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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

A salute to the pioneer of the worker’s struggle - A tribute to Thozamile Gqwetha by COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi

7 October 2006

Family and friends of Comrade Thozamile Gqwetha
Leadership of the ANC
Leadership of the SACP
COSATU President and Second Deputy President
Leadership of all our formations
Comrades and friends

First, on behalf of our entire membership and leadership of COSATU, I convey to the family and friends of Comrade Thozamile Gqwetha our heartfelt condolences.

Kuni nina Mkhumbeni, Bhayi, Khetshe, Msuthu sizokugxwala nani emswaneni. Akuhlanga lingehliyo nilale ngenxeba. Ndiqinisekile ukuba niyazi ukuba uThozi ewe ibungunyana, utata nontakwenu - ngaxesha linye ibengowethu singugalela ebhayini nonqwelo emasondo-sondo - ibingowempula zilalujaca izinto apha ezingathathi ntweni eziphila ngokuthengisa Amandla wazo ukuze zikwazi ukusa unopotyi eziko.

Silapha ke nto zakuthi ukuzokungqina nokuqinisekisa ukuba aninodwa kwintlungu yenu. Inxeba lelethu sonke nangona elenu libanzi kwaye linzulu kunelethu. Siyabulela ngendlela esisebenzisene ngayo ukuzokufika kulomzuzu. Nangomso!

Comrades and friends

Here lies motionless one of the pioneers of the workers’ struggle; an icon of our times, a fighter to the end and a giant whose true contribution to our liberation and to the workers’ struggle has still to be fully acknowledged and celebrated. We dip our banner in honour of one of the stalwarts of the progressive trade union movement in particular, and the working class in general.

One of the most important landmarks in the history of the oppressed and exploited people of our country was the formation of the South African Allied Workers Union (SAAWU) in 1979.

You cannot pay tribute to Thozamile Gqwetha without also acknowledging the historic role his comrades played in raising the flag of freedom and progressive trade unionism. We talk here of Sisa Njikelana, Yure Mdyogolo, Sam Kikine, Isaac Ngcobo mna. For singing and practicing this song they faced worse forms of repression. They were imprisoned and tortured; some were even killed, others persecuted and forced into exile. With the leadership of COSATU’s forebear, SACTU, these comrades, together with Thozamile Gqwetha, hoisted SACTU and the movement’s flag high, risking their personal safety and their fam, Hebert Barnabas, Jan Mohapi, Nontsokolo Mzuzwana, Erick Mntonga, Jeff Wabhena, Captain Ngabase, Humphrey Maxhegwana, Bangumzi Sifingo, Alf Makaleng, Zolile Mtshelwane, Tshinyenalani Molondo and many others.

We are heavily indebted to his generation of leaders. In the darkest hour of our struggle, when very few were prepared to take a risk in the light of the brutality of the apartheid regime, they came forward to sing and say to Oliver Tambo: xa ufun’ivolunteer thuma ilies, and soldiered on.

Personally, I probably would never have become General Secretary of COSATU if it were not for the inspiration of Thozamile Gqwetha and his generation. I grew up in this region, and as a student activist, like so many others, I was drawn into volunteers that recruited workers for the union movement. The association with SAAWU helped to broaden our politics to understand and underscore the critical nature of unity in action between students and workers. This unity delivered the telling blows throughout the 1970s and 1980s to the apartheid regime, leading to its collapse in the 1990s.

As students following in the footsteps of our parents and older brothers, we sang uGqwetha wethu somlandela noba siyaboshwa noba kunzima!

Born out of the crucible of a fierce struggle against the most vicious forms of internal colonialism, SAAWU became the pride of the oppressed people of our country. SAAWU did not just represent a resistance against the regime and its Bantustans but it was an act of defiance by workers and the people as a whole.

Who could ever forget the historic Wilson Rowntree strike in 1979, the Mdantsane bus boycott between 1983 till 1986, the SA TV and countless other struggles that re-launched mass resistance against the bosses and their political representatives. It was these strikes that connected the national and class grievances of our people. It was these and other strikes that taught us so well that workers’ and community struggles could not be separated. The alliance between workers and students, the youth and broader community formations was forged through struggles like these. It was the killings and brutality of the regime that helped to recruit millions more into the struggle for freedom and democracy. It was these struggles that knitted together communities and the trade union movement into a single movement of resistance. The UDF was launched during these years. The youth movement grew like wild fire during this period. The apartheid regime armed with all manner of artillery and weaponry launched its three state of emergences and the worst forms of violence against our people during this period.

Comrade Thozi devoted his whole life to the service of his fellow workers. From his early twenties, together with the trade unionists of his generation, he knew that the struggle for improved working conditions couldn’t be fought outside of broader social struggles. He remained an underground member and leader of SACTU. At the same time, under his leadership, SAAWU continued with the tradition of recognising the critical link between national, class and gender oppression.

Because of your teachings, Bra Thozi, we in COSATU shall continue to be the revolutionary and transformative trade union that we are. No amount of sophisticated political blackmail shall ever make us abandon our roots. We shall refuse to be an overalls, helmets and gumboots union. We shall continue to understand the relationship between the struggle to improve our wages and conditions and the broader struggle for community ideals like free and dynamic education, for efficient, accessible and affordable transport and for public health.

For these ideals Thozamile Gqwetha suffered, both physically and emotionally, yet he never flinched. He stuck to his task despite detentions, beatings and torture, as well as being indicted, arrested and then acquitted on charges of treason in 1985, together with other UDF activists.

All of us in COSATU have always understood that our giant Federation stands on the firm foundations laid by these pioneers, of whom so many paid the ultimate price for freedoms that some take for granted today. I talk here of Vuyisile Mini, Looksmart Solwandle Ngudle, Simon Ngubane, Jabulile Ndlovu, Sam Ntuli,

Comrade Thozi and his cohort of trade unionists initiated SAAWU at a time when there was a political vacuum as a result of the incarceration of many of our leaders in Robben Island. This happened at the height of political repression and state-sponsored violence.

SAAWU, as an ally of the UDF, forged very close links with the Congress movement. Many of its leaders were drawn from these organisations.

This is a tradition that has characterised the Alliance throughout its existence. It is an alliance of organizations brought together by contradictions that characterized our society as a result of colonialism of a special type that stripped our people of their dignity, as a nation, and exploited them as a class. It is not an alliance of leaders. Leaders will always come and go, but the Alliance is a political heritage of our people.

Precisely because of its nature the Alliance is not a homogenous entity. From time to time disagreements arise, as they will always arise in any process of robust engagement. But that must not be interpreted as a signal of the end of the Alliance.

In the memory of Comrade Thozi, let us declare that when these contradictions happen, workers organised by COSATU will not run and leave the ANC behind. The ANC is primarily an organisation of the most downtrodden. It is the movement of workers and the poor who were and are still the motive forces of our revolution.

If anyone has an illusion that she or he can frustrate us until we decide to walk, let him or her be warned - we are going nowhere. We are not stepbrothers or sisters in the Gqwetha’s movement. It belongs to us. We are the ANC. We have no intention of contracting out our leadership role as workers. In a principled and non-factionalist fashion we shall swell its ranks and ensure that it retains its bias toward workers and the poor.

Every time contradictions within the Alliance happen – the very contradictions that sometimes are necessary to guarantee a movement forward - armchair critics and so-called analysts never fail to write an obituary for the Alliance. To them, any difference of opinion on the key tasks of the NDR is elevated into ideological differences that are beyond redemption.

They will not confuse us for we know that the best defenders of the Alliance shall always be workers and the most politically advanced cadres. Workers know that without the Alliance, everything we sacrificed for would have been in vain.

Today the same storytellers tell us that there is a something they call a succession debate. With the precision of a machine, they tell us that we all belong to this or that camp. They say we are divided along the lines of those who support the ANC President and those who support the Deputy. Every day they write analyses and draw cartoons to make us believe that this is true. Some of us are beginning to capitulate to this lie and start believing and acting as if this was a reality.

We will not depart from the legacy left behind by Comrade Thozi and other comrades who departed before him. We don’t know a succession debate in the movement. What we know is that any elective congress must evaluate and assess the contribution of all leaders and that congress and congress alone decides to retain or replace leaders.

We don’t know any camps we are refusing to be categorised as if we were soccer clubs. What we know is that the highest decision-making body of the ANC in between its national conference, the National General Council, decided to support the Deputy President of the ANC. COSATU’s recent national congress and well as the Central Committee of the SACP have also decided to do the same. So where are the camps when there is unanimity in the Alliance about what needs to happen? The only phenomenon we have to still fully confront is something called ‘source’ by the newspapers. The sources are apparently the leaders in whom we place our confidence but who lack revolutionary discipline, who once we have elected them turn themselves into faceless commentators in the media telling the whole world of their unhappiness of the decisions taken democratically in the structures of the movement with their participation. It is these Mzekezeke who are causing an untold damage to the image of our organisations.

We owe it to Thozi to sustain the fight for the realization of the NDR objectives, which is the resolution of national, class and gender questions in our country, the task that brought us together in the first place.

Comrade Thozi never fought for himself. He was never self-centred. He was not a demagogue either. He knew that the struggle for the liberation of our people was not about himself. It is a collective response to the challenges we are facing.

Unlike others amongst us who pronounce that they “never joined the struggle to be poor,” Comrade Thozi never sought compensation for his role, as he knew that his destiny was imposed on him by fate. He was not a self-seeking opportunist, who runs around vilifying his comrades in order to position himself as a genuine representative of our people outside the collective leadership of the movement.

Comrade Thozi performed his tasks and responsibilities to the movement, with no signs of arrogance or self-importance. His humility should be a stark reminder to all of us of how revolutionaries should conduct themselves.

We in the trade union movement will never forget the bravery of Comrade Thozi, a trade unionist who defied the odds with passion for the workers. His heroism and memory will continue to inspire new generations of revolutionaries.

Thozamile Gqwetha died poor and unemployed. He never used his iconic status to demand that the revolution reward him with a plum job, like so many of us do. The best we can do for him is to erect for him and others like him a monument that would remind us all of the sacrifices he made, without which we could not have achieved our liberation.

Hamba kakukhe Mkhumbeni