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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Address by COSATU General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi at the SASAWU Congress

24 October, 2003, East London

Zwelinzima Vavi – COSATU General Secretary address to SASAWU Congress – 24 October 2003, East London

President and General Secretary
Comrades and friends,
This is the first time I have addressed a SASAWU Congress. I am grateful for this chance to reflect with you on the challenges we face and to work together to develop a strategic way forward.

This Congress is occurring together with two critical events in the history of our country and the South African working class: the third democratic elections, which will be taking place in a few months, and COSATU’s Eighth National Congress last month. These two important occasions give us an important opportunity to evaluate where we are in the struggle to transform our country, and come up with strategies to secure even greater success in the future.

In terms of the national elections, the COSATU Congress reaffirmed support for the ANC. The ANC remains the only party that can effectively defend the gains and aspirations of workers.

But we must be honest. These elections will be different from the two earlier ones. The fundamental problem remains unmet expectations, especially in terms of living standards. Our members experience rising job losses and unemployment, as well as rising costs for basic services. Many simply take for granted our gains in terms of political freedoms and labour rights, as well as the substantial expansion in access to services and skills development. We have to face the facts: for instance, it is hard to feel gratitude for integrated schooling when you are really struggling to pay fees and buy shoes and uniforms, and when your children pass matric but still can’t get a job.

A growing source of conflict is the way government manages its relationship with public-sector workers and unions. Government has engaged in downsizing, fragmentation, privatisation and wage restraint, without fundamental changes in hierarchical and arbitrary management. Increasingly, public-sector management has seemed interested in undermining collective bargaining and unilateral restructuring that could lead to job losses. All this could blow up in our face closer to elections. We have to manage it carefully, without making unacceptable compromises.

Despite all these problems, we know that a strong campaign to vote for the ANC is the only way we can advance workers’ interests politically. This position reflects COSATU’s essential character as part of the broader liberation movement.

In any case, elections are not about specific policies, but about who will take over the government. That means voters have to ask which party would do the best job. Clearly, the only choice is to vote ANC. No other party can boast of the ANC’s record in protecting and promoting these rights, and especially worker rights. Indeed, virtually every other party wants to restrict labour rights and weaken the LRA and the BCEA. And no other party has the ANC’s commitment to improving conditions for the poor.

Workers obviously cannot risk letting the opposition increase its share of the vote. Indeed, as COSATU, we have vowed to ensure that the ANC wins power in KwaZulu Natal and the Western Cape. After all, virtually all opposition parties are fundamentally anti-labour and indeed, despite some populist rhetoric, anti-poor. Moreover, they are fundamentally corrupt and incompetent. We need only imagine what would happen if the IFP or the D.P. came to power in more provinces. That would be a real nightmare.

What should be our message to our members? On the one hand, we need to highlight the real benefits the past ten years of ANC rule have brought to workers, and emphasise the need to prevent other parties from undermining them. On the other, we have to deal honestly with our disagreements with the government, explaining that our conflicts do not mean we can afford to open the door to other parties. We must use this opportunity to build an overwhelming victory, based on true mobilisation of all workers – and then ensure that our government adopts policies that favour the working class.

Comrades and friends,
The challenges of the elections reflect the deeper challenges faced by COSATU at our Eighth Congress. Congress emphasised two priorities: strengthening our organisations, as unions and as the Federation, and developing a more strategic approach to broader political and economic engagements, including within the Alliance. We are proud that we have emerged from our Congress united, despite the complex situation workers face. More: in the 2015 programme and organisational renewal resolutions, the shopstewards and union leadership at Congress gave us a strong strategy for the coming decade.

This SASAWU Congress must engage with the resolutions and programmes coming out of our Eighth Congress. Ultimately, our success must be built from the bottom up, from the dedication and hard work of every member, every shopsteward, and ultimately every affiliate.

The 2015 programme focuses on building working class power on the shop floor, in every industry, and as a national movement. Key emphases include deepening our educational work to build unity and deal with the complex situation we face; to strengthen our organisations and improve service to members; to drive recruitment, ensuring that every worker in South Africa has a union to call home; and to strengthen the Alliance so that it represents workers’ interests more consistently and powerfully.

For the public service, the resolution on demarcation in the organisational renewal report is particularly important. The resolution sets up key principles for demarcation, aiming above all to build solidarity and strength. That means we must return to the principle of one industry – one union.
The problems with demarcation in the public service are well known. We still have professional unions as well as unions defined, not by their industry, like health or education, but by the employer – the public service. This leads to unnecessary divisions amongst workers. Moreover, it means that some public service unions, including SASAWU, are simply not large enough to survive in the modern economy.

The Congress resolution on demarcation argues that a union today needs at least 60 000 members to ensure financial stability and consistent service. And with over a million workers in the public service, a union must be even larger to deal with the employer.

Adding to the problems is the commitment from both COSATU and the government to establish a single public administration, merging local government workers with the existing public service. This will have huge implications for workers across the public sector. SAMWU and NEHAWU have already begun to contemplate closer relations.

Where does that leave your unions?

Still, COSATU’s Eight Congress resolution recognised that demarcation changes – such as mergers - also pose challenges to our organisation. For this reason, it argues that we must phase in changes, starting with areas that face the greatest difficulty. The public service is one area that is identified as requiring particularly attention.

Comrades and friends,

Unity is particularly imperative for public servants because of the strong challenges our members now face.

Above all, we have to deal with the results of government’s restructuring efforts. The fact is that government has not really rethought its intention of downsizing, especially in the defence force, agriculture and public works departments. If COSATU affiliates do not show solidarity and strength, we could lose some 20 000 positions. When one in three workers is already jobless, that is simply not acceptable.

In addition, we have to take the transformation already underway to a successful conclusion. The theme of this Congress, after all, is “A strong public service for service delivery and poverty eradication!” That can only be achieved if we establish a developmental state, one where every worker is valued, with fair opportunities for advancement and skills development as well as adequate conditions of service. At the same time, as workers, we must define how we too can build the public service, fighting corruption and ensuring that every worker understands that their main task is to serve our people.

Comrades and friends,

Like the labour movement as a whole, internationally as well as in South Africa, SASAWU faces great challenges, but also has enormous opportunities. I look forward to serious, in-depth discussions of the issues we face. We must confront our challenges realistically, and come up with strategic solutions, not stop gaps. We are sure this Congress, like COSATU’s historic Eighth Congress, will result in important gains for worker unity, solidarity and organization.
We wish you all the best in your work here.