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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Address by COSATU Deputy General Secretary, Bheki Ntshalintshali, at Fawu National Congress, 12 September, 2001

Address by COSATU Deputy General Secretary, Bheki Ntshalintshali, at Fawu National Congress

12 September 2001 Comrade President - Patrick Johnson; National Office Bearers; Members of the National Executive Committee; Distinguished guests; Delegates; Comrades and Compatriots;

It is with a deep sense of pride that I stand in front of this parliament of workers to speak on behalf of COSATU, its leadership and entire membership. The National Congress represents an opportunity to reflect on the past - both our strengths and weakne sses - and on that basis develop plan of action to take the organisation to new heights. This congress is not an exception - all our eyes are cast on the congress with expectations that you will emerge stronger, unified and inspired.

On behalf of COSATU, its leadership and membership I take this opportunity to congratulate FAWU on its 60th anniversary. FAWU alongside other unions in COSATU is part of the early pioneers of the progressive trade union movement in South Africa. It embodi es a very rich history of decades of struggle for better working and living conditions. We owe it our forbearers, future generations of trade unionist to main a strong and vibrant trade union within the food production industry. I salute FAWU on the occas ion of it 60 anniversary and wish you success in all your endeavours.

The political environment within which this congress takes place is very exciting and holds many possibilities for the working class revolutions. Congress takes place seven years after the democratic breakthrough in South Africa - marking the end of apart heid colonialism in our country. The last seven years have been a period of adjustment and learning for the trade union movement, indeed the entire progressive movement.

The elevation of the ANC into power in two successful general and local elections was a decisive turning point in the history of South Africa. The ANC was brought into power on a broad mandate for reconstruction and development as embodied in the Reconstr uction and Development Programme. The assumption of power by the democratic movement raised hopes among the oppressed and the progressive movement internationally for an accelerated transformation that will change the material conditions of the forces all ied against apartheid, in particular the working class.

Even as we criticise government, we should not lose sight of the gains made by the South African working class since in the new democratic dispensation. South Africa is now a democratic society government by one of the most progressive Constitutions in th e world. The government pioneered labour market transformation has begun to change the face of our labour market from its oppressive, colonial and discriminatory legacy. Workers have gained significantly from government reprioritisation of state expendit ure - even though the arms procurement programme has reversed this trend.

The achievements are, however, overshadowed by the scale of the social challenge: many people especially in the rural areas lack essential services such as water and electricity; the public health care system is inadequately funded compared to the private sector; unemployment is soaring as the economy destroys jobs faster than new ones are created; poverty is also deep as half of the population of South Africa lives in poverty.

As a result, the vast majority of South Africans are shut out of the economy, live despondent lives; and those with jobs no longer feel safe and inequality is rising, especially among the formerly oppressed.

Of course these problems cannot be resolved overnight but the methods adopted by government are not effective in overcoming the deep structural problems in South Africa. Since 1996 government has adopted a contradictory policy - on the one hand a fairly progressive social policy but constrained by a conservative economic strategy that relies heavily on market forces. Government's conservative economic policy has the following elements:

·A tight fiscal policy - aimed at reducing government debt thereby reducing the deficit (the difference between revenue and expenditure) at a faster rate; ·A tight monetary policy stance aimed at reducing inflation using interest rate at the tool; ·Liberal isation of trade and exchange rate - resulting in rapid reduction of tariffs which has led to job losses in textile industry. The rand is open to speculators due to absence of capital control hence it if fluctuating so much. ·State asset restructuring, wh ich is biased toward using private sector solutions including total or partial sale of state assets; introducing private sector managers in parastatals and breaking up government monopoly in areas such as telecommunications.

The above elements are standard ingredients of IMF-World Bank structural adjustment programme imposed on developing countries as part of stabilisation programmes. The only difference is that GEAR is a self-imposed structural adjustment programme of course with the active participation of the IMF and the World Bank in the background.

Structural adjustment programmes have not worked particularly in developing nations - in fact they had the opposite effect of killing the economies of developing nations. Zimbabwe's economic problems are directly linked to a failed structural adjustment p rogramme in the early 90s. Even in South Africa GEAR has succeeded to achieve lower inflation, lower deficit and tariff reductions but has failed in critical areas of job creation. Moreover, international experience from Europe, America and Asia shows th at dogmatic adherence to textbook solutions proposed by the neo-liberal school of thought are bound to worsen unemployment and income inequality.

Yet we are advised to be quiet while jobs are being destroyed throughout the economy, and inequality and poverty worsens. We are told that if we are patient enough the economy will soon create jobs on a massive scale. When we take action we are accused o f the worst crimes - betraying the national interest, that we are counter-revolutionaries or we have political ambitions. At the core of these accusations lies the belief that trade unions must just be a transmission belt or become an uncritical praise si nger.

Ironically, capital is currently engaged in an intense struggle to ensure that its interests become the national interest. Government is now fond of appeasing the markets whatever the costs, the changes in telecommunication policy being a recent example. But as we know capital's appetite knows no bounds - the more you give the more they want until you have nothing left to give!

Government has done everything demanded by capital but is rewarded with demands for more corporate tax cuts, rapid privatisation, capital flight and all manner of demands. Capital is the real enemy of transformation in South Africa not COSATU. It resists all progressive changes in the vain hope of maintaining accumulated privileges and retaining its class power in the post-apartheid South Africa.

The working class is now saying enough is enough, we shall not behave like sitting ducks when jobs are being destroyed, essential service privatised, and so forth. We refuse to be reduced into gumboots and overall union movement and those who believe they can sideline the working class better think again! The trade union movement has an important role to play in the reconstruction of our society and has remained a loyal supporter of transformation. Transformation must however, be in the interest of the m otive force of the revolution - the working class- otherwise workers will resist it!

Our starting point is that there is an alternative to neo-liberalism and our inaugural Central Committee resolution forms our contribution towards that alternative! Second, government is not powerless against the power of capital - it has the backing of t he overwhelming majority in South Africa and was elected on a progressive platform.

Of course we cannot ignore the objective reality of capital's power neither can we act in a manner that suggests our powerlessness. To ignore the power of the democratic movement is tantamount to submitting meekly to the power of capital from which there is no hope of redemption. The South African democratic government represents a powerful bloc of forces for transformation and need to act in a manner that advance the agenda of these forces both at home and international.

The entire international democratic movement and the region hope that the South African democratic transition would form the bedrock of a new movement fighting for change. This is a responsibility that we must fulfil and utilise the space to its fullest b ecause no balance of forces is static.

Against this background, COSATU 7th Congress gave us a mandate that we must actively campaign against privatisation and for employment creation. We are emerging from a successful anti-privatisation campaign, which culminated in a general strike on August 29-30.

The anti-privatisation campaign was successful in that it demonstrated that we could pull off a successful national strike. We salute all workers and other working class formations for their bravery amid blackmail, ferocious attacks and deliberate disinfo rmation. This bears testimony to the type of union movement represented by COSATU - a movement of deep commitment, sacrifice, solidarity and ideological clarity.

The strike has once more proved that COSATU is a force to be reckoned with and cannot be wished away. It also vividly demonstrated that no successful transformation can take place by deliberately sidelining or marginalising the voice of the workers. In th e long run, sidelining labour does not contribute to a stable environment for investors.

The strike exposed the unresolved differences within the alliance around economic questions. Government stubbornly clings to its conservative macroeconomic policy despite evidence that it is not working even in terms of its stated aims. Again, this reflect s the deepening class contradictions within our society that must be resolved. Privatisation affects workers material conditions and it is for this reason that workers came out in their numbers to support the strike.

The campaign has greatly increased public understanding about issues of privatisation amongst our membership; other workers and public as whole. It managed to revive a democratic movement uniting labour, the SACP, the civics and the student movement. The churches are also now expressing sympathy to the campaign. These forces supported COSATU, not for opportunistic reasons, but because their members identified with our demands. The forces arrayed against privatisation are the ANC's traditional base, exce pt for NACTU, and the government must heed their call.

Despite workers having come out in their millions, government has stuck to its own position and is not prepared to meet any of the workers' demands, despite claiming that its door is opened. Ironically, where investor concerns are at stake, government doe s everything in its power to appease investor sentiments. Recently, government changed its position on telecommunications due to pressure from capital but meet demands from its own constituency with scorn and arrogance. It is for this reason that the CEC has resolved to sustain the action and maintain workers mobilisation for sectoral actions.

The Alliance Summit and the People's Summit mooted by the CEC offers an opportunity for the democratic movement to develop an alternative economic strategy. Our energies will be invested in making both summits a success.

Some commentators have declared that the alliance is dead and are now dancing on its grave! Of course there are deep divisions within the alliance but the alliance still represent a vehicle for transforming South Africa society. COSATU's efforts since 19 94 were directed at building a strong alliance that steers transformation not a symbolic, toy telephone alliance. Workers have nothing to gain from destroying both the alliance and the democratic government. We must build and defend the alliance and suppo rt progressive policies that emerge from within the state.

This must not be read to mean we will refrain from criticising wrong policies in public. However, the preferred and ideal route is for the alliance to function as a political centre that drives transformation not a rubber stamp! Further we should not be b uilding any alliance but an alliance that works for and is driven by the working class.

Internationally, the situation has also changed as capitalism has failed to overcome its internal contractions and to address humanity's problems. We are witnessing the regrouping of social movement and social protest now accompanies the meetings of gover nments and captains of business. What these formations require is coherent leadership and a cohesive agenda in order to turn into an effective force for transformation on the global scale. On this score the international trade union movement together wit h progressive political parties are confronted with the challenge to provide leadership to this disparate forces.

Comrade delegates, let me turn my attention to the recently concluded deal on the labour laws. Last year government introduced a package of amendments that would have fundamentally altered the architecture of our labour laws. Of course government was bow ing to pressure from capital as well as acting in its interest as an employer. Today, with the deal discussed in the MLC and negotiated in NEDLAC we have managed to prevent a frontal assault on our laws and have won rights that we did not have before incl uding the right to strike over retrenchments and a better improved package to deal with insolvency.

Our success came as a result of skilful negotiation but more importantly out political commitment to go to the streets to challenge the amendments introduced by government. The battle is not yet over because the amendment will be tabled at parliament soon and there are areas that still require refinement. For this reason we shall not relax our vigilance but hope that the people's representative will adopt a labour-friendly package of amendments.

Comrade, the trade union movement faces many challenges and it is imperative that we focus on internal organisation to strengthen our organisational capacity. It is for this reason that the focus of the Central Committee in November is Organisational Rene wal - to build effective organisation. The report of the Organisational Review Commission will be circulated in due course and will be debated by the broader membership during the month of October. The report focuses on political strategy organising strat egy, building leadership and management and staff development.

In this vein we need to build the Party to strengthen it so that it can play it historical role. FAWU is among the few COSATU affiliates currently contributing to the Party and must be congratulated for the effort. However we must step up our efforts by implementing the CEC resolution on contribution to the Part once it is finalised. Similarly, it is also important that we work actively within the structures of the ANC and build a strong and vibrant movement. We would have failed in our historical duty i f we do not take our participation in ANC structures very seriously.

The Congress take place on the eve of a number of important campaigns that will run from October to December, namely recruitment, Health and safety, 16-days of activism against women abuse, and HIV/AIDS. The recruitment campaign takes place during the mon th of October and all affiliates are called upon to invest their resources to recruiting new members. Recruitment and organising the unorganised is not a luxury - in the current period it's Organise or Starve! Organising is an important tool to build uni on power and we need to focus on the unorganised, new workers - casual and temporary workers and so forth. Failure to organise the unorganised will come with great costs to the union movement, as employers will pit non-union members against union members.

Health and Safety comrades is non-negotiable. The aim of the campaign is to highlight the importance of occupational health and safety in the workplace, to ensure the election of health and safety reps and to shame employers with worst health and safety r ecords. This campaign will also take place during the course of October.

The sixteen days of activism is an annual campaign focusing on women and children abuse. The union need to place issues of abuse and harassment on its bargaining agenda and adopt programmes against abuse and harassment in the workplace and in the union. Sadly, this is the least developed area of our labour law as unions lack strategies to use the law to fight harassment.

Finally, the HIV/AIDS campaign occupies and important part of our campaigns. HIV/AIDS threatens our economy, and our survival and needs to be vigorously combated. It is important that we campaign for effective prevention and treatment strategies. All ou r unions need strategies for combating and creating awareness on HIV/AIDS. On this count we must put pressure on both government and employers to have effective prevention and treatment strategies. Within the work place we need to actively campaign agains t discrimination and ensure the enforcement of the Code of Good Practice on HIV/AIDS.

Linked to the above, we must fight the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS by promoting awareness and working closely with organisations dealing with HIV/AIDS issues. COSATU has published comics explaining how the disease is spread and how it can be prevented & to dispel myths about HIV/AIDS.

In conclusion, I thank you for the opportunity to address this important meeting of workers. I wish the congress fruitful discussions and all the success. It is my cherished hope that you will emerge from this congress more unified and committed to build an effective organisation.