particular in rural areas, the unacceptably high levels of unemployment and continuing job losses. Women remain the most oppressed and exploited of our people. Inequalities remain the highest in the world. The growing gap between the nations of the South and North is becoming larger. The HIV/AIDS epidemic that threatens to wipe out our society is perhaps one of the most important matters we face. Crime, violence and corruption equally threaten the very freedom so many laid down their lives for.

Unemployment crisis

Comrade chairperson, delegates and distinguished guests, this Congress is meeting at a time when workers are under siege facing a serious attack from the bosses. This assault takes many forms. The worst of these is the systematic destruction of our jobs by bosses hell-bent on throwing millions of workers into the streets to join a huge pool of the unemployed. This job-loss bloodbath which amounts to a massacre of workers has been going on an uninterrupted pace since the mid 1980`s. The rate at which retrenchments and liquidations take place will make the previous job losses look like a Sunday school picnic.

It is about time that heads emerge from the sand. The normal response that the policy fundamentals are in place and that what needs to happen is a review of the labour market needs to be challenged. This ostrich approach amounts to fiddling while Rome is burning. If a doctor continues to give a patient medication, even though the same medication has not resulted in any improvement, that doctor is guilty of dereliction of duty. There is a high risk that the operation may be successful but the patient will be dead!

There is a tendency to conclude from the new economic statistics that the economy is performing well. The reality of our situation is that the economy has "performed well" in the past. We have seen growth rates of up to 3% in the past. Unfortunately only a small section of the population - the bosses - have had reason to celebrate this growth. The startling reality is that despite this growth, workers and their families continued to face job losses and therefore a humiliating poverty.

We reiterate the call we have been making for an immediate amendment of section 189 of the LRA so that retrenchment of workers is made a mandatory negotiations issue instead of mere consultation. The Insolvency Act must be fundamentally changed and central to this should be a drive to ensure that companies and liquidators make workers a preferred creditor and are forced to inform workers in good time when going through financial problems that may lead to liquidation.

Above all, companies that fail to make the transfer of workers` contributions to the provident fund and or other joint contribution funds should be prosecuted and their senior managers given jail sentences without an option of a fine. We call for the immediate review of the rate at which trade tariffs are reduced. We are not asking for the apartheid protection wall to be brought back. We are merely calling for the tariffs to be aligned in line with our undertaking to the World Trade Organisation.

Now, some people believe that we as COSATU are just exaggerating the extent of job losses in the economy. They say that jobs are created in new sectors such as tourism. They say the current job losses are necessary and in the future, which they do not define, jobs will be created. When we highlight these job losses they accuse us of recklessness, playing to the gallery, or jockeying for positions.

The first question we must ask is where should we send these thousands of retrenched workers? Where are the factories or workplaces of this growing service industry? The problem with these ideologues is that perhaps they do not themselves every day face bosses who want to throw workers in the streets. They do no see the pain written in the faces of retrenched workers, many of whom take a few thousand rands or even a few hundred rands as their retrenchment package. Because they are not exposed to this human suffering, or seldom read about it in the press, they can afford to take an ostrich approach to these matters.

This Congress must discuss this state of affairs and come out with a concrete programme of mass mobilisation. This programme and the motivation for it should be taken beyond workplaces. We must engage working class families so that they fully understand the catastrophe the country faces. The retrenchment of a single worker means that between five and twelve people who are dependent on that income get sentenced to face poverty. Let me send a message to the bosses and to all those eager to retrench workers, that this time around they are facing a new kettle of fish. COSATU is determined not to allow them to willy-nilly throw workers in the streets. We are coming out of this Congress fighting watch this space.

I want to thank all COSATU members who responded to the call made and donated their one day salary to the Job Creation Fund. I am pleased to announce that we have so far collected over 20 million rands into the fund. This is an extremely important message of solidarity workers are sending to the unemployed.

The important step you have taken in donating your day`s wages sharply contradicts assertions that your interests merely lie in the employed. I call on all workers who have not yet made their contributions to do so. There is still time for all of you to, in practice and despite your own unbecoming financial standing, say to the unemployed that, as workers, we care about your plight and we will do whatever within our power to help address your situation.

Labour market

Let me for the moment deal once again with this naked lie that bosses are hell bent on spreading - that our labour market has become inflexible as a result of the government`s transformation programmes. Now they have found a new excuse to cover their investment strike that has been running for years and blame the current job losses on labour market transformation, including some of the laws that have not yet even been implemented.

The bosses and their ideologues ignore all the studies conducted into the labour market which categorically state that the South African labour market is flexible even when compared to other developing economies. But they repeat them in keeping with Adolf Hitler - their intellectual mentor - who observed that: "By means of shrewd lies, unremittingly repeated, it is possible to make people believe that heaven is hell - and hell is heaven. The greater the lie, the more readily it will be believed."

COSATU believes that the labour market is not only flexible but too flexible. The growing casualisation of labour, which we remain opposed to, is testimony to this. The growing of use of labour brokers points to the direction of too much flexibility.

Studies have cogently demonstrated that there is no correlation between employment creation and labour market flexibility. It is against this background that we welcome President Mbeki`s observation that "much of the commentary on labour market flexibility is ill-informed or promotes a particular ideological and political point of view." More important is a reaffirmation that government will continue with the labour market policy pursued in the last few years.

The living wage struggles

Chairperson and delegates, as we are seated in this congress, thousands of our members are in the streets fighting for a living wage. Our members are tired of being made to pay for transformation whilst a few fat cats continue to live in luxury and well beyond the means of what our economy can afford. The irony is that these fat cats turn around and accuse workers who are fighting for a decent wage of being a lucky elite whose wages must be put down. They ignore studies, including the census report, that reveal that a quarter of the employed workers are in the category of the poor, earning below five hundred rands per month. They ignore facts such as that the wage gap in South Africa is 100:1. Just the other day [an] SAB fat cat had to disclose in London that he earns a ridiculous 7 million rands per annum whilst the lowest paid SAB worker earns a little above R3000 per month.

Let me send a message of solidarity and support from myself and this Congress to all our members involved in bitter struggles. We salute your bravery in the face of blackmail from heartless ideologues.

Public sector dispute

I must take this opportunity to express our disgust at the government`s unilateral decision to put into effect its final wage offer to its workers - a matter which was still under dispute. This action, which bears the hallmarks of the anti-union bashers of the 1980`s must be condemned by all those committed to the promotion of sound labour relations. Instead of engaging the unions the government took this extraordinary step which contradicts the ILO convention on collective bargaining that they have signed. Their action is completely out of line with the spirit of give and take and smacks of bully tactics engineered to scare public servants into submission.

We are extremely worried by the precedent this bad faith unilateral action will set for the private sector, in particular the bloodthirsty conservative employers. These employers will be spurred into swift action in the current negotiation deadlocks in some sectors. We are equally concerned that the government`s offer which is below the July inflation rate has also set a precedent as employers will interpret this as the way to go.

COSATU can simply not afford these precedents to be set, as the potential is there that sooner than we realise, they will begin to hit hard at all of us. COSATU can also not afford a defeat of the public sector workers who make up nearly one-third of our members. This National Congress must discuss this public sector dispute and make intervention that will tilt the balance of forces in favour of workers.

To conclude, I want to wish every one of yourselves a happy stay in Gallagher Estate and in Gauteng in the case of those from outside this province. I hope that this Congress will be a memorable one for yourselves. Above all, I trust that all of you shall live up to the challenge we face of consolidating and repositioning COSATU to meet the challenges of the new millennium.

All power to the people!

Thank you.