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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

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

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

27 April 2001

Comrade Chairperson; Members of the National Executive Committee; National Office Bearers; Distinguished guests; Delegates, Comrades and Friends;

Allow me to express my heartfelt revolutionary greetings to the National Congress of NEHAWU. I am deeply honoured for the opportunity to stand in front of this important meeting. Allow me also to salute NEHAWU for its phenomenal growth since the late 198 0s. NEHAWU has grown from 17 000 members in 1993 to 240 000 members today. The liberation of the public service from the apartheid colonial yoke has opened the space for democratic unions to flourish as demonstrated by the rapid growth of COSATU Public S ector affiliates.

For the labour movement, the growth of the public sector unions, including NEHAWU, mitigated the loss of membership from manufacturing and mining. Without this phenomenal growth, the Federationís membership would have surely declined. We must defend the p ublic sector whilst ensuring job creation in other sectors of the economy.

NEHAWU should also be saluted for its unparalleled dedication to organisational development and to political education. The political schools hosted over the years play a pivotal role in building working class consciousness. Political consciousness is a precondition for building a strong movement and to build a socialist future.

This Congress provides the opportunity to step back and analyse the state of organisation, the political and socio-economic environment, and the balance of power both at home and internationally. I am sure the Secretariat Report and the Political Report wi ll provide an important base to analyse the state or organisation and the state or play in the political terrain.

The Congress takes place in the context of consolidation of democracy in our country. The 1994 breakthrough opened up the space to construct a democratic, non-racial and non-sexist society. The aspirations of the people contained in the Freedom Charter an d the RDP have been codified in the Constitution that we have played an important role in developing. It is therefore fitting that the Congress takes place on the 27 April - Freedom Day. We owe it to generations of activists and those who have died for th e cause to defend our hard won political freedom. We salute heroes such as Yuri Mdyogolo, Sicelo Dlomo, Max Madlingozi and countless other heroes and heroines.

Since the democratic elections in April 1994 the working class has scored many victories and also suffered major setbacks. Politically, the democratic forces represent the dominant force as expressed in the wide support enjoyed by the ANC. The ANC has bee n returned to power with a significant majority at national, provincial and local government level. Surely, this represents a source of power for the democratic forces. The challenge is now to use this power to shift the balance of forces in favour of the democratic forces and the working class in particular.

The democratic state has recorded many important improvements in the lives of our people. Those who before did not have houses have been given shelter, those who previously did not have water have been given access, and those who lacked health care how ha ve more hospitals and clinics. In the labour market the state has implemented progressive labour policy that protects workersí rights.

Another important gain was the relative success in closing the wage gap in the public service from over 25 to 1 to 17 to 1 in a relatively short space of time. However, the public service is still far from its goal of reaching the target of 1:12. The att ainment of this goal is undermined by the commitment to contain personnel cost resulting in inflation-linked wage offers.

These gains must be defended and consolidate if we are to achieve the goal of a better life for all!

Still, the sad reality is that the deep scars of apartheid remained entrenched in our society and, because of job losses, inequality is even worsening. Despite our advances, the social deficit remains large and the economy is still controlled by a white m inority. The macroeconomic programme pursued by the state has aggravated the situation, as thousands have lost jobs. The deficit reduction programme has negatively affected social expenditure and limited the scope for government action to turn around the economy.

The deficit reduction programme has translated into pressure to cut back on public service personnel, which will affect workers at the lower end, and to reduce wages by limiting career paths and pay progression. This will have knock-on effect on NEHAWU an d will erode its membership base. The commitment to privatisation whether complete or partial will limit state power and leverage, resulting in job losses, poor quality service, especially for the poor, and lack of access to basic services such as electri city.

Internationally, the balance of power is still heavily loaded in favour of the bosses. They use this power to unleash a race to the bottom as government in the developing countries strip workers their basic rights in order to attract investments. Globalis ation - presented as both inevitable and immutable -is used to blackmail developing nations and to impose one-size-fit-all structural adjustment programmes.

This balance of power resulted in capital, including in South Africa, to be more bold and unashamed to demand more flexibility, starvation wages, and stringent macro economic policies. Yet as more governments give in to this blackmail they are not rewarded with investments and prosperous economies but face an insatiable appetite for more flexibility. The working class is therefore facing serious challenges which we must confront directly or perish.

The right wing is regrouping and element from this section of our society are refashioning their role. This was manifest in the arrogant manner in which Roelf Meyer and partners abrogated to themselves the title of civil society at their recent conference. The DA is consolidating its base and projects itself as a defender of democracy and human rights. It has become a hypocritical spokesperson for the poor. We must defeat these forces by ensuring that the democratic movement led by the ANC becomes stronge r. Building the movement is not an end in itself but a means to take the revolution forward.

I do not cite these realities in order to instil fear and inaction but to indicate that we are facing serious challenges. This congress provides a platform to discuss these challenges and develop a strategy of engagement particularly in the public sector. The development of alternatives has become a matter of life and death for the working class movement.

Here at home, we are called upon to ensure that the democratic forces are strengthened around a common programme for transformation. Against this background the recent developments within the ANC must be taken in a serious light. In our intervention we n eed to defend internal democracy within the movement, defend the movement from those who want to derail it from its mission of transformation and build stronger organisation.

The greatest risk confronting the South African revolution is a situation where the revolution devours its children with comrade fighting comrade, feeding into paranoia and hysteria, lack of trust and suspicion of each othersí motive. Under these circums tances it becomes extremely difficult to work together as a revolutionary movement.

Even more dangerous is a situation where de facto the alliance has effectively died. In this condition it becomes academic to talk about strengthening the alliance. If we do not urgently address the problems in the alliance it will die a natural death as people lose faith in the alliance as a vehicle for change. In the current conjuncture the death of the alliance is to me synonymous with the revolution being disarmed.

Failure to address the underlying problems confronting our people, namely unemployment, poverty and inequality, pose another lethal threat to the revolution. It is imperative that visible steps are taken to address these issues. If these grievances are n ot attended to they will be used opportunistically by all shades to political opinion to cast doubt on the democratic movement.

The NDR in the current context requires that we make progress in addressing race, gender and class oppression. The CEC discussed the state of gender in our society and organisation. It noted that the democratic state has made some progress in addressing g ender inequality in our society. It also recognised that some of our affiliates are making good strides in realising gender equity. NEHAWU stands as a shining example in this regard and must be congratulated for its achievement. However, we are still far from achieving full gender equality and it is the task of the Congress to build on the achievement by designing a clear plan of action.

The revolution will be meaningless if it does not bring material benefits to the vast majority of the previously oppressed people. Our society will divide into the haves and have nots, with an elite emerging to capture the revolution for its own ends. Th erefore, the critical criteria for success must be the extent to which we address the underlying problems of our society and bring tangible benefits to the oppressed majority.

The Congress takes place in the aftermath of the COSATU Central Executive Committee. The CEC has taken a number of important decisions to address the challenges we face.

The CEC decided to step up our anti-privatisation campaign to stop the privatisation of state assets at all levels of government. A section 77 notice for a two-day national strike will be served on NEDLAC very soon. Privatisation is a threat to our jobs, quality service to the poor and to the ability of the state to play a developmental role. It has occurred in the absence of a policy and legislative framework negotiated with all key stakeholders.

The privatisation of ESKOM and other state assets would definitely place these services beyond the reach of the vast majority of poor South Africans. While it might improve the cash flow for the state, it would have a devastating long run impact on the de velopment of our society and undermine the commitment to build a better life for all.

For a long time we have committed ourselves to work within the National Framework Agreement for State Owned Enterprise. Government has systematically undermined the Framework Agreement by taking unilateral decisions without a meaningful engagement with th e trade union movement. It is also unable to rein the managers of state owned companies who are bent on selling assets and destroying thousand of jobs all in the name of efficiency and competitiveness.

Part of our campaign against privatisation is the struggle to resist downsizing the public service and local government through both outsourcing and job cuts. This strategy will only lead to worse services for the poor, and a downgrading of tens of thousan ds of jobs. To combat it, Nehawu and COSATUís other public-service affiliates must ensure that the principled victories won at the Public Service Job Summit are translated into practical agreements.

The CEC also considered reports from affiliates on the proposed labour law amendments reached with business. It assessed a revised document adopted in the Millennium Labour Council. The CEC endorsed the package subject to the condition that some issues s hould be tightened up during the NEDLAC negotiations.

Until the amendments are passed by parliament, the battle is not over and it is important that we should not let our guard down. On balance, we stand on the verge of a resounding victory. If the deal goes through, obviously with improvements, we will hav e averted the worst attacks on our hard-won rights. In certain respects, we have even advanced far beyond our expectations. It is important to underline the fact that the success is a result of our threat to use our power combined with a sophisticated ne gotiation strategy.

Congress must also take note of the victory scored by the democratic movement when the pharmaceutical companies withdrew their court challenge against government. The power of the masses was behind this victory and we must congratulate all of you who made it possible. NEHAWU must be congratulated for being at the forefront of the struggle and spearheading the treatment campaign, including taking the bold decision to host the Treatment Action Campaign.

The challenge now is to ensure that government implements the law to realise the objective of cheaper medicines, which are important for the vast majority of the poor. Failure to implement the law will render our victory hollow.

The CEC also approved the terms of reference of the Organisational Review Commission, whose primary mandate is to critically review the Federation and its affiliates. It is expected that the Commission will present recommendation aimed at improving the ma nner in which we operate in order to meet the challenges thrown up by the new era. The Report of the Commission will be tabled at the Central Committee in September, which will focus on strengthening our organisation and service to members. It is therefo re imperative that all organs of the Federation make a meaningful contribution to the work of the Commission.

This Congress must reflect on the state of organisation and emerge with a plan to take the organisation to new heights. It is important that we attend to the important issue of increasing our ranks through a concerted recruitment drive campaign. If we do not increase our ranks we run the risk of representing a minority of workers in our society. In such an environment claims that we represent an elite will stick.

For this reason we must resist downsizing in the public service. We must reappraise our recruitment strategies and the quality of the service that we provide to our members. We must not shy away from confronting weaknesses otherwise our strength, as an o rganisation would be false.

Finally, the Congress must take stock of the struggles waged by NEHAWU and other public sector unions over the last three years. The wage negotiations in the public service have become an annual show of strength between the public sector unions and govern ment as an employer. Government succeeded to unilaterally impose a wage deal in 1999 and our unions were not able to reverse this for a number of reasons. It also waged a public onslaught, accusing unions as representing an elite, narrow-minded, against the national interest, and too economistic

The definition of essential services has effectively weakened the power of NEHAWU to use power to engage the state. This has left a narrow legalistic route of arbitration to settle matters that sometimes require assertion of power. The issue of essential services should be revisited as it currently ties the hand of NEHAWU to act decisively.

The existence of too many unions in the public service with different interests limits the power of the workers in the public service. The government at time opportunistically manipulates the situation to pit unions against each other. Unity of the Publ ic Service unions is therefore of utmost importance to ensure effective collective bargaining. The primary step towards this unity is the unity of the COSATU public service unions. Lack of unity as seen in 2000 can have disastrous outcomes for our unions and our members.

I wish the Congress fruitful deliberations and look forward to the outcome.

Thank you

Wishing your conference every success!