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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

COSATU Media Monitor COSATU Media Monitor COSATU Media Monitor


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Media Centre  |  COSATU Press Statements


1 December 1997

Twelve years ago on this day, worker delegates from 33 unions representing 450 000 workers converged in Durban to launch the Congress of South African Trade Unions. This followed protracted talks between unions affiliated to FOSATU, UDF aligned unions and other independent unions. One of the chairpersons of the launching congress - comrade Cyril Ramaphosa - remarked at the time that "a giant was born". These words have proven to be true as we have continued to grow despite repression, exploitation killings and dismissals by employers and the apartheid regime. At a time when trade union membership worldwide is in decline, with workers across the globe - including in South Africa - facing attacks from the neo liberals, where retrenchments under the guise of global competitiveness (employers) and fiscal discipline (state) are the order of the day, COSATU's membership has grown by more than 400% - bringing our membership to 2 million of which 1.8 million is paid up. With such a history, capacity to survive and resilience our detractors ignore us at their own peril. COSATU is here to stay! Together with its membership it can not be wished away!

The launch took place in the middle of one of the worst repression against forces committed to change unleashed by successive racist National Party governments on behalf of the minority and big capital. The country was under siege and in a state of chaos due to vigilante attacks by the regime and groups loyal to the apartheid regime and bantustan leaders. In response to fierce opposition and defiance by the working class, youth, intellectuals and the broader community, as well as the growing support of forces supportive of the liberation alliance led at the time by the ANC, SACP and SACTU, the regime had declared a state of emergency.

The SABC and other mainstream media together with the regime and capital dismissed the launch as insignificant. While the regime pretended to the country that this was no major occasion, secretly they conceded the fact that the launch of COSATU was a major set back to their hold on power - hence their launch of UWUSA immediately thereafter.

This 'giant' has over the past twelve years proven that it is a force to be reckoned. We have launched countless campaigns, which can be traced to the resolutions of our inaugural congress, subsequent congresses as well as countless campaigns and policy conferences. Through these campaigns - together with other progressive forces - we brought about the current democratic dispensation. We have made major strides in the improvement of working conditions and wages of workers. We have put firmly on the agenda of the country and the intransigent employers the need for fair health and safety standards at the workplace. We have campaigned for an environmental policy that limits chronic diseases at the workplace and in our communities. We have won significant victories in industries and workplaces for better training of working people. We campaigned against the single sex hostel system and demanded houses next to the workplaces. We demanded safe transport to and from work in particular for night shift workers. These campaigns have had varying success from industry to industry and from workplace to workplace. Through these campaigns we have made attempts to address the structural deficiencies of the labour market inherited from centuries of oppression and exploitation by capital and various white governments.

COSATU and its shop steward movement were at the forefront of community organisations' struggles for housing, water, electricity, education, health care, sanitation and other infrastructure related matters. Through these campaigns we played a pivotal role in building a strong civic movement, students, rural and women organisations. In most cases cadres of the trade union movement led these organs of people's power. These campaigns in some areas managed to force the apartheid regime and its illegimite offsprings to in a limited way deliver infrastructure and do away with the inhumane bucket system, provide tap water in the townships, build community halls, etc. We played a key role in initiating peace talks between the Mass Democratic Movement and the IFP in KwaZulu Natal and elsewhere. The Umfolozi Accord for example was the first peace accord of its nature negotiated between COSATU and the IFP.

The principles and objectives in the Reconstruction and Development and Programme and our new constitution dealing with basic needs of our people can be traced back to these militant struggles of our people. Our commitment to the country, to its liberation and to social transformation is unquestionable. Our credentials are impeccable. Those who question our commitment to transformation should look at our history. As is often said, history is the best teacher.

We formed deliberate alliances with the UDF and other mass based organisations affiliated to the UDF to launch a relentless and unwavering campaign against apartheid and the NP government. COSATU cadres could be found in the front rows of marchers in the cities, in the dusty streets of our townships, villages and rural areas in demand of a free, nonracial, democratic and nonsexist South Africa. These campaigns undoubtedly contributed in forcing the stubborn racist NP to initiate dialogue with the authentic representative of our people. It was in this period that the regime started to talk directly to Comrade Nelson Mandela and the ANC leadership in exile. The Harare declaration, the unbanning of the ANC, SACP and PAC, the lifting of emergency regulations, the scrapping of apartheid legislation, the Groote Schure Minute, the Kempton Park negotiations, the Transitional Executive Council, the Constituent Assembly that drafted our new constitution and the elections themselves are all historic moments of our proud history. We are proud to have either influenced or participated directly in this rich history of our people's struggles for liberation. We remain committed to play an even bigger role as we prepare for the next general election.

Through this strategy of militancy and engagement, workers in COSATU fought heroic struggles. As outlined in our submissions to the TRC, we also suffered a lot under brutal oppression and exploitation of the regime and employers. A powerful bomb planted by state operatives destroyed our Head office, many of our regional and affiliates offices were gutted by mysterious fire and vandalised. Phineas Sibiya, Jabulile Ndlovu and countless others were killed by the regime and its surrogates. Our activities were severely curtailed during the apartheid NP misrule with employers laughing from their offices.

>From the onset COSATU took a deliberate strategy to be a broad social movement taking up issues far beyond our workplaces. As a result, we built cadres that today continues to serve society in all spheres of our lives. The current national cabinet, the provincial executives and legislators at all three tiers of government include COSATU cadres. Our contribution to society is far wider than most analysts care to admit.

Today as we celebrate 12 years of our heroic struggles, our country is firmly on the route of dealing with structural problems we inherited from centuries of mismanagement by successive minority governments and capital. At the political level we have a democracy based on our ideals. We have a constitution with protections for workers and the broader society that many nations can only dream about. We have an open and transparent political system with strong oversight institutions such as the Public Protector, the Constitutional Court, Gender and Youth Commissions etc. We have institutions aimed at promotion of participatory democracy such as NEDLAC. Most sections of society have access to the current parliamentary system - something unheard of during our entire history as a country.

At a socio-economic level, progress is being made to reach our goal of a better life for all. In some cases these achievements outpace the highest expectations of our people. Healthcare is being made accessible and affordable for all. Education is being restructured and made compulsory up to the age of 15 years. More and more people in the rural areas have access to clean running water and electricity. Progress is being made to deal with the poverty of land for peasants and those displaced by forced removals. For the first time in many years, the economy is growing, albeit with no job creation. More and more ordinary people have access to telecommunications and other basic infrastructure.

COSATU is proud to have taken part in shaping policies that led to the massive delivery of these basic needs to our people. We can now without any doubt declare that our struggles and sacrifices were not in vain. We make this declaration on behalf of workers who were killed, dismissed, victimised, humiliated and condemned to poverty. We believe that those that died in pursuit of these struggles in the past twelve years can take pride - even from their graves - as more and more clinics are built, more houses electrified, more schools constructed or rebuilt, children immunised, pregnant women having access to free medical care, more and more of workers' demands at the labour front being legitimised and made laws, etc.

Despite these countless victories COSATU still faces countless challenges at various levels. Despite being generally regarded as one of the strongest and growing trade unions in the world, we must still strengthen our organisation and structures, and deal with many of our structural weaknesses including in some cases lack of service to our members. We must still build unity amongst workers which should lead to a true unified non-racial trade union movement in our country. We must still recruit more millions of workers into our ranks. In April next year we intent to engage in a month of recruitment and strengthening of our organisation. The education of our membership on political and social issues will be intensified. We must allow through our structures all our members views to be the ones that shape the direction of our unions and the federation. After all this is what worker control is all bout.

We must ensure that the gains made thus far are consolidated and deepened. Over the shortest possible number of years we must help make the dream of the most disadvantaged member of our society come true. One important matter which still lags behind is the provision of decent and affordable houses to our people. The backlog we must deal with and the number of new entrants to the housing market make the number of houses the country is building every year wholly inadequate. In order to address these problems we have inherited we must help with viable alternative policies so that the firm route we are walking in order to address these social ills is solidified. In this regard we call on the government to establish a housing parastatal.

Though we have praised the limited economic growth, that growth has been jobless growth. Most of our industries continue to shed jobs. The current macro economic policy has not put an end to the carnage of jobless growth or continuing job losses despite promises by its authors and big business. The current macro economic policy has failed to reduce the huge gap between rich and the poor in the country despite good progress in meeting of the basic needs of the people. The Tripartite Alliance must as a matter of urgency conclude the debate on GEAR and arrive at an amicable solution to the current differences. COSATU calls for a macro-economic policy that will address the unemployment crisis of our country. Such a policy must address squarely the problem of domination of our economy by very few monopolies. Furthermore, it must be centered on a job creating industrial policy. The policy must close the gap between the poor and the rich, and between management and workers.

As we celebrate our 12th anniversary, we wish to make a call to the ministry of Finance to desist from blocking the efforts by the ministries of Labour and Health on the training levy and the National Health Insurance respectively. We must not succumb to the business view that more training or better health is a form of taxation. To the extent that the management in the department of Finance are using comrade Trevor's name in vain, he needs to correct it publicly or explain to workers why he is denying them training and better health care.

The same with regard to trade liberalisation. The Ministry of Trade and industry should undertaken it with due regard to job losses. We reject any policy whose basic thrust will lead to massive job losses. It is in this regard that we call on the government to review its approach to the restructuring of the public service. Massive retrenchments of teachers, nurses and other workers is not in the best interest of social transformation.

Over the past few years, COSATU has tabled a number of proposals on job creation, training, housing, industrial restructuring, eradication of poverty etc. These positions have not been challenged by anyone beyond the old tired slogans that they are based on socialist ideas.

COSATU is a reality. We have a constituency - both employed and unemployed. We are committed to play a meaningful role in shaping the future of our country. Just as we triumphed over apartheid, we will win the war for jobs, houses, good governance, training, industrial restructuring and poverty.

Above all in spite of bad publicity and attacks from some of the media and apologists of GEAR and the neo-liberal agenda, we will not fail our country and our membership

Issued by the COSATU Secretariat.

Nowetu Mpati COSATU Head of Communications

Tel: + 27 + 11 + 339-4911 Fax: + 27 + 11 + 339-2281 E-mail: nowetu@cosatu.org.za