Zwelinzima Vavi on the fight against inequality

Speech by COSATU General Secretary on receipt of TransAfrican Forum award, December 3 2008

Speech by Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, on the occasion of his receipt of the TransAfrican Forum's Pan-African Lifetime Achievement Award, Washington, December 3 2008

Master of ceremonies
Chairperson of the Board of Directors for TransAfrican Forum, Danny Glover
Board of Directors here present
Event Co chairs
Distinguished guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

It is an unbelievable honour to be chosen to receive such a prestigious award tonight and to stand here on the same platform as so many distinguished leaders of the African-American community. I accept it with honour and humility.

I know however that it is not me as an individual who has earned this honour, but millions of South African working people, united under the banner of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, and its allies, the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party. Together, this alliance led, and indeed continues to lead, our national democratic revolution against apartheid, colonialism, racism and exploitation.

We shall forever be indebted to the magnificent campaign of international solidarity against apartheid. I take this opportunity to thank all those heroic Americans who stood alongside us in our hour of need and helped to impose sanctions and diplomatic pressure on the racist regime. One legacy of this international solidarity is that COSATU itself, from its birth on 1 December 1985, 23 years ago this week, has enshrined international solidarity as one of its founding principles.

Today, after only 23 short years, COSATU has become one of the most respected unions in the globe - a strong voice and ally of all democrats. COSATU is a fearless fighter against injustices within South Africa, across the African continent and all over the world. We have become a trusted ally of all those who have spared no energy to pursue the dream that another world is possible. We have sought to speak for the most marginalised. We have campaigned against the current patterns of globalisation that have led to growing inequalities within and between countries, in particular between the countries of the global South and North.

I am extremely grateful that the TransAfrica Forum has recognised our contribution to struggle to build a just world where all citizens shall share in the wealth and where no one will be discriminated on the basis of her or his skin colour or her or his origin.

On 27 April 1994 we achieved an historic victory for democracy, when for the first time, every South African voted for the government of their choice, but in many ways, our struggles did not come to an end in1994. While we have won important victories on the political front, the trade union movement in particular still faces many battles, especially on the economic front. Economic power has virtually remained unchanged as it is under control of a white minority. Political and economic power has diverged in South Africa with dire consequences for the poor African majority.

Inequality between rich and poor, which cleaves largely along racial and gender lines, has increased in post apartheid South Africa. While absolute poverty has been reduced, many South Africans remain poor. That is why we still need a strong, militant trade union federation like COSATU.

The situation was made even worse by the mistaken adoption, in the late 1990s, of economic policies that were inspired by the so-called ‘Washington Consensus.' A well-known South African economist argues that the chains were removed from our hands and put on our feet!

They were accompanied by concerted moves at the international level to impose trade policies that, if adopted, would be catastrophic for all developing countries like South Africa. The rich Northern nations wanted to retain all the government subsidies and tariffs that protect their wealthy farmers and businesses while demanding that the poor Southern countries abandon their protective tariffs and open their markets up to the so-called market - in reality to the big monopolies. The cost would be borne by our local manufacturing industry and agriculture.

The Director General of the World Trade Organisation, Pascal Lamy, is still trying to push these measures through before the end of the year, using the global economic crisis as an excuse.

The proposed trade deal will compound crises of poverty in South Africa. If such problems hit a relatively prosperous country like South Africa, then we can be certain that other, poorer African countries will be hit even harder. Many are already facing massive problems. In line with its founding internationalist principles, COSATU has taken up the struggles of our fellow workers in Africa and many other parts of the world.

A single fact points to the continued differences between the global North and the global South. According to the World Bank's data on the Millennium Development Goals, in the high-income countries, with 15% of the world's population, one child in seven shows signs of malnutrition. In the low-income countries, which account for 39% of the global population and which include almost all of sub-Saharan Africa outside of South Africa, more than one child in four is malnourished.

With stark figures like these, we hardly need to go further to understand why COSATU sees inequality across the world, and not just in South Africa, as a pressing challenge for us all.

Figures on poverty show similarly shocking differences. In Europe, 2% of the population lives on less than a dollar a day - a shocking figure for industrialised countries. In Africa, however, the figure is 44%. That is, close to half of all Africans live below the lowest international poverty line.

The poverty of the global South has too main roots: the unfair nature of globalisation and, in most cases, the unfair nature of economic and social systems within these countries themselves. Again, the high-income countries, with just a seventh of the world's people, enjoy three quarters of its income and generate almost half of all global-warming emissions. The poor countries, with two fifths of the global population, get just 3% - three per cent! - of the global income, and generate only 7% of all carbon emissions.

COSATU's solidarity has been particularly necessary where workers and the majority of the people suffer not only economically but politically as well. That is why we have singled out certain countries where workers are under attack.

One is Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe, formerly a great national liberation leader and hero, has turned into a dictator. He rules on behalf of a small elite that has sought to crush the human rights of the majority and has made the workers, organised in the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, a prime target. He has clung on to power even after losing the election on 29 March 2008, despite a ruthless campaign of violent intimidation before and during the voting. Even now he is refusing even to share power with the MDC opposition, which won that election.

This week Mugabe police arrested scores of unionists, including the General Secretary of the ZCTU Wellington Chibebe, for merely protesting against the restrictions to the amounts workers could withdraw from the banks. I hope you will join us in demanding their immediate release.

Swaziland is an even less democratic state. It is one of the world's few remaining absolute monarchies, where political parties are banned and there has been the world's longest state of emergency, since 1973. Currently scores of the pro-democracy activists including the President of the main opposition formation, Mario Masuku, are under arrest on trumped-up charges of ‘terrorism'.

Western Sahara is the only remaining colony in Africa, since it was illegally occupied by Morocco 32 years ago, and where they remain, in defiance of United Nations resolutions. Morocco has forced a large proportion of the population to flee into exile, where they live in refugee camps in Algeria.

More recently there has been a huge humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where civilians, including many women and children, have been caught in the crossfire of a senseless civil war, in which hundreds have been raped and killed.

On all these countries, COSATU has not just passed resolutions and issued press statements, but has mobilised its members in solidarity action.

Further afield COSATU has been very vocal in support of the people of Palestine, who suffer a cruel form of national oppression by the Israel state, which has a great deal in common with the apartheid system under which we suffered for so long. The people are denied all their most basic democratic rights, including even where they can live, having been thrown off their ancestral land and forced to live in the equivalent of apartheid ‘Bantustans'.

We have also condemned the ruthless military regime in Burma which for decades has trampled on the people's human rights, jailed opposition politicians and used forced labour.

Also - and this may be more controversial here in Washington - COSATU has steadfastly supported the people of Cuba, who played a crucial role in our own liberation, when they defeated the forces of apartheid at the battle of Cuito Carnavale in Angola in 1988. We have supported the call for an end to the 46-year-old illegal economic blockade by the USA.

This is a very brief summary of the contribution that the organisation I have been privileged to lead has made to the struggle for liberation, in South Africa, the continent and the world as a whole. Tonight's award, I believe, should be seen as being given to COSATU's two million members and the majority of South Africans, on whose behalf I am honoured to speak in Washington tonight.

The financial meltdown was a rude reminder of the fallacy of liberalising financial markets. It is a serious indictment that governments have been forced to bail out financial institutions, thus socialising the debts while the profits remain in private hands. It also shows the duplicity of the neo-liberal dogma that attacks state social welfare policies as generating dependency but welcomes and encourages bail outs to corporations. Neo-liberalism is indeed a policy of enriching the rich by impoverishing the poor further.

Globalisation means that our fate is more intertwined than ever before. Workers in the South and the North face the same problems: job losses, cuts in social welfare programmes and privatisation of public assets. This situation demands that we abandon insular nationalistic politics for global solidarity to defeat the neo-liberalism promoted and imposed by the US and international financial institutions.

My speech will be incomplete if I do not congratulate Americans on their new President, Barack Obama, the first African American President of the US. This is an important milestone for US politics and in particular for the African American community. We wish him well and hope for a sea change in US foreign and economic policy. We hope for a more inclusive approach to addressing world problems from the unilateralism and jingoism of the Bush regime. We also hope that the US will now understand the folly of liberalised capital markets and desist from imposing neo-liberal dogma on developing countries.

Thank you very much.