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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Address by COSATU General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, to the SACTWU 8th National Congress

Address by COSATU General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, to the SACTWU 8th National Congress

9 August, 2001

Comrades President Amon Ntuli, General Secretary, Ebrahim Patel, and members of the National Executive Committee Deputy President, Jacob Zuma Delegates and distinguished guests

Let me first convey the revolutionary greetings of the COSATU members and leadership to this august 8th National Congress of SACTWU.

Your union remains one of the mainstays of our Federation, providing leadership in a number of critical issues facing COSATU, the working class as a whole and the National Democratic Revolution.

As you begin your congress, all of us in the family you belong to are looking forward to the conclusions of your congress with great anticipation, assured that you will once again provide us answers to the many challenges we face.

It is fitting that SACTWU holds its National Congress on National Women’s Day. This day commemorates the historic 1956 march on the Union Buildings in Pretoria, led in part by union leaders like Lilian Ngoyi, Dora Tamana and Florence Matomela, and other pa triots such as Helen Joseph.

SACTWU is one of our affiliates with the largest number of women members. The clothing and textiles industry is one of the few manufacturing sectors with largely women workers. For this reason this union and the sector it is organising have a special place in our struggle.

Women workers still have a harder time than their male comrades. Unemployment is still higher among women than among men, with half of African women unemployed compared to a third of African men. Moreover, most women who do find employment end up as domest ic or other types of service workers. And women workers often have to balance their responsibilities to their children and families against their work needs. Those of us with children know very well what it is like to leave a sick child at home because we have to go to work.

Thus, the job loss blood bath that goes on unabated in this sector has wider implications, and its impact is even broader than anywhere else. It means the gains that have been made in relation to the women’s employment are being reversed. It means we have made less progress toward a central goal of the NDR -women’s empowerment and the elimination of gender inequalities that still characterise our society.

The destruction of quality jobs and their replacement with home based piecework and informal work is not accidental. It is part of a systematic and orchestrated strategy to undercut the victories workers have scored around the living-wage struggle. It is p art of an ongoing, endless class contradiction between labour and capital, where capital does every thing in its power to maximise profits through exploitation of our labour.

The struggle against these injustices must be led by those that stand to benefit from success. Women must begin to assert themselves and use the strength they have in their numbers to dictate the NDR and the direction of our society. They must dictate the destiny of COSATU and most important they must dictate the direction SACTWU must take in this congress and in the future. COSATU’s Seventh National Congress last year proposed that we set targets for promoting women into union positions, from President to shopstewards. Here, too, we know SACTWU will take the lead.

I am strong advocate of what I believe that COSATU has mustered since in conception. That is the ability to combine militancy and a sophisticated negotiations strategy. In COSATU we know it too well that what you have not won in the streets, you cannot win at the boardroom table. SACTWU has led in the struggle to include issues in negotiations and service to members that are important for all workers, but especially for women. COSATU looks to you to continue to play a leading role in ensuring that union mov ement serves women workers just as well as men.

As we celebrate women’s day, let us re-dedicate ourselves to the struggle for women. We take inspiration to the words Samora Machel uttered in 1973:

The emancipation of women is not an act of charity, the result of a humanitarian or compassionate attitude. The liberation of women is a fundamental necessity for revolution, the guarantee of its continuity and the precondition of its victory…. One cannot only partially wipe out exploitation and oppression. One cannot tear up only half the weeds without even stronger ones spreading out from the half that survive.

I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the unique and extremely important role that your General Secretary, Comrade Ebrahim Patel, plays into ensuring that we retain the strength of our federation both in the boardroom and in the streets. This comr ade has for many years been part of every single COSATU negotiations team.

The transformation of the South African labour market would have been far less successful were it not for his unique strength and energy to follow minute details, use his huge power, patience and diligence to force water out of a mountain stone. He continu es to play this role, not only for South African workers, but increasingly on a range of issues at the international level.

I know that this comes at a huge cost to him, his family and sometimes even his union. I want to tell him today that the two million members of COSATU do appreciate his contribution. Every time he goes to bed in the early hours of the morning, he must take consolation from the fact that his contribution to the struggle to improve the lot of the working class does not go unnoticed.


There is an ancient Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times. It seems we in COSATU must have done something to anger someone, because we do indeed live in interesting times.

As you know, we are in the middle of an anti-privatisation campaign. Perhaps you wonder why SACTWU, in the clothing and textiles sector, should worry about privatisation. I want you to stop and consider the following facts:

  • Over the past seven years, some 200 000 jobs have been lost in the public sector and in the parastatals as a result of privatisation and outsourcing of the so-called non-core functions in hospitals and other state functions. When your bosses retrench yo u must know the connection - it is because as job losses deepen poverty, fewer people can buy the goods you produce.
  • In South Africa we have two nations - and privatisation deepens the divide. One nation is rich and lives beyond the means of our economy. This side used to be lily white. But seven years after liberation, it is a bit more diverse. The bosses who used to live in the segregated apartheid first-class coach have now been joined by able and articulate spokespersons who sneaked out of the third-class wagons. Now, we can see clearly that the main issue is class, not race, as these two coaches are being consolid ated.
  • In education, the rich in the first-class coach can afford high fees and get great schools in the former whites only suburbs. Meanwhile, our schools, in the townships and rural areas, don’t have enough electricity or classrooms, and our children fail ev en before matric.
  • Privatisation means that in health, the rich get private care with the best services in the world -while the poor are trapped in an underfunded, understaffed public health system, with long queues and deteriorating hospitals and clinics. That is why SAC TWU has had to set up its own clinics - because the state systematically cuts down on public-sector care. And while we welcome SACTWU’s pathbreaking initiative, the fact is that all working people should have equal care. Our call for a National Health Insu rance to deal with these imbalances have fallen on deaf ears. Maybe it is because the people who should take our call forward do no longer have to stand for eight hours waiting to be admitted, spend days in dirty sheets, or watch a family member dying in a dirty, smelly hospital ward.
  • Water has either been privatised or commercialised in a number of municipalities. We have already experienced that with the rapid increases in water costs in Cape Town and Durban, with the latter facing a 28% hike in water tariffs.
  • The partial privatisation of Telkom has led to a massive increase of 35 per cent for local telephone calls whilst at the same time there has been a 40 per cent decline in international calls. Who benefits from this? Who amongst you have a family oversea s and who can take advantage of the decline in the cost of international calls? The high cost undermines the roll-out of new connections. Last year, Telkom rolled out 620 000 new connections to the former disadvantaged areas, but in the same period it cut 220 000 connections as more and more people could not afford its continued increases in rent and local calls.
  • Eskom was asked to operate along business lines in 1998, in terms of the Company Act, paying taxes and dividends. Now there are proposals to break it up into small competing groups and introduce private competition in the generation of electricity. This process of gradual privatisation has led to a situation where Eskom has been cutting electricity to no less than 60 000 households on Soweto in the middle of this very cold winter.
  • And privatisation of bus services has led to worse services for all of us, forcing us to rely on unsafe taxis and fuelling taxi wars. What happened to our dream of a cheap, accessible and affordable public transport system, where the rail system would c onnect with a publicly owned, affordable bus system? The rich in the former whites’ only suburbs have cars. They can afford to pay at the tollgates, whilst the working class still contend with potholes and rubbish littering every street corner.
  • The rich are able to hire private security forces. They blockade themselves in their cushy residential areas with armed guards manning electronic gates. The poor and the working class must be content with understaffed, under resourced and de-motivated p olice, who are expected to risk their lives for poverty wages. The police force has actually shrunk by 20 000 people in the past seven years. Crime, rape, child abuse and women abuse are the order of the day.

Privatisation comes from the same source as the tariff cuts that have cost so many jobs in clothing and textiles: the blind, ideological commitment to a free market. That commitment contradicts the democratic movement’s historic demand that the state imple ment an industrial strategy to restructure the economy and create jobs. It arises from the constant lobbying by big business and international capital. Our anti-privatisation campaign must show them that we will not accept this strategy of undermining empl oyment and growth in our country.

For this reason, COSATU has agreed on provincial protests on August 16 and 21, leading up to a national general strike on August 29 and 30. There will be no postponement! There will be no cancellation! We know that SACTWU will be in the forefront of mobili sing for these actions.

The anti-privatisation campaign must also support our work to establish an industrial strategy that will create jobs and raising living standards for all our people. SACTWU showed us the way with its sectoral job summit last year. Now, thanks to our Jobs a nd Poverty Campaign last year, business and government have agreed to sector summits in all the major industries. As COSATU, we are also engaging at NEDLAC and in the Alliance on ways to install more active and effective policies to restructure the economy toward job creation.

This work takes time, and does not bear fruit immediately. But if we do not stem the rising flood of unemployment, we cannot hope to maintain our gains as organised workers.

For the same reason, demands for an effective industrial strategy must be linked to efforts to expand our organisations to workers who have been marginalised - informal, casual and home-based workers. This must form a focus of our recruitment campaign in O ctober. We know that SACTWU will extend its pathbreaking efforts in this area.

Privatisation, blind and ideologically inspired tariff liberalisation, the cuts in the budget and in basic services, the threat to reverse workers’ gains through the labour law amendments proposed in July 2000 as the basis for labour market flexibility - a ll these prescriptions arise from that neo-liberal bible dubbed GEAR.

None of the promises made by GEAR have been realised. It promised us growth of up to 6%, yet the economy has only grown slower than our population. We were promised employment creation of 270 000 jobs a year, and yet what we have seen is the destruction of over 500 000 jobs. Unemployment has soared from 15 per cent in 1994 to 26 per cent in 1999, using the narrow definition - and up to 38% if we include discouraged workers.

GEAR promised us redistribution and this has not happened. The only distribution we have seen is that of misery! I can no longer understand why the country would want to stick to something that has wholly failed. GEAR must be thrown to the dustbin!

Every time we want to fight and highlight grievances, we are told that the rand will be weakened. Every time we want to protest against our subordination and poverty, we are told that investors will be worried. Every time we say we disagree with this polic y we are told we are risking the tripartite alliance or that the alliance is breaking up.

The time has come to reassert who we are! There is no ANC that excludes workers. There is no ANC without workers. The alliance between ANC, SACP, COSATU and SANCO is unique in that whilst these are separate organisations with their own constitutions, membe rship largely overlaps. That is why the alliance will not break up as the prophets of doom has been telling us. ANC without workers cannot be ANC. COSATU without ANC members cannot be COSATU.

Comrades and friends,

The federation is running a number of campaigns this year. At the end of August, the World Conference Against Racism and Xenophobia is taking place in Durban. The Alliance plans a march on September 1st to support the Conference and our demands for the eli mination of racism from all aspects of society, including the economy. We will march to demand reparations from our former colonisers. We demand that their apologies go beyond mere words.

At the centre of reparations and apologies has to be the writing off of the debt of the developing countries, the restructuring of the U.N. and its institutions to strengthen the voice of the South in these institutions, and the elimination of the trade im balances and opening of the developed countries’ markets to the goods produced in the developing countries. We demand a Marshall Plan for the African continent on the scale of the plan the revived Europe after the Second World War. But we must also fight a gainst xenophobia within our own ranks.

October has been dubbed "The month of the member" by our Executive Committee. We are running three related campaigns in this month.

We shall remember the Kinross mine disaster as well as countless other accidents that have left thousands of workers dead or permanently injured. We shall campaign for the election of health and safety campaign in every workplace. We shall be educating mem bers to know their rights related to occupational health and safety issues.

Guided by the slogan, Organise or Starve, we shall be recruiting unorganised workers into our ranks. We shall at the same time strengthen our structures and ensure that they can live up to the challenges of our time.

Last, we shall be engaged in a very important debate about how best we can position our unions and federation to meet the challenges of the 21st century. We must find workable solutions to the many organisational problems of our movement face. We must buil d our structures and drastically improve service to our members. We must strengthen the ethics and values that build our movement. We must return to the principle of worker control, internal democracy, mandate and report back. We can only drop these at our peril. This debate will feed into the CEC meetings in November, where we know SACTWU will play a leading role.

Then, by December 1, we will launch a major campaign against AIDS. This campaign will combine demands for treatment as well as more effective education, prevention, and support for people with AIDS. As part of the campaign, we will be holding fundraising a ctivities for AIDS orphans and others affected by this terrible epidemic.

When we were struggling against apartheid, we never thought we would be engaged in such hectic campaigns. Sometimes it makes comrades question what we have gained. But just posing the question makes the answer obvious. We have gained the new labour laws, w hich give us much greater rights as union members; we have gained vast improvements in services for our communities and our families; and we have gained a government that fundamentally supports our objectives and aims.

The biggest problems arise where the state carries out policies that we cannot accept. That has happened with unnecessary tariff cuts, the GEAR and privatisation. Then we cannot remain quiet.

But disagreements about some policies cannot undermine our commitment to the Alliance, through which we unite the main progressive forces in our country. Transformation of our country can only happen if the alliance remains intact. The Alliance is like a m arriage: sometimes we will fight each other, but it doesn’t mean we are about to get divorced.

I am sure you will use this congress, like those before it, to discuss these challenges. We have relied on you in the past. I know we can rely on you for the future.

On behalf of COSATU, I wish you a successful congress.