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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Address by COSATU General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi at the SAMWU National Congress

19 August, 2003, Pretoria

Comrades and friends,

This my first ever address to any SAMWU National Congress. Let me start by saying how happy I am to be here at this important 7th congress of SAMWU. We know this Congress will form a major step in consolidating SAMWU’s organisational strength and unity. Your congress must ensure that SAMWU continues to play a central role in the labour movement, in the development of the public sector, and in our country as a whole.

As you know, SAMWU has a leading place amongst COSATU’s 21 affiliates. Above all, it has done much to shape labour’s policy on the restructuring of the public sector. We are particularly grateful for your work on water, electricity and basic services in general, and your efforts at the WSSD and around the restructuring of the public sector more broadly. COSATU regions are unanimous in the view that SAMWU is one the best providers of qualitative service to its members.

SAMWU is one of the truly national unions, existing in each every local sphere of government. Since its inception, SAMWU has provided a good example of a union that can boast of championing our best traditions, such as worker control, internal democracy, militancy, engagement with the political socio-economic environment, and tolerance of all progressive workers’ views. You know that we are involved in a battle that we call the organisational review because we are today challenged. Amongst others, we are challenged by extreme levels of opportunism.

The idealism of the struggle is being replaced by unprecedented levels of self-centredness and naked careerism. We are challenged by high levels of corruption and misuse of power to serve ourselves not workers. We are challenged by individualism that seeks to undermine our collectivism. We are challenged by intolerance that seeks to establish purist positions as if we are a political party instead of a trade union movement. I have been worried about the build up to this National Congress.

Indeed, I sent a letter to raise my concern at what appeared from the distance to be signs that your union might be losing its coherence and unity. I know a lot of us have participated in discussions and debates about the direction of SAMWU. I have come here today only for the first time in my capacity as the General Secretary to speak out against these new tendencies in our movement. SAMWU was formed in 1987 by our forerunners, many of whom are still with us to fight for rights of municipal workers.

We formed SAMWU because we workers were victims of undemocratic black authorities who used their power to deepen workers’ misery. We formed SAMWU to fight against the corruption of those local authorities. We continue to fight against corruption and nepotism of some in the current period. SAMWU and COSATU have side by side conducted this struggle for many years.

We must continue to confront those who use their power to deepen the misery of our members, even if we have elected them to positions in our structures. No union leader or official should ever be allowed to milk our members in conjunction with aboMashonisa. No one should use their position of power to enrich themselves at the expense of our members. And when we are confronting this criminal act, no one may respond by threatening our unity and cohesion.

We must from this congress declare war against opportunism and dishonesty. We must expose those who use our problems to seek to secure positions for themselves without any regard for how their conduct may destroy our movement when the challenge is to build maximum unity. Corruption, comrades, is corruption. We cannot have another way to describe it – no matter who practises it, no matter how incomparable their struggle credentials look. Corruption is corruption, and it must be defeated in SAMWU just as it must be in government and the private sector.

Comrades, We are now coming up to COSATU’s Eighth National Congress where we shall be debating all these challenges. At the COSATU National Congress we shall debate two central strategies to ensure that we build only on our best cultures and traditions. The organisational review report which talks more about how we can best position our movement to meet the challenges of our time, and the programme on consolidating working class power for quality jobs – toward 2015. In our political report, we conclude that the ANC has consolidated itself as the leading political party.

That position was achieved, however, through the floor-crossing legislation. As a result, it could be undermined by the upcoming elections. In these circumstances, we must make a major effort to ensure an ANC victory in next year’s elections in KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape. More fundamentally, however, our political report to our Eighth Congress points to the on-going contestation for the ANC and indeed for every elements of the Tripartite Alliance, including COSATU. That contrasts with the hegemony of the working class in the liberation movement before the early1990s.

For one thing, big business now courts the ANC, as the ruling party. Before the ANC won power, these same groups saw little need to lobby it. Now, they have a mission to ensure that our government looks after their interests – and that our party adopts their ideology. Second, the unity of our people, won through the efforts of so many patriots before 1994, has been faced with the challenge of growing class differentiation. Before 1994, workers could unite easily with black farmers, businesspeople, students, intellectuals, since we all faced the same oppression.

Today, as opportunities open up for the rich, well connected and well educated, that unity has come under great pressure. Some in the black community now argue that we have achieved liberation as long as they have a place in big business. Their view contrasts with the historic perspective of the liberation movement, which said we would not really achieve national liberation until we had also ensured greater equity in the economy and lessened the oppression of women and workers. The contestation for the Alliance appears in many ways. Above all, it emerges increasingly in the tendency to equate black economic empowerment with the development of a black capitalist class.

This is the view we see in government’s BEE policy and in its proposals for privatisation – proposals that would not benefit the majority of our people, but would enrich a few. In this contestation for the ANC, working people suffered a major setback with the adoption of GEAR in the mid-1990s. GEAR policies brought misery to our people in many forms, including massively increased unemployment and slower delivery of services.

Unemployment rose from 16% in 1995 to over 30% today, using the narrow definition that does not count those workers too discouraged to seek work. South Africa now has unemployment far above that of any other middle- income developing country. In the late 1990s, three factors contributed to job losses – the downsizing in the public sector and construction, the increased competition with imports that cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs in manufacturing, and low government spending combined with high interest rates.

We all know the results of unemployment for our communities, our children and our families. Perhaps one statistics underscores the problem best: the share of workers in the national income is now lower than it has ever been since 1981, and the share of profits is higher.

Meanwhile, as SAMWU members know better than most, GEAR’s restrictions on the budget meant that government could not improve services or housing in black communities as fast as we hoped and expected. Certainly there were big improvements. Many more of our people now get piped water, sewerage, electricity and refuse removal. But the pace of change was slower than we hoped, the level of service worse, and the cost often much higher. This situation was aggravated by the huge military purchases of the late 1990s.

Finally, GEAR’s free-market approach fuelled the pressure to privatise local government services as well as parastatals. We as COSATU have fought long and hard against this process. That struggle, supported in large part by SAMWU’s militancy, was critical to prevent the wholesale privatisation of our national assets. The analysis in our Congress report suggests that, since 2000, government has retreated from GEAR to some extent. This retreat, which is clearly a victory for workers, appears in the real growth in the budget in the past three years.

We can see it also in relatively low interest rates and the commitment, although very limited, to ensuring affordable services for the very poor. Government has backed off some of its proposals on privatisation, including on water and rail. Even more important, government now has at least a general commitment to an active development strategy that can restructure the economy to create jobs. We do not want to overstate the change. Government still faces a great deal of pressure from business here and abroad to privatise, cut taxes, and generally roll back the gains to workers.

But the government has also recognised that it cannot manage continued growth in unemployment. Even some sections of business have come to this conclusion. It is this recognition that unemployment now forms a national crisis that led to the agreements of the Growth and Development Summit. Since this progress is still heavily contested, however, we cannot relax. We must continue to take forward the struggle to ensure that state power is used to restructure our society to benefit the majority.

The public sector unions, including SAMWU, have borne the brunt of the policy debates since the adoption of GEAR. Budget cuts and privatisation can directly threaten your members’ pay and jobs. Local government workers must deal with the conflict when workers face soaring service costs. And all of this is made more difficult because it is often our own comrades who are taking actions that hurt our members and communities. As a result, every action on wages, conditions and retrenchments gets turned also into a political tightrope walk.

We are grateful to SAMWU for the leadership it has shown in these difficult circumstances. From the fights around iGoli to the policy engagements on water provision and local transport to last year’s prolonged strike over pay and conditions: SAMWU and its members have managed to protect their basis demands and rights while working to build more democratic and responsive local government. Most of the loss in membership we have witnessed is as a result of downsizing, rather than disillusion amongst our members. Because job losses are concentrated amongst lower skilled African workers in big companies and especially the public sector, many of our affiliates are hard hit.

Indeed, in the past three years, we have seen a slight reduction in COSATU’s representivity amongst workers. Perhaps even more worrying, as of last year only half as many young workers under 30 were union members than those over 30. This may reflect lack of experience, but it also results from the weakening of popular mobilisation in our communities. All of these are worrying developments. Workers cannot ensure transformation to benefit all of us if our organisations are weakened. We cannot contest successfully with big capital if our own members have lost interest and hope about the future.

Your Congress must now reflect on the challenges for COSATU and SAMWU as the basis for a strategic approach over the coming years. In your deliberations, we hope you will engage with the draft 2015 programme that COSATU has circulated in the run up to our Eighth Congress. COSATU has adopted a 2015 programme precisely because we recognise that a genuine national democratic revolution, with deep-seated changes in the state and the economy, requires systematic movement toward change.

Through the 2015 programme, we hope to draft a clear roadmap, which will let us monitor more consistently where we are coming from and going to. The document going to our Eighth Congress is still just a framework. We are looking to our affiliates to flesh out the details. The two central pillars of our strategy must be building working-class power and ensuring quality jobs. These twin pillars must support each other.

In particular, engagement on policy issues must strengthen our organisational development, rather than overshadowing it. Our longer-term approach has to define three kinds of strategies: first, to build our power as the organised working class both in South Africa and internationally; second, to make our relationship with the Alliance work, with a degree of realism about the current balance of power into account; and finally, to define priority areas for intervening on specific policies in the shorter run.

To start with, we have set some key benchmarks for our progress, which we must be able to review at the Ninth Congress in 2006. These benchmarks include the following. First, systematic and rigorous implementation of the recommendations of the Organisational Review Commission. A critical element is to build our organisations and ensure a strong recruitment campaign as we agreed at the second Central Committee in April.

That means that we must grow 10% a year for the next few years, reaching membership of over four million in ten years. A further element is to work harder to ensure unity of purpose and action. We must deal with our differences openly and decisively, and not let them deteriorate into splits and divisions. Second, we must defend our political gains and space. In this regard we need a strong ANC and SACP, rather than weakened partners.

Only in this context can we ensure genuine working class leadership of the struggle to transform South Africa. As we have said so many times, every COSATU member, and especially every shopsteward, must also be an ANC activist! We are not preparing a split from our alliance; we have no other home except the alliance. We seek to build it though so that it ceases to be a symbolic and emotional alliance but a revolutionary council that have a bias towards the working class.

Third, we must develop a large pool of cadres with organisational, political and ideological depth. We want at least 20 activists in every province who has a real depth of understanding, ability to build unity and mobilise people. That means we must rethink our educational and induction work.

Fourth, we must strengthen civil society, especially community-based organisations. We however should work only with those civil society formations whose principles are not in contradiction with those of COSATU. For example we cannot work with civil society who believe that National Democratic Revolution, which is for the liberation of black people, and Africans in particular is not necessary.

We can ’ t work with those who seek to destroy our alliance partners. We need to build our locals to ensure stronger involvement in local government and in mobilisation around COSATU campaigns. Workers must have a dominance voice in the national discourse. Fifth, we need to ensure clear measures in place to reverse rising unemployment, poverty and inequality. The share of the working class in national income must begin to rise.

That means all of us, from COSATU to the smallest affiliate, must prioritise policy engagements to protect and create jobs. In this context, COSATU must support every affiliate to influence sectoral and workplace restructuring. The long-awaited local government summit, and the agreement to expand public jobs programmes from the GDS, must form part of these engagements.

Finally, COSATU must contribute to the resurgence of the African trade union movement and play a central role in developing the perspective of the international trade union movement. That means we need a better coordinated international policy that contributes in the struggles to build a better world based on equitable redistribution of resources and closing of the growing gaps between rich and poor countries.

Comrades, The Chinese have a curse: May you live in interesting times. Indeed, we live in very interesting times. But they are not all bad. They hold the promise of great victories as well as possible dangers and risks.

We expect SAMWU to use this Congress, as we expect all our affiliates to use COSATU’s upcoming Eighth Congress, to reflect on the realities we face and chart a course that will ensure all our members, and indeed all our people, benefit from our work in the workplace, in their communities, and in society as a whole.