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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Address to ECSECC by Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary, COSATU on challenges for a poor province like the Eastern Cape Post Polokwane - a workers' perspective

26 March 2008

The government leaders and DG of the Eastern Cape Government
Leadership of the ANC, COSATU, SACP, SASCO and leaders of the opposition parties represented in the provincial legislature
Leadership and management of ECSECC
Business representatives and captains of industry in the province.
The ECNGO and other NGOs
The Council of Churches in the Eastern Cape
Representatives from the House of Traditional Leaders
Comrades and friends,

It is a great pleasure for me to be speaking here. Let met say up front, however, that I don't want to promise more than I can deliver. I am grateful to Azwel Banda, who flew to Johannesburg to convince me to engage with the leadership of the Eastern Cape on the topic "Challenges for a poor province like the Eastern Cape Post Polokwane - a workers' perspective." But I came here not as a Messiah with all solutions. I am only a representative of workers at the national level who happens to come from this province.

Like the many people from this province now scattered across the length and breath of our country, I keep a keen interest in all developments here. The fact that we came from here obviously makes us jealous - just like any member of the family would be jealous about the development of the brothers and sisters.

Admittedly on occasions we rely on partisan third parities and the media for information. Our views on some issues may be distorted as a result. Engagement today and into the future will help me to get the story from the horse's mouth, as they say, and hopefully this will enrich my understanding of the complex processes of transformation in the Eastern Cape.

This honesty should not be used to dismiss everything I have to say. Where I cite facts in this talk, they have been crosschecked with reliable sources.

As everybody knows, COSATU played a key role in determining the outcomes of Polokwane. We are not apologising for having played that role to ensure that the ANC retains its historic bias towards the workers and the poor.

Still, our interests in the outcomes of our Alliance partner were indeed unprecedented. Let me outline briefly the concrete reasons that Polokwane was so important to workers.

The ANC is a liberation movement that is in power nationally and in all provinces of our country including at most of the municipalities. It is a left leaning movement that has made it clear its historic bias towards the workers and the poor. But because the ANC is a liberation movement and therefore unites all classes, it is a contested terrain.

At the political level, COSATU and many activists of the ANC and other formations have long raised concerns about new tendencies and cultures that have been imposed on all of us. Over the past 13 years we saw the systematic closing of the democratic space, which appeared in the marginalisation of the Alliance and even ANC structures in policy formulation. We saw the centralisation of political power in the Presidency, with the parliament increasingly reduced to a rubber stamp. We saw the rise of a sycophantic culture of yes men and women, and the use of patronage and state institutions for factional battles.

Whilst this was happening, the culture, which was arguably the main distinguishing culture of the Congress movement - that is the culture of selflessness - began to take a back seat to new traditions of self-centredness, accumulation and downright corruption.

I speak here in general terms. Most of the ANC or movement cadres have never become corrupt, but continue to cherish the best traditions of our movement. But a small, influential elite began to look increasingly to its own narrow interests.

Whilst this accumulation and its "I did not struggle to be poor" mentality was growing, the poor still faced daunting challenges of unemployment, poverty and growing inequalities. We can admit that even as we recognise the substantial progress, especially in improving government services in poor communities.

Analysis by COSATU and the SACP at the end of the first decade of our democracy concluded that in economic terms the main benefits had accrued to capital rather than labour. It was in this context that we declared the second decade of democracy had to be the decade of workers and the poor.

Informed by this situation, workers and the poor could not just sit there indifferent whist the revolution was in a danger of being hi-jacked for personal wealth accumulation by a few, whilst the many were trapped in degrading unemployment and poverty. For this reason, in the run up to Polokwane we ensured, like all other classes, workers contested the policy direction and leadership of our movement. We believe this was our only choice.

Only die-hards that can argue that nothing changed in Polokwane. The ANC mass base revolted against the status quo and installed a new leadership with the hope that it will lead the revival of internal democracy.

This revolt was first and foremost against the 'technocratic, near-authoritarian style' of managing the movement and its subordination to the executive. The revolt was essentially about political accountability and democratisation and rejection of the culture of closed decision-making.

Second, we cannot read the resolutions of the conference as being about business as usual in any sense. Yet the alternative reading, that Polokwane represented an overhaul of policy, also does not stand up to scrutiny. Contrary to attempts to downplay the policy shifts emanating from these conferences, Polokwane (and the NGC and Policy Conference that preceded it) signalled the need for policy shift on a number of issues, although it did not provide a complete redirection.

In some cases, the Polokwane conference consolidated shifts that were beginning to emerge from within the state, for example around the developmental state, industrial policy and poverty eradication, education and health care. In some areas of policy, conference emphatically rejected existing or proposed policies on key questions.

Third, we should not lose sight of the fact that this conference did not spend inordinate amount of time trying to preach to the perceived ultra-left. The conference was marked by a constructive spirit to find answers to challenges facing our society. It may not have adopted resolutions that live up to all our expectations but it certainly opened the political space for new politics and relations to emerge.

The challenge now, for COSATU and the working class organisations including the SACP, is to consistently and vigorously give their own interpretation to these resolutions. Otherwise we run the risk that they will be interpreted as maintaining, not challenging the status quo.

Comrades, let us turn now to the challenges facing the Eastern Cape.

The Province, because of its apartheid history, has one of the world's largest ghettos in the form of the former Transkei and Ciskei. As a result, massive poverty and joblessness continue to plague our people. Both at national and provincial levels we have failed to come up with meaningful socio-economic reconstruction plans for these areas. They remain concentrated pockets of poverty.

Current agro-industrial approaches at the national level are clearly inadequate to deal with the complex economic and social realities of the former Transkei and former Ciskei. We recognise the provincial initiatives, for instance the Massive Food Programme, have begun to have a real impact. But even these relatively new initiatives require much more support and resources from the national, not just the provincial, treasury.

In general, the Province has a high unemployment rate. According to Statistics South Africa, the narrow unemployment rate in the Eastern Cape peaked at 33% in 2004 before falling to 26% today. If we count all workers who no longer actively searching for work (the discouraged workers), unemployment jumps into toward 40% today. The figures on unemployment also fluctuate depending on whether subsistence farmers are counted or not.

Over reliance on an auto sector, which is being controlled outside the Province and the country, makes the economy of the Eastern Cape highly vulnerable to even the smallest downturns in the global auto sector. Youth unemployment is staggeringly high. Women unemployment is equally a big problem. Of course in race terms unemployment afflicts more African people than it does to any other race group.

We sit with a big HIV and AIDS challenge, especially considering that we house large pockets of poverty in which transaction-driven sex becomes an unavoidable part of the survival strategy for many women. ARVs uptake needs upscaling urgently. Thousands of people who need access to these life-prolonging drugs are unable to obtain them because of a failure to address unnecessary obstacles as well as understaffing in the public health sector.

The persisting inability, both at national and provincial levels, to decisively deal with the legacy of inferior health, education and other social infrastructure for Black and African working class communities such as Mdantsane continues to reproduce the apartheid spatial economy and society.

The Province needs to be commended for the good work done since 1994 in creating a single Provincial Administration, and working hard to try and make local government work for the people of the Province. However, problems of skills shortages, migration of skilled labour to big cities, absence of a strategy to retain scarce skills in the province, and deep-seated problems in the education sector all combine to diminish the good work done by the state to improve services for our people.

A poor province like the Eastern Cape, during this transition, needs deliberate skills retention strategies to assist in managing and growing agriculture, education and the health sector.

At the same time, we need to find ways to improve support for the Eastern Cape from the rest of the country. At the current level of funding, even if the province performed in an excellent manner, it would take many years before the backlogs in education, health, food, housing, sanitation, and similar such basic necessities of life were met. The province needs to begin to champion a review of national development funding.

At the same time, we recognise that the province has not always been able to fully utilise every Rand that is meant to improve the lives of the workers and poor people of the Province. Unspent government funds, and the consequent large rollovers, especially on infrastructure investment, do not augur well for future development.

According to the National Treasury's medium term budget framework presented in November 2007, provinces were around 8% behind on budgeted expenditure for the first and second quarter of that financial year. The Eastern Cape was 12% behind. Again, in terms of the social services, the Eastern Cape has the lowest rate of spending, running 12% behind for education. The relationship between these figures and poor matric results cannot be ignored. Again, the Eastern Cape is the lowest spender of the budget in the housing. At the time of the medium term budget framework in November 2007, it was projected that the housing department was would not spend a billion rands of its allocated funding. The national treasury took R500 000 to give to another province that was able to spend the money. Still by the 31 January 2008, the Eastern Cape housing department has only spent 26% of the remaining amounts.

The conditional grant rollovers gazetted in the government gazette dated 20 December (gazette No. 30592) show that the Eastern Cape province had surplus of R1.2 billion as equitable share in the 2006/7 financial year. In addition the conditional grant roll over amount for Eastern Cape is R177 million in total, of which R75.2 million is from national revenue fund and R87.3 million from provincial revenue fund.

The rollovers in the previous years have resulted in the accumulated cash balance of R5 billion rands in the Eastern Cape alone.

Business is unusual mean we should no longer tolerate the rollovers. If Polokwane indeed as we argue represented the change of gear and prioritisation of the needs of the poor, then it means that in the future we must see more heads roll instead of seeing more rollovers.

COSATU have since 1996 had bruising battles with the government over the macro economic policy. One of the issues we have condemned is the fiscal policy stance that shows government's eagerness to have zero and now budget surpluses in the midst of grinding poverty afflicting so many and the unemployment crises. Government leaders have repeated defended themselves saying that we should be arguing for project management capacity at the government level instead as the government has no capacity to spend even what we regard as being inadequate.

We have argued that government should be showing zero tolerance against ministers, premiers and bureaucrats that continuously have rollovers. The Eastern Cape rollovers in particular make anyone's blood boil. There could be no better example of the failure of governance and political leadership than the figures I have read to you.

When we are faced with this situation what do we do? What becomes the role of the ANC and its Alliance partners? What does a working people's movement do when its members are both arms and limbs as well as beneficiaries of the RDP? What becomes the role of the masses that have been calling for scaled up service delivery? I will not attempt to provide answers to these questions. I would however make a call for the structures like ECSECC to coordinate a real social dialogue between all role players to address this situation. Finger pointing and point scoring does not necessarily address the problem. This does not mean we should not hold our leadership to account.

At the political level, the Eastern Cape is the province in which the ANC led Alliance enjoys massive support. Yet we have also seen persistent political infighting within the ANC and the Alliance. That cannot continue without hampering development of the province.

There could be no better example of this than the one we have just seen in the Nelson Mandela Metro. The political purges and witch-hunts are particularly disturbing in this economic hub of the Eastern Cape. Political intolerance, which has led to purges, removing people from jobs in order to "sort them out" and so on, must come to an end. There can be no long-term solution to the economic challenges if the Alliance at the national and provincial level does no prioritise the Nelson Mandela metro and sort out those political machinations that have left the Alliance in that area so deeply divided.

The worst enemy of the ANC and its Alliance sometimes seems to be the ANC and the Alliance itself. No one can defeat us except ourselves.

The province needs to sort out the burning issue of providing consistent and strong political leadership of transformation of education and health services in the entire Province. Deploying people in terms of the camps they belong to instead of their efficiency and commitment to the goal of building a better life to all has to be a syndrome left behind after Polokwane.

The ongoing review of the Provincial Growth and Development Programme (PGDP) needs necessarily to simultaneously address the issue of political leadership and capacity to implement it. It cannot be that the Eastern Cape, which enjoys such a rich history of both progressive intellectual and political traditions, is persistently seen to be failing to provide strong, democratic leadership to manage the transition in the Eastern Cape from the apartheid economy and society, to a truly democratic, non-racial and non-sexist new South Africa.

The province must fast track the process of reviewing the PGDP, to identify gaps and ensure that, as the ANC has since declared, all social and economic programmes are aimed at increasing the numbers of quality jobs for our people.

Provinces like the Eastern Cape need to use the concrete conditions of the majority of its citizens, who are workers and poor, to motivate for industrial strategies both at national and provincial levels that are aimed at putting the majority of the people of this province into meaningful quality jobs.

It should be this rural province that should champion the implementation of the ANC Polokwane resolution on agrarian reforms and rural development. It should be here where we do not make endless empty promises about reviving the agricultural schemes operated by the Sebe and Matanzima regimes but where we make these models to create rural co-ops as part of the rural development strategy to make our people use their land and improve food security.

The Eastern Cape need not to shy away from speaking boldly about the massive infrastructural and social service backlogs inherited from our past. Such silences create the impression all may be well in the Province.

The working class and poor people in the Eastern Cape, in their many organizations including COSATU, the SACP, the ANC, SANCO and the NGO sector must step up their activism and demands for a fair share of South African wealth. Keeping quite creates the impression we all are happy to have a country in which a tiny minority has the lion's share of wealth, while the majority continue to kill each other over crumbs.

Finally, of course, popular public debates about the development path South Africa must take after 1994 must be promoted.

Comrades and friends, thank you for your attention. I hope that this brief input helps to stimulate the debates we need to have on how to fulfil the promise of Polokwane.