COSATU: Looking back, looking forward

Speech by President Sidumo Dlamini on union federation's 25th anniversary celebration

COSATU President Sidumo Dlamini's Speech at COSATU's 25th Anniversary Celebration, Johannesburg Stadium, 4 December 2010

Comrades and friends, we are here today to celebrate 25 years since the launch of COSATU on 1 December 1985. Cyril Ramaphosa was prophetic when he declared  that "a giant has arisen!" That giant has grown from 130 000 members when it was launched to well over 2 million paid up membership today.

While still barely walking, the young giant launched itself into titanic battles against employers and the apartheid regime. In his speech at the launch, founding President Elijah Barayi gave P.W. Botha a six-month deadline to do away with passes. Indeed Botha succumbed and the hated pass laws that had humiliated millions of decades were scrapped. Today we carry proper identity documents.

That Barayi speech and resolutions led us into countless other battles. We were in the forefront of the campaign for the release of Nelson Mandela. We battled against the bantustans, the black authority stooges, the tri-cameral parliament, the apartheid laws. Today we are celebrating all these victories in the company of our mayors, premiers and President, all elected by ourselves!

Whilst we were battling against the apartheid state, we were confronting apartheid in our workplaces. Barely six months after we were born, we launched a campaign for the recognition of May Day as a paid Public Holiday. In just two years we won that demand. Today May Day, with 11 other public holidays including August 9, June 16, March 21 are all paid public holidays.

Today we gather here in Johannesburg to remember all these titanic battles workers  have waged for so long. We remember the 1946 mineworkers' strike led by JB Marks, leader of the African Mineworkers Union that rocked the mine bosses and the apartheid state.

We trace our history to the militant traditions of our predecessors in SACTU who, but for the apartheid regime would have been 55 years old this year. We are the children of the Corrobrick workers whose strike spread like wild fire from Durban to every corner of our country in 1973. 

We are here to remember the heroes of the 1986 Kinross Mine disaster and all the other thousands of mineworkers who have perished underground. We remember the militant traditions of the OK Bazaars Strike of 1986 that lasted for over six months. That strike showed that women's place is in the forefront of our militant unions.

We are here to celebrate the 1986 railway strike led by SARHWU which is today SATAWU. We remember how the regime unleashed violence and killed workers. Who could ever forget the 1987 mineworkers' strike involving over 300 000 workers who for 21 days stood toe-to-toe with the brutal private army of the Chamber of Mines?

We know that we suffered serious losses in that strike in which  50 000 of our members took part, including the COSATU General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, but that that strike laid the foundation for today's organisation and the many gains and victories we made since 1987.

We remember the sacrifices, resilience and tenacity of our members, who not only sacrificed their wages and jobs but their lives. Today we recall that the very first Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) to be hanged by the regime was leading unionist Vuyisile Mini.

We recall that the first person to die in detention was a leading unionist, Looksmart Ngudle, that the very first cadres to swell the ranks of the glorious MK people's army, were leading unionists such as Raymond Mhlaba, Wilton Mkwayi and Walter Sisulu.

We are here to celebrate the unbreakable worker/youth alliance seen in the 1976 student uprisings and the body punches that brought the monster of apartheid to its knees throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Today we also celebrate the role of the United Democratic Front and other progressive forces who organised thousands of community organisations into a single powerful movement.

We are here to celebrate our strategic alliance with the ANC and the SACP, which has lasted for many decades, predating even the creation of SACTU and COSATU. Together with the ANC and the SACP, we were part of the final push between 1990 and 1994 that guaranteed 27 April 1994.

As we turn 25 years this year, we know that the fallen heroes who participated in the 1973 strikes, the fearless students of the 1976 revolt, the thousands of MK soldiers whose bones are still buried in foreign lands, those who dedicated their efforts in building organs of people's power would thump their chests in pride when they look at the formidable organ that COSATU is today.

Comrades, this year is indeed an important year for the working class movement. We salute one of the founding unions of COSATU and the Food and Allied Workers' Union, which gave the labour movement astute leaders like Jay Naidoo, COSATU's founding General Secretary and Chris Dlamini, COSATU's founding 1st Deputy President.

This year we also celebrate the 20th birthday of SADTU and remember the contribution of so many teachers in our movement, from Leslie Masina, JB Marks, and Mathew Goniwe to today's 240 000 members of SADTU.

We salute the tremendous role played by our predecessors in SACTU, including John Nkadimeng, Steven Dlamini, Moses Kotane, JB Marks, Ray Simons, Oscar Mpetha, Rita Ndzanga and Gana Makhabeni.

We must also never forget Yure Mdyogolo, Moses Mabhida, Billy Nair, Liz Abrahams, Curnick Ndlovu, Archie Sibeko, Leslie Massina, Chris Dlamini, John Gomomo, Violet Seboni, and Alina Rantsolase, Mbuyiselo Ngwenda and countless more.

We remember the ordinary members of COSATU, the unsung heroes without whom nothing could have been possible. We remember the shop stewards who, like true commanders have remained the backbone of our movement. We remember Jabulile Ndlovu, the NUMSA shop steward who was brutally killed by warlords in KwaZulu Natal.

We remember MAWU shop steward Phenenus Sibiya and the other four passengers of the car set alight by the warlords on the way to the COSATU launch from Phophomeni.  We remember Selby Mayise of the NUM, Sam Ntambane, killed on the day he led a march to a police station on the day Chris Hani was assassinated.  Through them we remember the role of all shop stewards of our unions.

We remember Sam Ntuli, the NUMSA organiser  killed by a apartheid sniper and Bheki Mlangeni, the COSATU lawyer killed by a bomb. We remember all workers and our people who were killed by the enemy in particular in KwaZulu Natal throughout the 1980s and here in Gauteng in the 1990s in a war engineered by the third force that killed thousands.

We remember all our members who died at work and or were maimed by asbestos and dangerous chemicals we are exposed to at work. We remember  those killed by the HIV and AIDS and rededicate ourselves into a struggle to defeat this epidemic.

Let us all stand and take a minute of silence in remembering all these heroes and heroines of our struggle.

This history is more than enough proof that ours was never a sectarian struggle only for increasing wages and improving conditions of work for labour but a struggle to advance the interests of the working class as a whole and liberate human beings from all the evils of apartheid and capitalism.

Our struggle for better wages and improved conditions of employment is the same struggle waged by workers and communities for better houses, affordable, accessible and safe transport and better schools and hospitals.

It is because COSATU made this tremendous contribution to our struggle, that today we are crammed into this stadium to celebrate our victories. The police are here not to teargas us but to protect us. They are our members! Today we have ambulances on standby provided by our local government. Today we are addressed by our own President whom we elected. Today we have a new constitution that enshrines our rights as workers, including our right to strike and to bargain with our employers.

Yet we know that for a growing number of workers, whose jobs have been casualised and outsourced or are employed by those human traffickers, the labour brokers, the Constitution and all labour laws have no meaning whatsoever. Their reality is that of daily brutalisation and humiliation at the hands of farm bosses and fly-by-night pseudo employers. 

There have been significant improvements in the lives of millions of our people. In 1996, only 3 million people had access to social grants; today it is 15 million. A massive 25% of our population depends on these social grants today. In 1996, 58% of the population had access to electricity, today 80%. In 1996, 62% of the population had access to running water, today 88%. We have built 3.1 million subsidised houses, giving shelter to over 15 million people. The celebration of COSATU's 25th anniversary is also a celebration of these achievements.

Comrades and friends

It would be a big mistake for us to praise ourselves triumphantly without taking stock of the challenges we face today.  Despite workers having made significant inroads, the context within which we gained our liberation was informed by a hostile global balance of forces. In 1985 when this giant was born, the Soviet Union, the horizon of hope for the working class across the globe, was still a formidable force standing as the alternative idea of development and civilization.

Capitalism has proven over and over again that it has no answer to humanity.  We facing a mounting crises of unemployment, with close to four from every ten people who want to work unable to find jobs. This was worsened by the financial market crisis from 2008. Between 2009 and 2010 alone, more than 1.1 million people have been thrown out of their jobs. Since each worker supports an average of five dependents, this means that 5.7 million were relegated to poverty.

Unemployment affects black people, women and young people most. Today 73% of all unemployed people are below 35. The youth born in the same year as COSATU now bear brunt of neoliberal policies and the capitation to global market forces.

Indeed if we  look today through the eyes of the youth, we see how this generation is continuously brutalised by the despotic capitalist system. This youth has been turned into a sweatshop army in factories, retail giants such as Shoprite and Pick n Pay, in the private security industry, the call centres and the hospitality sector.

In every area of life we see the class, race and gender fault lines we bequeathed from apartheid still in place. The top 20 paid directors in JSE-listed companies earned 1728 times the average income of a South African worker in 2008; even state-owned enterprises paid 194 times an average worker's income.

Meanwhile 48% of South Africans live on less than R322 a month and 25% now survive on state grants. An average African man earns R2 400 per month, whilst an average white man earns R19 000. Most white women earn around R9 600 per month, whereas most African women earn R1 200 per month.

Whilst we have made major progress in improving access to education, in particular for the girl child, we have not transformed the education system we inherited from the apartheid regime. Children in black township schools are still victims of an unequal education system. They live daily with the fear of failure whilst watching their white counterparts in private schools top the list of achievers year after year.

It is the same story in healthcare. While the mainly white wealthy can buy world-class healthcare in the private sector, 86% of mainly black poor have to struggle to get any service at all in an under-funded, understaffed public sector where patients are told to bring their own bedding and with only panado available as an antidote. Nurses are overworked and underpaid.

The HIV and AIDS epidemic has worsened our situation with life-expectancy dropping from 62 years in 1992 50 in 2006. Today people leaving with HIV and AIDS occupy 73% of all hospital beds.

The life expectancy of a white South African now stands at 71 years and that of a black South African at 48.

Faced with these realities, we have adopted the 2015 Plan to build COSATU and its affiliates, strengthen the ANC and SACP on the ground and build the Alliance and the developmental state. We have called on our members to swell the ranks of the ANC and the SACP to ensure that these strategic allies of the workers retain their bias towards the workers and the poor.

Organisationally we still face a challenge to strengthen our affiliated unions so that they can be a true spear that Chief Luthuli spoke of when addressing a SACTU congress. We know that some shop stewards are not well trained and do not defend our members from the bosses. We know that some organisers are easily bribed and compromised by the employers. We know too that some of our leaders are useless and do not deserve the confidence members have placed on them.

We know we are far from achieving our historic goal of creating One Country, One Federation and One Union One Industry. We know we have not achieved the principle of worker control. Worker control does not only talk about internal democracy where workers are in charge. It also talks to the political system where workers will be in charge of their destiny.

On this anniversary, let us recommit ourselves to building a conscious cadre of COSATU, that can be an instrument in the fight against social injustice, landlessness and the commodification of basic services. We must invest all efforts in building a cadre that knows that the shop-floor and the community are part of the same theatre of class struggle.

My dear comrades and friends

The 25th anniversary of COSATU does not take place in a vacuum. The SACP, the Party of Socialism, celebrated its 89th birthday this year and we are left with 2 years to the ANC centenary. We want a strong ANC, a strong SACP and a strong SANCO. We will continue to play our role into ensuring this goal is realised.

We are encouraged by the recent successful ANC NGC. The tenderpreneurs' agenda was isolated and exposed and their programme completely disrupted. It will take blunders and a series of own goals by the leadership to allow a return to the pre-NGC political environment of ill discipline, disorder and paralysis.

Delegates to the NGC categorically stated that the NGC must go down in history as "the gathering that marked a decisive turning point in tackling, arresting and reversing the negative tendencies that have eroded and threaten to erode the political integrity and moral standing of the ANC among our people."

Importantly, the NGC reaffirmed all the economic resolutions of Polokwane,  summarised in the five ANC manifesto priorities. The framework of a new growth path emerged from NGC, committing the ANC to the principle of creating decent work opportunities.

Further, the NGC Declaration "reaffirms the ANC's approach that the transformation of the South African economy should always be holistic and comprehensive, covering all sectors of the economy. In this regard, the ANC should ensure greater state involvement and control of strategic sectors of the economy, such as mining, energy, the financial sector and others."

At the time when we were concerned that government was giving in to the agenda of capital and other interest groups mobilising against the introduction of the National Health Insurance, the NGC moved decisively to state that "the implementation of NHI should be fast-tracked".

The NGC constitutes not only a defence of Polokwane but significant pro-worker and pro-poor advances, although there remain some worrying elements. The overriding lesson we have learnt however, throughout our 25 years of existence is that paper accepts anything written on it. Our challenge is to use a combination of strategies to continue to push for fundamental transformation.

The tensions in the Alliance are often not caused by policy difference but by lack of political will by government to implement ANC and Alliance resolutions and the manifesto.

Overall the framework emerging from the NGC should bring alliance formations closer. It will all depend on consistent and decisive leadership to take forward the clear pro-poor and poor-working class policies from the NGC.

Comrades and friends,

In a few months people will be queuing at the polls to one again choose their representatives in the local government elections. The local government system that we have today in South Africa is a product of a bitter and bloody struggle against the unrepresentative, corrupt and racist apartheid local government system.

Today also serves a launch of our local government elections campaign in support of the ANC. As the COSATU General Secretary told the ANC conference yesterday "This will once and for all remove any lingering doubts as to whether COSATU remains solidly in support of the ANC, with whom we have worked closely together in every one of our first 25 years, since 1 December 1985."

Yes we sometimes are very disappointed by our councillors' inaction. Yes, at times we have disagreements with the ANC government and we even march against them when necessary. But no other party could have imagined achieving as much as the ANC government has.

Look at the Western Cape and you will see the disaster we will face if the Democratic Alliance gains any ground next year. The open toilets saga and mass eviction of poor communities are just the two best publicised examples of the DA's war against the poor. It remains the party of the rich and privileged.

One issue which crops up in virtually every community protest is corruption. There are widespread perceptions - true or false - that local councillors and officials are exploiting their public positions to promote their business interests and to enrich themselves at the expense of the pubic they are supposed to serve.

We warmly welcome recent indications that the government is now taking more decisive action and turning its verbal condemnation of corruption into deeds. The arrest of John Block and others on charges of fraud, corruption, racketeering and money-laundering was encouraging, although we know they are not guilty until proven guilty.

So too was Pravin Gordhan's commitment that the government "will clamp down on crooks by introducing new public disclosure rules for all prospective government contracts and imposing stiff penalties on companies and individuals involved in tender corruption". We welcome that the government is investigating up to R25 billion rands that may have awarded fraudulently by the state employees.

We applaud Richard Baloyi's special anti-corruption unit, which will investigate senior government officials with undeclared business interests in dealings with government, performing remunerative duties outside public service, soliciting bribes and receiving grants or benefits unlawfully.

He was absolutely right when to say that "Corruption is the single most threat to good governance; it has the propensity to collapse an economy".

But all these promises will turn out to be hollow if those involved in the biggest of all the corruption scandals - the arms deal - are not investigated, and anyone found to be implicated is prosecuted and punished.

COSATU's two past congresses have said that we will not give the ANC a blank cheque and will refuse to campaign or support candidates known to be corrupt or lazy.

We are calling on the ANC, the Alliance and the people as whole, to ensure that candidates meet strict criteria of integrity. If the ANC implements the processes it has agreed, it will help us achieve this goal. But this process must create space for Alliance structures to ensure that every candidate is indeed honest and conscientious, interested only in serving our people. I urge all local Alliance structures not to let anyone intimidate them into loosening this criteria.

The ANC manifesto must talk to these challenges. Our members must not to be spectators but active participants in the candidate selection processes.

I wish you peaceful and restful festive season. Let us always remember to drive safely and do not fall victim to the road carnage. Let us always practise our ABC which means abstinence, be faithful and condomise. Let us protect women and children and ensure that the 16 days of activism against women and children abuse is run throughout the year.

Let us return next year we more energy to confront all our challenges .


Issued by COSATU, December 4 2010

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