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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Address by Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU General Secretary, to 4th UNI World Indaba

9 December 2014

Comrades and friends, welcome to South Africa! And thank you for inviting me to address the largest ever global union meeting in Africa - the UNI Global Union Indaba.
Thank you to the UNI leadership for the wonderful opening ceremony. In particular thank you for joining us at the time we are celebrating the life of the colossal giant and international icon - Nelson Mandela. Thank you for honouring his friend and comrade Ahmed Kathrada. Thank you for playing and translating that Youssou N`Dour New Africa song - its lyrics moved me intensely.

You represent, and fight for, millions of the most exploited and vulnerable workers - in a vast range of jobs - cleaning, security, commerce, finance, gaming, graphical, packaging, hair and beauty, information, communication, technology, media, entertainment and arts, post and logistics, social insurance, sport, temp and agency workers, and tourism industries as well as professionals and managers.
In our country your scope covers a number of COSATU-affiliated unions which are your affiliates: SACCAWU, SASBO, SATAWU and CWU.

On behalf of the toiling masses of our people we want to thank you for choosing our continent of Africa, our country South Africa and the City of Cape Town for your 4th World Congress. As you have said this was deliberately decided on to coincide with our year of celebrating the 20 years anniversary of our democratic breakthrough.
Your convergence on our shores is yet another important reminder to not only South Africa but humanity as a whole of the critical importance of human solidarity. Together we defeated the abhorrent system correctly declared by United Nations as a crime against humanity.

I want to thank you and your unions for the role you played in the struggle to defeat the apartheid system. I know each of you represent millions of workers across the globe who, as comrade Bones Skulu said yesterday, marched, held pickets and other forms of demonstrations, refused to handle goods from apartheid South Africa, pressurised your governments to impose sanctions, and provided immeasurable material support to our unions and our liberation movement.
Without all this you would not been here today to celebrate one of the biggest success stories of international solidarity. Nelson Mandela would have died in prison, Oliver Tambo would have died in exile, many who have been receiving you here would have died in detention like Steve Biko, or been executed like Vuyisile Mini.

Without national and international organisational opposition to apartheid the country is likely to have slipped into a bloody civil war that would have ended in the common ruin of all contending forces, exactly as you see the price being paid today by the people of Syria.
With that background we want to affirm your right to want to know what progress we made in the first 20 years of our democracy. You want to know what is going on in COSATU and the liberation movement you played such an important role to support.

Ebrahim Patel former General Secretary of SACTWU our textile union and now Minister of Economic Development spoke about some issues of progress such as the very Constitution that protects basic trade union and socio-economic rights of workers. He also spoke about attempts by our government to bury the legacy of apartheid and its segregation and discriminatory practices.

I have no intention of repeating the statistics which illustrate progress made, in particular on social issues such as delivering water, electricity, houses, and social security. These are advances not to be sneezed at.
But we ignore the remaining challenges and setbacks at our peril. It is these that I want to highlight, because it is around these challenges that we can once again make common international cause.
Notwithstanding the areas of progress, the South African working class majority continues to face the very same old problems – poverty pay, casualisation, job insecurity, discrimination, racism, and health and safety dangers. At the same time our employers are getting bigger and bigger, and richer and richer, and inequality between the rich and poor is growing.

I wonder how many of you know that you are meeting in the world’s most unequal country, as defined by the measure called the GINI Coefficient, which has risen from 6.4% to 6.9% in just ten years, and is now the highest of any country in the world?
Further proof of this inequality has just emerged in one of our Sunday papers, which publishes an annual ‘Rich List’. The latest edition, published two days ago, exposed just how much some of the very rich people, including our employers, are taking home and how much they own. Just ten of them collectively own R205 billion.

On top of that list in terms of highest earners is the CEO of Anglo American, Mark Cutifani, who earned a R107 million followed by the CEO of Old Mutual, Julian Roberts another foreign listed financial company who raked R73 million rands last year.
The CEO of supermarket chain Shoprite, Whitey Basson, made R49.6-million or USD4.32m last year - 1350 times more than the current minimum wage for a shop assistant. The same company’s chairperson, Christo Wiese, is the second richest South African, sitting on R35, 874 million.

While these mining, financial and retail bosses accumulate such wealth, the workers who create it, face a daily battle to keep their jobs and put food on the family table. They struggle to get to work early in the morning, risk their lives travelling home late at night, miss out on public holidays, and are at risk from armed robberies at work - and all for poverty pay.
And they do this in the face of ever increasing prices of the same basic goods that they pack onto the supermarket shelves, or take money for at the check-out till – price increases that not only do not benefit retail workers, but also do not benefit the producers in the food value chain. So the greed of the retail giants fuels the worse than poverty wages of our farm workers. I’m sure this is a story that retail workers around the world are familiar with.

Monopolisation of the economy and a concentration of wealth is of course one factor which fuels this growing inequality. When right-wing ‘analysts’ praise our ‘free-market economy’, I often point out the fact that whenever a new shopping mall is going up, we can predict with certainty which big retail stores will be there, as it is all carved up in advance with the mall owners to exclude any serious competitors.

We recently witnessed the irony of legal action taken by the giant multinational Walmart here in Cape Town against our two local retail monopolies Shoprite/Checkers and Pick n Pay! Not of course that this, the biggest private employer and largest retailer in the world, Walmart, with over two million employees, is any less ruthless in defending its monopoly dominance, and enriching its owners at the expense of UNI members worldwide.

So the main beneficiaries of our 20 years of democracy have been white monopoly capital, the billionaires who own our industries and the chief executives who demand parity with their counterparts in the USA and Europe while expecting workers’ wages to be benchmarked against levels in sweatshop economies.

At the same time, the old apartheid humiliation of black workers continues in new forms. Some big multinational, such as Southern Sun at Sun City, continue to dismiss workers at the drop of a hat, have hidden cameras to spy on staff, strip search women workers, impose polygraph tests and even tolerate security guards shooting workers – nearly all in sectors represented by UNI Global - cleaning, security and hotel workers.

Employers use every trick in the book to sideline and undermine all the laws that we fought for to protect workers. We have fewer and fewer workers employed on a permanent basis enjoying benefits such as provident funds and medical aids.
We see more casualisation, sub-contracting, the exploitation of undocumented immigrants, and the use of labour brokers who act as human traffickers renting out workers like commodities to client companies. These workers have no job security and enjoy no pension or medical benefits. This story of fragmentation and disempowerment is one that I am certain most of you are familiar with.
The South African working-class majority also faces a massive crisis of unemployment - which rose yet again in the third quarter of 2014, to 35.8% by the more accurate expanded definition which excludes those who have given up looking for work. Of course unemployment is the first cousin of poverty and inequality.

Cheering on these strategies of working class fragmentation and disempowerment is a united front of big business and certain pro-business ministers in government. They have united to impose a National Development Plan, a pro-business economic programme which regurgitates the ‘leave it to the free-market’ philosophy which has failed our people so badly for twenty years.
This united front of the bosses is also bitterly opposed to our current campaign for a national minimum wage set at a rate that lifts workers out of poverty. A national minimum wage is something that many of you will be familiar with or even take for granted. But in South Africa we currently only have a multiplicity of sectoral minimums, set at very low levels. In fact we have no coherent incomes policy and there is no officially accepted definition of what constitutes poverty or a living wage.

Many employers and their mouthpieces in the press never stop complaining that workers are making ‘unaffordable’ wage demands. They are also mounting attacks on collective bargaining, trade union rights, the labour laws and our dispute resolution institutions. The same bosses use the unemployed as a battering ram to force workers to work for whatever they offer on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis.
It is within this context - of the fierce challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment - that you should locate what you are no doubt observing in our union movement.
The hearts of those of you who have been close to our liberation struggle will be bleeding when you read stories of the danger of COSATU splitting and worker unity fragmenting in a manner that will undermine every ounce of your energies and the countless millions your ploughed into building COSATU.

This young federation was seen by many as a model of worker control with unique bottom-up democratic practices that bucked the trend of bureaucratisation of the trade union movement a militant, revolutionary, transformative and socially based trade union movement.
But we are currently paralysed and wounded by divisions that have lasted for more than two years now. The root of these divisions lies squarely in differing approaches to the ongoing triple crises of poverty, inequality and unemployment.

The divisions broadly fall into a camp which is in favour of the vigorous implementation of the decisions of the 2012 COSATU 11th National Congress and a leadership camp that, without seeking a new mandate, appears to have drifted from a commitment to implementing these resolutions.
The resolutions of our last Congress, or Workers’ Parliament, called for a radical socio-economic transformation, a developmental, interventionist programme so that the people shall share in the country’s wealth, as promised in our historic Freedom Charter.

The resolutions argued that we will fail to achieve this if we do not also build a strong, democratic and worker-controlled trade union movement. This is why Congress resolved to prioritise organising the unorganised, particularly vulnerable and super-exploited workers, and to improve service to all members.
There are tens of thousands of unorganised and vulnerable workers out there in the shopping malls, hotels, casinos and all the other UNI sectors, who desperately need our help.
The Congress resolutions also recognised that it is no good recruiting these workers if we don’t provide good corruption-free organisation and effective service to the members on basic work place issues.

The leadership of our unions needs to be in touch with the pulse of an increasingly desperate workforce. Behaviour where union leaders act like bosses and believe that because they are elected they can make decisions without reference to the base must become a thing of the past.
Dressing such practices up as “democratic centralism” just doesn’t wash any more. Democratic centralism is only revolutionary if it is truly democratic and principled.

Not only do our differences talk to a difference in the importance of corruption-free unions, but also to the cancer of corruption more generally. Corruption has its origins in the capitalist system but has now spread to every sphere of our society including the ANC, the government and the trade unions themselves.

Many of the divisions that we see running through our society are in fact about pushing one another from the feeding trough, and have little to do with political or ideological differences. This is a very tragic state of affairs, requiring a decisive and forceful trade union movement that stands squarely against corruption.

Should COSATU split, the danger exists of further fragmentation of the trade union movement. This is at a time when already two thirds of the 183 registered trade unions do not belong to any of the four federations; only 29% of all workers belong to any union, and the wages of 53% of workers are set unilaterally by bosses outside of any collective bargaining.
Regrettably we have become preoccupied with our endless boardroom fights that have nothing to do with advancing workers interests when Rome is burning. In this sense, the divisions within COSATU are not just a set-back but an act of treason against workers’ interests.

We have not given up hope however, notwithstanding an external campaign to undermine our efforts to save the federation from splitting. We have experienced bogus security reports, surveillance from unidentified persons, allegations from ‘unnamed sources’ printed in the press and all manner of other tactics to publicly discredit the Federation. But we will not give up.

With the help of the ANC and former leaders of COSATU we hope that when you return back to your native countries you will read a new narrative that says COSATU has avoided a total implosion, that unity has returned and comrades have become comrades again united in a common desire to rebuild a truly democratic, independent, militant and socialist oriented trade union movement.

In summary my comrades, brothers and sisters, South Africa is faced with a quadruple crisis. Unemployment, at 36% has worsened over the past two decades and is now greater than any in other middle income country. Inequalities that have worsened that make South Africa the most unequal society on earth, poverty that remains widespread with 26 million of the 53 million South Africans living below the poverty line and 14 million going to bed every night on empty stomachs.
Notwithstanding these challenges I remain optimistic that we shall overcome them. Revolutionaries must remain optimistic that one day we shall triumph over all of these challenges and none of them are insurmountable.

We shall overcome some day - sang the America slaves - we shall overcome and justice shall be done - some day.
I wish you a very successful Indaba and an enjoyable stay in our beautiful country.

Patrick Craven (National Spokesperson)
Congress of South African Trade Unions
110 Jorissen Cnr Simmonds Streets
Braamfontein
2017

P.O.Box 1019
Johannesburg
2000
South Africa

Tel: +27 11 339-4911 Direct 010 219-1339
Fax: +27 11 339-6940
Mobile: +27 82 821 7456
E-Mail: patrick@cosatu.org.za

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