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National Congress  |  COSATU Press Statements

COSATU statement on its forthcoming 8th National Congress

23 July 2003

COSATU's 8th National Congress - the workers' parliament - will be in session from 15-18 September in Midrand. Its theme will be "Consolidating working class power - for quality jobs - toward 2015".

This is the biggest workers' event in three years. More than 2500 delegates, representing over 1.7 million members from around the country, will gather to chart the path ahead for organised labour. There will be delegates from farms, factories and min es. There will be domestic workers, cleaners, doctors, artists, soccer players, taxi drivers, nurses, teachers and many others. Delegates will hold four days of intensive debate.

This historic congress coincides with the 30th anniversary of the 1973 Durban strikes, which re-launched the militant, democratic trade union movement and is less than a year away from the completion of ten years of democracy and our third national and provincial elections.

Congress gives workers a unique chance to analyse their gains and setbacks over those years. To prepare for these deliberations, COSATU is launching a public debate on our strategies and tactics for the years ahead, up to our 30th anniversary in 2015.

This Congress is arguably the most important in our history. We face complex and daunting challenges. Since our 7th Congress in 2000, COSATU has lost around 100 000 members - about 5% of the total. This is not because workers are disillusioned with unions, but as a result of a drop in the formal workforce. In fact union membership as a share of the labour force has not declined. But such a big drop in membership has huge financial and organisational implications.

The 1994 transition brought peace and major political and social gains - the introduction of democracy, constitutional safeguards of human rights, consultative forums for engagement on policy, and better government services to our communities. On the e conomic front however, the ruling class remains the same and workers face the same or even worse problems. The overwhelming white owners of the mining and finance companies, in alliance with foreign capital, still dominate our economy.

Most workers and their communities have not seen the huge improvements in the political environment matched by similar economic advances. On the contrary, the unemployment, poverty and inequality inherited from apartheid have actually worsened. That is why we have had important disagreements with the government over economic policies that do little to reverse these trends.

Since the 1940s, the working class have been the leaders of the national democratic revolution. Their class demands became the programme of all black people struggling for freedom. The liberation movement always accepted that freedom must not mean just an end to racial laws but a fundamental shift toward equity and prosperity for all. Over the last nine years, however, working class leadership has been increasingly contested, as big business and a rising black bourgeoisie increase their influence on government policies.

COSATU cannot go to this congress thinking we can continue with "business as usual". While we may lament the short-term difficulties over lack of consultation with our Tripartite Alliance partners and its failure to drive transformation, the priority is to take a long-term approach to find the solutions to the challenges we face so that we can turn the tide of joblessness and poverty.

That is why COSATU's Central Executive Committee has adopted a draft Programme for 2015 for discussion at Congress. It outlines priorities and strategies for the next 12 years. It has two key themes: building working class power and fighting for quali ty jobs. These interlinked goals are central for COSATU if we are to continue to defend and advance the interests of workers and the poor in the future. The 2015 strategy dovetails with our organisational renewal plan, which will be unveiled at the Con gress.

The core of our programme is the need to deepen the organisational capacity of the workers' movement. Only when COSATU and its affiliates are strong can we reverse the setbacks of the past few years.

Our second Central Committee agreed in April to launch a vigorous recruitment campaign, with realistic but ambitious targets. But recruitment will only work if unions also improve the quality of service to members. Organisational renewal must bring gr eater support our shop stewards, who have always been the foundation of our strength. That requires education work at all levels - to address the needs in the workplace and ensure broad discussion of policies and campaigns.

But workers' power must not only take the form of a strong union movement. We have always said that COSATU is the spear and the ANC the shield. In the past workers found their home in the Congress movement. Shop stewards and union leaders have always b een a source of political activists.

But now that the Tripartite Alliance is more involved in government and the state, the component organisations have become a more contested terrain. We cannot rely on the formal relationships within the Alliance alone to provide workers with a politica l voice. We can no longer just repeat simple slogans about building working class power by swelling the ranks of the ANC, SACP and school governing bodies and hospital boards. The 2015 plan proposes concrete steps to develop a working class leadership in this contested terrain.

COSATU and its affiliates will have to redouble their efforts in the election campaign. It will be a black day for workers if any party other than the ANC were to come to power. But we are not voting for the ANC for sentimental reasons. We want to mobi lise for a decisive ANC victory so that in return the next government can tilt the balance of forces in favour of the working class and drive a pro-working class transformation of society. We will be making that relationship between workers' votes and government policy clear.

We can no longer expect workers simply to be cannon fodder in election campaigns. So COSATU has agreed that in future it will do more to monitor the records of individual elected representatives on issues of importance to workers, and actively support only those with good records.

On socio-economic policy, the 2015 programme calls for a focused effort to expand quality employment in the formal sector, centred on ensuring: 1. That workplace restructuring does not cost jobs; 2. An increase in the number of decent, properly paid j obs. 3. That sectoral strategies lead to job-creating growth, supported by strong government investment. But to succeed, affiliates must strengthen their capacity and engage forcefully with business and government. 4. Speeding up strateg ies at national level to give poor households access to productive assets and skills. That means improving education, health and basic infrastructure, land reform and support for co-ops and small enterprise. 5. Fighting privatisation.

South Africa cannot afford to go the road of other national revolutions, which left the masses as poor as before. Our struggle must make a difference in the lives of workers, women, students, youth and the oppressed black majority as a whole. If we fa il we will have betrayed all the sacrifices of the past and present.

The COSATU Congress discussions are now open. We invite all those interested in taking the workers' movement forward to contribute to our debates. The Central Executive committee has agreed that the Congress will confer the Elijah Barayi Memorial Awa rd for outstanding leadership and service posthumously on Chris Hani, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo as well as John Nkadimeng the former General Secretary of SACTU.

Awards will be given to staff members who have completed ten years of service with COSATU, the longest-serving office bearer, the longest-serving shop steward and the worst employer. Two new affiliates will be present at the congress. The South Africa n Medical Association (SAMA), which organises doctors in the public and private sector with a membership of 4224, and the Musicians Union of South Africa (MUSA), which organises musicians, have been admitted to the federation. Discussions are continu ing with the SA Union of Journalists.

An innovation at this year's congress will be a live recording of workers' music to produce a CD, DVD, video and cassette.

The media will be very welcome to attend the whole of the 8th National Congress. Credentials will be required but these can easily be obtained either in person today or through the COSATU web site - www.cosatu.org.za

Patrick Craven
Acting COSATU Spokesperson