THE following speech was given by the former general secretary of the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), dismissed in 2015, and now Vice Chairperson of the Millennium Labour Council, Zwelinzima Vavi to the congress of the Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU) following its recent decision to leave COSATU.
Vavi covers the recent history of the ruling ANC alliance, as its support falls in a deepening political and economic crisis, marked by a powerful strike wave:
THANK you a million times for allowing me to address this auspicious and historic congress of FAWU. It is always a special privilege to be able to talk to the representatives of your union – now in its 75th year – whose leaders have included giants of the workers’ movement like Ray Alexander, Chris Dlamini, Liz Abrahams, Jay Naidoo, Elizabeth Mofokeng, Oscar Mpetha, Frances Baard and Neil Aggett.
I have attended most of FAWU’s congresses since the formation of COSATU in 1985. But I have never attended one that is more historic or important than this one. We live in interesting times! Dramatic and irreversible changes have taken place since your last congress held in 2011. My speech today will address these developments. I will have to skip some of the details, as it would take me about four days speaking if I was to include everything!
It is also a time of extreme hardship for millions of workers and thousands of your own members, particularly on the farms, where far too many employers still act as if apartheid had never ended. Poverty pay, casualisation, exploitation and racism are widespread and even getting worse, as the job-loss bloodbath continues. Entire industries are in danger of disappearing. Unemployment at 36% is among the highest in the world, and employers have been quick to exploit the desperation of the unemployed to find or keep jobs at any cost in order to drive down wages and working conditions.
As well as outsourcing, casualisation of work and using labour brokers, the bosses are now waging a concerted campaign to sabotage collective bargaining structures and weaken the power of organised labour. Some, like Uber taxis, want to redefine all their workers as self-employed so-called ‘partners’, with no benefits or union rights. Inequality is widening globally, but South Africa remains the worst in the world, and it is still blatantly racial as the gap gets wider between the white, super-rich capitalist elite and the black working class majority, women in particular, who remain even more firmly mired in poverty, hunger and squalid living conditions. Wealth is shifting further into the pockets of the white capitalists.
This widening inequality fosters a mood of growing anger and despair as the problems which the ANC keep promising to solve remain as bad as ever or get even worse. Community protests against the lack of basic services, corruption and unaccountable local officials have become so frequent that they rarely make the news headlines, except in traffic reports when they disrupt motorists’ travel plans!
This is all aggravated by the unchecked explosion of maladministration, corruption and theft of our wealth not just by a few rogue families but the entire capitalist class and their political allies in the ANC, Democratic Alliance (DA) and other political parties. It is not just President Jacob Zuma and the Guptas who are plundering the wealth created by our labour, but the entire corrupt capitalist system of which they are part.
More and more reports are leaking out revealing systematic tax evasion and money-laundering by big business. Millions of rands are disappearing from the country as investors put their cash where they will make the quickest and biggest profits, with no regard for the welfare of the people, the environmental price and least of all the conditions of their workers who produce the wealth in the first place. Big business is sitting on R1.5 trillion in the banks and it blames this investment strike on ‘uncertainty’.
These are all the real reasons for the decline in the ANC vote and the record high number of abstentions on 3 August. Although it is still the biggest party, the ANC’s vote dropped from 62.9% in 2011 to 54.4%. In the biggest cities the ANC suffered humiliation, failing to win a majority in one after another. A small section of the working-class voters registered their anger at the levels of poverty, unemployment, inequality and corruption by voting for the EFF and some, unfortunately, for their class enemies in the DA, or by refusing to vote at all.
The fact that so many people have disengaged from election politics is really very worrying, as it suggests people have lost hope or are angry, especially with the ANC. About 20 million adults of voting age did not participate in the elections – that is from a total voting age population of 36 million. That means more people didn’t vote than the numbers who did.
ANC leaders however seem to have learned nothing from this setback and are in complete denial. They fail to see the clear link between voters’ anger and their government’s abandonment of the Freedom Charter, which they still talk about but in reality have largely abandoned in favour of neoliberal economic policies – first GEAR and now the National Development Plan – which have handed control of key policies to the IMF, World Bank, credit rating agencies and their allies in the National Treasury.
The election results are now leading to coalitions, but sadly these will not be formed on the basis of political principles but on struggles by some of the leaders of minority parties to get their hands on official positions and public resources. I hold faint hope that this will lead to any real improvement in the lives of the working class and the poor. The DA in particular, as it has shown in Cape Town, is still the party of big business and the white middle class.
I would now like to turn to the state of the trade union movement. One thing on which we can all agree is that a strong, militant workers’ organisation is as necessary now as never before, given the combination of the employers’ offensive and the mushrooming of casualisation and the burgeoning army of vulnerable, marginalised, often isolated workers, in particular the unorganised workers who make up 76% of the labour force.
Many of these workers in the most vulnerable sectors are in the greatest need of a strong trade union. Millions of informal workers – those employed by labour brokers, part-time and casual workers who have no permanent employer or workplace – are unprotected and subject to harassment, evictions and confiscations.
These workers are desperate for the services which the unions ought to be providing, the opportunity to unite with other workers in more traditional sectors and a political programme to show the way forward to a new, socialist society in which workers will be free from the poverty, exploitation and oppression they suffer now.
That is what COSATU was originally set up to provide, and for many years it was indeed one of the most militant and powerful workers’ federation anywhere in the world. Tragically it is now not even a shadow of its former self and has become little more than a labour desk for the ANC government, whose neoliberal policies are the source of the very attacks we are facing. Whatever excuses they continue to make up, the expulsion of NUMSA and my dismissal were political – evidence that they can no longer tolerate those who insist that the federation should remain true to its founding principles.
In addition, leaders of some COSATU affiliated unions are facing serious charges of embezzling their members’ money. A number of unions are split down the middle and one has failed to hold national congresses for years. Affiliates of COSATU are hardly in attendance at meetings of national committees, leaving planning and decision making for critical campaigns and activities in the hands of COSATU officials – contrary to the core principle of workers’ control. The opportunity for a militant campaign around the National Minimum Wage has been sacrificed in favour of wasting time in the Central Executive Committee on defending President Zuma.
Before I speak about the changes that have taken place in more detail, let me tell you this. If any of you had said in your 2011 Congress that all of this would happen by 2016, you would have been written off as a prophet of doom.