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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Speech by Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU General Secretary, to NUMSA's Eastern Cape Provincial Congress

11 April 2008

Leadership of NUMSA
Leadership of other COSATU unions
ANC and SACP leaders
Membership of the tripartite Alliance

On behalf of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, I bring greetings and best wishes to the National Union of Metalworkers in the Eastern Cape.

Your are meeting in the 'Heroes' Month' of April, when we commemorate the passing on of some of our greatest heroes and heroines, in particular OR Tambo, Chris Hani and Solomon Mahlangu. It is a time to remember the debt we owe to these and all our other leaders who dedicated, and in many cases sacrificed, their lives, so that we could live in peace and a democratic South Africa.

We must also not forget NUMSA's own departed heroes and heroines – John Gomomo, Vuyisile Mini, Jabulile Ndlovu, Sam Ntuli, Phenius Sibiya, Mbuyiselo Ngwenda and countless others. They all played a key role in making your union a tower of strength for the workers, a powerful force to defend and improve the lives of your members. We must treasure their memory and follow their example of commitment to serve the members and fight for a socialist future.

NUMSA and its many predecessors - MAWU, MICWU, UMMAWOSA and NAAWU – were in the vanguard of the revival of the democratic movement in the early 1970s. They led the historic 1972/3 Durban strikes, built FOSATU in 1979 and played a central role in founding the United Democratic Front in 1983 and creating our giant union federation COSATU in December 1985.

Metal workers have always been at the heart of the working class movement, and, through your struggles, have written a very special chapter in the history of COSATU. You have taught all of us how to combine the battles in the workplace with those of the community, the nation and indeed the world.

As I said at your 20th anniversary celebration, "NUMSA has always been the most dynamic, vibrant and engaging movement, whose commitment to socialism remains undiluted.

"At the workplace level the metal workers have been the federation's pacesetters. You have not only provided strong support but frankly led the federation in key policy developments, especially around development of skills and training polices, grading and appraisal systems - which have contributed immensely to flattening workplace hierarchies - wage policies, industrial strategy policy and at NEDLAC".

I particularly applaud your ceaseless efforts to train and educate you shop stewards and rank-and-file members. You have always implemented fully the principles of workers control and internal democracy. You have never sought to avoid robust debate and argument, but without destroying your unity in action. We salute you for maintaining and deepening these traditions.

I am aware that this tradition has come under pressure in recent years, in both NUMSA and COSATU as a whole. You will be aware of the removal of the federation's former President Willie Madisha. I want to reassure you all, that, contrary to many media reports, this was not part of some 'purge' of political opponents. We took the action we did solely to protect the integrity of our movement and to defend its cohesion and coherence. The COSATU Central Executive Committee resolved that ill discipline would no longer be tolerated and that decisions taken by the majority after following due democratic processes must be respected by all comrades who are in the leadership, without exceptions.

This decision to remove the President was taken by a full meeting of the CEC, with 90 delegates representing all our affiliates with not a single dissenting voice, after receiving a detailed report from the impartial commission of enquiry, which we established. That report was made public and it proves conclusively that the whole process was conducted in an impeccably fair and just manner

I am confident that you will accept that we were right to take the decision we did and that, together with all the other affiliates, NUMSA will rally around the leadership of the federation and help us to build an even stronger and more united workers' movement in the months and year ahead.


Today we face crucial political challenges. COSATU has submitted Section 77 notices to initiate protest action against the wave of price increases that are ruining the lives of poor families and jeopardising our economic future.

Bread, milk and other basic foods, fuel and transport are becoming more and more expensive. There is clear evidence of criminal price-fixing in the bread and dairy sectors, by greedy companies acting together to make even bigger profits at the expense of their consumers.

While we applaud the tough line being taken by the Competition Commission to stamp out this crime by the rich against the poor, we also back the government's plan to strengthen its powers so that it can punish company directors individually, rather than fining companies, who can pass the fines on to their consumers in even higher prices.

As if all this was not enough we now have this week seen yet another interest rate increase from the Reserve Bank. This will not only add even more burdens on the thousands of workers who have had to borrow money but will put the brakes on economic growth and put jobs in jeopardy. It will certainly sabotage the attempt to halve the 2004 levels of unemployment by 2014.

This disastrous policy of regular increases in interest rates makes it costlier for investors to start new businesses and create new jobs, and puts pressure on existing firms to offset the rising cost of servicing loans by retrenching workers. These interest rate hikes have also directly cut workers' living standards by raising repayments on bonds and on goods bought on credit, at a time when inflation, the very problem that the Reserve Bank claims to be solving, is skyrocketing upwards.

On top of all these other price increases we facing huge rises in the price of electricity, petrol and steel, which will drastically cut our standard of living directly, but also push up even further the price of all commodities. NUMSA, like every other union, must keep monitoring all these price increases and make sure that this year's wage demands fully compensate workers for the drop in their real standard of living over the past year.

Eskom are not only wanting a massive 53% tariff increase but even have the impudence to ask if they can prevent us from knowing what they want to spend the money on, claiming that this will expose 'commercial secrets'. Eskom should be a public utility, providing a service, as cheaply and efficiently as possible. It is clear that although it has thankfully not been privatised, its directors think they are just running a business, and think just like capitalists. They must not be allowed to forget that it is our money they are spending and we have a right to know how it being spent.

As well as the immediate impact that all these price and interest rate increases will have on our living standards, they will also have a highly negative effect on the economy, slowing down the rate of job creation and even leading to job losses. We are taking to the streets to insist that workers must not have to pay for a crisis, which is none of their own making.

No more jobs must be lost! The levels of unemployment are still totally unacceptable, far higher than in comparable countries. And far too many of the few new jobs that are being created are casual, temporary, insecure and low-paid, especially in construction and retail. As a consequence we have a growing army of the working poor, who, combined with the unemployed, constitute more than 20 million people living in poverty.

That is why we say that whilst the situation of the workers and the poor in general has improved dramatically since our democratic breakthrough in 1994 – thanks in no small part to the leadership role that organisations like NUMSA played - we have not yet won our freedom on the economic front. Transformation has not been completed.

We have a democratic constitution, laws that safeguard workers' rights and the freedom to organise, strike and demonstrate. Many unions have been able to negotiate improvements in living standards and many more families and communities now enjoy access to basic services, which used to be restricted to a white minority.

But overall the first decade of democracy has favoured capital more than the workers and the poor. Indeed some workers, who were working but are now unemployed, or who used to have a permanent job with benefits, but whose jobs have been casualised, are economically even worse off than they were under apartheid. The commodification of services including the introduction of the criminal pre-paid meter systems for electricity undermine the strides that otherwise we should have made with the provision of these services by the government.

Inequality has in fact widened, as the rich minority of bureaucrats and capitalists have become richer, while our wages, despite all our efforts to improve them, remain extremely low and have stagnated during the 14 years of democracy.

As the declaration of our Central Committee said in September: "Despite progress recorded in the last thirteen years, the capitalist class gained the most in economic terms. Workers have to contend with poor quality jobs, poverty and unemployment and millions of workers do not enjoy the fundamental rights enshrined in our labour laws. While the Constitution is progressive, the substantive realisation of the rights it embodies remains a promise on paper. The country's economic policy, including the budget, is not based on the promises of the Constitution."


In order to make the second ten years of democracy a decade for the workers and the poor, we have to make sure that the shift in the policies adopted by the ANC National Conference are incorporated into the ANC's 2009 election manifesto and implemented by the new government led by Comrade Jacob Zuma. Creation of decent work and restructuring of the economy is now the ANC's top priority. Next they must become the supreme national priorities, with strategies to accelerate growth and distribute the benefits to the poorest sections of our society.

But if we are to achieve this we also need a new style of political leadership. We are greatly encouraged by the Polokwane delegates' decisive rejection of the undemocratic and materialistic culture in our movement and in society as a whole.

One of the most serious aspects of this culture was that the development of new policies was left in the hands of an elite minority of government ministers, civil servants, business consultants and academic 'experts'. On the day that GEAR was announced it was proclaimed to be a non-negotiable policy. No ANC branch, region, province and even the NEC were consulted on it, let alone the alliance partners.

This was completely at odds with the ANC's traditional democratic, bottom-up way of formulating policy, yet increasingly those who questioned this new culture were subjected to bullying, insults and labelling to try to keep them quiet.

Democratic space was closed down. The right of ANC and Alliance members and leaders alike were denied their birthright to think and to say what is in their mind. Debates ended and a culture of sycophancy and praise singing was rewarded with plum jobs in government and parastatals. Power shifted from the membership and structures to union Buildings. Capacity at Luthuli house is today almost non-existent. All brains moved with power to the state. This was deliberate and sought to emasculate the ANC so that it would have no capacity to develop policy, or monitor and enforce its policies. Deployment gradually ceased to be a collective endeavour and became an instrument of reward for sycophancy.

Materialism and self-centeredness become the order of the day as leaders periodically proclaimed that they did not struggle to be poor, whilst keeping mum about the continued super exploitation of workers and poverty of the masses. State institutions were used to resolve political battles and leadership contests. The public broadcaster was also used in these factional battles. We talk here comrades about the history of use of the bourgeoisie's media to assassinate the character of the targeted leaders. We are referring to the emails saga, the special browse mouse report, and the media leaks.

The other alien tradition, which we are now trying to eradicate, is the culture of corruption and greed. As I said yesterday, at the grave of Comrade Chris Hani:

"Comrade Chris would have been appalled by the growth of a culture of corruption and self-enrichment, a philosophy of 'me-first' and the devil take the poorest. He would have been disgusted by the very idea of some public representatives looting the people's assets by fraudulently awarding tenders to members of their families.

"He would have applauded the delegates at Polokwane for rejecting the unrestrained free-market policies, which promoted these same rotten values in society, which led to the first decade of democracy doing more to benefit big business and the wealthy elite than the workers and the poor majority of South Africans."

That is what we were fighting for. This what we believe Polokwane was about. It was a class struggle. There can be no neutrality in this fight. There were two blocks – one advocating for a change and the other advocating for maintenance of the status quo.

Now the ANC has adopted a much more democratic and inclusive approach to policy issues. The space has been opened. The ANC is being returned to its rightful owners, the members. There is a genuine national debate that has revitalised Tripartite Alliance.

What are the challenges facing post Polokwane? The principal challenge was summed up by the last COSATU congress that the struggle continues. Yesterday, underlining this I quoted Chris Hani when he said, "For me what is important is the continuation of the struggle - and we must accept that the struggle is always continuing."

That struggle can only continue if NUMSA deals with whatever weaknesses that may exist in the workplace and its structures and remain a fighting movement that serves as a shield and spear for workers in their battles with the exploitative capital. COSATU must also address whatever weaknesses and be a shield a spear in the hands of organised working class to fight for a changed and conducive political and socio economic conditions. The success of our battles for a better life depends entirely on this environment.

Secondly the ANC and the direction of the revolution remain heavily contested. Polokwane represent a huge left-wing advance but it is certainly not a permanent victory. There is nothing like a permanent victory! The struggle continues. We must defend that space we opened in Polokwane. That is the second biggest challenge we face. So what do we do to defend the space? The CEC decided that we should do a number of things, which I will outline to you from the decisions of the CEC.

I am sure NUMSA members will agree that post-Polokwane, despite the many challenges we still face, we have the opportunity to forge a new united strong alliance, intensify our struggle, drive forward the national democratic revolution.

I wish you a highly successful congress and look forward to working even more closely with you in the coming years

Amandla ngawethu