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COSATU Today  |  COSATU Speeches

COSATU General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi’s, address to the Xstrata seminar on constructing an ethical society 14 October 2010

Andile Sangcu – Executive Director of Xstrata; Prince Mashele – Executive Director Centre for Politics and Research; Honourable and distinguished guests

Thank you very much for the honour of sharing my thoughts in this important gathering. This seminar is a welcome contribution to the debate on building an ethical society.

I am sure we all agree that the constitution of the Republic sums up what type of society we ought to build. Our struggle is about constructing a humane, caring, open, democratic, non-racial and non-sexist society. These are the norms and values many have shed their blood for.

Experience over the last sixteen years has taught us that it is one thing to proclaim an ideal and quite another to achieve it. We strove in the past sixteen years to fulfil the aspirations of our struggle for human dignity, freedom and equality. We can be proud as a nation of our accomplishments in such a fairly short space of time in the history of a new nation.

I am sure we also agree that we are far from reaching the vision enshrined in our Constitution. Many of our people are still trapped in poverty, unemployment and destitution. The levels of inequality, especially income inequality, have actually worsened since 1994. We are no longer the apartheid skunk of the world but we have quickly become number one country in terms of inequality.

The legacy of dualistic development remains stubbornly entrenched.
South Africa is still a country divided along race, class, gender and geography. The human development statistics are horrifying, especially if we recognise that South Africa has the capacity to feed, clothe, house, treat and provide jobs to millions.

The gains we have made are under threat for a number of reasons.
First, South Africa has spawned an uncaring, self-absorbed and indifferent elite whose major sport is an ostentatious display of wealth and power. Crass materialism threatens the spirit of selfless service that characterised our democratic movement.

The wealth of the elite is at shocking levels! CEOs’ packages are way out of kilter with their productivity. It is scandalous that 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 average workers’ income, whilst approximately 71% of African female-headed households earned less than R800 a month and 59% of these had no income.

Yet when workers demand even as little as a R200 per month increase they are told that they are threatening the stability of the economy.
This is what makes my stomach turn. For as long we have this situation we are far from achieving the promises of the Constitution for a more equal society. It is not workers who undermine this vision but those with power.

This widening inequality that has come to characterise South African society threatens all our hard-fought-for democratic gains. In 2005/6, the average income from work in the richest 10% of households was 32 times the average income of the poorest 60%. Relative deprivation is at the core of the so-called service delivery protest.

During the decades of struggle it was understood that apartheid would not be allowed to continue in a normal society. Yet that abnormal society is continuing at the economic level. The difference is that a small black elite, who were lucky to receive education and who are well connected politically, have silently joined the leafy suburbs.
Some have never looked back where they come from.

The tragedy is that we are accepting as a norm that a minority will have first world infrastructure and amenities whilst the majority are trapped in humiliating and degrading squalor. We buried apartheid that was based legalised racial segregation, only to maintain a new kind of apartheid of economic segregation largely still based on racialised exclusion but increasingly based pure class exclusion.

There is another worrying dimension to all of this. If someone you know become a multi-millionaire with little effort overnight you are bound to protest. The message this sends is that we don’t have to work hard because the system actually rewards not hard workers but the well-connected. It’s a message that says to our kids: you don’t have to spend so many years at school, and it says to genuine
entrepreneurs: you don’t have to take the risks but get connected by joining the organisation to join in feeding in the trough.

If someone you know acquires an RDP house while you were first in the queue and are still homeless, this is likely to rankle even the finest among us. The gulf of inequality can be as trifling as unequal access to public service up to the yawning income gap.

The reason for this pattern of development is rooted in our apartheid past. The structures of domination and exclusion continue to find expression in our democratic dispensation.

Corruption and peddling of political influence constitutes another threat to our democratic ideals. Often corruption goes hand-in-hand with misgovernment, secrecy and lack of accountability. Yet this flies against our constitutional values of open, democratic and accountable governance. The incestuous relationship between private sector and public sector elite forms a nexus of greed and evil that has to be broken.

Or as ANC Secretary-General, Gwede Mantashe, 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.” No wonder some others, albeit only a few, say he must go!

We have a choice as a country! We can fatalistically look on, as our hard fought for gains are trampled upon by a self-seeking and self-perpetuating oligarchy or we can choose to fight. They say that bad things happen when good people do nothing! Let me remind you of the words uttered by Martin Luther King Junior when he said:

“The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict”.

COSATU joins the majority of our citizens who choose to do something to prevent this downward spiral. An English Philosopher Bertrand Russell said

“An ethical person ought to do more than he is required to do and less than he is allowed to do”.

South Africans must take this message to heart before it is too late.
Already there is a growing number of people who simply shrug their shoulders and do nothing to confront the scourge of corruption both in the private and public sector. Integrity is doing the right thing even if nobody is watching, as one philosopher put it.

Indifference and fatalism are not an option in this fight to defend the democratic revolution. I find it immoral that, in the face of overwhelming evidence that more than at any other time we need to find a different meaning of reconciliation, others sit indifferent to others’ suffering. In my book, suffering and pain anywhere constitute a threat to peace and harmony everywhere.

We cannot leave this task to a liberal minority who use the Constitution to defend the status quo. We cannot allow the constitution to be hijacked by the liberals to ferment fear amongst the minority or use it as a battering ram against the democratic government and movement. Whenever the tendency to close the democratic space rears its ugly head, men and women of integrity must rise to challenge this.

We fought a long, hard and painful struggle to get where we are today.
But the forces of destruction can roll back these gains under our watch in a short space of time. The Constitution is the only real weapon to construct an ethical society. It is not only about protecting past privileges but also about addressing decades of colonial and racial capitalism that has bequeathed a society divided along race, class, gender and geography.

The Constitution, however, cannot build houses, create jobs and provide education. Like any good policy on paper it requires warm bodies to take its spirit forward. It requires deeds and appropriate policies to realise the vision of the Constitution.

South Africa has still to enter into a dialogue on what reconciliation and reconstruction means. COSATU’s proposals on the new growth path aim to address this terrible apartheid legacy. Yet some, from the comfort of their security and armchairs, have received these proposals with scorn.

The challenge I wish pose to business and the rich is: what do they have to offer? Often we hear from business circles that government must stay the course in economic policy and protect the privileges of the rich. This is despite evidence showing that the economic policies we have pursued for the past 16 years have added to the malaise of under-development and inequality.

The question is: for how long will the poor be patient with the self-fulfilling and self-seeking elite that has a bottomless appetite for wealth? Other than protecting their wealth and profits, in what ways are the rich willing to contribute to a common struggle to build a more equal society? Of course they can retreat into gated communities or run away, but for how long? Inequality is a global phenomenon and you will soon run out of space to run to!

COSATU has demanded that our leaders must choose whether they want to be public representatives or businesspersons. They cannot choose both.
The temptation is just too big to resist for a people’s representative not to use political power to advance private commercial interests.
This is a biggest threat to our efforts to establish a transparent and corruption-free government. The succession of corruption scandals and the spread of the capitalist culture of greed and self-enrichment are threatening to unravel the fabric of society and to undermine all the great progress we have made.

It is not good enough for ministers and public officials to hide behind the argument that they have ‘declared an interest’ in the companies they and their family own. The fact that they are in business to make money creates an inevitable conflict of interest when they are legislating in parliament, a provincial legislature or municipal council.

The source of corruption is the capitalist system of personal accumulation of wealth. It is business that corrupts and tempts public representatives and it has always been run on the basis of the survival of the fittest, where the principle of ‘dog-eats-dog’ and ‘me-first’ applies.

Let me conclude by two quotes of Martin Luther King Junior again when he said:

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?”

I believe that it will be from these conferences that the people of South Africa will be mobilised to rise and confront the small minority of political hyenas hell bent on scavenging on our hard-won victories.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy”.

Thank you