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COSATU Today  |  COSATU Speeches

Speech to the SACP Special National Congress by Zwelinzima Vavi: General Secretary COSATU

11 December 2009, Polokwane

General Secretary Comrade Blade Nzimande National Chairperson Comrade Gwede Mantashe Members of the Politburo and Central Committee of the South African Communist Party Leaders of the African National Congress Distinguished guests; Delegates, comrades and friends:

It is always an extra special honour to be invited to address a National Congress of our great ally, the South African Communist Party. The SACP, the ANC and the trade union movement have fought together in the trenches of the class, national and gender war for many years. We have always held a very special affection and respect for each other. Indeed we share many members, and of course share many values, principles and policies.

Somebody once said, referring to communists, “by their action ye shall see them.” The speaker was of course talking about the high level of principled commitment to revolutionary action and high ethical standing of communists. The Party makes us proud as the South African working class.

The unremitting commitment of the SACP to the ideal of socialism and its pioneering work in non-racial politics and practice remains a valuable contribution of communists.

By hoisting the Red Flag high during this period where many have lost their ideological bearing inspires the South African and global working class and progressive movement. This congress must take the SACP to new heights rather than be paralysed by short-term internal conflicts.

It is trite to say that this congress takes place at an opportune moment in our ongoing struggle for fundamental change. The symbolism of hosting this Congress in the same venue that ushered in a new regime and spirit in the ANC two years ago should not be lost. This moment thus serve as a midterm review of the outcome and development, not only for the SACP, but also of the historic 52nd Congress of the ANC.

Congress faces the challenge to conduct a dispassionate analysis of the post-Polokwane moment. Suffice to say that a new mood and spirit of cooperation is evident in the ANC and the Alliance. Still we have witnessed the beginnings of the unravelling of the unity of the forces that made Polokwane happen.

Comrades, we confront the challenge to understand the underlying reasons for this apparent rupture and its ideological, national and class character. Unity of the movement is a sacred objective that we should spare no energy to preserve and nurture. However, it is not unity for its own sake but to unite a broad range of forces to attain the goals of our struggle for fundamental change. Nobody said it was going to be easy! It will be folly to now abandon the ANC when we are confronted by contradictions.

We persevered during the most difficult time in the post 1994 era. Why should we give up now? The broad ANC members voted for accelerated transformation and democratisation of the movement. Leaving the ANC because we are upset by some problematic pronouncements from a minority is a betrayal of these masses that voted for fundamental transformation of society.

Still it is also false to argue that common ground cannot be established with many of these comrades, since there are no principled disagreements about restoring the NDR to its basic goals of eliminating national, class and gender oppression. Our responsibility is to broaden the front of the forces who want genuine change whilst recognising that there is a tiny minority that only mouth empty rhetoric about change but whose agenda is to use the movement and positions for narrow accumulation and personal wealth.

In COSATU there is a popular saying that “you cannot win at the table what you did not win on the streets.” This means we must intensify the struggle on all fronts and participate fully in the structures of our democratic movement. Further, it means we have to defend the post-Polokwane gains and ensure their realisation.

As our recent history has shown, progress results from collective action and a programme rather than an individual messiah. All-in-all comrades I am urging that we should resist the temptation to become paranoid and see enemies everywhere. If we give in to this temptation then we shall fail to grasp the opportunities now, and by extension fail to offer leadership.

In this regard we must defend the ANC as the embodiment of the desires of our people for a united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa. The ANC belongs to our people and not a section or a group of distinguished leaders. The best defence of the character of the ANC is to ensure that the branches are fully empowered to participate in the structures of the movement and to hold leadership accountable. As a popular freedom song says “amandla ase masebeni”.

The Congress also takes place a few months after the renewal of the ANC’s mandate to rule this country for the next five years. It is important that we grasp the lessons of the 2009 General Election, in terms of our strengths and weaknesses.

We know that the opposition benches have been reconfigured, with the emergence of COPE, which has eclipsed the IFP as the second biggest opposition party. Further, for the first time in post 1994 era, the Western Cape has been won by the DA with an outright majority, a peculiar outcome indeed!

Voter turnout increased, as did the number of people who voted ANC, but the ANC fell short of a straight two-thirds majority and in some provinces our overall majority was trimmed down. I emphasise these challenges not because we did not mount a spectacular campaign but to call on us to pay special attention to these lurking dangers.

Democracy is a contest of ideas and you cannot take mass support for granted. Let us use this opportunity to attend to our organisational, political and governance weaknesses.

Many were surprised that immediately after the election South Africa was engulfed by a wave of strikes and social protests in working-class communities. Does this mean our people are confused – vote for the ANC and immediately thereafter demonstrate a lack of trust in their rulers.

An easy explanation is to suggest that this is the work of disgruntled elements or agent provocateurs. In some cases this might be true, but to attribute all strikes and protests to problematic individuals is to have a superficial understanding of what is happening. Moreover it implies that the solution is to arrest these individuals and all will be fine. This securocratic response would illustrate that we may be out of touch with the reality of our constituency.

Rising levels of crime, xenophobia, social protests and strikes are many manifestations of our people’s reaction to the neoliberal squeeze. The adoption of conservative macroeconomic policies at a time when there was a huge backlog of service delivery and under-development resulted in the commodification of basic needs, rising unemployment and a general increase in insecurity in the household and the workplace. In fact, it seems that our policies are similar to driving the sea with a teaspoon or filling a leaking bucket.

It is not just a lack of delivery that triggers community protests. On the contrary, visible delivery demonstrates to the people that something is happening, but they ask: when will I benefit? In addition people’s patience is running thin as their relative deprivation deepens. When a person you grew up next to is suddenly driving the latest model of luxury car and living in leafy suburbs this is bound to increase anger.

What is even worse is that this society does not reward hard work and effort. There are many examples of super-rich individuals who have never worked a single day in their life, begging the question: where does the wealth come from? Are we then surprised by the many ‘get rich quick’ schemes and the ‘grab what you can whilst you can’ mentality in our organisations and society?

Where will this all end? This is what informs statements like ‘I did not struggle to be poor’, forgetting that the struggle was not about self enrichment but mass empowerment.

Black people in South Africa are further incensed by the percolation of wealth and opportunities among a minority of (mostly male) whites. A few blacks have joined the super-rich but this does not change the basic fact that white power remains firmly entrenched so many years after the democratic breakthrough. Our people ask: was reconciliation worth it if we remain unemployed and living in poverty? In this regard gestures that impose one-sided reconciliation smack of intellectual arrogance and opportunism. Why is it always the victims that must show magnanimity when the perpetrators do not even show remorse?

Comrades, this Congress comes in the aftermath of the highly successful COSATU tenth congress. The recent COSATU CEC agreed that it was indeed a remarkable show of unity, strength and political maturity. A report assessing the outcome of the Congress has been issued and I invite comrades to engage it.

I believe we can all agree that the Congress raised the bar on theoretical, political and strategic debates. This escaped the mass media and the chattering classes who focused narrowly, and distorted, a debate on the Green Paper on National Planning.

Clearly political education is lacking among many of the current crop of journalists. Please, the Party must have a programme to improve political education among our journalists, so they can appreciate the depth of our analysis rather than focus on platitudes and sensational stuff.

Against this background I want to say I agree with the Party when it asks why after fifteen years of democracy the material conditions of our people have not fundamentally changed. The obvious answer is that the structures that produce and reproduce under-development, poverty and inequality have not been fundamentally tampered with.

We must spend time understanding the dynamics of the post-1994 South African society and the current global capitalist order. Ultimately the point is to understand how to transform our society and the world. Capitalism is recovering from its worst crisis after the crash of the global financial markets. The crisis is a recurring theme in capitalism, albeit with different triggers and effects.

Many of our people feel the outcome of this crisis through, unemployment, declining incomes and rising poverty and inequalities. Marx was the first to point out that crisis is endemic to capitalism. Schumpeter called this ‘boom and bust’ process a ‘creative destruction’. Capitalists behave like a herd when they smell opportunity, others panic and the whole structure crumbles and has to start again. Kindleberger called his book ‘Manias, Panics and Crashes’ to describe this exuberant optimism and extreme pessimism, especially in financial markets.

Therefore comrades, the task facing this congress is to deepen our understanding of the capitalist order in the South African, regional and global context. It must also articulate strategies to deepen the NDR in South Africa and build momentum for socialism.

However this task will be incomplete if it does not encompass the region and the international order. COSATU congress challenged us to build a broad coalition of left forces at a national, regional and global level. It remains a sad irony that the left forces are fragmented and lack a common platform. We must heighten the ideological warfare to defend the correctness of our ideas. The left label has become a swear word and it is only through our effort and work that our people will respect us.

Leaders of the new tendency, together with non-reading and non-analytic sections of the media, continue to create the impression that the left is some problematic tendency hell-bent on hijacking the ANC, which is supposed to be a neutral player that is not itself a left force. Soon, if we do not expose and isolate this emerging tendency, we may return to the days where there was a witch-hunt against so called ‘leftists’. So comrades I plead with you that this congress should not be about leadership but about providing answers to these many challenges we face.

This week world leaders are gathered in Copenhagen to discuss environmental challenges and how we should respond. We commend the South African government for the voluntary steps it has committed to. This proves that you do not have to be a superpower to provide leadership on issues facing humanity. It is very clear that this summit is going to be another missed opportunity, as developed countries continue to duck their responsibility.

This in part reflects the fact that a global mass movement for environmental change to put pressure on governments is absent. We have allowed environmental issues to be the preserve of the middle class when in fact it is the poor that are worst affected by environmental damage. This congress must go beyond blaming capitalism but develop clear proposals for a campaign on environmental change. In addition, it must articulate a vision of socialism that is ecologically sustainable. The experience of the Soviet Union proves that we cannot take the environment for granted.

I now turn to the most difficult part of my speech. If I had a choice I would skip this part and wish the congress well. I must confess comrades that this is the most difficult speech I have had to write. So much is at stake and the situation is very delicate. I am reminded of a saying that we expressed when facing difficulties in the Alliance. We used to say we are performing a ‘complicated egg dance’. I never thought I would face this moment so soon. As you all know, this congress must decide on the best formula to address the leadership question. I am not here to tell you what to do, but our movement was not built by skirting difficult and controversial issues.

As we engage in this debate we need to balance between two extremes. One extreme is to completely miss the opportunity now presented by the post-Polokwane moment through some undefined militant abstention. COSATU, through its ‘walking through the open doors project ‘, has defined a clear strategy on how workers should ensure that they pick the gains for themselves. We do not struggle so that others can be our rulers.

We more than ever before are presented with an opportunity to deploy our leaders to key levers of power so that they can be in the forefront of the transformation project. We cannot abstain from this challenge, nor can we afford to sub contract it to others. These victories belong to us. This changed political environment is as a result our efforts. We must walk through the open doors.

We are therefore not an opposition grouping or an NGO that is not interested in state power. Those who are arguing abstention must think again. Workers and the poor cannot be happy to have made all these sacrifices to achieve a more favourable balance of forces, and then, just at the time when we need leaders of substance and conviction to navigate through this difficult terrain and help lead to the realisation of the goal of building a better life for all, see them step aside to let others to come through to lead us.

I feel that, as the General Secretary of the organised workers who are your trusted ally, I would have failed if I did not also make you appreciate the other extreme to this debate. In whatever manner you resolve this debate, it cannot be that in the name of walking through the open doors we open a new race for all leaders of the SACP to want to be a mayor and minister.

I want you at this moment to spare some time to think again what you meant when you talked about the need to reconfigure the Alliance, so that you can keep your leadership accountable to your ideals. Recall your discussions that informed the Medium Term Vision (MTV). Recall that you coined a historic slogan that continues to be a clarion call to all socialists: ‘Socialism is the future; build it now’.

In whatever way you resolve this discussion about leadership and the new environment that requires that we walk through the open doors and pick up the gains, please take the following into three points into consideration as your framework:
1. The SACP must not be subordinated to the ANC. We need carefully thought-out mechanisms to ensure that the SACP has leaders who spend adequate time in Party building programmes. The challenges I have mapped above demand a strong, independent and fighting working class party, of course allied to the ANC and COSATU.
2. There has to be a clear link between whatever we conclude and the MTV and in particular to the clarion call – ‘Socialism is the future; build it now’. We must act ideologically and politically and not be seen to be acting opportunistically. We must occupy the space that has been opened to maximise the gains to deepen the NDR and build the momentum for socialism. Ultimately, the success of this strategy is the extent to which it deepens the NDR and builds a momentum for socialism. Honestly, it will be a lost opportunity if all it achieves is the incorporation of the Party leadership into an untransformed situation without a clear ideology of how this links to our struggle to build socialism. In that case the leaders will simply serve as apologists of the status quo. In the past 15 years we have seen this happening. To be frank, regrettably, it was some of the leading communists who enthusiastically pushed down the throats of the working class the neoliberal programmes championed by the 1996 class project.
3. The Party’s independence must be jealously guarded. The leadership must be held accountable. The state is a massive monster. Our leaders can either lead the process of its transformation or they can be transformed by the state that still is essentially capitalist in character and therefore a weapon of class rule. In the absence of strong mechanisms to keep the leadership accountable and a fighting programme guiding the work of the party, we face a danger of making the party a weapon to provide jobs for its leaders in government.

Whatever solution this Congress arrives at we must remember that workers need a vanguard that earns its place by providing consistent leadership to society. You are our political insurance and, please, we have not come here so that we witness the process of a slow death of our party. We are here to contribute so that the party continues to be that political insurance for the workers.

I trust that you will rise up to the challenge and not give our enemies a chance to celebrate.

I wish the Congress a success.