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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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  |  COSATU Speeches

Address by Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU General Secretary, to the Congress of SASBO 20 October 2012

National Office-bearers Delegates

Thank you very much for the invitation to address the Workers’ Parliament of SASBO, the union whose members work for the wealthiest companies in South Africa, but see very little of that wealth on their payslips.

You work in a sector which, if it pursued progressive policies, could help to create thousands of new jobs but which spends a lot of time finding ways to retrench its own employees, and cut wages.


You meet at a critical moment in the history of the South African trade union movement. More than 100 000 workers are involved in a tsunami of unprotected strikes that started at Impala Platinum, following their foolish step to offer 18% to one category of workers to the exclusion of all other workers, have spread to the rest of the platinum mines and to gold, coal and iron ore mines. And it is starting to move out of the mining industry.

There have also been terrible levels of violence and intimidation, with 51 confirmed deaths, 22 of them NUM members. Five workers were killed at Impala Platinum, 6 at Aquarius Platinum, and 47 at Lonmin Marikana (10 before 16th August, 34 on 16th August, and 3 after the 16thAugust). And just yesterday we saw NUM officials and myself been stoned by a small group of protesters.

Actions by some employers have made the situation even more explosive. Rather than address the underlying reasons behind this wave of militant actions by mine workers, and addressing the issue of poverty wages and pathetic living conditions, the employers have chosen to dismiss 15 596 workers, with Anglo-Platinum threatening to dismiss a staggering 12 000 workers alone!

It is important however not to view these events in isolation but in the context of the worldwide economic crisis and South Africa’s triple crisis of growing unemployment, poverty and inequality, each of which in many respects are even worse than in 1994.

Unemployment, by the more realistic expanded figure, which includes discouraged work-seekers, has risen to the outrageous level of 36, 2%. Among Africans the unemployment rateis now above 40%, up from 38% in 1995. In the labour force, there are six times as blacks than whites, but they are more than 80 times the number of whites among the unemployed. There is a particularly severe crisis of unemployment among the youth, who constitute 63% of the working population, yet make 72% of the unemployed. If we fail to provide these young people with the prospect of work and an income, we will remain sitting on a ticking time bomb.

The inevitable companion of unemployment is poverty. The Presidency`s 2010 Development Indicators Report suggests that 22.5-million people live on or below R10 a day. Around 14.5-million South Africans either suffer from hunger or do not have enough food daily. This is not just a severe human tragedy for those affected but a huge impediment to economic growth. To have so many people too poor to participate in the market as consumers spells disaster for the prospects of economic growth.

Inequality has now risen to a level that has made us the most unequal society in the world. 80% of South Africans receive just 25% of the national income. The workers’ share of national income declined from 55% in 2000 to 50% in 2011, a reverse redistribution from the poor to the rich.

You need look no further than your own sector to see the obscene levels of inequality. Just compare what you earn with the R20.657 million which ABSA’s CEO, Maria Ramos, made in 2011. Not far behind were Nedbank CEO, Mike Brown, who received R15.683 million, a 26% increase from 2010, and FNB’s CEO, Michael Jordaan, who got a total remuneration package of R14.787 million.

What makes this even worse is that these big banks, several of them now foreign-owned, are not competing with each other but are an effective monopoly, using their vast power to enrich themselves and their biggest customers, the equally monopolised multinational mining companies. These two powerful sectors constitute one of the biggest obstacles to the implementation of more developmental economic policies which will boost manufacturing industry and create jobs. They have prolonged our economy’s over-dependence on the export of raw materials, and failed to provide finance for the manufacturing sectors.

They have sabotaged attempts to reform the financial sector, which still serves mainly the rich minority. Their branches and ATMs are concentrated in the mainly white suburbs, while the mainly black population in the townships and rural villages have to travel far just to get some cash. Small businesses have to struggle far harder to get loans than the big companies.

In our campaign against corruption, which we condemn unreservedly in any form, we always stress that its source is the more sophisticated type of corruption we see in the banks and other big capitalist monopolies, who manipulate markets, fix prices and do everything to maximise their profits through the exploitation of the workers who create their wealth. It is their corrupt morality that is invading the public sector and our revolutionary movement, and threatening to plunge us into a descent into a banana republic Comrades

We face a massive crisis, and a huge challenge for the trade union movement. Our Central Executive Committee met this week and adopted a bold programme to defend jobs and defend our trade unions, in particular the National Union of Mineworkers. We will do everything possible to defend our principle of ‘One Country – One Federation’ and ‘One Sector – One Union’, and prevent any further fragmentation of our unions. The only people to benefit from splintered, and therefore weak, trade union will be the employers, some of whom are surely encouraging breakaways like AMCU and NATAWU.

We will also defend and seek to improve sectoral collective bargaining, which, while never perfect, is far better than the kind of free-for-all we have seen in the platinum mines. It has been proved that workers on average improve their wages and working conditions more under collective bargaining than bargaining with individual companies. We are mobilising for a mass rally in Rustenburg on 27 October 2012 to oppose retrenchments, defend the NUM and the federation and to advance our campaign for radical economic transformation of South Africa. We are planning solidarity action in other parts of the country and I appeal to all SASBO members to support all these initiatives. But we must also not be afraid to be self-critical. We must never forget the basic truth that you will never win in the bargaining chambers what you have not won in the workplace and the streets. In other words without strong, unite unions, workers will always be the losers.

While rejecting the sweeping allegations being levelled at the NUM, which has a proud 30-year record of fighting and winning improvements for mineworkers, we should take note of the warnings in the Secretariat Report to the COSATU 11th National Congress, which were drafted well before the recent events, and referred to all unions. We pointed to the potential danger of union leaders and officials who earn reasonably good salaries, with car allowances and medical aid, etc, who can use private education and healthcare services and get drawn into a middle-class lifestyle, becoming remote from the members who elected them.

A central plank of the CEC resolution was a big campaign to listen and talk to the membership, at workplace and local meetings, and to take up their grievances and demands more rigorously. SASBO is no exception. You have a proud record of service to your members. You embody many of the traditional ways of trade union operation, publishing an excellent newspaper and providing many benefits to your members.

But your membership is changing. Transformation in the financial sector, although sill far too slow at the top levels, is changing the composition of the workforce at lower levels, with a big influx of young, black workers. This poses challenges for the union.

These young members do not just want good service from union offices; they want to be actively involved in the life of the union at every level, especially in the looming battles against retrenchments. It is vital that the leadership listen and talk to these members, and make sure that they never react in the way a small number of mineworkers did and abandon the trade union movement, the only structure which has both the will and the power to achieve, permanent, sustainable improvements in their lives.

I wish you a very successful Congress.