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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 SATAWU National Congress in Pretoria

24 August, 2003, Kempton Park

President Ezrom Mabyana and General Secretary Randal Howard Leaders of SATAWU gathered here as delegates Friends of SATAWU from fraternal organisations at home and abroad Comrades and friends,
Thank you very much for the honour to be amongst those who would address this historic 1st National Congress of SATAWU. This honour I will cherish for my entire life.

The very fact that you are holding this congress is a victory not only for yourselves but also for COSATU and the rest of the working class and the democratic forces. This is a victory for logic and it takes us closer to realising our dream of putting one of our principles “one union one industry” a step closer.
We formed this single transport union and accommodated within it one of the most important sectors - the cleaning and security sector - pending other process such as moving forward to the establishment of cartels and super unions.

We congratulate you for steadfastly defending the principles that are the foundation of the federation. We know well that it has not been easy. Many who believe that their personal ambitions should be treated as more important than the interest of ordinary workers have left to form rival unions. They choose to leave COSATU and the democratic movement and its alliance partners to go into an organisational and political wilderness because they are not prepared to subject themselves to the discipline of our constitutional structures and collectivism.

They have chosen to be opponents of SATAWU, COSATU and the entire democratic movement. We are guided by the motto that those who are outside our ranks are unorganised. In the name of the workers who lie motionless and who were, in cold blood, murdered by the apartheid machinery on the train platform of Germiston in 1987, in the name of those who were mowed down outside COSATU house, and in the name of the founding president of SATAWU Bonakele Jonas, we are making a call to them to return back to their home. They must realise that it was a mistake to jeopardise the unity that we took so many years to build. They should realise that history will judge them very harshly for working against the interests of the working people.

One of the critical challenges this congress and the rest of the South African workers face is that of building a united movement that transcends divisions of the past that builds unity amongst working people irrespective of the colour of their skin, sex or religious background. Our challenge is to close ranks and refuse to allow political and ideological differences that may exist amongst ourselves from dividing and setting us against each other.
So those who left us to form small fractions are against what we stand for. They are opposed to the resolution taken by COSATU to form a single union for all transport unions. It is not too late for them to dissolve their inconsequential union and come back home to the majority and democratic forces.

SATAWU has, in its short period of existence, scored major victories. Your work with the Department of Transport and Spoornet that produced the agreement stopping an imminent privatisation of major rail lines was the principal victory, which you scored not for your members alone, but for all those who are poor and who rely on public transport.
You have built a united organisation that is developing its cohesion faster than many other unions who had gone through mergers. You have a single identity you are coming to this congress with from single regions and branches. The structures you have formed reflect broadly a single identity. You are not fragmented along the lines of former this or former that.

Having said this, comrades, I must however warn you against complacency. It would be a fatal mistake if you were to drop your guard at this crucial moment. Remember that even in our number one game, soccer, the most vital goals are scored in the dying minutes when concentration is at its lowest.

We are operating in completely new conditions. Gone are the days where election to the position of leadership meant exposing oneself to danger, death and detention and harassment by both management and police. Today, with close to ten years of our freedom, election to leadership positions brings not harassment but power and juicy prospects for individuals.

Under these new circumstances, unlike before, there is no shortage of leaders. The idealism that produced our best in the past is now being threatened by rampant self-serving careerism and individualism.
During this congress and beyond we should continue to engage with these foreign tendencies. We should debate the Organisational Review report and the consolidating the working class power for quality jobs - towards 2015 programme and we should confront these new challenges.

In fact, the reason why some of our former members who left SATAWU to form a rival union seem to have been motivation by material interests. They wanted the privileges and some corrupt practises they gotten used to not be touched, and when the new union threatened these, they choose to walk

Lastly I want to pay tribute to the union for having produced the best leadership for the federation over many years including in the present. Your former vice President, Xola Phakathi is now serving as the COSATU regional secretary in the Eastern Cape following the tragic death of Pinkie Ntsangani. Armed with the tools he acquired from your union, he has not failed and has followed the footsteps of many other former worker leaders who developed capacity to run their union’s full time. This is a victory for the principle of worker control.


You 1st National Congress take place on the eve of the very important COSATU 8th National Congress. This year we are also celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the 1972/1973 Durban strikes that shocked the bosses and laid the foundation of COSATU and resuscitated militant and progressive trade unions. Last week we celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the UDF. We are only few months away from the tenth anniversary of our freedom. We are also few months away from our third general elections.

All these events demand from us that we use this 1st National Congress to lay a firm foundation of our contribution from the workers and working class perspective of these events.

The forthcoming COSATU eighth National Congress is perhaps the most important congress ever held by COSATU.

It will take place at the time when we need sober analysis of the challenges the working people face. As I have already indicated, next year we are celebrating the tenth anniversary of the 1994 breakthrough. The COSATU congress has to be used to make a proper assessment of the challenges we face and therefore decide how we move forward.

All documents to the congress have been circulated, and I am encouraged by the reports all over the length and breath of our country indicating that our shop stewards and members are debating the challenges facing the COSATU congress. They are debating the 2015 programme, they are engaging with the report of the Organisational Review Commission, and they are discussing the Secretariat Report.

We clearly require new strategies; we need a new way forward. We cannot afford to go this congress with a business as usual attitude.

There is no doubt that as workers we have made many achievements in the democracy. The very right to assemble here unhindered by the security forces should not be taken for granted. Only few years ago, we would not have been allowed to discuss our union business freely. We are enjoying these freedoms and liberties every day and we are beginning to get too used to them. Our constitution, which is arguably the best in the world, protects these fundamental freedoms including workers rights. Over the past nine years we have seen the transformation of labour market that has given us many rights and protections and begun to tilt the balance forces in the workplace. Our democratic state has started delivering basic services such as water, electricity, and housing to millions of our people. We are now truly part of the global village and we are engaging with it as the country and institutions.

We have come to the conclusion that over the past nine years we have faced a complex combination of real advances and serious setbacks. Unemployment and a jobloss bloodbath, together with a massive increase in the casualisation of labour are the most serious setbacks we faced. According to government statistics, unemployment increased from 16% in 1995 to over 30% in 2002. The labour share in national income is at its lowest since 1981 while at the same time profits are increasing. This means poverty and inequalities are on the rise. Unfortunately unemployment also means that the gains we are making through the extension of government services and basic services are undermined. The fact that Telkom for example had to cut 80% of new telephones underscores this. Equally the disconnection of electricity in Soweto last year and before, tells us that we require a monthly income and a job to maintain the services otherwise these victories become half victories and they face a consistent threat.

The 2015 programme, commits ourselves to contribute effectively in the struggle to ensure that we find solution to the unemployment crisis. The Growth and Development Summit committed the country to half the levels of unemployment by 2014. This can be achieve if we ensure effective implementation of all resolutions of the GDS, but also if we develop an active industrial strategy based on meeting the basic needs of our people. We require an effective review of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy’s most problematic demands. We are encouraged that the government seems to realise that its ridiculous fiscal and monetary policy prescription can never serve development and meeting basic services. These have been loosened in the past three years and indications are that even in next year’s budget we shall see more increases in the government budget and therefore government services.

We recognise these shifts away from these inappropriate policies and we, as workers, want to claim credit for them.
In the past three years, SATAWU has been in the forefront of struggles against privatisation of the state assets and unilateral restructuring. Whilst you won a major victory in Spoornet we are facing a challenge with regard to attempts to hand over management of the Durban port to the private sector. You know that privatisation has not worked for working class any where in the world.

So comrades, this means we shall continue to support government when it does things that improves our lives. Equally we shall continue to oppose it when it does things that we know will not improve our lives. And when the government goes public with policy, we shall continue to engage with those policies publicly. When it consults us as its alliance partners, which it has not done for the past five years, we too shall reciprocate. We reject the suggestion therefore from one of the most important leaders of the working class who suggested that we should in the name of something he called the “collective wisdom of the UDF” gag ourselves and not criticise the ANC publicly. I did not hear those making the criticism also criticising the ANC for going public with the policy without consulting its alliance partners. We shall not gag ourselves. We shall remain independent from everyone including the ANC government. We shall engage with the public policy and seek to contest ideals publicly.

One challenge we face is to ensure that our members do understand this role we are playing and do not see contradictions where they do not exist. This year we are mobilising our members and their families to firstly register as voters and obtain Identity Documents. We want them to vote for the ANC and in particular to win elections in KwaZulu Natal and Western Cape. We are making this call to them because we remain convinced that only the ANC has both a track record and willingness to address the challenges workers face. Only the ANC is capable of winning the war against unemployment and HIV/AIDS. So from now on comrades, as you have already started, we want you to intensify that work of mobilising our members for this victory.

There is no contradiction in asking our members to vote ANC because despite our scathing criticism of the ANC government track record on employment and HIV/AIDS, since overall and taking the totality of the picture, we believe that workers have made important political and social gains. The best way to protect those gains and advance and confront the other daunting challenges is to vote for ANC next year.

We want however a strong ANC. We want a strong SACP. We need a strong and functioning alliance. These can happen, comrades, if we stop singing slogans about the need to build a strong ANC and alliance, and we develop a programme to impose our presence and leadership of the NDR as a component of the working class. The 2015 programme is about how best and effectively we can aggressively and unapologetically declare that the ANC belong to us and will not be privatised.

All these challenges will be a pipe dream and pie in the sky if our unions are weak and are unable to provide a quality service to members. Our starting point and the principal challenge this congress faces is to build a strong SATAWU on the ground. Our challenge is to build a strong shop steward movement that is capacitated to provide service to members. Your challenge is to ensure you recruit the thousands of transport and cleaning and security workers that are outside our ranks.

But first we must recognise we can only succeed in doing that if we turn the current members into organisers and ambassadors of the union. They will not be good ambassadors if they are not happy with the service we provide and if they remain in our ranks only because there is no viable alternative outside.
In the past three years SATAWU has not failed its federation. You have set high standards. We demand no less. We look forward to a positive contribution from SATAWU in our congress. And we wish you the best of luck and success in this congress.