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Conferences  |  COSATU Speeches

Zwelinzima Vavi’s opening address to the COSATU Skills Conference

1 July 2009, Johannesburg,

I very much appreciate the opportunity to open this historic, very important - and very necessary – skills and education conference. I would like to welcome all of you here today and congratulate the organisers of the conference.

I want to congratulate our new Minister of Higher Education and Training, our very long-standing friend and comrade – the much loved Comrade Blade Nzimande, who will be here tomorrow. I am absolutely confident that he will overcome the immense challenges he faces and preside over the transformation of our higher education system.

Over the next three days we shall be assessing government’s existing education, training and skills programme and how well or badly these have served workers and the poor. We shall also critically evaluate the effectiveness of COSATU’s own policies and strategies in this area, their strengths and weaknesses.

We shall also need to examine how we can develop a better, more coordinated strategy to ensure that future education policies play their full part in our overall strategies for transforming our society as a whole, in line with our 2015 Plan.

I trust that you will lay the foundations of a comprehensive response to the range of education, training and skills challenges facing the working class, which will then have to be discussed at the COSATU 10th Congress and beyond.

To understand our situation today, we have to look at the way education and training were manipulated and deformed under apartheid, in its drive to impoverish and disempower our people. The foundation of apartheid’s discriminatory path was the denial of access to formal education and skills for the majority of our people. Even the four-year education colleges were largely barred to black people, which left black teachers with only the lowest paid teaching jobs.

As a result, many workers learned their skills at the workplace, informally, and without receiving any certificate. Remember the stories about ‘spanner boys’ or even what they used to call ‘pikinini’ who did all the work, but no matter how skilled they were, they were still classed as ‘elementary workers’ because they did not have pieces of paper to formalise their real qualifications. This meant workers could never get promoted or move to other jobs because their qualifications competencies were never recognised.

Moeletsi Mbeki should have remembered this too, before making his slanderous comments about trade unions leaders being ‘ignorant’ and ‘uneducated’. Many of them achieved brilliant educational successes despite have been disempowered under apartheid.

Many have gone on to play pivotal roles in government and business. And contrary to what our former comrade alleged, they have been, and are still being, replaced by new generations of workers-intellectuals, whose studies began in the universities of the trade unions and the workplace.

With the transition to democracy, the unions worked with the democratic movement to try to overcome the divisions and unfairness in the education and training system, which we inherited. But we still have very far to go.

We still have huge inequalities, based now on class rather than formerly on race. Because most of the upper class is still white, however, racial differences still pervade the education system. In 2003, just over half of white learners got a matric exemption, but only a tenth of Africans. Not surprisingly, our universities are still about half white. And about three quarters of management in the private sector is still white.

In the area of skills development, the main target post-1994 was to improve access to higher and further education for black workers, so that they could achieve qualifications, improve their levels of skills and their career prospects and reverse the discrimination of the past.

The importance of skills development cannot be overestimated. Unless we reverse the racist and discriminatory education policies of the apartheid era, we will never be able to reach all the other goals we have set ourselves in the struggle for the socialist transformation of our society.

That is why the skills development system, spearheaded by the SETAs, is particularly important for the workers and labour movement. Indeed, we owe the very fact that we have such structures as SETAs to the campaigns waged by unions, especially the metalworkers, during those hard years of apartheid.

But SETAs have been around now long enough to enable us to assess their successes and failures, particularly their effect on economic growth and the levels of unemployment. While we acknowledge their many important achievements, we have to admit that they have not lived up to many of our initial expectations.

The trade union movement must share the blame for some of the failures of the SETAs, which represent the best example of COSATU’s ability to bang the doors until they open, then fail to walk through the open doors. Employers too, despite largely picking up these gains, have not driven the skills revolution for the benefit of the economy as a whole.

This conference provides us the opportunity to address this weakness. Skills development to workers is one of the cornerstones of economic empowerment.

The goal when SETAs were established was to ensure that training responded to the real needs of the economy and society, rather than just becoming a paper chase to provide workers with useless and irrelevant qualifications.

Finally, we wanted to ensure that every South African can read and write. Estimates of illiteracy range widely, but probably around one in six people - mostly rural and older - are still illiterate. If people are denied access to basic literacy and numeracy, they cannot take their rightful place in society either as citizens or as workers. They will remain marginalised, at a huge personal cost to themselves and an equally great cost to society.

Comrades

Can we claim that we have succeeded in our efforts to transform the skills training system? Despite all our work and accomplishments, we have to say no; we still have very far to go.

A major concern is that the systems for recognising prior learning are still not generally in place. Consequently workers, especially black workers, still suffer from historic injustices. Where the systems do exist, they often need so much theoretical work that ordinary workers cannot afford to get the qualifications anyway.

A second concern is that most workers still do not have access to training. According to the Labour Force Survey, white men are still more likely to get training than black workers. Elementary workers have almost no access to any training. The skills levy is still low compared to more successful Asian countries, and even so much of it remains unspent. That is a major cause for concern.

There are various reasons for the problems facing the skills development system. Firstly the planning process in most companies remains firmly in the hands of management. We have not sufficiently empowered workers and shop stewards to develop demands and fight for them.

Many employers regularly, and illegally, refuse workers paid time off for training. So they are left having to take courses at weekends or in the evening, which is difficult, especially for people with families.

The SETAs are not blameless. Too often, their extensive planning requirements, even if well intentioned, have stalled progress. We must focus on getting more training to more people, and less on establishing bureaucratic systems and commissioning endless consultants’ reports.

Finally, we have not linked skills development sufficiently to employment equity. Many companies have separate committees to deal with the two issues. Yet for workers one of the main aims of skills development is so that they can advance their careers and overcome the historical racial barriers imposed under apartheid.

Some unscrupulous racist employers not only fail to train black workers but then hand the top jobs to white workers, hiding behind the excuse that “black workers are unskilled and unqualified”, which of course is their fault in the first place.

In response to these challenges, the government has pushed the concept of learnerships, particularly to involve unemployed people, and asked labour and business to improve their representation on SETA boards.

But those strategies fail to address the core problem - the failure to ensure that ordinary workers have a voice in defining skills needs and programmes. That is what COSATU must do much more consistently. The skills development programme after all reflects our demands; now we have to make it work.

We cannot afford just to discuss skills any longer in a strange jargon that that disempowers ordinary workers. We have to empower workers and their shop stewards to identify what they want from skills plans and negotiate and campaign for it.

Comrades

How does all this relate to the unemployment crisis? Unemployment does not arise primarily because of low skills and education. The average unemployed youth - and young people make up two thirds of the unemployed - has had 11 years of formal education, far more than in most developing countries, which nevertheless have much lower unemployment. We even have many unemployed university graduates.

To keep blaming unemployment on poor education and skills essentially is to blame the victim. It plays into the racist notion that black people are too uneducated to function in the formal economy. This is sheer nonsense.

Unemployment is so high because the economy is not creating jobs, and now that we are in a recession it is shedding jobs at an alarming rate. That in turn arises from low levels of investment and the emphasis on capital-intensive industries like metals, auto and heavy chemicals. It also results from highly concentrated ownership of industry that prevents growth in other sectors.

Unless we address these challenges, no amount of skills development will lead to job creation.

We very much appreciate the commitment of government, business and labour - in the historic Framework Agreement as South Africa’s Response to the Global Economic Crisis to prioritising training and skills development. It rightly identifies improving the quality of the learnership programmes, as one of the ways to avoid retrenchment.

I particularly like its proposal for ‘training layoffs’, financed by the NSF and SETAs, for workers whose employers would ordinarily retrench them and which can be introduced on terms that would keep them in employment during the economic downturn but re-skill them as an investment for the future economic recovery.

This does not mean that better education and training will not create more jobs and help the economy to grow. Education and skills development will address unemployment best however by meeting the needs of the economy for practical, technical and management skills.

Comrades and friends,

Clearly it is very hard to reconstruct the education and training system after so many decades of racist oppression. And we cannot do it from above through elitist, technical processes. We have to find ways to empower shop stewards, organisers and workers to identify what skills they want and how they can best get them.

Unless we win this battle, the danger is that millions of our people may be condemned to lives of poverty and unemployment. Our people need help and training, not only through the expanded public works programme but a range of other interventions.

These may include courses on how to organise themselves into co-ops or open small business, or how can they avoid falling prey to the omashonisa, but without misleading them into believing that all trained people will become millionaire business men or women.

We must go back to the basics of the skills development system: recognition of prior learning and a huge increase in access to training for ordinary workers, including ABET. We will beat unemployment, not by using the training system to create artificial positions, but by through a vigorous development strategy supported by a much stronger education and training system.

The struggles for education and training have a rich history in South Africa. The draft discussion paper circulated to stimulate debates in this conference reminds us of the principles underlining education and training. These principles remain relevant today. Many of them have been achieved but many still have to be achieved.

Let us remind ourselves that 70% of our schools do not have libraries and 60% do not have laboratories. Let us all recall that 60% of children are pushed out of the schooling system before they reach grade 12.

This reflects a number of challenges we still face. These include the fact that the quality of teacher education and professional development is inadequate. Today 55% of those in this profession would leave if they had a chance. Indeed 30 000 of teachers leave the profession annually.

The quality of South African education leaves much to be desired. We cannot compete with many African states on basic survival skills. Take the example of Zimbabweans. When they arrive here they simply outperform their South African counterparts on many fronts. This reflects the superior education they receive. Our basic education and higher education, working together with the labour movement and the rest of society, has to ensure an improvement of education.

A key ingredient though, is that education must function in the traditional black schools – African schools in particular. We welcome the commitment to make education one of the five priorities for the period moving forward.

Our commitment must be to help to make this priority achievable and do everything not to frustrate the endeavour. The ANC and SADTU negotiated what they called are the non negotiables - “that teachers are in school, in class, on time, teaching, that there is no abuse of learners and no neglect of duty”.

COSATU strongly supports these non-negotiables and will do everything in our power to ensure that all play their part to ensure their success. We do recognise that whilst we are trade unionists, we are at the same time parents and therefore key stakeholders in the education system. We are members of our communities before we are unionists. As parents we must ensure that we play our role in the education of our children.

The two-week long unprotected strike by Soweto educators recently has brought these discussions to the fore. We have asked for a meeting with the leadership of SADTU in Soweto in order to receive a briefing on the purpose behind this unprotected strike.

We are concerned that a revolutionary trade union movement must never act in a manner that isolates itself from the broader working class. We are a leading detachment of the working class. We call ourselves a revolutionary and transformative trade union precisely because of our ability to act to advance the broader interests of the working class.

In the same vein we welcome the tentative agreement reached by the majority of unions with the Department of Health yesterday which may end the unprotected strike by the doctors. COSATU fully supports the demands of the doctors and have, more than anyone else, ensured that the doctors’ concerns received attention at the highest level of our government authorities.

We are however concerned that in the current strike the people who are being turned away from the public hospitals are largely the black working class who, because of inequities and our history, use the public hospitals.

Whilst the doctors’ demands must not be counterposed to other priorities, we cannot close our eyes to the fact that we will lose public sympathy if this strike is not resolved soon, and if bigger and bigger numbers of our people die and/or are pushed into the private hospitals that are way beyond their means.

Lastly the conference must also address our own internal education and training programmes. In particular we will check if we implemented the policy of ensuring that we spend at least 10% of our income on educating and training our members, leaders and staff. We must ensure that before we blame everyone else we must clean our own house first.

I wish you all a very successful conference and look forward eagerly to reading the statement of your conclusions on Friday.

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