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COSATU Today  |  COSATU Speeches

Address by Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, to the Eastern Cape NGO Coalition Biennial General Meeting

28 September 2011

I bring greetings and a message of solidarity from the national office-bearers and two million-plus members of COSATU.

COSATU has a long and fine tradition of fighting shoulder-to shoulder with civil society and non-governmental organisations in the struggle to transform the lives of the workers and the poor majority of South Africans and will continue to fight alongside you in the trenches of the struggle.

Probably the greatest victory which the labour movement and civil society achieved together was the successful campaign to get HIV and Aids recognised as a national emergency and to convince the government to prioritise the campaign to arouse awareness, change behaviour and roll out antiretroviral treatment.

COSATU is continuing to work with many NGOs in campaigns on health, education, public transport and the fight against corruption to name but a few. These do not undermine but complement the parallel campaigns with our alliance partners and ANC government.

Ultimately it is government which must implement change, but they will always move faster if they know they are under pressure from the people that we represent.

This is, I think very relevant to the theme on which you have asked me to talk today – leadership, accountability and good governance. Thank you very much for inviting me to speak to on such key issues.

Debates on these issues are as old as the labour movement itself. Way back in 1870 the workers and poor people of France rose up in a historic uprising – the Paris Commune. Despite the unbelievable courage and heroism of those revolutionary fighters, the Paris Commune was drowned in blood and the forces of conservatism triumphed.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels drew the conclusion that the key reason for the defeat was the failure to build a revolutionary leadership to take the movement forward. In order to win and sustain such struggles, militancy and courage are essential but not sufficient. The working class needs a political organisation and an accountable and effective leadership.

In the 1917 Russian revolution, the Bolshevik Party, led by Vladimir Lenin, learned the lessons of 1870, and built a vanguard leadership – the Bolshevik Party, later to become the Communist party of the Soviet Union – which successfully led the workers and poor peasants in a victorious overthrow of the Tsarist dictatorship and its capitalist allies.

Comrades and friends

We can learn many lessons from these events here in South Africa today. There are big differences of course. Unlike the workers of France in 1870 or Russia in 1917, we live in constitutional democracy, and an elected ANC government, which give us the opportunity to achieve peaceful change. The violent revolutionary overthrow of the state is definitely not on the agenda in South Africa in 2011!

On the other hand we do share with the revolutionary workers of 1870 and 1917 massive problems of poverty, exploitation, discrimination and inequality. We are after all the most unequal society in the world.

These problems pose huge challenges to the organisations we represent, and the issues of leadership, accountability and good governance are still highly relevant.

The key to good leadership is a combination of democracy and decisiveness, in line with a principle which Lenin defined as ‘democratic centralism’.

The democratic component is crucial. No leadership will ever succeed unless it always acts on a mandate from, and is accountable to, its membership. Democracy must never mean no more than periodic elections, between which the members are passive, ignored and marginalised.

National conferences or congresses must never be allowed to degenerate into American-style Party Conventions, which are nothing but rallies to heap praise on individual leaders.

They must be like COSATU’s National Congress – a Workers’ Parliament – which is the culmination of a thorough, disciplined process of discussion on both policy and leadership, involving all members of all affiliated unions at local, regional and provincial levels. Their views must then find their way on to the Congress floor.

The Congress/Conference resolutions must then become the bible for the elected leadership. It must become their vision which guides their every move.

But this is when the centralist component must come in. Even the best resolutions and declarations will remain words on paper unless we have leaderships with the political will and determination to turn those words into actions and implement the will of the members.

It will make a mockery of democracy and good governance if good resolutions are filed in the archives and ignored and leaders carry on regardless.

That is why organisational discipline and good governance become paramount. Once the Workers’ Parliament has spoken, those policies are binding not only on the leaders but the entire membership.

That is why we are so opposed to premature and divisive debates in the ANC on leadership elections at the next National Conference which divert attention away from implementing the decisions of the last Conference.

That does not of course prevent leaders making necessary tactical decisions in order to move more quickly towards the implementation of their mandate. COSATU’s alliance with the ANC and SACP and its many coalitions, and campaigns with civil society organisations like yours, are good examples of how tactical and strategic alliances can enable us to move faster towards our goals.

But they must never take their eyes off the long-term interests of their members and the wider constituency of the poor majority of South Africans.

Comrades and friends

We need leaders of exemplary character who will let nothing divert them from fulfilling the sacred trust bestowed on them by their membership. In particular leaders must never allow their private interests to come before those of their members. The worst possible leadership is one that takes the mandate from its members as a license for personal enrichment.

This is invariably a bigger problem in government, where the opportunities for corruption are more widespread, where business people introduce public officials to the morality of the private sector, with tempting offers of big bribes in order to win tenders and some in the public sector going into business themselves.

The Eastern Cape Provincial Health Department has illustrated the problem graphically. A recent investigation by Price Waterhouse Coopers, revealed massive fraud and corruption related to contracts and tenders has cost the department at least R45 million in the past few years, including:

  • Fraud and corruption totalling R13 million for an air ambulance contract,
  • R14m meant for the maintenance of medical facilities and new building activities ‘lost’.
  • R18 million related to tender procurement, where at least eight officials allegedly awarded tenders to their own companies.

35 companies were believed to have profited, and all these cases have been referred to the police. The officials involved have either been suspended or resigned. There have been 612 departmental investigations and 150 officials have lost their jobs.

In the Eastern Cape’s Department of Education 40 senior officials have been suspended as a result of an investigation by the Special Investigating Unit, which has been investigating fraud and corruption.

As our recent Central Committee resolved, the ANC leaders must go to the Eastern Cape and find out who was responsible for the collapse of the health and education departments, which has led to the end of free meals for scholars, textbooks and stationery not being bought, and the dismissal of temporary teachers. They must find those responsible and tell them "sorry, comrade, you have to go".

But we cannot close our eyes to the reality that there is also corruption in trade unions and NGOs, and take the strongest possible measures to put and end to it. COSATU is playing its part with its Corruption Watch, to be launched shortly.

Corruption has to be tackled in two ways. The first is to establish practices of good governance, to account for every cent of members’ money, and nip waste and corruption in the bud. Any evidence of financial irregularity must be investigated rigorously and no mercy must be shown on any office bearer or official found guilty of theft from the workers.

There is however a more fundamental way to tackle this cancer within our organisations, and that is to revive the traditions of our revolutionary movement, which was built by people who joined the struggle with no thought of personal enrichment but from a passion to serve the people and transform their lives.

It is a culture that we are in danger of losing, as a minority of our leaders have set their sights on getting as rich as possible as quickly as possible. Their selfishness and greed undermines our entire governance structure, diverting much needed funds from development and welfare programmes, and creating the perception that our whole public service is riddled with corruption.

Civil society and the labour movement have an enormous responsibility to provide leadership in this battle which we cannot afford not to win. I look forward to many more years of working together to liberate our people from poverty, unemployment, inequality and injustice.

Phindile Kunene (Shopsteward Editor)
Congress of South African Trade Unions
1-5 Leyds Cnr Biccard Street
Braamfontein
2017

P.O.Box 1019
Johannesburg
2000
South Africa

Tel: +27 11 339-4911/24
Fax: +27 11 339-5080 / 6940
E-Mail: phindi@cosatu.org.za
Web: www.cosatu.org.za

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