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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Address to the NUM Dinner to bid farewell to its outgoing General Secretary, Gwede Mantashe, by Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU General Secretary

27 May 2006

President Senzeni Zokwana
Leaders of the NUM from all its regions and branches
Full time cadres of the NUM
International guests
Comrades and friends

As a former member, steward and activist of the NUM, I consider it a great honour that you invited me to deliver a farewell address to comrade Gwede Mantashe.

Firstly let me congratulate you for the successful National Congress. Congratulations to the leadership that has emerged through the democratic process of the union. Thank you for steadfastly defending the democratic nature of the organisation. The NUM must continue to be a fighting, militant organisation of mineworkers, construction and energy workers and not a sweetheart of the employers.

My first contact with comrade Gwede Mantashe was at my first Central Committee of the NUM in 1985. I was a shop steward and a branch secretary of my branch then - the Vaal Reefs No.9 shaft. He was a shop steward and regional secretary for Witbank.

One thing for sure is that you cannot go to any meeting where Gwede Mantashe without asking - who is this comrade making noise, making jokes endlessly, harassing but at the same time articulate and knows what he is talking about.

Later you will learn about his passion for the organisation. His instinct to defend his organisation against anything he perceives to be an attack or undermining to the NUM. Closest to his heart has always been his union, followed by COSATU, then the ANC and the SACP. He probably does not agree with this characterisation but from observing him for many years this conclusion is inescapable.

He is also passionate about the broad democratic movement and will always come to its defence. Outsider may see him as a reckless maverick but those of us who know him are aware of his deep feeling for the entire movement, the NUM above else.

This is the hallmark of Gwede Mantashe - everything about him is centred on his loyalty, trustworthiness and passion for the organisation.

In your Central Committee last year I told you how he coerced me to stand for Regional Secretary in 1988 of Western Transvaal. As I said he combined the encouragement, threats and blackmail effectively. Once more in 1993, he was one of many who encouraged me to stand as the Deputy General Secretary of COSATU and for General Secretary in 1999.

This week, comrade Mantashe attended the COSATU Central Executive Committee for the last time. We gave him an opportunity to address us. This was in recognition of his contribution to build the federation to the giant that it is.

In a brutally frank assessment of the federation he traced the history of the federation and outlined its key challenges. He spoke amongst others about the need for COSATU to maintain its independence. He spoke emotionally about the culture of worker control and emphasized the need for us to build a strong collective. He also emphatically stressed the importance all-round cadre development.

I will always remember what he told me when I first became a Regional Secretary in COSATU. He said that when you run a race, the most important parts are at the start, when you must set a pace higher than your predecessors but not too high for your capabilities, and not so high that you burn out along the way. He told me to start correctly and maintain that pace consistently throughout the race. Those coming after you would then be challenged to at least maintain the same pace or improve on it. That's how we strengthen our organisations and keep them going stronger in the future.

I took that advice very seriously. In fact, in my induction of all COSATU Regional Secretaries and staff I have quoted Gwede over and over again, although I did not acknowledge where I got this piece of wisdom.

The comrades taking the baton must remember this every day. Their challenge is to improve rather than maintaining current standards. An organisation or leadership that fails to grow and develop dies. Constant and innovation is the only recipe to be relevant under changing circumstances.

The challenge is to take the union to new heights. They must understand that it would be a tragedy if the NUM was going to slide into divisions, factionalism, and tribalism, administrative and organisational chaos. It would be very sad if the respect it has earned over years slowly disappeared. The NUM under all its past leaders was always an undisputed leader of COSATU not only through sheer numbers but through ideas, consistency and principled persecution of programmes to liberate our people and tilt the balance in favour of workers.

Last year I took my family to Gwede's house in the rural Cala. I saw some of his family and brothers. I came back understanding why Gwede Mantashe what he is - a peasant, a worker, an organic intellectual, a Marxist and African communist.

For the first time I understood why he feels so passionately about family and why he repeatedly quotes Karl Marx about the importance of family. I listened to account of his father and great grandfathers from him and his brothers, and understood why he would always mix Marxism and with concerns for cows, goats and sheep.

I understood why he was a communist and a worker because he came from a village of migrant labourers and peasants. There is no electricity in his homestead, no clean running water or proper sanitation. I understood why he had passion for development.

I also came to understand why he had a passion for both formal and informal education. As I have said in the past Gwede Mantashe developed his own capacity by enrolling and studying part time. Through this unbelievable level of dedication he has grown from an abrasive trade unionist to one of our greatest organic intellectuals.

No one would disagree when I say that he has literally shaped the union and the federation. I read with appreciation the secretariat report to the NUM congress. I saw that the union through its bursary scheme - the JB Marks Education Trust - has produced 425 graduates since 2000 and approved 220 new graduates in 2006 alone.

Gwede Mantashe was an ideal COSATU member. He is an all-rounder, a very rare species nowadays, a worker who challenges the brutality of capital at the workplace, a worker who understands the relationship between the workplace and community struggles, a worker who understands that the contradiction between the working class and capital cannot be resolved by the system of capitalism. Only socialism and ultimately communism will finally eradicate class exploitation.

The NUM and COSATU are today renowned for the robustness and principled stance on countless issues. We are known to speak our minds when necessary. Throughout the transition of the past twelve years, the NUM challenged many positions that were not taking forward the NDR, from the HIV and AIDS pandemic to the marginisalisation of COSATU and the SACP in the Alliance and the stifling of democratic debates.

Today COSATU is regarded by many one of only a few organisations that stand up against the strongest in our society, not flinching to raise issues.

We live at a time when there is an intense contestation over our organisations. External forces used every means at their disposal to take control of our organisations for their own class interests.

Business in particular and imperialist forces uses resources that the working class does not have to lure our leaders and members. They give our leaders shares and win their loyalty to their programmes and ideology. Capital hates the current stance of the NUM, the hate COSATU programmes. They do not want a truly independent organisation capable of speaking out in the interests of its members. They want NUM to be a conveyer belt of business and its political representatives in the liberation movement.

Under the leadership of Gwede Mantashe, the NUM could have not been turned into any other instrument except a weapon in the hand of workers to improve their lives.

One of the key issues I will lobby for at the Ninth COSATU National Congress is a policy is that we should not allow any of the leadership of a trade union movement to have business interests. One of the key features of the rampant crass materialism is that union leaders use their positions to negotiate shares for themselves. We are sick and tired of leaders who go to the negotiations with their CV under their armpits.

Some have gone to the extent of negotiating shares for their soft landing.

In the process these leaders get themselves compromised. They are vulnerable to attacks from all quarters, including the democratic movement. They are susceptible to blackmail because of this compromised position. In fact, they cannot speak with confidence in the interest of their members when they are so compromised. They sound more militant when congress are close and go back to their zigzag pending on the advise received from their handlers.

This is one of the biggest dangers facing COSATU as it moves towards its 30th anniversary. Capital, having realised COSATU'S huge power, spends millions to provide some of our leaders with free shares, invite us to the cricket, soccer and rugby marches, and in the process tempt the leadership to believe that capitalism and not socialism is the solution to our economic crisis. These leaders, compromised by their new association, come back to feed us with empty rhetoric whilst positioning themselves to remain in their leadership not to serve but to increase their influence in business for material gain.

If there is anything that I feel nervous about fighting without Gwede Mantashe being around it is this new phenomenon. At the same time I take comfort from the fact that the NUM and COSATU are about collective leadership.

I said that Gwede Mantashe is an all rounder. But that does not properly explain his main strengths. His biggest strength is that he is an organiser by birth - an organisation builder and a political activist par excellence. Gwede moulded the NUM into a fighting but very strategic union that knows how to exercise power and extract maximum benefits for its members

All of us know that at the beginning the NUM was lukewarm in supporting the broader socio-economic demands of the broader working class.

Today, as our strike on 18 May shows, the NUM led all other COSATU unions in terms of members' support. Many mines reported 100% participation in the strike.

This proves the strength of union branches and other structures and the politicisation of members to understand the connection between their workplaces issues and broader working class and societal issues.

Gwede leaves a union with R70 million in reserves from subscriptions paid by members alone. That is not even counting resources owned by the Mineworkers Investment Company and others like the Mineworkers Development Agency.

Comrade Gwede is one of our most clear-sighted comrades and leaders. It is this ability to think, anticipate and plan that led to the NUM adopting the ten-year plan and COSATU creating the September Commission and later the organisational renewal programme.

Politically, Gwede is a leader of all Alliance components and civil society formations. He has led the ANC, he is a Central Committee and Politburo member of the SACP, and he has led SANCO. He has led sporting bodies and others. In all these formations, he distinguished himself. He is a giant that would go to the annals of history as one of the finest trade unionist our movement has produced. He belongs to that elite club of ompondo zihlanjiwe.

The NUM should take pride that it has consistently produced diamonds and gold for the liberation movement. Today it is Gwede Mantashe; yesterday it was Kgalema Motlanthe, before that it was Cyril Ramaphosa and Elijah Barayi. At the beginning the mineworkers produced JB Marks.

The respect the NUM has in COSATU can be attributed among others to the calibre of the leaders it has produced. The new leadership will know that leadership is not imposed by numbers but by a combination of the sophistication of its leaders, its consistency and sticking with principles.

In conclusion, as I pointed out in Central Committee last year, as the General Secretary of COSATU that was produced and shaped by the struggles of mineworkers, I will always be grateful to Gwede's counsel and advice. When times were tough, he has been one of the first to defend the federation. When there is a big fight and a huge controversy he would in fact volunteer to be deployed to the media to defend COSATU positions when other leaders took cover. Believe me or not, for the sake of the movement, we can adopt a careless and tough attitude in public, often in the face of personalized attacks and insults. But in the evening when we are alone we also need support. Gwede played that role as a cushion, not only to me but to countless others facing difficult times. He has ensured unity and strength across the labour movement.

Above all, his instincts will always place him at the side of the working class, letting him guide strategy and tactics consistently in the workers' interest.

As I have said, correct levels of arrogance are a sign of growing confidence for any leader. No leader can survive in the tough real world without a dose of arrogance. We represent a class that is under siege. Gwede Mantashe taught us to stand firm in the face of consistent and systematic attacks from our class enemies and their cronies.

But there is one thing I have never doubted: Gwede is a comrade in whose presence I sleep comfortably, assured that no enemy of the workers will be able to take advantage. Let me repeat again, there is no one I have trusted as a comrade better than him.

The trade union is a political school that continues to make an immense contribution to our society by providing it with the best-trained cadres. Gwede is one of the finest examples of this!

Our deployment strategy must from this understanding be further strengthened so that we can build a more structural relationship with the trade unionists now serving in other capacities. It would be a mistake to completely cut the contact and say good-bye to Gwede. Whilst our responsibility is to build more cadres like Gwede Mantashe, we cannot afford simply to lose his immense skills and experience. He belongs to us - the workers and the working class. As I have said before, I cannot imagine him playing any other role except the brave defender of workers and working class interests. He must remain in the broader movement of the working class playing a different role.

On behalf of the COSATU Central Executive Committee and the entire membership of the federation I wish him the best of luck in his new career. We have no doubt where you will stand in the battle between capital and labour.

Thank you.