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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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  |  COSATU Speeches

Zwelinzima Vavi`s address to the COSATU Limpopo Young Workers Forum

22 June 2013

Thank you for inviting me to address this important meeting today. It is always a privilege to speak to the future leaders of our great workers’ movement, about the challenges we face today and the challenges which, in the years to come we shall look to your generation to overcome.

Top of the list is the triple challenge of mass unemployment, widespread poverty and huge levels of inequality. Nobody has a greater interest in solving this crisis than the youth, who comprise over 70% of the unemployed and face a future of a life of poverty, hunger and despair unless we immediately begin to turn the situation around and prevent what we call the ticking time-bombs from exploding.

Many of you were not born when COSATU was founded in 1985, and so before returning to today’s problems, it is worthwhile to tell you something of our history.

Trade unions had of course been active long before 1985, especially in the great Durban strike wave of the early 1970s. The new COSATU inherited great traditions of workers’ struggles from the different unions and federations who came together. FOSATU brought the militant unions who cut their teeth in the Durban strikes.

But one of the biggest influences was the banned South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), which had been forced by the apartheid regime to operate in exile, but continued to play a powerful role in educating our members and giving them an ideological grounding.

At the founding Congress, COSATU adopted five founding principles, which still guide us today and will do so in the future:

Non-racialism - COSATU rejects apartheid and racism in all its forms. We believe that all workers, regardless of race, should organise and unite. Now more than ever before we need to bury the apartheid legacy.

We must also confront the problem of xenophobia, which seeks to divert the blame for our economic problems from the employers and the capitalist system to our fellow workers from other countries who are struggling to scrape a living here

Worker control - COSATU believes that workers must control the structures and committees of the federation, to keep the organisation vibrant and dynamic, and to maintain close links with the shop floor.

That is why the federation has launched a ‘listening campaign’ to make sure we are hearing the views of our members, provide the services which they expect and fight for the demands they are making.

Paid-up membership - COSATU and its affiliated unions strive for self sufficiency. This means that while we receive money for specific projects from other trade unions, we remain able to take our decisions without interference from funders.

One industry, one union - one country, one federation - In order to unite workers across sectors, we have grouped our unions into industries.

Our 6th National Congress resolved to merge unions into cartels or broad sectors such as public sector and manufacturing. We also remain committed to unity with all unions and federations that are committed to, among others, these principles. Recent events have made this principle even more urgent to achieve. We have seen an outbreak of splinter unions, often in collusion with employers. This risks further weakening the workers’ defences.

International worker solidarity - the lifeblood of trade unionism - particularly in the era of multinational companies. COSATU maintains links with a range of national and international centres. The globalisation of the world economy makes this more important than ever.

Workers around the world are under attack in the aftermath of the 2008 world economic crisis through ruthless austerity measures, retrenchments and the casualisation of labour. We are committed to support workers in countries still suffering from national and class oppression, such as the people of Palestine, Swaziland and Western Sahara.

Underlying all these principles is the firm belief that trade union campaigns cannot be separated from the political battles. In 1985, at the height of the struggle against apartheid, it would have been unthinkable for unions to restrict their activity to the workplace problems, though these were never ignored.

That is why we forged the alliance with the still-banned ANC and SACP, to unite the working class with the mass national democratic movement. It was in this cauldron struggle that the ANC-COSATU-SACP Tripartite Alliance was forged, which led the successful battle to overthrow apartheid.

This was obviously a political fight, but was all the more successful because one of its leading bodies was at the same time fighting in the mines, factories and farms to defend workers and improve their wages and conditions and thus building a mass base for the revolutionary struggle.

That is why we opposed to what we term economism, workerism or populism, all of which in different ways seek to exclude workers from the mainstream of political struggle.

It is no accident that the outrageous statement issued this week by the Democratic Alliance on labour law amendments, contained a threat “to ensure that no portion of the union membership fees collected under collective bargaining agreements may be used to pay for affiliation to a political party and that these funds may not be applied for any purpose other than the promotion and protection of the socio-economic welfare of employees.”

This is a blatant move by our enemies in the DA to undermine COSATU and its allies, the ANC and SACP, who have always insisted that workers have the right to support political struggles to improve the lives of their families and the broader society. The alliance remains central to the federation’s vision to transform our economy and society.

Ironically the DA’s intervention on labour laws highlights precisely why we need our alliance with the ANC. The ruling party, and its MPs, engaged extensively with COSATU around their original proposed labour law amendments, and ultimately we convinced them to drop most of their dangerous proposals which would have weakened trade unions.

Without these Alliance-level engagements, the original amendments would probably have been carried, and we would be facing a massive battle against them, but just image how much weaker we would be if the DA and other right-wing opposition parties had been in power. Our workers’ movement would have been shattered, though not of course without a big fight-back from the workers.

That is not going to happen soon, and we must do everything possible to make sure that it never happens. That is where the Alliance again has a key role to play. Our commitment to support the ANC has never been based on giving them a blank cheque. The workers will never allow even their staunch allies to take them for granted.

We will always take our mandate from the membership, especially at our ‘Workers’ Parliament’ our three-yearly National Congress, whose resolutions and declarations are the basis for the federation for the next three years, and beyond if those policies are not changed by later congresses.

If those policies conflict with those of government and our ANC allies, we will not keep quiet, but argue, debate, and if all else fails take to the streets to mobilise the workers.

Far from being attacks on our allies, they are a way of bringing home to the ANC and government what the majority of the workers and the poor, who are after all overwhelmingly ANC-voters, think about current policies, and send a warning sign of potential dissatisfaction when unpopular policies are imposed.

A good example is the issue of labour brokers, the only important issue in the debate on labour law amendments where we failed to win the argument. Sadly the MPs, refused to ban labour brokers, who will be allowed to continue in operation for periods of three months, though even there the MPs voted for more regulation to prevent what they concede are abusive practices.

We oppose labour brokering in principle, because it treats workers as commodities, who can be traded to generate a profit. Labour brokers act as parasites in the employment relationship, who supply workers to do jobs that already exist, and which in many cases would previously have been permanent full-time jobs. They negotiate a fee with the so-called ‘client’ firm for supplying stipulated labour services for a given period.

While they get rich through this trade in labour, the workers are exploited worse than ever. Most of the workers supplied and employed by the labour brokers earn low wages, do not enjoy any benefits, receive no training and have virtually no job security.

That is why we make no apology for calling it human trafficking and a modern form of slavery.

We cannot agree with government that increased regulation of the labour brokering industry will stop all its abuses. The Department of Labour can’t enforce current regulation of employment conditions and safety, let alone adding another area of enforcement.

But the main debate with the ANC, which we shall be resuming in two weeks time at an Alliance Economic Summit meeting, is on the broader issue of how we can transform our economy so that it provides more jobs, creates more wealth and distributes that wealth in a far more equitable fashion.

The last two ANC National Conferences at Polokwane and Mangaung passed some excellent resolutions, the most recent being the call for a “2nd Phase of the Transition”. This is closely in line with COSATU’s constant call for a massive transformation of our economy, to put us on a new growth path to prosperity and full employment.

Our argument has been based on the recognition that in the first 19 years of democracy we have made great advances in areas of human rights, civil liberties and welfare payments, but have left our economy little changed. A small, ultra-rich, still mainly white and male elite, owns and controls all the most powerful industrial and financial companies, a growing number of which are now also controlled from overseas.

Consequently they run these enterprises, especially the mining and banking sectors, under the rules of the “‘free market economy”, where the sole goal is to maximise profits, rather than to develop the South African economy or help to create jobs.

The ANC and government have recognised this problem and as well as the Mangaung resolution, have adopted the Industrial Policy Action Plan, the Infrastructure Development Programme and at least part of the National Growth Path, all of which seek to set us on the new growth path

The big problem, which we shall be tackling together with the ANC, SACP and SANCO, is that these progressive policies are undermined by wrong macroeconomic policies by the Treasury and the Reserve Bank. Their priority is to attract more foreign investment, by convincing them that the privately-owned economy is in safe, capitalist hands and that the market economy is firmly entrenched.

To assist this they continue with policies of high interest rates and dismantling measures to protect vulnerable domestic manufacturing industry. They are using the discredited policies of the 1996 Class Project, which imposed strict free-market, neoliberal economic policies, which had a devastating effect on local manufacturing, affects which became even more disastrous after the 2008 world economic crisis.

We will always welcome foreign investment, but not at any price, and we will certainly not allow South Africa’s economic policies to be dictated by the interests of these investors, above those of the people in a sovereign democratic country.

I hope that we shall convince our allies to ignore these voices from the past, and vigorously pursue the ANC’s 2nd Phase of our Transition to a prosperous and more equal society which will give your generation hope and confidence that a better life is possible, and that you will to live to enjoy a transformed South Africa.

As I said earlier this year, in a tribute to Comrade Joe Slovo: “In his memory we must pursue a class struggle unapologetically and without seeking permission from others. Class struggle means struggling against unemployment, poverty and inequalities. This is the struggle against apartheid and colonial era fault lines – including the struggle for quality education and training, better health care, more and better houses and other services.

“These are the struggles that COSATU will wage throughout this year, without apologizing to anyone or seeking permission from anyone. This is struggle the whole alliance must pursue for the sake of the memory of Joe Slovo.”

Thank you

Patrick Craven (National Spokesperson)
Congress of South African Trade Unions
110 Jorissen Cnr Simmonds Street

Tel: +27 11 339-4911 or Direct: +27 10 219-1339
Mobile: +27 82 821 7456
E-Mail: patrick@cosatu.org.za