Address to the SADTU 3rd National Congress by Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU Deputy Secretary General

Comrade President, Willy Madisha 
General Secretary and the rest of the SADTU leadership gathered in this congress 
Distinguished international guests 
Fraternal organisations invited as observers 
Members of the press

COSATU is deeply honoured by your invitation to address your 3rd National Congress. I am in particular ecstatic to address your union's highest policy structure. In your congress held Diocesan Center, Soweto in 1992. I came to observe your congress in my capacity as the Organising Secretary. High on the agenda of that congress was the question of affiliation to COSATU. It was in this congress that I made an intervention informally to those who wanted to push for affiliation of SADTU into COSATU and persuaded them not to push the matter to a vote. I feared that a number of delegates were not ready for this move and that we needed to avoid even the slightest possibility of a split in the union. The rest is now history in that your next congress decided unanimously to affiliate to COSATU.

Your congress takes place a few days after the summit of the Non Allied Movement that also took place in this same venue. COSATU has supported this initiative. Despite the end of the cold war, we think that this movement is more relevant if one analyse the economic challenges brought about globalisation and its effect on the developing countries. With unemployment, poverty, homelessness and inequalities on rampage within the borders of the developing countries and between the developed and under-developed economies, initiatives such as the Non Allied Movement must be refocused away from the non existent cold war into challenges of today.

Certainly a proper coordination between these countries can put breaks to the current form of globalisation.

I am raising the question of globalisation in passing, because one of the challenges facing the trade union movement is how can we arrest the increasing dominance of neo-liberal economic thinking forced down the throat of governments by unelected yet extremely powerful institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The conglomerates and multinational companies continue to amass power in an unprecedented scale. The G8 countries are negotiating a new international bill of rights for the conglomerates - the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). Once these powerful nations find consensus amongst themselves we all know that it will be a matter of time before the same MAI will be pushed down the throats of the developing countries.

This will further undermine the role of governments to determine policies they see fit to develop their economies. Democratic government's role is being reduced to an equivalent of an Administrative Secretary in the context of a trade union. The terrain of policy determination is increasingly slipping out of elected government's hands into unelected institutions. Within a capitalist framework this can only mean that government compete for investments and are in the hard race to be in the good books of the amorphous markets. The result of this is that every country is rushing to reach the bottom first. The working class concerns occupy the last point in the list of priorities.

I want to spend a little more time analysing this New World order. In most countries as the result of this crazy competition I have referred to above, we witness gradual withdrawal of governments from the productive economy. There is rapid handing over the policy determination to these institutions. In some cases this is done voluntary by governments whose leaders believe that only markets can deliver the basic needs of their citizens and in some cases this is forced by this current globalisation trajectory. I refer to the structural adjustment programmes of the IMF.

As workers we have not seen any benefits from this "New World order". We see more privatisation of basic services including education and water. We witness increasing rates of unemployment. Even those in employment are seeing a declining quality of their jobs brought about deliberate polices to pay poverty wages and through contracting-out, casualisation and unbearable working conditions. The citizens of the world know of more poverty, lack of health care, education and child labour. They know of lack of human rights not more of them.

These forces that believe in an evil capitalist system have all weapons in their disposal. Worker's struggles for a living wage and decent working conditions are seen as unpatriotic, self defeating and out of step with the new reality. Through the power of the media, which they own, the bosses are able to shape the public opinion through frequent repeat of myths and outright lies. In the recent past this garbage and propaganda has been heightened and calculated to condemn the struggle for a living wage. Workers involved in bitter struggles for a living wage are told that they are spoilers whose demands are narrow, dangerous and damage the prospects of the unemployed to be absorbed by the labour market. Many of you may have seen the Felicia Mabuza - Suttle show where clearly her line of questions to the COSATU Negotiations Coordinator - Khumbula Ndaba was a clear indication that she too believes that strike action is an act of sabotage against the unemployed.

Neo-liberalism is presented as "sound and pragmatic policy". It is this huge volume of space in the print and electronic media that make ordinary people to swallow this rubbish as facts of nature. Any person who sings a different song to this neo-liberal melody is branded as naïve, immature or an unreconstructed communist.

This Neo-liberal tendency as you would realise is now firming its grips in the political life of our country. Removing and reducing the role of the state in the economy, mechanically reducing the size of the state by threatening to retrench 300 000 public sector workers, reducing the deficit to 3%, reducing the companies contribution to tax whilst not adequately addressing the tax burden of the working class, reducing the tariffs even below undertakings to the GATT / WTO in the name of globalisation and international competition and closing eyes to the consequences of this, privatisation of water and other basic necessities, asking workers to tighten their belts whilst ignoring the apartheid wage gap and disproportionate bosses salaries, pursuance of low inflation through maintenance of extremely high interest rate are some of the measurers we are asked to swallow in the name of so called sound economic fundamentals.

This is the context in which we should move from when addressing the "Challenge of strategic restructuring within the context of union development and membership"

Firstly, trade unions are associations workers establish to achieve three primary goals. These goals are:

  • improvement of wages,
  • improvement of working conditions, and
  • protection of jobs.

Any trade union that fails to master these three fundamentals is not worth its salt and is destined for the dustbin of history. The neo-liberal propaganda I have referred to is an ideological attack deliberately calculated to force trade unions to abandon what their members have established them to achieve. This we should never allow to happen. We must stand firm on these three principal goals of a trade union. We are unashamed to do so and we are not going to apologise to any one because first and for most we are a trade union movement. This congress must spend time to these three principles. This is what our members have elected us as delegates to do and this is what we must do.

Secondly, COSATU is a product of a bitter struggle for National Democratic Revolution. We were born in the middle of the worst repression and unprecedented mass struggles for freedom and equality. Our resilience has been tried and tested by some of the worst dictators the human kind has witnessed in the recent history. We were forced to take up political demands of the defrenchised and voiceless. We mobilised a broad sections of the working class and the oppressed not only for a right to vote but for jobs for all, dynamic education for all, health services for all, and land for all. The type of cadres we produced were never narrow-minded or only occupied by boots and overalls. They were in the front rows of marches by villagers, township residents and rural communities in demand of economic justice and liberation.

Due to this, we are a different kind of a trade union movement. We are a broad social movement and we want to continue to be that broad social movement.

Our contribution to this society has still to be recorded and acknowledged. The fact that many former trade union cadres are in every sphere of our political and economic system is a testimony to this role we played.

This is the strategic trade unionism that I want to argue for in this congress. Of course any strategy or policy has its dark side. The question is, on balance, does the strategy guarantee our survival in the long term or not?

To illustrate this point further, we must look at the proposals that COSATU and two other federations have submitted in the Presidential Job Summit process and preparations. We have basically asked for a Marshall Plan type of intervention in order to put a stop to the carnage of factory closures and consequently a growing poverty and unemployment. Undoubtedly our proposal is the most comprehensive and unapolegesticaly radical. We can not afford a minimalist and gradualist approach, which will amount to tinkering on the outskirts of the unemployment crisis we face. As part of these proposals which are consistent what we are - a voice of the working class we make a range of proposals including funding mechanisms that require major sacrifices by all including workers themselves. These include:

  • Prescribed investment on all retirement funds, the life assurance industry and assets of the Public Investment Commissioners. All these funds should be required by legislation to invest at least 10% of their asset base in government bonds dedicated to social investment and employment creation.
  • One day out-put as a contribution to the Umsobomvu fund. We calling on all workers to on voluntary basis sacrifice a day wage to the Umsobomvu Fund. In addition we are calling on the employers to sacrifice a day profits to the Umsobomvu Fund. Thirdly we are calling on the President and the most junior politician to sacrifice a day wage to the Umsobomvu Fund. We call on the bosses and everyone in an executive position be it in private sector on Non Governmental to also contribute a day wage to the Umsobomvu Fund. This is therefore a call for a value of one day's output of the economy to be invested to the Umsobomvu Fund.
  • Investigation of the Pay as You Go pension system. We believe that a reintroduction of this system as against the fully funded system where the government makes advanced provisions to its employee's pension funds instead of limiting it to the actual number of withdrawals per year. This will releases resources for social spending and debt repayment.
  • We are calling for a Solidarity Tax similar to the one that was introduced during the unification of the East and West Germany wherein the West Germans contributed 7,5% of their individual income to help deal with the economic crisis the East Germans were facing. This call has been made by many including the Deputy President comrade Thabo Mbeki. Better off South Africans has to make a contribution to assist those who are less fortunate. And our call for solidarity tax is not limited to whites who comrade Thabo Mbeki correctly characterised as relatively wealthy in his two nations speech, but to all employed people who earn certain amount which we want to subject to negotiations.

These funding proposals are meant to kick-start employment creation and fund massive public works programme to build 1 million houses on rented stock, infrastructure in rural and urban areas and other proposals that we have submitted.

We are the only party with proposals intended to alleviate the pain and humiliation of poverty the unemployed are subjected to daily. The call for a basic income grant for the unemployed is one such an example. The challenge we face is to ensure that our proposals are well understood by our members and the poor we seek to rescue from the claws of poverty. SADTU with its advantage as the union of professionals should lead our campaign to explain these proposals to our members and society. I hope that this congress will make broad comments on these proposals.

The irony of neo-liberal thinking is that all our proposals have been rubbished by some sections of the media as a pie in the sky. We are told that our proposals are too huge, ambitious, unrealistic and should be rejected with contempt. Yet the same newspapers editors call for drastic measurers to be taken in the light of the crisis at hand. Instead of praising labour for the gigantic proposals we are being condemned. Of course there will be something wrong if we were going to be praised by the newspapers owned by people extremely happy with the status quo.

All these profound proposals stands as a testimony to the strategic social movement type of a trade union movement we seek to consolidate.

I want to repeat what I said to the SADTU Eastern Cape Provincial congress in October 1997. The challenge we face is to ensure that as trade unions we do not get isolated in the new democracy. No matter how strong and representative we can be as trade unions, the possibility of complete isolation stands there as a reality in any bourgeoisie democracy. No trade union movement in the world no matter how powerful can deliver a dynamic education or any other socioeconomic and freedom.

It is within this context that we should as members of the COSATU swell ranks of the ANC, SACP and other MDM formations. It is within this trajectory that we should strengthen the alliance and work for the decisive victory of the ANC in the 1999 general elections. I know that to many public sector workers who walk around with an axe of retrenchment hovering above their heads as GEAR demands that 300 000 of them must loose their jobs in three years, this call sounds like a contradiction. We hope that Alliance Summits planned to take place before the Presidential Job Summit will resolve these contradiction.

I am however convinced that staying away from the polls, voting for the other reactionary political parties and or failure to mobilise our members and families for a decisive ANC victory may lead to resurgence of an animal that will make GEAR look like a Sunday school picnic. The gains that we secured in the past four years as workers are historic. They deserve not only to be defended but they should be consolidated. Allowing emotions to consume our ability to think strategically may lead to all gains made that far to slip through our fingers with not guarantee that we may regain them.

Thinking strategically means that we should not loose sight of the bigger picture despite our anger and setbacks from time to time. The challenge is how the short-term set backs can be turned into long-term victories.

Talking about strategic trade unionism and isolation make me to remember the other matter you as the union have been confronting for a long time now. Those who seek popularity have ignored your ongoing mobilisation against this evil. They continue to make sweeping general statements instead of reinforcing your campaign. I am talking about the lack of discipline in some schools and use of trade unions to protect unacceptable conducts by some educators including our own members. As we prepare for the COSATU service delivery conference we must in drafting a code of conduct that will enshrine new ethics, values and culture of service for the new public sector, ensure that we bring on board all our members. Child molestation, drinking during working hours, failure to prepare for lessons, and staying away from the class when students are waiting to be taught are the type of conducts that belongs to the past. Squandering money destined for the destitute pensioners and children and failure to investigate crime or met-out shamble treatment to rape victims by some police officers is equally not acceptable. An organic campaign must be launched and intensified to root out this culture in order to build a culture of learning and teaching for the sake of the generations to come.

This approach is what distinguishes SADTU from other fish and chips unions clinging in the teaching profession. We are a social movement that has a broader transformative agenda. They are a bunch of confused lot who refuses to think beyond tomorrow. This is the reason why thinking of isolating SADTU or COSATU is not a viable option. We can be isolated only if we choose to become working hour activists who shout from the outskirts instead of continuing to be part of mainstream MDM activism.

The other fundamental question that we should continue to cherish is the political willingness to speak straight, frankly but constructively on the matters that concerns our members. This is a matter that we should for the sake of generations of workers to come continue to cherish - the independence of trade unions. One of the reasons why socialism failed in the Soviet Union was that trade unions lost their independence and became conveyor belts whose main function was limited to explaining to workers the government and capital's failure to delivery social programmes and jobs.

COSATU is in a strategic Alliance with the ANC and SACP. That means we as the tripartite alliance are a family of independent organisations involved in a project to liberate the majority from the tyranny of apartheid and inequalities into a free, democratic, non-racial and nonsexist society. We (the Alliance) go further to say that we don't just struggle for the right to exercise political rights but want all the socioeconomic problems inherited from the past disorder to be addressed. With the coming into power of the ANC in the last elections, we should be viewing our selves as being part of government and in power. However, we know through our practical experience and on daily basis that we as COSATU are not in government.

We can move closer to being in government if the Alliance can agree to the programme of the alliance we adopted in the COSATU inaugural Central Committee. This is what we should work for in the next weeks and months. Only a clearly spelt out programme will deal with irritation, frustration and confusion on all sides. In the meantime and whilst fundamental policies which have a detriment effect are being implemented without or little consultation, as COSATU we must speak out, and mobilise our members against such policies. As long as we compete for space with hundreds of other lobbyists from NGOs and business in parliament, these frustration and public outbursts will continue. This is what the Alliance Summit should address not whether COSATU should raise matters publicly or not. We can not limit ourselves to symptoms but to the real causes of frustration which is the fact that the Alliance operate like a tactical alliance instead of a strategic alliance.

I want to emphasize the importance of strengthening SADTU as an organisation. Your organisation is one of the two fastest growing affiliates of COSATU. Within a very short period, SADTU has become the only show in town for those who want transformation of our education system or decent working conditions for educators. From this strength we should solidify our structures at all levels to ensure that SADTU meets the challenges brought about by the changing socioeconomic environment.

Comrade President and delegates, the world and its citizens are not shifting to the left. Communists of the past have been come hard-nosed proponents of an unfettered free market system. Despite these set backs, we should continue to shape a firm foundation for political and economic system centered on equality, justice and humanity for all. The system of capitalism is facing its worst crisis. Every day we hear news of collapsing currencies and crushing of stock markets. This is followed by havoc with the poor and the working class the worse victims.

The gap between the rich is not narrowing. Comrade Fidel Castro when addressing a crowd in Soweto talked about a new form of apartheid - the reach and poor. Surprisingly, despite this mountain of evidence pointing that the current capitalist system is failing, the system's apologists continue to tell us that sometime in a near future we shall reap fruits of our patience. Capitalism was not designed to cater for the needs of the majority. We are told every day that there is no alternative. Instead of pointing a finger to the neo liberal policies and capitalism, we are told that the medicine is the correct one and what we need is a double dose. Our struggle for socialism is more justifiable now than ever before. That struggle has begun and must be intensified. We must build socialism now! not in future or after liberation. SADTU as a component of a working class must in this conference clearly identify its role in this struggle. The starting point should be recognition of the fact that no education system is neutral. Information is not neutral.

SADTU must help us to develop an education system for the future. A system that will teach our youth the new values centered on caring for the poor, international solidarity with the marginalised and sacrifices in order for all to enjoy a decent life free from exploitation, unemployment, ignorance, homelessness and diseases. A new world order where no person shall condemned to poverty, unemployment and squalor conditions in a shack whilst somebody else few kilometers away is stinking reach.

The challenges are many and can not be addressed by a single speech. I believe that united working class and all its formations such as SADTU will conquer these. Wars and battles are not won in a single day and through a single struggle. Our ideals are correct and our dreams are just. From this congress may we find new strength and determination to continue our struggle for a better life for all the citizens of the world.

I wish your congress success.

Thank you.