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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 ANC Veterans Commission on the 45th Anniversary of the Freedom Charter

26 June 2000

On this day, forty-five years ago, delegates of our people from all corners of our country assembled at Kliptown to discuss demands that had been received from a participatory process involving millions of our people. For many years after that this document containing popular demands of our people became the rallying point in the struggle that was to last for decades after this historic day. For assembling here and for advocating these demands they suffered immensely under the hand of the brutal apartheid illegal minority government.

They declared - the people shall govern and South Africa belongs to all who live in it. For this vision, our movement and our people sacrificed all including with their lives. Today we remember and salute the heroes and heroines who in the face of worse repercussions stood firm in an unwavering struggle to pursue their dreams.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Freedom Charter is the way in which, almost half a century ago, it identified the key aspects of our struggle, not just against apartheid, but for peace, economic justice and social progress.

That explains why it is still relevant today. These demands are elaborated in more detail in the Reconstruction and Development Programme.

We have moved forward in many ways since the Charter was adopted. We are proud of the huge strides we have made in pursuit of the demands of the Freedom Charter. We know that challenges that lie ahead remain immense as each and every word, line and paragraph of that undying document remains a challenge - from the first demand - "the people govern" to the tenth demand that "there shall peace and friendship", every demand remain a challenge.

COSATU is grateful to the ANC for organising this so that we can consistently remind ourselves of our historic commitments to ourselves. I want to spend a few minutes to outline some of these challenges.

We as the democratic movement have made huge strides in the area of human rights and peace. There is in principle equality before the law and everyone including those opposed to transformation have a guaranteed freedom of speech, religion, education and movement. Pass laws and police repression belongs to the past. All these gains are enshrined in our national Constitution, which has been hailed as a model for the world.

The revolutionary character of the Charter appears in its economic and social vision: a vision of equal access to wealth and income, an economy restructured to meet the needs of the majority of our people, with labour rights, education and social security for all. We should not let the eloquence of the Charter obscure its demands for radical change in these areas.

Critical demands in the Freedom Charter include the redirection of the economy through national ownership of mineral rights, land reform to benefit "those who work it" - the farm workers and subsistence farmers - and government support to redirect production to benefit the majority.

Today, our economy is still controlled by a handful of the monopolies such as the banks and mining companies, leaving too many of our people in poverty. Indeed, since 1990 it seems that the income of the poorest South Africans has actually fallen. Moreover, farmers still brutalise farm workers, often breaking the law in order to fire, evict or abuse them. We must still seek measures to ensure more equitable ownership of our country's productive resources, and to ensure that economic growth benefits all South Africans, not just a tiny minority.

The Freedom Charter also demands labour rights for all, including the right to employment, a national minimum wage, paid maternity leave, and a forty-hour week. We have gone far in ensuring labour rights - above all, the right to join a union and bargain collectively, and to equal pay for equal work. As the Charter demands, we have extended these rights to virtually all workers, including the most oppressed historically - miners, domestic and farm workers - as well as public servants.

A number of these demands are still not met. Above all, we have not realised the right to work. Today, unemployment is over 38 per cent - higher than it has ever been. Moreover, the quality of jobs has deteriorated, with more people in insecure, poorly paid informal work and fewer in formal employment.

That is our greatest challenge today: To restructure the economy so that no South African is unemployed or employed in unacceptable conditions. Close to 4 million of workers and the unemployed demonstrated on the 10 of May 2000 in support of this demand.

In addition, the Freedom Charter demands an end to migrant and child labour. We need to find ways to realise these objectives. That means addressing migrant labour, with its attendant ills of family break up, the spread of HIV and poverty. It means punishing severely those who are still bent on using child labour, especially on the farms. On education, the Charter requires free, compulsory and equal education for all children, and an expansion of higher education for all. It also demands a national adult literacy campaign, and curriculum reform.

Again, in this area, we have made great strides. Certainly the racism in education that was a central characteristic of apartheid has been ended. All children now have the same curriculum, and no school may discriminate on the basis of race.

But have we truly established equality in education, or ensured that all school-age children are in school? We all know the answer. Because historically black schools still have less staff and worse facilities, they still have a far higher failure rate than white schools.

We need to substantially improve funding for schools in black communities, especially in the poorest parts of the country. We inherited a system where, in 1996, 60 per cent of schools did not have adequate toilets, half did not have electricity, and one in five did not have clean water within walking distance. Government must provide the resources needed to overcome these backlogs. Nor have we entirely equalised staff between schools.

The Freedom Charter promises housing and social security for all. Again, we have made great progress toward this goal - but we still have far to go.

We have not met the Freedom Charter's promises of building new suburbs with adequate facilities for social and cultural activities as well as electricity, water and good roads. Nor have we secured lower rents and food prices, or ensured that our public health system has adequate resources.

And we still have to develop a social security network that will end poverty. To that end, COSATU has proposed, as part of the Job Crisis Campaign, the establishment of a Basic Income Grant that will ensure all South Africans have at least a minimum of subsistence.

In sum, we have made great progress toward fulfilling key objectives set by the Freedom Charter. But we still have far to go. The greatness of the Charter lies precisely in the way it pinpointed our most important social problems, challenges that will take time to address. We cannot be discouraged by our failure to resolve them overnight; but we also cannot ignore them. Rather, as the Congress of the People resolved so many years ago,