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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Address by COSATU General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, to the SANGOCO NGO Week, 12 November, 2001

Address by COSATU General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, to the SANGOCO NGO at Buffelspoort North West

12 November 2001

Dear comrades and friends,

First, let me express my appreciation for the invitation to speak to your conference. COSATU has for many years worked very closely with South Africa's progressive NGOs, to improve the lives of millions of our people. This work was given impetus with the e mergence of the South African National Non-governmental Organisations Coalition - SANGOCO. My acceptance of the invitation is in recognition of this historic relationship and the need to even improve this cooperation in the coming years.

Your conference is takes place at the very interesting time in the history of our country. You have adopted a theme of "grassroots action for poverty eradication," which sums up the immense challenge this transition is facing.

We inherited a total mess from the apartheid system. Many of the structural problems facing our economy remain entrenched. Unemployment, poverty, inequalities, and diseases, in particular HIV/AIDS, continue to cause havoc. All these social ills combine tog ether to pose a threat to the long-term social and political stability of our country. We are facing a crisis of unimaginable proportions.

In the past seven years our democratic government has began its mission to eradicate these social ills from the face of our country. Millions now have access to basic necessities such as water, electricity, land, telecommunications, and so on. Whilst immen se progress has been achieved, we still have a long way to go before we can eliminate these social ills.

The adoption of GEAR in 1996 was a serious set back to this struggle to wipe from the face of our political life inequalities, unemployment, poverty, diseases and ignorance. Our government has since 1996 adopted contradictory policies. On one hand is the d eep commitment to deal with the social deficit, to restore dignity and provide rights to the former oppressed. On the other hand, the government adopted policies that seriously constrain its ability to meet its objectives. The conservative fiscal and monet ary policies have combined with wholesale liberalisation and non-existent industrial policy. This has seriously undermined the struggle for redistribution and dealing with what we inherited from the apartheid system. Even worse, the economy has been destro ying jobs at an alarming rate.

SANGOCO has been one of many organisations of our people that have rejected this growth strategy. However, SANGOCO like COSATU has not limited itself to criticism but have offered concrete alternatives. It is only those who want to discredit that claim tha t we have failed to offer tangible solutions. In fact, they have not even studied our proposals.

This experience provides yet another proof of the crucial role played by the progressive NGOs and broader civil society in deepening democracy. Without the NGOs, civil society would not have the expertise to engage with the government and big business on l eading policy issues. We need the NGOs to help us with research and policy analysis, with communication and the development of educational materials.

Furthermore, the NGOs have a central part in maintaining robust debate -a proud tradition of our democratic movement. NGOs bring a host of viewpoints to bear on any subject. Whether large or small, their leaders contribute to the contestation of ideas, whi ch is critical for a strong democracy.

Finally, as Sangoco's members know best, many NGOs directly serve our people. Whether through ABET, support for people with AIDS, welfare services, mobilising for land, or a host of other activities - the NGO community goes far to address the legacy of apa rtheid and find a way forward to a more equitable and united society.

These are important functions in our democracy. They sustain a strong civil society and participatory government. They do not, of course, mean that service organisations can speak for the majority of our people in a representative sense. That requires the elected government or mass-based organisations. But NGOs enrich the discourse and strengthen the mass-based organisations by providing technical advice, insights and support. They reflect the diversity of our society, which is one of our great strengths.

In this context, we are proud of Sangoco, which has managed to unite hundreds of our NGOs without suppressing their differences. It has given the NGOs a united voice in important areas, and let us works together more coherently and systematically.

At this stage of our democratisation we must retain our level of activism. In that vein we should not be discouraged by the new found fashion of discrediting genuine concerns. The challenge facing all of us is to maintain a strong voice to influence and wo rk with government on a number of progressive initiatives, without abandoning the right to raise problems whenever necessary. We therefore require a critical partnership between organisations within civil society on the one hand and partnership with the go vernment on the other hand.

Comrades and friends,

In recent years, we have seen a shift to the right in Government's economic policy. This has increased the importance of service organisations in helping to shape the response of civil society. We need to ensure that the voice of the people is heard.

We have now worked together with Sangoco for just over a year on the People's Budget Campaign. The Campaign, together with the SACC, provides an opportunity for co-operative work to educate people about the budget as well as responding to GEAR policies. We can claim a certain victory here, with some real increases in spending on key services in the coming year. Certainly without the pressure of civil society to counteract the power of capital, we would likely not have seen this real, although modest, move o n the part of the Treasury.

In the coming year, we want to intensify our educational efforts in the context of the People's Budget. We plan to hold a major consultative workshop in the first quarter of next year, and jointly publish an educational booklet. We hope this process will e nsure much broader understanding and debate about the budget process.

In the coming year, there are two more economic events where we hope to work together - the Financial Sector Summit and the People's Economic Summit.

The Financial Sector Summit is being organised by NEDLAC, largely in response to the demands of the SACP's Red October Campaign to make the banks serve the people. In the negotiations, labour is working very closely with the community constituency, which i ncludes Sangoco. Our key demands are

  • An increase and redirection of investment to create more jobs and raise living standards, and
  • Improved services for the poor and small-scale enterprise.

Achieving these demands will require a true transformation of the financial sector to ensure that it serves all our people and furthers economic and social development.

COSATU is organising the People's Economic Summit to support a broad discussion of the direction our country should take in its economic development strategy. The Summit will bring together all of civil society to define key priorities and solutions. Above all, it must find practical ways to create employment immediately and in the longer term, and to raise the living standards of all our people. We look forward to dynamic, even heated, debates, and are sure that Sangoco and its affiliates will take an acti ve part.

Underpinning this People's Summit is the search for a 'new deal' in economic reconstruction to eradicate the legacy of apartheid skewed economic development. We need a growth path that places our economy on a job-saving and job-creation trajectory. We need a caring society that creates opportunities for the million shut out of the economy and protect the most vulnerable from hunger, homeless and the despondency of joblessness. Until we meet people's basic demands our democracy will remain a victory on paper .

In addition to these South African meetings, there is of course the World Summit on Sustainable Development - the Earth Summit. It is likely to bring 70 000 people to South Africa for an intense debate on the way forward toward sustainable development - su stainable in economic, social and environmental terms. We as South African civil society have a special role to play in hosting this summit and ensuring that its deliberations reflect African concerns. Here, too, we expect the support and engagement of the NGOs. While they cannot speak for our people, they must help us analyse our realities, communicate them, and educate our constituencies.

In addition to these events, COSATU and our affiliates have close ties to NGOs in some important areas of policy work and serving our members. They include housing, land reform, education and training as well as a variety of kinds of research. We are parti cularly grateful to the labour service organisations, which assist us in so many ways - in thinking about the challenges we face, in educating our members, and in finding technical solutions to workplace restructuring.

Comrades and friends,

The coming year will certainly be full of challenges. We are seeing unparalleled contestation of the direction of the South African transition. In this context, it is important that strategically use our intellectual and organisational resources to work fo r policies that favour the working class.

In this context, we hope to deepen our co-operation with Sangoco and the service organisations in general. That means we will have to define our roles carefully, to avoid unnecessary conflicts. Our experience with the People's Budget demonstrates the victo ries we can win if we work together to unite civil society.

We look forward to your successful congress, and wish you all the best.

Thank you