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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Addressed by COSATU G.S. Zwelinzima Vavi - on the succession at HSRC

7 September 2006

Dear friends and comrades,

Thank you for the opportunity to speak on the important issue of the succession debate. This is a particularly welcome chance for us because, for all the media noise about COSATU’s views and positions, we have seen very little willingness to actually listen to us. As usual, we are producing volumes of documentation on our work and ideas for the upcoming Congress, and it would be a useful exercise if our friends outside of COSATU took the time to look at them.

We thank you for the chance to speak directly and openly on this complex and politically contested issue. Let me start by asking why we need a succession debate at all.
For COSATU, the process is meaningless if it becomes a mere beauty contest, a debate on the pros and cons of individuals. In any case, from experience, even if we think we know a person, she or he is likely to surprise us once they come to power.

Rather, COSATU must use this opening to ask what changes are needed in the ANC as an organisation in order to improve the position of workers and the poor. The succession debate must open up an analysis of the ANC’s role in the current phase of our revolution. The succession debate is about how we take our NDR forward. Only then can we set parameters for the way forward.

We have to start by evaluating how conditions have changed since the democratic breakthrough in 1994. For COSATU, the main shortcomings today lie in the economy and how we have conducted our politics. Since 1994, we have seen extraordinary high levels of unemployment and poverty, with precious little improvement for the majority of our people.

True, government has done a lot to extend services and social grants our communities. But the benefits have been offset by the job-loss bloodbath. We watch our members turned onto the street every week, while their children spend years after leaving school with little prospect of a paying job at all.
Today, 12 years after we won democracy, inequalities in income and wealth remain virtually unchanged. Black communities still lag far behind historically white suburbs in access to services. The lines of inequality still run between a small group of predominantly white rich people, on the one hand, and the vast majority of mostly black workers, the unemployed and the informally self-employed, on the other.

At the same time, a small group of black people has managed to get a foothold in the economy. Black capital has made increasing efforts to use the state to drive its own limited demands, rather than to ensure transformation. A right-wing political-economic elite has begun to consolidate itself, with close ties between some in government and business. This situation runs the real risk of establishing a kleptocracy, where our leaders judge development by their ability to consume as much as the rich in the North rather than by improvements in the position of the majority.

It is this situation that led COSATU and the SACP to agree that capital was the main beneficiary in economic terms from our first decade of liberation. That’s a heavy statement we have made with profound implications on the direction of our NDR. Our NDR was never about a narrow replacement of the white with the black oligarchy. Our NDR is about tackling all three forms of oppression - the national, class and gender oppression simultaneously and not one after the other. The situation where the main beneficiary of economic transformation is white capital cannot be allowed to persist. It was from this analysis that these leading working class formation declared the next decade must be a workers and the poor’s decade.

In this context, the failure to transform the state means that it remains more responsive to capital than to the majority, despite efforts to improve public services for the poor and some progress on economic policy in the past few years.
Our democratic government inherited a state full of closed and hierarchical processes designed to exclude the majority. Despite huge improvements, embodied in Parliament and NEDLAC, most people are still shut out of key government decisions. The result has been an increase in unrest, as local governments in particular seem unresponsive to people’s needs.

At the same time, the failure to transform the state means that many people who dedicated their entire lives to our liberation remain excluded from political power. Most long-term activists have been marginalised, and they are increasingly bitter about it.
This situation points to the need to refine COSATU’s long-standing call for a strong developmental state. A strong state that is controlled by capital is not in the interests of the working class. Rather, we need a democratic developmental state that drives policies in the interests of workers and the poor. That, in turn, requires inclusive and accountable policy-making processes.

The voice of communities, working people, and the historically marginalised must dominate in the development of government programmes and policies. Implementation must be powered by the mobilisation of our people, not just deals with big business. Only in that context do we call for a state with the power to co-ordinate around key projects, find the necessary resources, and manage both local and international situation appropriately.
What do we need from the ANC to address the challenges that have arisen over the past 12 years? Above all, the ANC must give the majority power over the state in between elections.

The ANC has always been our organisation, our best hope for bringing together the progressive forces in our country to drive transformation and a better life for all. We will not give it away to capital without a fight. But we have to admit that from the standpoint of an ordinary worker, it has today largely become only an elections machine, mobilising our people to vote and ineffective in between. We need to turn that around.
Revitalising the ANC faces three challenges.

First, the huge power of the state has tended in itself to demobilise the ANC at all levels. Given the capacity of the state to churn out policy proposals, the ANC can easily be left behind. The NEC and the NWC have virtually no poor people or workers left, and are dominated by government leaders.
The result is that the real policy discussions take place within government. There is a dearth of debate in the ANC – we are lucky if there’s a meeting once or twice a year to reflect on policy issues. ANC branches are largely shut out from policy processes. At my last branch meeting, the main policy question was how to take forward the municipality’s anti-litter campaign.

This situation means the ANC has become little more than a rubberstamp for government decisions. In the process, it has developed a culture of intolerance, where power determines the outcome of policy discussions, rather than facts and the experience of all participants.
Second, in the context of growing class formation in the black population, the ANC has become a centre for contestation and lobbying. It has always been open to anyone who accepts its ideals and objectives. That openness can now be abused by people who pay lip-service to improving conditions for the majority, but in fact seek opportunities to enrich themselves.

Capital always has time and capacity to lobby the powerful (as well as money for elections). Black capital may be small in numbers and economic power, but it certainly has time to contest the ANC. Now we also see big white companies taking an interest. At the same time, the opportunities for politicians to enter business have multiplied, and they are increasingly drawn into the business class.
The results of deepening class differences in political terms are clear to see. Large ANC meetings that include representatives of the branches reach very different conclusions from the closed-door NEC and NWC meetings. The outcome is instability, conflict and, for COSATU, repeatedly re-awakened hope that we can revive the old, democratic ANC.

In our 2015 Plan we committed to rebuilding the ANC from the bottom up, by encouraging our members to revitalise their branches. If we do not deal with the log-jam on internal democracy, however, that proposal is not going to work.
Third, we have to take into account the international context. We have been tremendously encouraged by the recent successes of mass mobilisation around the WTO, as well as by the victories of the Left in Latin America in recent years. Obviously these victories are offset by the horrors of U.S.-led aggression in the Middle East. Still, they point to the potential for galvanising local and international forces to confront American aggression and economic hegemony.
The succession debate has to help us analyse and develop proposals for dealing with all these challenges. Again, the question is how to revive long-standing ANC traditions in the face of contestation by business and the power of the state. Those traditions are, above all,

  • The bias toward the working class and the poor, based on internal democracy, not closed decision-making in smoky back rooms,
  • A commitment to ANC leadership in policy issues in the spirit of the Ready to Govern Conference and the RDP, based on mass consultation and open debate, and
  • The culture of public service, collectivity and open debate, rather than individual careerism and competition over 4 by 4s.

In sum, the succession debate, for us, must not deteriorate into squabbles about the merits or shortcomings of individuals. Rather, it must discuss programmes of action and the leadership collective as a whole, at all levels. The succession debate must help us think through our analysis of where we are in our political and economic programme, and where we want to be.

Only on that basis can we position the ANC for its centenary in 2012 and beyond as a true liberation movement, one that can free our people not just of the oppression of apartheid, but of the tyranny of joblessness, poverty and powerlessness.