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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Address by Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU General Secretary, to the NUMSA 6th National Congress

23 August 2000

Comrade Chairperson, President Mthuthuzeli Tom and the National Office Bearers;
Members of the NEC and delegates;
Leaders of the ANC and SACP;
Leaders of the COSATU affiliated unions;
Leaders of the Mass Democratic Movement

I want to express my heartfelt appreciation for the opportunity to address this watershed Congress - the 6th National Congress of NUMSA. The members and the South African society wait expectantly for the results of this Congress.

The public focus on the Congress in many ways underlines the importance of this meeting. From COSATUís inception, NUMSA has played an instrumental political and leadership role in the federation. During critical moments the clarity of thought of your leadership helped fashion a clear strategic direction for the entire federation. The Federationís strength in part comes from the dynamic role played by NUMSA. On the 1st December 2000 COSATU will be celebrating its 15th anniversary thanks to the role of NUMSA and all our affiliates.

Today NUMSA is confronted by organisational and political challenges. This is therefore a make or break Congress. The main challenge is to turn the organisation around in order to ensure leadership and organisational cohesion. NUMSA is the leading union within the sector that it organises and therefore sets the pace within the industry. A weak NUMSA will lose this strategic role. At a national level, the union has been plagued by lack of leadership cohesion. The departure of the General Secretary, the untimely departure of his successor and the subsequent resignation of the acting general secretary has clearly created a vacuum at a leadership level. It is therefore imperative that we emerge with a new cohesive leadership collective. We must congratulate the remainder of the Office Bearers for ensuring that the ship stays on course.

The VW crisis also put the union under the spotlight. It is important that we reflect on this experience in order to avert similar situations recurring in future.

Secondly, NUMSA is confronted by the spectre of job losses. This clearly has an impact on the overall membership of the union. In part, the job losses are attributable to the accelerated tariff reform in the motor industry.

The debate on the alliance has received media spotlight over the last few days. I believe it is important that from time to time we reflect on the key challenges confronting the Alliance. When we raise concerns about the alliance it shows how serious we are about the alliance. We are jealous of the alliance and we want to ensure that it remains an instrument for working class struggles. The issues raised by NUMSA are not entirely new, they are canvassed in the Discussion Document adopted by the COSATU Central Executive Committee.

The main weaknesses confronting the alliance was that it never functioned in a coherent and cohesive manner. It has failed to meet regularly and more importantly to adopt a programme to implement the RDP in the current context. The source of tensions within the alliance is the undefined relationship with government. For example how do we practically give expression to the fact that the alliance must be in power? We never really discussed the implication of one party being in government and the others outside of government. Therefore, the undefined relationship between the government and the alliance and the absence of the alliance programme has led to different expectations from alliance partners. Until we resolve these questions there will be no qualitative shift in the operations of the alliance. Therefore to suggest that COSATU always sees government as an enemy is disingenuous to say the least. Throughout the last six years we have attempted on several occasions to grapple with these issues but to no avail.

I think we should reiterate out position that this government is our government and to the extent that it implements progressive measures we will support it. COSATU and its affiliates also dedicate time and resources to campaign for the current government not purely on the basis of sentimental attachment but because we believe it is the only government capable of taking workers struggles forward. This is the sole condition upon which we remain in the alliance and support the ANCís electoral efforts. As comrade Mandela once said if a government, democratic or not, deviates from its mandate workers should not hesitate to criticise it.

Against this background I am pleased to note that the Congress resolved to continue with the Alliance. This signals that workers still regard the Alliance to be a vehicle to achieve the aims and goals of the National Democratic Revolution. At the same time, we are the only force in society which is open and honest about its intentions. Our aim is to ensure that the ANC and the government remain working class biased both in outlook and in its programmes. This is the basis upon which we participated in the struggle for transformation and also seek to influence government policy to that end. Other forces will mask their class interest and represent their interest as the Ďnational interestí and accuse the working class to be sectarian and representing selfish interests. Although the Congress has adopted a clear resolution on the alliance - it certainly cannot be business as usual. We must see visible and qualitative changes in the manner in which the alliance operates.

This brings me to the next important political question - where is the NDR today? The 1994 breakthrough ushered in a new democratic dispensation in South Africa. The ANC was placed in government not as an end in itself, but as a step to begin to address the legacy inherited from apartheid. The ANC power has been further consolidated by an overwhelming majority in 1999 general elections. It has been given a mandate to continue with the transformation of our society.

Over the last six years, working people scored many important victories. Government introduced transformative labour legislation which has changed the labour market inherited from apartheid. On the social front, the provision of basic service such as water, electricity, to some extent housing, have all improved the living conditions of workers and their families. The adoption of conservative macro and industrial polices was the main setback for the NDR. The discussion document attempt to analyse the factors that may have led to this situation by analysing the balance of power in the current conjuncture both internationally and domestically. It is not my intention to repeat the analysis in the discussion document and the political report to the COSATU Congress.

Despite what government can say, the GEAR has failed to achieve its aims. It is not enough to be happy about macro-economic balance if it comes at the cost of jobs losses, cuts in government expenditure and high interest rates. First we were asked to wait for GEAR to achieve its aims, which will translate into massive job creation and economic growth. The only targets that have been met, even beyond governmentís expectations are lower inflation and fiscal deficit. On all other targets GEARís performance has been dismal. To ask us to continue enduring this means more job losses and many forgone growth opportunities. We remain convinced that GEAR is the wrong strategy for South Africa which still has to launch a major social reconstruction effort. Macroeconomic balance should not be achieved at the cost of social stability.

Suffice to say that from COSATUís perspective, the NDR is far from complete. The legacy of apartheid misrule is still entrenched in our society. In this respect comrade Mbeki is right to point to the fact that we are a two-nations society. For as long as the legacy of apartheid remains entrenched the NDR will remain relevant. Over the last six years there has been contestation on the direction and course of the NDR. This to me represents the class contestation over the direction of the NDR and the programmes and policies of the democratic state.

We can understand this contestation if we analyse the class structure of contemporary South African society. In the last few years class realignment, particularly among the formerly oppressed has taken place. The nature of capital remain largely the same - concentrated in mining and finance - albeit with a few black being co- opted into big capital. Whereas under apartheid all black people irrespective of class were oppressed - today some are able to join the privileged groups in our society. Thus class differentiation amongst the formerly oppressed is occurring at a rapid pace. The loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in mining, agriculture, manufacturing and the public sector has combined with an increase in high-level opportunities for blacks and women with the necessary competency and skills.

The various classes and strata all jostle for hegemony of the NDR and to represent their interest as the national interest. If we give up this battle, we will be handing over the ANC and the democratic state to the bourgeoisie on a silver platter. Class is increasingly becoming the principal contradiction in South Africa. This however, does not mean that the correlation between race, gender and class has disappeared. But as we resolve the national question the class question increasingly occupies the centre stage. At the core of the gender and race oppression lies class exploitation. We cannot therefore, resolve the gender and race question without changing the relations of power in our society and the basis of that oppression.

On the other hand, the working class position in the NDR has come under attack. Workers are accused of representing a privileged group. Alternatively workers are accused of being sectarian or economistic - meaning that they are blind of the greater good. Suddenly a demand for a living wage and fair working conditions has become a stumbling bloc to employment creation. All these arguments are devoid of any truth. For example to call the working class an elite is to deflect attention from the real elite in our society which is still monopolising wealth and economic power. To ask the workers to cease their class struggle is to prematurely rob the NDR of its critical motive force. It is also tantamount to handing over the working class to the bourgeoisie on a silver platter. For instance, there is now a belief in black business circles that for this fraction of capital to flourish black workers must sacrifice their hard won rights. Pitting workers í interests against the NDR is a disturbing phenomenon that we should resist.

It is within this contest that we should locate the current proposed labour law amendments. Comrades, it is no secret that the South African bourgeoisie, supported by their international friends have launched an unrelenting class war fare on the progressive labour laws. The Department of Labour has come under immense pressure from both capital and from within government. The recently unveiled amendments represent an attack on the workers í gains.

In a nutshell comrade, the stakes are high for the working class. We are confronted by a multitude of challenges. First we must rebuild our organisations and the entire democratic movement. This congress must issue a call to all our members and shop stewards to be active in the ANC and the SACP. Secondly, we are confronted by the challenge to influence the direction of the NDR and the democratic state so that it adopts progressive policies, particularly macro-economic, trade and industrial policies. Thirdly, we need to organise the unorganised to cement workersí power as a precondition for solidarity. I have no doubt that this Congress will rise to the occasion and develop a clear blueprint to meet these challenges.

I thank you.