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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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COSATU Today  |  COSATU Speeches

Zwelinzima Vavi’s address at the funeral of Mthuthuzeli Tom, 4 September 2010

We are gathered here today to honour one of our greatest and much loved trade union leaders - Comrade Mthuthuzeli Tom. On behalf of COSATU’s two million members, I bring our deepest condolences to his wife Ntombikayise and two children, Mkhonto weSizwe and Amahle, and to all his friends and comrades.

Comrade Tom was one of many fine leaders who have led the metal workers, in NUMSA and its predecessors. He will always be remembered and honoured for his life of service to working people and his dedication to our national liberation struggle. Sadly he left us too early, and will be sorely missed by all South African workers and democrats.

As you will see from the obituary, Comrade Tom was literally born into the trade union family, the son of a SAAWU activist. He started attending union meetings when he was still at school.

From the first day in his first job - as a welder at Mercedes-Benz in 1983 - he was swept into the tsunami of the workers’ struggle. He became a shop steward almost as soon as he started work.

Like so many worker activists however, he never restricted his work to the union, but was also an activist in the broader liberation struggle, as a member of the East London Youth Congress, which was affiliated to the United Democratic Front (UDF).

He represented NAAWU in talks that led to the establishment of COSATU in December 1985. How sad that he will not be there in December when we celebrate the 25th anniversary of that historic moment. Nor will he witness the same anniversary of NUMSA in 2012, in which he played such a massive role over many years, particularly as its President for 16 years from 1992 to 2008.

Comrade Tom was a tireless fighter for the rights of the workers, and we will miss him more than ever at this time when thousands of workers, including hundreds of his NUMSA comrades, are in the midst of titanic battles to defeat the attacks on workers’ living standards and democratic rights.
We need leaders of his stature more than ever, as we confront the evils of high unemployment, poverty and inequality, the casualisation of labour and the rampant corruption which is poisoning our society.

COSATU has warned time after time that South Africa is sitting on a ticking bomb. In recent weeks that bomb has indeed begun to explode, as workers in our unions, and residents in our poor communities, take to the streets.
Despite our human rights constitution and democratic laws, the poor majority of South Africans are saying they have had enough of their exclusion from the economic benefits of our society, sixteen years after our political liberation.

Our 16 years of democracy have seen a steady decline in labour’s share of national income. As President Zuma said at our May Day rally in Durban this year: "The benefits of economic growth have not been broadly and equitably shared."
This is reflected in our shocking levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality, which are getting even worse. 1.1 million jobs were lost from the beginning of 2009 to the middle of 2010. This has plunged five and a half million more family members of those jobless workers into the ranks of the 48% of South Africans who live in poverty.

South Africa is now the most unequal country in the world, where the top 20 paid directors in JSE-listed companies earned 1728 times the average income of a South African worker in 2008, whilst state-owned enterprises paid 194 times an average worker’s income.

Mthura spent all his life in a battle against these inequalities. I know he did not die a happy man. How would any class-conscious person be happy when he reads that in 1963-1964, the manufacturing sector paid whites 5 times more than Africans, with whites earning an average of R2 169, whilst Africans earned R413 60?

Yet by 2007, whites were earning 8 times more than Africans. An average African man earns in the region of R2 400 per month, whilst an average white man earns around R19 000. The racial income gap is therefore roughly R16 800 among males.
Most white women earn in the region of R9 600 per month, whereas most African women earn R1 200 per month. The racial income gap in monthly incomes among women is therefore R8 400. On average, white women also earn eight times more than their African counterparts.

The inequality permeates all corners of our society. It is at the heart of the current strike by public service workers, who are sick of low pay and terrible working conditions. Their demands are absolutely justified.

But the strike raises broader issues about how to transform our public services, and in particular end the two-tier structures, where a rich minority can buy world-class service in private schools and hospitals, while the poor majority have to suffer abysmal levels of service.

Paying a living wage to our public servants is a key ingredient to kick-starting this process of transformation. If we want the best service, we must not expect highly qualified and skilled workers to have to work long hours for peanuts, in under-resourced and under-staffed schools and hospitals.

This public service strike also highlights the urgent need to press ahead with the National Health Insurance scheme and the radical transformation of all other public services so that we can fulfil the promises contained in our Freedom Charter.
In our education system only 24% of the 1.4 million learners who entered the system in 2008, were able to complete matric in the minimum of 12 years.

In housing 1.875 of households – 15% - still live in shacks, often within sight of an elite living in little palaces with huge gardens and swimming pools.
We cannot unfortunately talk about our public services without also dealing with the massive problem of corruption. Comrade Tom came from a generation of trade union leaders who never dreamed of betraying their members and using their positions to enrich themselves or their families at the workers’ expense.

The same was true of ANC leaders and their public representatives, and still is true for the big majority. But scandalously, our movement has been infiltrated by a new breed of public officials who take office in order to promote their families’ business interests and line their pockets with money stolen from the people they are supposed to represent.

These ‘tenderpreneurs’ have no ideology except ‘Me first! They have imported the corrupt, materialist practices of capitalism into our democratic state and even our liberation movement. We owe it to our late comrades like Mthura to root out this cancer, which threatens to turn our hard-fought-for democracy into a predator state.

In conclusion I want to tell you something I usually say about the organisation. This is so important as we start celebrating the 25th anniversary of COSATU. The organisation survives all weathers and storms because it brings together people of different strengths and characters.

As we lay to rest the remains of Mthura, we remember in particular that his area of speciality was building the organisation. As a shop steward he learned to appreciate the importance of organisation building. Mthura practically lived our slogan that says: what you have not won in the streets you will not win at the negotiation table.

He was so thrilled by the 1997 September Commission report that talked of building the engines of the federation. I recall vividly his contributions to the debates that started in 2000 on Organisational Development, which emphasized the need for us to continuously review our organisational systems and adjust them to new challenges and realities.
All we can say to you Mthura is that we will continue to make the connection with our members as you insisted we do. We shall continue to train our shop steward so that we continue to make them the backbone of our organisation.

We shall continue to recruit more members and conscientise the working class so that they can appreciate that they are a class on its own. We shall build the engines so that we continue to be relevant to our members.

On this solemn occasion, let Comrade Tom inspire us to emulate his high standards of commitment and struggle to finish his life’s work the struggle for workers’ liberation and the socialist transformation of society.
So let us pick up his spear and forge ahead. He has done everything for us. It is our time to do everything in honour of his memory, as he joins in his new world with Yure Mdyogolo, Thozamile Gqwetha, Vuyisile Mini and other giants of the workers’ movement.
Hamba kakuhle Madiba – Sopitsho!