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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Address to the SADTU 6th National Congress by Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU General Secretary

18 – 20 August 2006, Gallagher Estate, Midrand

Comrade President Willie Madisha
Comrade General Secretary Thulas Nxesi
Leadership of the union
Leadership of our Alliance formations
Distinguished guests from sister organisations

I am deeply honoured by the invitation to address your Sixth National Congress on behalf of COSATU’s 1,8 million members and its leadership in the Central Executive Committee.

I am aware of the historic nature of this congress and I feel very proud in particular that I am addressing your second congress in a row, having addressed the 5th National Congress in Durban in 2003.

Many of you will be aware that on this day in 1988 Khotso House was bombed by the apartheid regime. A day later, the apartheid regime put its LRA amendments into law.

The apartheid regime launched massive propaganda to blame the Khotso House bombing on Shirley Gunn. She was even arrested and spent two months in prison with her baby son. It emerged during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the police carried out those bombings under orders from Adriaan Vlok, then the apartheid Minister of Police. Less than a year earlier, a similar bombing had been carried out at COSATU House.

These dates remind us of the countless battles we waged against the racist regime. They remind us, too, of the dirty tricks used in those days to sow divisions in our movement, with the sole aim of defeating our people. These efforts failed then. They will not succeed now.

You are meeting at a moment of great challenges. The political situation is fluid, as is the balance of forces locally and globally. This period is pregnant with many possibilities, which if managed correctly could further tilt the balance in favour of the working class and left forces. But it is also a period where, if we don’t make the correct tactical and strategic moves, we may squander all hopes of transformation for working people and the poor.

It is 12 years since the 1994 breakthrough, and we have had the chance to learn many lessons. We made great strides in this period, with countless victories. That includes massive progress in education as well as other social services. These victories belong to us. They are a product of principled struggles led by the working class. We must at all times defend them.

But the past 12 years have also seen a number of setbacks, in particular at the economic level. We have concluded that the main beneficiaries of the economic transformation have been white capital.

Workers’ share in the national income remains well below the level of 1994, although it increased slightly from 2002 to 2005. Unemployment is stubbornly high and in many cases the quality of jobs has dropped. Poverty continues to afflict almost half of our population. South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in this world. An opportunity for a small minority to amass wealth coexists with mass poverty, leading to a deepening gulf between the rich and poor.

White capital has used its power and connections in the liberation movement to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Under GEAR, it used its position to impose a neo-liberal agenda on South Africa, ironically championed by the ANC - a left force whose main policy remains the Freedom Charter.

This situation has forced zigzags and contradictions upon our government. On the one hand, it wants to respond to the economic crisis faced by its main constituencies – working people, the poor and emerging black entrepreneurs. On the other hand, key sectors within the state claims they can achieve these aims through neo-liberal programmes. If they win their way, however, their policies will undermine the main socio-economic programmes through soaring unemployment and cuts in government spending.

All these facts underscore the major challenges we now confront.

The first is the realignment of forces arising out of the changing character of classes in South Africa. Class interests have taken shape within the broad front led by the ANC. The problem is reflected in the words of one ANC leader, who proclaimed, “I did not join the struggle to become poor.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with aspirant black entrepreneurs seeking wealth. As long as a mere 5% of the companies listed in the Johannesburg Stock Exchange is in black hands, COSATU cannot oppose the de-racialisation of capital.

But we cannot tolerate a situation where the headlines on progress by a few individuals stand in stark contrast to persistent mass unemployment and poverty for the vast majority of black people.

We cannot tolerate government focusing on enriching a few while the majority go underfed, underserved and without hope of real progress. We cannot accept laws and regulations that, in the name of supporting a few black capitalists, encourage retrenchment, outsourcing, and imports rather than local production. We cannot tolerate a situation where the aspirant black bourgeoisie stands on the carcass of the working class in pursuit of wealth.

We cannot sing praises when all we do is to replace the white oligarchy with a black one. We are socialists we want socialisation of the means of production. We demand that government drives a programme to build effective co-op movements, stokvels and empowers union and other community investments that benefits ordinary people instead of building more fat cats.

The second challenge that has emerged is that of corruption and consumerism. The impact on the political leadership of the new opportunities for black capital is becoming clear. One symptom is that some of our leadership are beginning to compete around consumption – a kind of “mine is bigger is than yours” syndrome. It’s all about my house, my 4x4, my last holiday, my kids’ private school, my imported cigars and my golf game. That puts pressure on everyone in the circle of the new elite to get rich quick, through whatever means possible.

Already the economic conditions of the leadership have changed. And that, in turn, can lead to ideological floor crossing. All too often, individuals who materially now belong to the bourgeoisie start to find fault with the political line that they themselves drafted before 1994. All too often, these individuals question the bona fides of the people’s organisations and their leaders, with remarks like, “this is not the party of Moses Kotane.”

The challenge we face is to return to competition amongst leaders based on activism, service to members and solidarity. Measures to end the use of political office to pursue wealth and opulence must be introduced without any further delay.

The third challenge is to ensure that ordinary people and activists can no longer be reduced into mere spectators in the theatre of transformation. Today, there is little space for them to engage outside of occasional encounters in the Alliance and the ANC. There are no longer constructive debates within the state or across the democratic movement. Yet throughout our struggle for liberation, our movement was renowned for being one of the most vibrant in the entire world.

We have fallen into a trap described decades ago by Franz Fanon, speaking about other countries after the end of colonialism in Africa. In this syndrome, he said, the role of the people is limited to attending government-funded mass gatherings to commemorate important historic dates where the leadership claim great progress whilst ignoring the failure to address the principal economic challenges facing working people. Critical thought in these circumstances is understood as being disrespectful or even counter-revolutionary.

When this type of politics is allowed to take root, the very organisations that brought liberation are soon marginalised. This is followed by use of the state institutions to deal with targeted individuals, very like what we have seen with the Deputy President Jacob Zuma. State institutions get deployed to sort out internal disagreements as well as leadership races.

We see smear campaigns, endless investigations that never reach a conclusion, and character assassinations similar to those under apartheid. The media are sucked in to publish baseless stories against the targeted individuals to tarnish their images and to finish them off politically. Off-the-record briefings and faceless individuals come to the fore. Denials are ignored or put in small print at the bottom of sensationalist articles.

This happens in the context of fierce contestation over the direction of our ANC and liberation movement.

COSATU has gallantly led our people to resist these strategies that are so foreign to our movement. From this standpoint, support for Jacob Zuma is not just support for an individual, but support for our organisations and for the revolution itself.

Comrades and friends,

Your work is particularly sensitive for all of us. Ensuring equitable access to quality education is critical if we every hope to entrench democracy and empower working people.

From this standpoint, although we can be proud of successes, we still have far to go. COSATU recognises the tremendous strides taken toward integrating the separate apartheid systems and ensuring more equitable educator/learner ratios across the country. SADTU’s historic support for teacher redeployment will never be forgotten.

But massive inequalities persist. One number points to the critical problem: only 12% of Africans who take matric get a university exemption, compared to half of white learners. This racial divide reflects deeper class problems. Black learners who can afford a Model C school pass matric; those who can only afford historically black schools are fighting an uphill battle.

The factors behind the inequality are obvious to all of us. They range from the appalling quality of buildings in historically black schools, close to half of which still lack electricity; to the lack of textbooks and papers; the failure to develop a progressive curriculum; and the absence of consistent teacher training. In this context, the persistence of school fees maintains deep class differences between schools in the leafy suburbs and those in the townships or, worse, rural areas.

This Congress must come up with solutions to these problems. We need to use our unity to strike at the heart of the problems in the education system. The fact is that most educators remain without sufficient support, without sufficient resources, working in intolerable and overcrowded conditions. What can SADTU do to ensure effective solutions to this situation? We must revive demand our people made more than fifty years ago that the doors of learning and culture shall be open for all! The whole working class must discuss how this demand can be realised sooner than later.

Comrades and friends,

On the organisational front, SADTU must use this congress to strengthen its organisation and to address some weaknesses.

Let me start by repeating what the Secretariat Report to the upcoming COSATU Congress says about SADTU.

SADTU is one of the biggest affiliates of COSATU and the largest teachers’ union in Southern Africa. The union is relatively stable and has enjoyed a period of internal cohesion after its previous turbulent congress.

SADTU is now confronted by the fact that there is limited scope to grow, as unionisation of teachers in the general education stream has reached saturation point. Options open to SADTU for growth are merger with other teachers unions, to organise non-educators in the schools, and to expand to further education and higher education. The last option would require clear demarcation in terms of NEHAWU’s efforts in this area.

SADTU has managed to grow substantially in the past three years, rising from 215 000 in 2003 to 224 000 in 2006.

This quote points to SADTU’s considerable strength. It belongs to what we call the big four in COSATU. SADTU is a mainstay of the federation. It is these strengths that allow us to honestly confront our problems and challenges.

We cannot, however, ignore the internal divisions and stresses that have affected SADTU in recent years. At your request, COSATU even established a commission to investigate certain allegations directed against the General Secretary, Comrade Thulas Nxesi.

As you know, neither SADTU members nor the City Press, which published the allegations, came forward to speak to the commission. For his part, Comrade Thulas effectively rebutted the charges, providing compelling evidence that they were fabrications.

The commission’s considered view was that the allegations were fabricated and have no substance. It is clear, however, that some of the leaks to the City Press could only come from SADTU head office itself. This is an extremely disturbing phenomenon that is so anti-COSATU that Elijah Barayi must turn on his grave every time it happens.

More worryingly, the Commission’s observations and interactions with the union structures and its activists pointed to the fact that factions and cliques ran deep in SADTU. It was clear that the NWC of the union was deeply divided. These divisions were reflected in the NEC and, from there, cascaded to provincial, regional or even at branch level.

As indicated earlier, the COSATU NOBs attended a number of SADTU NEC meetings, including a bosberaad in August 2003, as well as NGCs. They observed that contestation between factions made it almost impossible to discuss even simple issues, with clearly divided caucuses. These divisions weakened the union and undermined constructive work.

Clearly, these divisions have made it harder for SADTU to serve members. When I visited various provinces last year, I found considerable dissatisfaction with the latest wage agreement amongst members, especially in Mpumalanga. Letters from SADTU members have streamed to the newspapers castigating the union and its leaders for a perceived selling out of members’ interests. This points to a failure to ensure communication, education and clear mandating procedures.

Moreover, we continue to see only slow recruitment of non-educators in the sector, while moves toward unity with other educator unions remain inadequate. SADTU is rightly proud of its pre-eminent position amongst teacher unions. But it should be doing more to ensure unity amongst all educators, as well as working for solidarity amongst all education workers, not just those with degrees.

The COSATU commission tabled its report to the SADTU NEC in July 2005. The NEC welcomed the report and accepted its findings. It also made some important commitments. This Congress must now evaluate whether the NEC carried out these promises to the working people of South Africa. It must discuss if these commitments must be improved, and how they can be maintained in the coming years.

The NEC resolved, first, to work to re-unify SADTU on the basis of solidarity, support for members, worker control and accountability of leadership, collectivity, and transformation of the education system. They agreed to debate differences openly and constructively, with a view to building the union and the labour movement as a whole.

Second, the NEC resolved to work together to renew SADTU’s strategic vision. The vision would be based on the demands of members for improved conditions and a transformed education system that can help create a society based on the values of the working class for solidarity and equity. It would guide a long-term programme to set key priorities and guide all our work. This strategy would cover measures to improve service to members, support site stewards and organisers, drive recruitment and take forward mergers with other education unions.

Third, the NEC agreed on the need for clear roles for the president and general secretary, and that on that basis they must work together collectively and constructively. In particular, in line with SADTU’s Constitution and COSATU’s traditions, the President would maintain political oversight, while the General Secretary takes responsibility for daily operations and administration. The Deputy General Secretary is responsible for supporting the General Secretary, reporting through the General Secretary to the union. None of these positions can become a separate power base; all must work together collectively, rather than competing.

Fourth, the NEC agreed to end all factions and ensure constructive support for the NOBs as a collective. This requires, too, that the NEC maintains a high standard of analysis and discussion of the challenges faced by workers, as union members and as educators. Only then can it build unity and workers’ power. The NEC must drive the strategies of the union, without getting bogged down in administrative details.

Fifth, the NEC recognised that the divisions and cliques of the past few years had left deep wounds. Its members committed themselves, individually and collectively, to rebuild trust and open, honest relations. It agreed to act against rumour-mongering and spreading of lies, throwing of wild allegations and misinformation about one another. Members said they would confront each other about concerns and disagreements, rather than talking behind comrades’ backs.

Sixth, the NEC agreed to work harder to ensure open and objective management of elections. Otherwise divisions will re-emerge. NEC and NWC members agreed not to try to influence elections unfairly.

Finally, the NEC agreed on an organisational review and revival, including a substantial improvement in union education; better communication between leaders and members; improved co-ordination, especially through regular meetings of the NWC and the Secretariat; and strengthening collective bargaining through stronger political leadership and mandating processes.

Comrades, we cannot over-estimate the importance of these commitments. Taken together, they form a programme that all of our affiliates would be proud to adopt. The questions remains: have they been implemented? How can we implement them better?

The only strength workers have is in their unity. Every union and indeed COSATU itself faces the continual challenge of ensuring solidarity and constructive work from leadership to site stewards to members. We can only succeed on the foundation of our internal democracy, our openness with each other, and our vision. This Congress must now take on the task of building the unity of educators today and for the future.

I wish to this congress the best of luck as it confronts these challenges. The union membership and your mother body COSATU look forward hearing how you addressed this challenges. You dare not fail them and us.

Amandla ngawethu!

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