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COSATU Today  |  COSATU Speeches

Moral citizenship in 21st century South Africa

7th UNISA Annual Peace, Safety and Human Rights Memorial Lecture

Delivered by Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, 17 October 2012, Constitution Hill, Johannesburg

17 October 2012

It is such a great honour to have been invited to this prestigious annual lecture, which is a geared towards commemorating the lasting legacy of our country`s first democratically elected Minister of Justice, Abdullah Omar.

I am particularly humbled that you have chosen me, Zwelinzima Vavi, a son of the working class, to speak in memory and in honour of a great leader who was described by Nelson Mandela as a pillar of strength to those who were incarcerated in Robben Island and a true lawyer of the people.

For Dullah Omar, the struggle for peace, justice and human rights was not one undertaken for personal glory and the pursuit of a narrow career or profession. Dullah, as he was affectionately known, was a human rights lawyer, whose beliefs in legal and social justice is in many ways unmatched.

I think it is absolutely critical that institutions of higher learning like Unisa continue to remember and honour the unsung heroes and heroines of our struggle for liberation such as Dullah.

It is imperative that we imprint on the soil of our history and tapestry as a nation, the footsteps of people like Dullah because as Nelson Mandela so passionately described him, Dullah Omar "distinguished himself over many years as a true leader, progressive in thinking, realising the importance of education, justice and a free society. A humbler, more committed, more decent person you could not wish to find."

Ladies and gentlemen, I am truly humbled that you have picked me, Zwelinzima Vavi, amongst the many South Africans who are waging a struggle similar to my own, a struggle to ensure that our society reaches prosperity and treats all its members equally regardless of race, class and gender.

I was left speechless when I read the invitation which reasoned that I have been chosen to present this lecture because "I have stood out as an exemplary leader espousing values and a vision for the best interests of our society which resonate strongly with our own". I sincerely hope that I will not disappoint many of you and that I will continue to live up to the expectations of South Africans, especially the poor and the marginalised who rely on voices like mine to make their cries more audible.

Comrades and friends, I must however emphasize that when I speak in public, I am guided by mandates from COSATU`s 2.2 million members, and it is their values and vision which I seek to articulate, not just my own.

It is these more than two million members who insist that COSATU must be the champion of the interests of the poor; it must be the voice of the voiceless, the downtrodden and marginalised in our democracy as well as remain the needle that continuously pricks the conscience of our leaders and our democratic state.

Ladies and Gentlemen, your invitation also mentions that Abdullah Omar`s vigilant and uncompromising resistance to inequality and oppression inspires this lecture. You also remind us that "resistance to oppression and tyranny is never over and we are required to constantly renew our commitment to the cause of development, equality and freedom".

This is totally in line with the views of COSATU and myself, and there could not be a more appropriate time in which to remind ourselves of that commitment, when tens of thousands of South African workers are striking and marching in unprecedented numbers in support of demands for a more developed, more equal and more free society.

In 1994 we achieved a fundamental political breakthrough, transforming a brutal racist dictatorship, and a system of apartheid condemned by the world as a crime against humanity, into a democracy with a constitution and laws that embody the highest standards of respect for human rights.

18 years after that historic breakthrough however, we have failed to make anything close to similar progress in the economic transformation of our society. We have quite clearly not implemented those Freedom Charter demands that:

  • The people shall share in the country`s wealth;
  • The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people;
  • The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole;
  • All other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the wellbeing of the people."

Not only have we not achieved any of these goals, but we face a triple crisis of growing unemployment, poverty and inequality, each of which in many respects are even worse than in 1994.

In 1995 unemployment was at 31% by the more realistic expanded figure, which includes discouraged work-seekers, but today it has risen to the outrageous level of 36,2%.

Between the fourth quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2012, the proportion of the unemployed who have been without work for more than a year rose from 61% to 68%, while the number of discouraged work-seekers increased by 100%, to 2.3 million.

And the problem still has a strong racial dimension. Among Africans the unemployment rate is now above 40%, up from 38% in 1995. In the labour force, there are six times as blacks than whites, but they are more than 80 times the number of whites among the unemployed.

There is a particularly severe crisis of unemployment among the youth, who constitute 63% of the working population, yet make 72% of the unemployed. If we fail to provide these young people with the prospect of work and an income, we will remain sitting on a ticking time bomb.

The inevitable companion of unemployment is poverty. The percentage of people living below R10 a day was 34% in 2005. In 2008, this had increased to 48%. The Presidency`s 2010 Development Indicators Report suggests that 22.5-million people live on or below R10 a day. Around 14.5-million South Africans either suffer from hunger or do not have enough food daily.

Inequality has now risen to a level that has made us the most unequal society in the world. 80% of South Africans receive just 25% of the national income. The workers` share of national income declined from 55% in 2000 to 50% in 2011, a reverse redistribution from the poor to the rich. The average pay of business executives is between 1 535 and1 842 times the wage earned by the lowest paid worker.

And again there is a racial dimension. According to the 2007 Community Survey whites earn 8 times what Africans earn. Whilst an African male earns an average of R2 400 a white male earns R19 000. This means that, in an 8-hour working day, whites earn in 1 hour what Africans earn in a day.

These statistics help us to understand what lies behind the crisis in the mining industry, where a handful of huge multinational mining monopolies make billions of rands of profits, extracted from the labour of workers who toil in the most wretched, unhealthy and dangerous conditions kilometres underground, for wages that come nowhere close to the value that their labour creates for their employers.

The rock-drill operatives at the centre of the Lonmin dispute perform a more dangerous, unhealthy and difficult job than anyone else in the world. They face death every time they go down the shaft. Yet, before the latest increase which some of them have now won, their monthly earnings were just R5 600!

Just compare that to the earnings of Lonmin`s Financial Officer - R10 254 972 a year or R854 581 a month - 152 times higher than a rock drill operators.

And millions of other workers earn much less than those in the mines. The domestic workers who clean and cook, help kids with homework and even enforce discipline whilst their bosses spend many hours away, earn a meagre R1639, 82 in Metro areas and R1366, 84 elsewhere.

Farm workers, who toil in all weathers for long hours, so that we can have food on our tables, whilst their own kids go hungry, earn R1503, 90. Hospitality workers who clean our hotel rooms and wear a smile after many hours so they may receive a tip in hotels and restaurants earn R2240, 60.

The security guards who stand in cold wintry nights for 12 hours in front of factory gates and shopping malls to make us feel safer earn R1828, 00.

It is not only at the workplace that so many people feel marginalised and forgotten. Our public services reflect our extreme levels of inequality, with first-world levels of service in the private health-care and education services for the rich minority and appalling or non-existent service delivery in the public sector for the poor majority.

In public transport there are expensive luxurious alternatives like the Gautrain for the rich, but death-trap taxis for the rest of us. Now, under the outrageous ‘user-pays` principle, they now want to charge us to drive on our public highways.

Tens of thousands of people live in shacks with no basic services like sanitation and running water. South Africa has become the protest capital of the world because of the increasing number of service delivery protests, which are increasingly becoming violent.

I am not saying of course that nothing has changed since 1994 for the benefit of the working class, but the basic structure of the economy and the distribution of wealth and economic power have hardly changed since the dark days of apartheid. This is a completely unacceptable and also completely unsustainable situation.

This situation reminds me of Martin Luther King`s words when he proclaimed in 1967 that

"A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life`s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life`s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."

Unless we can restructure the whole edifice that produces wealth and reproduces poverty at the same time - unless we can solve the underlying structural problems associated with a capitalist economy; the very problems which are the root cause of our unemployment, poverty, inequality and social divisions - we will not fulfil the dreams of the generation of hopefuls who participated in drafting the Freedom Charter.

All these problems are made worse by the parallel crisis of corruption and crime, squandering of public resources and woeful incompetence, which hit the headlines almost daily. More and more people seem to think the route to greater equality is to help themselves to more money illegally, through manipulating tenders or other corrupt devices in get-rich-quick schemes. A greedy criminal elite is systematically robbing the poor and sabotaging efforts to improve the lives of the people.

The squalid morality of the capitalists, based on ‘me-first` and ‘survival of the fittest` is seeping even into our own revolutionary movement, dragging in its wake huge problems of factionalism and even assassination of opponents and whistle-blowers. We are rapidly forgetting the traditions of our movement, which valued service to the people above any thought of personal advancement.

Comrades and friends, while our economy remains by and large white owned. A black elite in this country has managed to extricate themselves from the chains of apartheid and create for themselves an oasis of opulence. They have access to world-class hospitals thanks to private health care! Their kids play on the same rugby fields as descendants of the Oppenheimers and Ackermans of this world!

They have access to first world public transportation thanks to the Gautrain. Their lavish golf courses, which guzzle litres and litres of water through their sprinkler systems, keep them entertained and give them a safe haven to strike their dirty deals! Their high walls and electric fences insulate them from the wrath of the poor!

But what of the poor? For how long will black working class mothers continue to die in maternity wards while giving birth? For how long will innocent newborns continue to lose their lives because a simple sanitiser to disinfect the wards in which they are born was not procured? How long must the queue for breast cancer patients continue to extend while they are on a waiting list for radiation?

What life chances does a child who spends most of her school day cleaning filthy school toilets have at success? For how long must black children continue to reel under the pressure of schools with no libraries and no laboratories? What kind of society is this?

I do not possess the powers to look into a crystal ball and tell you about what the future hold. But I know from my experience of struggle and my own reading of history that every force always produces its opposite. The rich in this country must never fool itself into thinking that its reign over this land is a permanent victory. Poor people can only tolerate so much. We are sitting on a powder keg, which is slowly approaching the point of explosion.

The hammer blow of revolution is no longer a distant reality. I am also certain that those who today conveniently claim neutrality and sit on the fence while blatant injustice is being committed on the people will not be spared from the wrath of the poor. When the poor decide to rise up, the champions of neutrality will be reminded that neutrality is a best friend to oppression and that silence is the tormentor`s easy bedfellow.

Many of you here today and indeed all middle class South Africans must remember Archbishop Tutu`s warning that "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."

Perhaps, tonight will be the exact moment that you decide to discard the straightjacket that is neutrality and throw your full weight behind the battle against greed, corruption, poverty, inequality and unemployment.

The multiple forms of protest already evident in our society today – from labour strikes to service delivery protests – should tell you that the poor are not a domiciled or subservient class. The people are no longer willing to abide by the rules set by the capitalist masters. They have chosen fighting as opposed to subservience – resistance as opposed to submission! Which side are you going to be on?

As you make this difficult decision, I plead with you to remember and reflect upon Chris Hani`s words that to find peace, we must struggle for social justice. These words, uttered by Hani, who fought the same struggle that won Dullah`s heart, are as true today as they were under the dark days of apartheid.

In choosing sides, we must contend with the weight placed on our shoulders by our conscience. We must be guided by our conviction that there can be no fault in striving for a South Africa where peace, justice and equality are not only the subjects of fantasies but an everyday reality for all South Africans.

You must also bear in mind that we can only win the struggle against injustice, inequality, poverty and deprivation through mass mobilisation and a united front that is dedicated to putting an end to the honeymoon of the rich and their collaborators that has been a persistent reality of post 1994 South Africa. We can no longer continue to be spectators in a game that will ultimately determine our future.

We all have to play a role in restructuring the entire edifice of South African society that systematically and deliberately produces beggars and slaves to poverty! To use Martin Luther King`s analogy, we must all make our contribution to ensuring that the whole Jericho Road is transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life`s highway.

Thank you for listening.

Patrick Craven (National Spokesperson)
Congress of South African Trade Unions
Tel: +27 11 339-4911 or Direct: +27 10 219-1339
Mobile: +27 82 821 7456
E-Mail: patrick@cosatu.org.za

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