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Address by Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU General Secretary, to the 2nd Congress of the African Regional Organisation of the International Trade Union Confederation

25 November 2011

General Secretary of the ITUC
Deputy General Secretary of the ITUC
General Secretary of the ITUC Africa region
President of the ITUC - Africa region
General Secretaries and Presidents of all national centres of the African Trade Unions gathered here
Distinguished Guests from all the corners of the world
Comrades and friends

It is with a deep sense of honour and gratitude that I welcome you to the country you helped to liberate just 17 years ago - the country we usually call the last-born, because it was the last country to obtain its freedom in the African continent.

On behalf of the COSATU Central Executive Committee and indeed COSATU`s over two million fighting members, on behalf of all the South African affiliates of the ITUC and indeed millions of the South African workers, we welcome all delegates. We would like to make a special welcome to the General Secretary and Deputy General Secretary of the ITUC.

Let me thank the Executive Bureau of ITUC Africa for giving South Africa the honour and privilege of hosting this historic congress, and for inviting me to deliver this address to this august gathering of African worker leaders - the parliament of the African workers.

This Congress is truly historic for the African trade union movement. We are standing on the threshold of history - we are given a rare opportunity which we must grab with both hands to change the direction, not only of the trade unions, but also of the political economy of the continent.

The "renewal of the African trade union movement towards African emancipation" is a call to all African workers to re-mobilise and fight for a new freedom that we have not gained despite many decades of so-called political freedom.

This should be a defining moment in the history of the African trade union movement. This is a rare occasion presented to us, the leadership of the African workers. Our hope is that we would not waste this opportunity.

We are meeting in a world gripped by an unprecedented financial and economic crisis, the worst crash of capitalism since the Great Depression of 1929, with severe consequences for workers and their families. More than 200 million people are now without work and more than 1.5 billion are in vulnerable, low paid employment.

Next week delegates from over 200 countries will gather in Durban in the UN COP17 to respond destruction of the earth by the capitalist greed. We hope that representatives will not only be concerned about melting glaciers and deforestation, we hope that they will bring to the fore the human dimension of the catastrophe. We hope that they will be able to see that the environmental crisis is part of the inter-locking crises of capitalist accumulation, and should be approached from the standpoint of transforming the social relations of production just as we should transform the forces of production.

For Africa, the poorest and most vulnerable region in the world, the crisis has given rise to a combination of contradictory possibilities and challenges, which could on the one hand see a move onto a new development path or on the other lead to even worse levels of poverty and underdevelopment. As we always say, the path that the continent will take depends on the balance of class forces. Hence, there is the need for us to lift the political and ideological consciousness of workers, and to link our struggles to the broader struggles of the marginalized and economically exploited classes in our countries.

At this congress we will talk about all these challenges. We are the richest continent with abundance of natural resources yet we remain the poorest continent of the world with income levels in that remain terribly low, while income inequalities have remained stubbornly high.

For example, one country in this continent accounts for more than 80% of global platinum production. Two countries of this continent account for more than 25% of global manganese production. Many countries have yet to explore and realize their production potential.

Yet, according to the Human Development Report 2010, more than 50% of the African population lives on less than $1.25 a day. In the richest economy of this continent, South Africa, the report says that 44% of workers live on less than $1.25.

This mass poverty and food insecurity are the result of the failed post-colonial political economy in the continent, exacerbated by a venal, corrupt and visionless leadership, which cares little for the very existence of our people.

Generations of African leaders have simply failed to transform the economies we inherited from the colonial masters. All our economies to this day remain dominated by the unprocessed natural resource sector, with little or no industrialization. Some countries rely 90% on mineral exports. Decades after the political defeat of colonialists, the same colonialists continue to plunder our mineral resources and to sustain their industrial bases in the imperialist head quarters.

The scale of the sham of independence of our continent needs to be exposed. Either we export our minerals to our colonial masters, or they control our finances, or both. In some countries, foreign exchange earnings and the operations of their central banks reside with the colonial masters while in others, the mines and strategic industries are owned by colonial masters. In some countries even the land is owned by colonial masters, the very land question that triggered the anti-colonial struggles is now back with a vengeance, threatening livelihoods of many small farmers.

We have not diversified our economies, we have not industrialized, we do not add value to our natural resources, we do not own our mines; we do not own our economies. We have not built a new infrastructure to link our people to facilitate trade between African countries and even to promote contact between our people.

To quote the revolutionary intellectual Walter Rodney in his 1973 classic, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa: "Means of communication were not constructed in the colonial period so that Africans could visit their friends. More important still, they were not laid down to facilitate internal trade in African commodities. There were no roads connecting different colonies and different parts of the same colony in a manner that made sense with regard to Africa`s needs and development. All roads and railways led down to the sea. They were built to extract gold or manganese or coffee or cotton. They were built to make business possible for the timber companies, trading companies and agricultural concession firms, and for white settlers. Any catering to African interests was purely coincidental". Most of these observations are still relevant today.

This day we remain a largesse divided and we have allowed the language barriers of the past to set us apart. On occasion we have allowed external interests to keep us apart to the benefit of the former colonial masters. This has been amply demonstrated in the case of the conflict and war in the Great Lakes Region, by the late great revolutionary intellectual, Dani Nabudere. Colonial forces continue to scramble for the natural resources of the continent, using and arming groupings within the continent as proxies. For too long we have allowed the dependency syndrome whilst claiming to be liberated. In the process, African pride has been eroded at times by our own actions.

This once again raises the need for a strategic vision of transformation of Africa`s political economies and societies and their integration. If we are to tackle these huge social and economic problems, transform the lives of our people and take our destiny into our own hands, we need to properly understand the roots of Africa`s ongoing crisis, and what needs to be done to change its growth path.

Let me repeat, the greatest challenge we face is the perpetuation of the colonial infrastructure legacy, which essentially aimed to move raw minerals from Africa to the colonial countries, and not to encourage movement within the region. This is why existing infrastructure is largely directed to the movement of goods to the ports, as Rodney noted a long time ago. Secondly, the scramble for Africa`s resources by imperialist forces and their interference on the continent mainly through using and arming groupings so as to de-stabilize Africa`s development needs to be confronted. We believe that the working class on the continent in alliance with other marginalized classes, properly mobilized and its ideological consciousness sufficiently elevated, remains the only potent force that could pave the way for Africa`s future.

The working class movement needs to ensure that it develops focused proposals on climate change, informed by the need for the continent to industrialise so that it can meet the needs of its population. In particular, we need to give content to the notion of a ‘just transition`, ensure that workers are not prejudiced by inter-governmental agreements, and proactively put forward proposals on the green economy which will take forward our decent work and development agenda.

To meet all these huge challenges, Africa needs to produce a new leadership with strategic vision and a commitment to the interests of our people to lead us in the coming challenging years. This leadership will not emerge unless the masses of the working people on the continent strive to tilt the balance of forces in their favour, so that they put a stamp on the type of leaders they want to lead the continent. This tilting of the political balance of forces is impossible without organization, mobilization, agitation and elevation of ideological and class consciousness.

The trade union movement, the main organised progressive force on the continent, therefore has an important role in promoting the birth of this new leadership. A fresh strategic vision needs to be based on a scientific analysis of Africa`s political economy, to identify the required building blocks for a new growth and development path. The trade union movement, informed by a clear revolutionary ideological perspective, needs to work with emerging social movements to develop a strategic agenda for Africa. It needs to create bridges with progressive intellectuals, researchers and academics on the continent and beyond, to continuously forge a strategy to take the continent to a new level.

We are all aware of the current limitations of the African trade union movement, but genuine, democratically controlled and independent trade unions are the main non-state movement internationally with the organisation and capacity to drive a global alternative to neo-liberalism, together with its allies in civil society and progressive political formations.

The trade union movement is strategically placed to exercise enormous impact on the fortunes of Africa; but are Africa`s unions up to this task? Until now, we have been too fragmented, and we still need to develop a coherent alternative vision and voice.

The trade union movement must relentlessly champion the cause of working people and the poor. It has played important roles in fighting for better conditions of employment for workers, and in political struggles like the anti-colonial movement, anti-apartheid movement. The movement is however badly in need of renewal and reorganisation, given the overall picture of few strong national centres as against many weak national centres, and the particularly low density and coverage of organised labour. The imperative to re-organize is also impressed upon us by the nature of multinational and transnational capitalism, and the fact that a new generation of anti-imperialist activists is required given the advanced and technical manner in which capitalism now ravages our countries.

Beyond organising to achieve broad coverage and representativeness, trade unions must also build internal democracy and be governed by a democratic ethos and consciousness of their autonomy. To be fully effective, unions must develop policies that link them up with autonomous civil society and help to establish broad democratic coalitions to promote social causes and the fight for more accountable leadership throughout the continent. Given the often multi-ethnic and national character of trade unions they can feature strongly in the fight against ethnocentrism and xenophobia in the political and social life of African countries.

At regional level the question must be posed: is it tenable to have two regional organisations which are more or less pursuing the same objectives? Should the interests of relatively few national trade union organisations prevent the overwhelming majority of Africa`s organised working people from uniting in one regional organisation, which has so many advantages?

A united movement will provide African workers with a common voice at regional and international levels and strengthens their representation. It will allow coordinated action and responses to the needs of workers as well as a more efficient and rational use of limited resources.

At national level too, unity of the movement needs to be pursued. We must actively promote closer working relationships between our members deliberately triumph of divisions caused by languages; and ensure that we strengthen ties between unions in sub-Saharan Africa and genuinely independent unions in North Africa, post the Arab spring.

Africa remains fragmented as a regional bloc and politically stunted on the whole, in terms of the development of progressive formations. It will be important to see if the African working class can harness the spirit of the North African uprisings and spread it southwards.

The democratic and progressive forces must intensify the struggle against foreign domination, and domestic oppression and exploitation. Africans must rediscover and reclaim their heritage, refashion institutions that are responsive to the needs of the people and are effective. Africans need to develop the organisational forms needed to advance the interests of the people in an increasingly interdependent world. All these tasks rest on the shoulders of the only revolutionary class, the working class.

I wish you all a very successful and fruitful Congress.

Patrick Craven (National Spokesperson)
Congress of South African Trade Unions

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