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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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COSATU Today  |  COSATU Speeches

Zwelinzima Vavi’s Speech to SADTU’s 7th National Congress at Birchwood Conference Centre in Boksburg, Gauteng National Office Bearers of SADTU Members of the National Executive Committee Leaders and activists of the union at all levels Delegates to this the 7th National Congress Former leaders of SADTU COSATU Office bearers and members of the COSATU CEC Local and international guests Dear Comrades

I am grateful for this opportunity to speak at this very important Congress, more so because we are also marking 20 years of gallant and active trade unionism in the education sector. It was exactly on this day, 6 October that SADTU was launched as a fighting giant.

The launch of this union 20 years ago represented a total rejection of the apartheid’s attempt to divide and rule the working class and an utter denunciation of the policy of having separate education departments for different ethnic groups. The unity marked by SADTU’s launch marked a significant break with racially divided unions and was an important step in cementing the vision of a non-racial trade union for teachers.

SADTU carries the potential to be the revolutionary shield that spares the working class from the daily ideological onslaught meted out by the bourgeoisie.

Every child and every human being develops from the tutelage of teachers, who therefore occupy a special role in our quest to change the world and do away with the evils of the capitalist system.

We know only too well that without a critical mass of teachers, armed with revolutionary theory and commitment, our revolution would be greatly compromised. Indeed if we did not have a revolutionary teacher’s union such as SADTU, many of contradictions that the capitalist schooling system imposes in the classroom would go unchallenged.

It is now common knowledge how the apartheid state suppressed teachers from dissenting from an apartheid curriculum infused with the notion that white is superior and that blacks should serve as nothing more than cheap labour to be utilised in creating wealth for a few white South Africans.

Under apartheid, the whole idea that teachers empower their students to question existing racial and class power relations was significantly suppressed.

Instead teachers were expected to teach their students to accept their unequal and inferior place in a racialised capitalist system and to learn the art of abiding by the rules and discipline of the powers that be.

It was in direct opposition to this that the struggle for people’s education for people’s power was born. It was geared towards democratising the system of education and using it as one of the driving forces for social transformation.

It was an utter rejection of using the concept of professionalism to demobilise teachers from having a critical look at the system of apartheid and the gross violations that characterised it.

People’s education sought to teach students that their fate is directly tied up with that of their parents in the factories, the farms the mines and with that of the reserve army of the unemployed in our townships. It is an education that rewards students with the tools to challenge class exploitation and racial and gender oppression. It is from a strong conviction that we assert that SADTU is best placed to help us achieve this noble vision.

Decades after we formulated that vision, we need to reflect on some of the advances made in the transformation of education in the post-1994 period.
It is crucial to emphasise that black working class students are still at the receiving end of an unequal education system marked by unequal access to resources such as libraries, laboratories, learner support materials and even teachers.

Whilst we have made tremendous progress on many areas, such as improving infrastructure, delivery of books, enrolment of children, in particular the girl child, improving access by opening more no-fee schools, etc. we have not succeeded on transforming the education system in both quality and quantity.

The fault-lines remain stubbornly in place. The poor’s children remain trapped in inferior education with wholly inadequate infrastructure; 70% of our schools do not have libraries and 60% do not have laboratories; 60% of children are pushed out of the schooling system before they reach grade 12.
Of the 1 550 790 South African children who started school in 1998, only 551 940 of them registered for the matriculation class. That is a dropout rate of 64%. Of these 551 940 who wrote matriculation exams, only 334 609 (60.6%) passed matriculation and just 109 697 achieved university entrance.

That means that 1 216 181 of the original 1998 intake are left with no qualifications and, given the current rate of unemployment; no jobs, no hope and no future. The matriculation pass figure of 334 718 learners means that 24% were able to complete matriculation in the minimum of 12 years.

Indeed “70% of (matriculation) exam passes are accounted for by just 11% of schools, i.e. the former White, Coloured, and Asian schools”[1]. What is of major concern is that 12-year olds in South Africa perform three times worse than 11-year olds in Russia when it comes to reading and 16-year olds in South Africa perform three times worse than 14-year olds in Cyprus when it comes to mathematics[2]. It is estimated that only 3% of the children who enter the schooling system eventually complete with higher-grade mathematics.

Nevertheless, white learners perform in line with the international average in both science and mathematics, which is twice the score of African learners.

For teachers in working class schools, this bleak picture also replicates as their working environment. This results in a situation where 55% of educators would leave the profession if they had an opportunity to do so. This is also a symptomatic of an ineffective and dysfunctional education system
This is the crisis our education system faces dear comrades! In fact to call it a crisis is a complete understatement – this is a catastrophe! Let us again emphasize that if we don’t reverse this situation then for many liberation will be without any value.

Whilst this disaster in unfolding, the children of the rich are in private schools. The children of the middle class who are now joined by a minority of blacks are in former Model C schools. Both private and former Model C schools are in varying degrees far better than the schools where working class and black children find themselves.

The connection between these statistics and youth unemployment need to be emphasized. Of the unemployed 72% are below the age of 35 years. This is what we have called a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. Already that bomb is exploding in many parts of the country through violent service delivery protests. On the other hand, the connection of these statistics to scourge of HIV and AIDS including the collapse of the collapse of family values is also a point to make.

Of course government has a primary responsibility to address this crisis. In our growth path document we have proposed a series of interventions that must be considered. The ANC has already made education one of the five key priorities for this term of government.

The critical question we must answer in this congress is what is the role of a revolutionary trade union movement in making a contribution towards resolving this crisis?
SADTU has led the way. It mobilised NAPTOSA and SAOU to commit to certain fundamentals, which includes running a campaign amongst members to appreciate their role in saving this generation. The unions themselves have said teachers must be at school all the time, they must prepare for classes, they must spend 7 and a half hours teaching, and they commit not to abuse children in particular the girl child.

The department of education has committed to support schools and the CEC of COSATU, which is the biggest organisation of the parents, has committed to mobilise its members to participate in the school governing bodies and adopt dysfunctional schools so that they work. Students’ organisations have committed to ensure that there is discipline. All this should make a contribution to return to the culture of learning and teaching.

The problem is therefore not a lack of clarity in terms of what must be done. The challenge we all face is to ensure that these commitments are a living reality. I hope comrades that this congress will go down in history as the point at which this revolutionary movement of educators, in recognition of the unfolding catastrophe faced by black people and the working class, decided not to sloganise but to mobilise and galvanise not only its members but their entire society behind a campaign to save our collective future as a nation.

COSATU, as a progressive revolutionary and transformative trade union movement, must lead a mass campaign to change culture in the public service. A new culture of service and batho pele, in which all public servants understand that they are the limbs of the RDP is desperately needed. The other components and the democratic state must support this campaign without seeking to transform the trade union movement to a sweetheart trade union movement.

In the previous congresses of SADTU I raised that we are not fully realising your potential as trained educators within the working class to help develop working class politically.
The 10th National Congress of COSATU held last year enjoined us to develop ideological clarity about where we are. What are the forces ranging against the strategic interests of the working class? Who are our allies? Last but not least we need clarity about the international ideological warfare and our role in it.

Further, while saying that we must pay homage to our historic documents like the Freedom Charter, the RDP and the September Commission, the Congress said we should emerge with a transformation programme takes into account reconfigured situation at a domestic and international level.

Comrade President Ntola and all delegates I have a correct expectation that this union of educators – the trained cadres of the working class - must use the advantage of being trained to impart knowledge and skills, to help all the formations of the working class achieve its noble ideas. This we do, only if we are not arrogant and or believe that we superior than others, but if we say we must empower ourselves to use our added advantage and make a contribution to the cause.

The Public Sector Strike
I want to speak briefly about the public sector strike. I took an extraordinary step of writing a 5-page letter to our comrades in Mthatha after reading their letter expressing concerns. They were making allegations that the leadership of SADTU, and insinuating that the COSATU General Secretary as well, had sold out members during the public sector strike.

I don’t have time to repeat that hour-long presentation today. I know as educators you have read the letter. I will only talk to the lessons we must draw from the strike today.

[It is important to emphasize that the teachers have suffered a major class onslaught in the recent period. The public sector strike was by far the biggest protracted strike since the dawn of our democracy in 1994. It was also marked by the capitalist media’s attempts to undermine class solidarity amongst workers by appealing to the sentiments and desires of working class parents, whose children’s education inevitably suffered because of snail’s pace approach of the government in making thorough changes to our education system. All this aimed to muster public support and dampen the impact of the strike.

During the strike, the public discourse was polluted with cries about the ‘selfishness’ of public sector workers and the argument that our public sector wage bill is simply too high.
These arguments were paraded without considering the fact that it is not possible to have an efficient and people-centred public service without the human capacity to achieve this. Service delivery will simply not take off without skilled and qualified people to undertake and administer these tasks.

The strike saw a massive unity of workers in the public sector and COSATU unions. It proved without any doubt that workers’ unity is vital and that divisions amongst workers only aid the employer’s attempts to divide and rule.

Critically, the strike also dealt a blow to the allegation that COSATU’s alliance with the ANC is compromising its independence and the interests of the workers. Our unions remain the most reliable in defending and advancing the interests of workers both at the factory-floor and in society.

The overriding lesson from this strike is the urgent need to create a single public sector union that will have specialised units for all the professions that exist in the public service.

Along with this is the need in future to avoid proposing settlement areas without canvassing this properly with provincial structures and to always keep provincial leaders abreast of new developments and political interventions taking place. Equally is was wrong for all of us as leaders to take the employers’ revised offers to the radio and television instead of ensuring that we give our members an opportunity to consider the offer without the full glare of the media.

Rest assured comrades that strike will remain important for years to come. It was a testimony to Lenin’s caution that “action by the masses, a big strike ... is more important than parliamentary activity at all times, and not only during a revolution or in a revolutionary situation.” We can achieve much as workers though united mass action than we can divide.

The National General Council of the ANC
Comrades and friends, we have also emerged from the 3rd ANC National General Council of the ANC. There is no doubt that the NGC was a success. This NGC was not only a defence of the Polokwane outcomes but a significant advance forward. The tenderpreneurs, who seek to utilise our organisations for narrow personal gain, have been isolated.

Nevertheless we should never make the mistake of thinking that their neutralisation means that they have been permanently defeated. There are certain areas where this group can regroup and regain momentum. We must emphasise that it will rest entirely on how we as workers position ourselves in fighting this tendency within the ANC.

At a time when we were beginning to raise questions about the ANC government’s cosy relations with capital and the abandonment of working class interests, the NGC was decisive in a number of areas, including on nationalisation – which is a noteworthy assault on bourgeois property – and on the National Health Insurance scheme. Nothing can erase these advances.

With the working class having made such inroads at the NGC, it is no wonder then that the bourgeoisie, through its media and think tanks, are shouting against what they see as an attack on private property and personal wealth! The ANC NGC was an important step in asserting that the ANC, despite being a multi class formation, is by no means a capitalist organisation.

However the manner in which the NGC addressed the whole question on the Alliance being a strategic political centre left us unsatisfied. COSATU has never questioned the role of the ANC as a leader of the Alliance and as a centre of power in its own right. But it is mischievous and contradictory to argue that the Alliance, which has the ANC at its helm, is not in itself a strategic political centre of power.

Whilst we agree that our alliance with the ANC and SACP is one that has matured through age and in the terrain of struggle, we are nonetheless concerned about those who seek to brandish quotes about the alliance not being a paper alliance in order to justify the sidelining of alliance components in a number of areas.

The current period requires a strong alliance that is able to drive a joint programme and to mobilise the entire membership and society behind the vision of a society encapsulated in the Freedom Charter. The ANC-led alliance must drive transformation. Government leaders and bureaucrats cannot continue to be the strategic centre of power, as they have been over the last 16 years.

Indeed we would be humouring ourselves if we were to think that we could defeat the 1996 Class Project and new hostile class tendencies without winning this debate to restore the historic and strategic role of the Alliance. This analysis is carried out in the CEC political discussion document titled The Alliance at a Cross Road - the battle against a predatory elite and political paralysis.

We have also recently launched what we think should be the kernel of economic development in the country - A Growth Path towards Full Employment. This document has received scorn and critiques from the usual suspects – bourgeois economists and media. They allege that our proposed growth path is misdirected. For them, the aim of all economic plans and policies should be to deregulate what they perceive to be a rigid labour market which is infested with unions that are simply “too strong”.

They won’t acknowledge that their sponsored direction of economic policy has simply failed to address the deepening crisis of unemployment, poverty and inequalities.

As we celebrate SADTU’s 20 years of relentless struggle for the rights of teachers and the transformation of education, we must be firm in asserting that the working class cannot afford even another year reeling under the pressures of unemployment, poverty and an ailing health system. As we prepare ourselves for the 25th anniversary of the birth of a gigantic, non-racial and independent COSATU, it must be made clear that we are becoming increasingly impatient with the co-existence of opulence and wealth on the one hand and extreme poverty and deprivation on the other.

Let us be resolute - that our tolerance of labour brokers and atypical and indecent work is wearing thin. Let this congress reignite our passion as revolutionaries for social change and our disdain for a system that attaches a price to everything.
Let it rekindle the flame to transform our education system and instil a new and revolutionary value system amongst our youth. Let it remind us of the sanctity of mass struggle and working class unity. We wish you a successful 7th National Congress.

Patrick Craven (National Spokesperson)
Congress of South African Trade Unions
1-5 Leyds Cnr Biccard Streets

P.O.Box 1019

Tel: +27 11 339-4911/24
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E-Mail: patrick@cosatu.org.za