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COSATU Today  |  COSATU Speeches

Speech to the National Congress of the SAMWU by Zwelinzima Vavi

3 November 2009

President Petrus Mashishi
General Secretary Mthandeki Nhlapo
Comrade National Office Bearers of SAMWU
Members of the National Executive Committee
Leaders of COSATU from various affiliates of the Federation
Leaders of the our alliance formations
Leaders of the local and international fraternal organisations
Representatives of SALGA
Comrades and friends

It gives me special honour and privilege of addressing your National Congress for the very first time. I bring revolutionary greetings and best wishes for a successful Congress from COSATU’s two million members, to the members of an affiliate that has always been in the front line of the struggle for democracy, freedom and socialism.

Your congress coincides with one of the greatest economic crises ever to be faced by our country. The cold reality we are facing is that workers are bearing the brunt of the capitalist’s greed and mess. We are now hemorrhaging jobs at a frightening pace.

Last week, the Stats SA’s Labour Force Survey revealed that the number of employed people fell by a staggering 484,000 to 12.885 in just one quarter between second and the third quarter of 2009. This put the increased the country’s official unemployment rate from 23.6% in the second quarter to 24.5%. We are talking the narrow definition where those who have given up looking for a job are not counted.

When we count the real unemployment climbed from 32.5% to 34.4%. But of particular concern is that the manufacturing sector, which should be an engine of growth, and job-creation shed 150,000 jobs, equivalent to 8% of total jobs for the industry. Wholesale and retail trade lost 110,000 jobs.

A staggering 4.192 million South Africans are now without work. And that rises to 4.702 million if you add the 510 000 who have given up even looking for a job or have opted out of the labour force completely. All this means that since this year began, we have lost 959 000 jobs. Multiply this by 5, which is the average size of a working class family, we have a staggering 4.8 million people pushed into poverty.

The worst mistake we can ever do is to continue blaming the international economic crises only for our woes. Yes, it is true that failure to regulate the financial institutions and the massive inequalities worldwide are largely responsible for the crisis. But in South Africa we have been in any case sitting on a ticking bomb since the 1994 democratic breakthrough.

We inherited a disastrous growth path from the apartheid era – a raw commodity based economy, which is anchored on capital-intensive sectors. We have done little to tamper with this apartheid growth path.

This phenomenon of inheriting colonial growth paths based on the extraction of mineral resources to build industrial power in the north countries is one of the most fundamental mistakes most of post-colonial Africa has made. This is the essence of what many revolutionaries referred to as neo-colonialism. We must confront this phenomenon, which is a classical neo-Colonialism of a Special Type.

To add salt to the injury, we adopted inappropriate macro economic policies. The underlying cause of the crisis that is now ravaging working class communities is the mistaken policies between 1996 and 2004, of cutting tariffs and privatising basic services, conservative fiscal and monetary policies pursued in those years, centred on the pursuit of the misguided belief in inflation-targeting and the urge to appease the narrow interests of financial markets in particular. There are still pockets that continue to hold on to this wrong belief.

COSATU tirelessly pointed out that this would simply worsen our already high unemployment, poverty and massive inequalities. These warnings fell on deaf ears. The chickens are now coming home to roost. We have invited Minister of Trade and Industry, Dr Rob Davies to have a conversation with us on how we can move with necessary speed out of this vicious circle of poverty, unemployment and inequalities.

There is a wave of community service-delivery protests, which are about specific local grievances but are also related to the structural problems in the economy. The patience of increasing numbers of poor working class communities is running thin. They are facing a huge squeeze in the former black only residential areas. It is the massive unemployment; grinding and humiliating poverty that they are living in, in places such as Alexandra, while across the road they see that the grass is green in the flashy buildings in Sandton. The general law of capitalist accumulation stated by Marx in Capital Volume I operates without hindrance, talking about the rise in centralisation and concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, Marx says:

“Along with the constantly diminishing number of magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolise all advantages…grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself”.

Does this not sound familiar? Does this not anticipate the social protests that we see today?

There is an estimated 3 million Zimbabweans who are equal victims of mismanagement of the economy and political system, competing and with better education, sidelining and regrettably dragging the basic protection of South African workers’ rights down. Many in the SADC region, the African continent and even as far as Europe and Asia combine in their thousands from everywhere in the world under the mistaken belief that South Africa is the land of milk and honey. We have also invited the Minister of Home Affairs, Dr Nkosazana Zuma to begin a conversation on how we can address all these issues in a manner that ensures we fight against xenophobia and misguided blaming our African brothers and sisters who are streaming down south under pressure of poverty.

At the same time we need to ensure that we develop systems to ensure that we do not open flood gates in a manner that simply worsens the squeeze in the townships and rural areas.

There is opulence in the former leafy whites-only areas. Few BEE tycoons and black middle class have joined in to enjoy the race for wealth accumulation by any means possible. South Africa now is the country with most inequalities in the world. What this means in Marxist terms is that, of the countries that have data on these matters, we are the most exploitative in the world.

The working class in Polokwane decided that we should no longer walk down this path to our extinction as the nation. They demanded a new growth path based on the urgent need to restructure the economy, informed by an active industrial policy guided by a developmental state in pursuit of decent work and the eradication of poverty.

It is now almost 7 months since we elected the new government to pursue such a new growth path. It is early days still, but I must say we are beginning to be nervous about the slow pace at which we are moving into this new direction. The public discourse is not based on how do we move fast in the new direction Polokwane spoke about, but it is characterised by a combination of defense of the status quo in policy and turf battles that do not take us forward. In this regard the forthcoming Alliance Summit must lay to rest these narrow factional and counter-productive turf battles by clarifying the role of all those in the economic cluster including resolving disputes on the National Planning Commission.

It is more urgent than ever that we adopt a bold new approach, speedily address these structural problems and implement the ambitious job-saving and job-creating measures spelled out in the ANC manifesto, the State of the Nation address and the Framework Agreement on South Africa’s response to the world economic crisis.

COSATU will make an intervention on the mechanics of the growth path we want to see taking root in our economy.

Immediate measures must be taken to protect our industries and prevent an even worse descent into total economic meltdown.

Government, business and labour – and the SA Reserve Bank – must focus all their policies on saving jobs, creating new jobs, ending the jobloss bloodbath as rapidly as possible and getting the South African economy moving forward again. We will provide detailed proposals on how this can be done, as a way of placing the Alliance as an autonomous centre for policy formulation.


Wherever you go in South Africa you will always find SAMWU, defending members but also fighting for local communities, swelling the ranks of the ANC and SACP, campaigning for better and faster local service delivery, and struggling against corruption, mismanagement and waste.

SAMWU has also been the staunchest defender of our Marxist-Leninist theory upon which our political conviction is based. Our recent 10th National Congress reaffirmed our commitment to these fundamental principles, which are today as relevant as ever.

Not so long ago many wanted to throw Marxism into the dustbin ofhistory. Marxism is truthful, timeless, and enduring philosophy. Capitalism has failed to overcome the contradictions first pointed out by Marx and Engels. Today’s global crisis has renewed interest in the Marxist analysis of society and forced thousands to seek alternatives to the theories of neo-liberalism and to capitalism itself. 

We must continue to build Marxism, using the tools of scientific enquiry Marx and Engels developed, to scientifically uncover the nature of global capitalism and discover how it can be transformed. 

The concept of national democratic revolution speaks to the African peoples’ desire for self determination, to throw off the yoke of colonialism and the desire to build a more egalitarian, non-racial, non-sexist society and democratic society.

The Freedom Charter is a vision to transform society on a more egalitarian basis. It requires not cosmetic but radical changes in society. We cannot be content with the mere transfer of political power while retaining the economic structural foundations we inherited from colonialism of a special type.

The fundamental national, class and gender contradictions remain firmly rooted in post-apartheid South Africa. Relying on market forces has not only entrenched the inequalities of the past but has further widened them, making us the most unequal society on the planet.

White men still monopolise positions of power and influence especially in the private sector, and together with a black elite, which has emerged, they have reaped most of the benefits of democracy.

The endurance of the systemic inequalities makes a compelling case for a working-class led national democratic revolution. The working class must unite the broadest section of the South African society to move beyond the neo-colony to a truly democratic, non-sexist and non-racial society.

For socialists within the Congress movement, the NDR is not a detour but the most direct route to socialism. That means, it must build the momentum towards socialism, as captured by the SACP slogan:

Socialism is the Future – Build it now!  

Our challenge is building a socialist movement, within which the SACP plays a vanguard and anchor. COSATU must ask itself whether it is doing enough to build and support the SACP and unfortunately we are found wanting. The SACP’s 12th congress revealed that the industrial employed working class is just fewer than 40% of its membership. 

Clearly we are not doing enough to convert our members into staunch socialists who are active in the SACP. 


Since 1994 we have made much progress in advancing the NDR. We have built the foundation of a new society by enshrining basic human and democratic rights in the country`s constitution, building the institutions of our democracy and ensured citizen`s participation in decision-making processes.

ANC governments have introduced laws to protect workers, create machinery to negotiate wages and working conditions, set minimum wages for domestic workers, farm workers, hospitality, taxi workers and security sectors and established maximum hours of work for all, and introduced affirmative action laws and legislation to promote skills.

In 1996, only 3 million people, had access to social grants. Today 13 million of which 8 million are children younger than 14 years receive social grants. In 1996, 58% of the population gained access to electricity. Today, 80% do. In 1996, 62% of the population has access to running water. Today, 88% do. 3.1 million subsidised houses were built, including 2.7 million free houses for the poor, giving shelter to an additional 14 million people.

In our primary and secondary schooling we are just a few years away from achieving 100% participation by all our children. About 600,000 children attend crčches and pre-schools. The matriculation pass rate has risen from 58% in 1994 to 65% in 2007.

Free primary health care has expanded and 1,600 more clinics have been built. About 248 out of 400 public hospitals have been revitalised and refurbished. The public antiretroviral therapy programme has enrolled more than 480,000 people living with HIV and AIDS, making our programme amongst the best and most comprehensive in the world.

This good progress now is being undermined the failure to restructure the economy and put us in a new growth path as well as the economic crises. The small gains we made to address the unemployment and poverty crises are being reversed as we pointed out in the beginning. This as we have said is the real source of the wave of service-delivery protests, which are continuing today.

SAMWU members know better than anyone else that we have a major crisis in local government. Thousands of our people are yet to experience the full benefits of democracy and are taking to the streets.

The main reason for these protests is the false policies of the previous ANC government, particularly the reduction in transfers to local government and the wasteful duplication of resources between provincial and local government. The movement as a whole only reluctantly accepted the creation of nine provincial structures, and experience has taught us that it would be better to have a nationally integrated public service, which directs resources to the local level where the majority of services are delivered.

The slow delivery of services is also a result of privatisation and outsourcing of basic services and the over reliance on public-private partnerships. 

It was also a result of a lack of capacity as a result of deploying unqualified people into senior positions. While COSATU of course supports the need for transformation, that cannot be at the expense of having managers, technicians and experts who have skills and experience to run local government efficiently.

We should have systematically used a strategy of skills transfer and real empowerment when we were confronted with mainly white managers. Employing good political activists with good struggle credentials but regrettably with no required skills to run operations that require technical expertise is something we must move away from immediately. That is why we will always fight for the skills empowerment of workers, so that their work experience translates into technical mastery of the productive forces.

The crisis in local government has been made far worse, and the residents’ response angrier, by the spread of corruption. As Gwede Mantashe recently wrote in ANC Today, “The biggest threat to our movement is the intersection between the business interests and holding of public office. It is frightening to observe the speed with which the election to a position is seen to be the creation of an opportunity for wealth accumulation.” And for making these statements and for refusing to use the ANC for the well connected to accumulate wealth and by enforcing revolutionary ethics, the ANC SG has made a number of enemies from certain quarters.

He must rest assured that if he continues to advocate for these best values of the ANC which are centered on selflessness, we shall continue to defend him and millions of other ANC members who are sick and tired of selfish race to accumulate wealth will rally behind him.

SAMWU must be congratulated for its role in exposing and fighting this cancer, which, as the COSATU Congress report said, “is not only a moral imperative but a major issue of social justice in this country”. As Comrade Gwede said in his article, “If we do not deal decisively with this tendency the ANC will only move one way, that is, downward. Fighting corruption must be our preoccupation”.

We congratulate thousands of councilors and mayors who continue to do wonderful work to take forward our desire for a better life for all, often under difficult conditions. We call on our communities to be active in the ANC so that when the moment arrives to evaluate the work of all councilors they are there to ensure that those that have used their positions not to address our plight but to accumulate wealth for themselves and their families are kicked out.

We continue to insist that those who want to be public representatives must choose between being public representatives, who live within the salaries provided for these positions, and being businesspersons. No one should be allowed to choose both. We therefore reject the so-called “cooling off” period as a means to address graft and corruption. Capitalist accumulation never cools off unless it faces a crisis.

Comrade delegates

I must congratulate SAMWU on its strike earlier this year. The 13% increase you negotiated has become the benchmark for all other negotiators. It proved the importance of taking your dispute to the streets and showing the employer that you are serious. It is democracy in action, and the labour movement, which has always played a pivotal leadership role in our struggle for democracy, is winning more and more victories.

Things are going our way and labour is increasingly leading society as a whole. The ANC’s five priority areas of focus – decent jobs, education, health, rural development and crime – are our priorities too. Our interests and the national interest are one and the same. I urge comrades to read the Policy Framework of the ANC Manifesto, which shows once and for all that Polokwane was a watershed in the alignment of class forces in the national liberation movement. The Policy Framework uses the ILO as a reference for what we mean by decent work, so we expect procurement procedures and employment in public infrastructure projects to promote the type of decent work that the ANC and the ILO talks about.

But if we are to maintain and strengthen this hegemony, it is essential that we always keep the majority of society on our side and not antagonise them. We have to build the broadest possible spectrum of the oppressed majority within the ranks of the national democratic movement.

We can learn from the newly amended Constitution of the People`s Republic of China, which enshrines the "Three Represents" as one of the ruling theories of China. Following Mao Zedong’s spirit of the “two musts”, the principle of the “three represents” is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must:

  • Always represent the development trend of China`s advanced productive forces,
  • Always represent the orientation of China`s advanced culture, and
  • Always represent the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people.

The “two musts” are that we:

  • Must always be modest and prudent,
  • Must always work hard and continue to struggle.

COSATU and its allies face a very similar challenge to bring the same principles to bear on our struggle for the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the South African people.

I wish you a very successful and fruitful congress.