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Address by Cde Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU General Secretary, to the Free State/N Cape Regional Congress

Address by Cde Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU General Secretary, to the Free State/N Cape Regional Congress of SACCAWU, Bloemfontein

 August 2014

Thank you for inviting me to address this important Congress of one of our most militant unions. Shop, hotel, casino and catering workers are at the sharp end of our campaign to organize the most vulnerable workers and put an end to poverty pay, casualisation, labour broking, and all the other hardships which you face every working day.

Let me remind you of our own ambitions by quoting the Freedom Charter so that as we mark the 20th anniversary of our democracy we can measure our progress against the real aspirations of our people. The Freedom Charter said:

There shall be work and security. All who work shall be free to form trade unions, to elect their officers and make wage agreements with their employers; The state shall recognize the right and duty of all to work, and to draw full unemployment benefits; Men and women of all races shall receive equal pay for equal work; There shall be a forty-hour working week, a national minimum wage, paid annual leave and sick leave for all workers and maternity leave on full pay for working mothers; Miners, domestic workers, farm workers and civil servants shall have the same rights as others who work; Child labour, compound labour, the tot system and contract labour shall be abolished”.

We should open our meeting with a reminder of these ambitions. We certainly have made many gains to fulfil these dreams. We have a new Constitution that has a Bill of Rights that enshrines basic protections and rights, which have been enacted further into various laws by our democratic parliament. The reality though is that some very important ambitions of the Freedom Charter have been sidelined. For example we are moving further and further away from the forty-hour working week; we still don`t have a national minimum wage and, more important, the demand for equal pay for work of equal value remains a pipe-dream. Above that, you the retail workers have countless examples to tell how employers use every trick in the book to sideline and undermine all labour protections. You bear testimony to the reality that the working class has been restructured with the sole aim of avoiding taking responsibility for workers’ rights. In this period we are witnessing more casualisation, sub-contracting, use of the labour brokering system, merchandisers and even the abuse of undocumented labour. Today we have fewer and fewer workers employed on a permanent basis enjoying benefits such as provident funds.

Retail and wholesale industries are the home of workers’ rights abuse, in competition only with racist farm bosses, the taxi industry and private security. Precisely because they have found new methods to maintain apartheid, some of the big retailers are the most profitable outfits, who have spread their exploitative wings throughout the continent and are now moving into other continents with breathtaking speed and zeal. Recently our COSATU North West provincial Secretary has been posting almost daily statements condemning mass dismissals of workers, hidden cameras to spy on staff, and even security guards shooting workers – at Sun City, Choppies, Cashbuild and others.

In the retail sector you toil for as much as seven days a week at all sorts of anti-social hours, struggling to get to work early in the morning, missing out on public holidays, risking your lives travelling home late at night and at risk from armed robberies at work – and all for poverty pay. You know better than anyone how hard it is to survive on such low wages, when every day you put up the higher prices of basic goods on the shelves, and when you leave work you suffer from the ever-increasing cost of petrol, transport fares and now yet another rise in Eskom’s electricity tariffs. Yet while struggling to pay your bills and keep food on the table, always alert to the danger that you could be replaced by casuals and thrown out of your job, your employers expect you to keep smiling cheerfully all day at the customers in the shops, restaurants and hotels. Failure to do this has serious consequences. On the other hand your bosses have every reason to smile.

Nowhere else is the gap between the living standards of the workers and their employers as massive as in retail. Shoprite, Africa’s biggest supermarket chain, has the highest income gap in South Africa; the average total income of CEOs is 725 times as high as the average wages of employees. Christo Wiese, chairman, executive director and largest single shareholder of Shoprite, is the 3rd richest South African, and 506th richest person in the world, with a net worth of R34.67 billion. It is statistics like these, across all sectors, that lie behind the wave of strikes which have hit the country recently. Despite the advances we have made in the first 20 years of democracy – the destruction of apartheid and the introduction of democracy and a constitution and laws to protect human rights – millions of workers feel they have been excluded from the new South Africa.

At the heart of all the discontent in our country are the underlying problems of unemployment, inequality and corruption. While most of the poorest South Africans are less poor than before 1994, the richest South Africans are far better off, which has massively widened the wealth gap to the point that South Africa has become the most unequal society in the world. The Sunday Times annual Rich List, unveiled on 1 December 2013, exposed just how much some of the very rich people are taking home and how much they own. In 2012 the 2,952 top-paid company directors received an average of R2.2m a year or a gross salary of R186 314 a month. The highest-paid – David Hathorn, CEO of Mondi – earned over R76m. These are the fellows who have a good story to tell. Meanwhile 50% of the average workers in the formal sector, according to the most recent median salary data from Statistics South Africa, earn R33 600 a year (R2 800 a month). So workers on the median wage would have to work for 2,261 years – about 37 average lifetimes – to earn what Hathorn did in a single year. The rich complain when workers demand double-digit increases, yet Hathorn`s salary increased by 330% from the previous year. Is that not excessive, especially when it is compared to the expected 7% salary increase which researchers predict that workers will get in 2014? Inequalities in wealth ownership are equally massive. I have already spoken to the wealth of Christo Wiese, Chairman of Shoprite and Pepkor. This wealth is created by workers in Shoprite, Checkers and PEP, who work long hard hours, to earn enough to feed their families. Their minimum wage is just R2300 a month (R27 600 a year). And that is only scheduled to go up this year to R2 350, clearly not an excessive increase! Meanwhile, the firm’s CEO, Whitey Basson, No 8 in the latest list of big earners, made R40 964 million, 1484 times as much as his lowest paid employee.

The core of the problem is the massive triple crisis of unemployment – which rose yet again in the second quarter of 2014, to 35.6% by the more accurate expanded definition which excludes those who have given up looking for work – and unemployment’s cousins, poverty and inequality.

Let us again remind ourselves of our aspirations. The ANC in its 1969 Strategy and Tactics document of the Morogoro conference could have not said any better what our dreams are when it said:

“Our nationalism must not be confused with chauvinism or narrow nationalism of a previous epoch. It must not be confused with the classical drive by an elitist group among the oppressed people to gain ascendancy so that they can replace the oppressor in the exploitation of the mass … In our country – more than in any other part of the oppressed world – it is inconceivable for liberation to have meaning without a return of the wealth of the land to the people as a whole. It is therefore a fundamental feature of our strategy that victory must embrace more than formal political democracy. To allow the existing economic forces to retain their interests intact is to feed the root of racial supremacy and does not represent even the shadow of liberation”

COSATU is said to be facing a paralysis as a result of leadership divisions. Let me tell you this. We are not confronting the real reasons that lie behind these divisions. We focus on secondary issues instead of real reasons why the congress movement as whole is facing difficulties to maintain the unity and cohesion that was delivered on 27 April 1994. Read the Freedom Charter and the Morogoro Strategy and Tactics documents against the material conditions of the working class; then you will see what the real source of divisions is. The divisions are around the fundamental question: can we say without any fear of a contradiction that we have not allowed “the existing economic forces to retain their interests intact”? A debate on this historic goal of the NDR is what has led to divisions in this period. The heart of the problem is that 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.

Yet they want to widen these divisions further, always complaining that their workers keep making ‘unaffordable’ wage demands and mounting attacks on collective bargaining, trade union rights, the labour laws and institutions like NEDLAC and the CCMA, all of which were set up to provide better ways for the peaceful resolution of disputes between works and employers. Many of these bosses seem to want declare war rather than seek peace. They want a return to the days when they could use the unemployed – what Karl Marx called the reserve army of labour – as a battering ram to force workers to work for whatever the boss offers – ‘take it or leave it’ – with no union to protect them from exploitation, abuse and racism at work. If you think we are exaggerating, just look at the behaviour of some engineering employers who right now are locking our members out of their factories, because these greedy bosses reject the wage settlement brokered by the Minister of Labour and signed by their colleagues at the bargaining council, and want to recruit new workers from the ranks of the jobless at lower wages. This strategy to fragment and disempower the working class has already partially succeeded, through the mushrooming of labour brokers, these human traffickers who create no new jobs but rent out workers like commodities to client companies, with no job security, poverty wages and no benefits. That is why we are so angry to read that these parasites have become the main beneficiaries of the Youth Wage Subsidy, which should now be renamed the Exploitation Tax Incentive Scheme. It is bad enough that we are still having to battle to get them banned, but outrageous that we are subsidizing them with millions of Rands of tax-payers’ money. This comes at a time when all of us were relieved that finally we are reading from the same script and that finally there is a consensus that the first two decades have not benefitted the majority in economic terms.

Just as we were celebrating a consensus from all alliance components of the need to engineer a second phase of democracy based on radical economic transformation, a new challenge has now arisen. There is the reality of a united front of big business and certain pro-business ministers in government to impose the National Development Plan, whose economic programmes represent redoubling the dose of the medicine that has failed our people for twenty years. This old wine in new bottles is being sold as representing a new broad consensus that tragically excludes the working class. As Comrade Neil Coleman said when he addressed a Wits university seminar, the NDP fails to advance a radical economic shift, but actually threatens to maintain the status quo which is the real reason the NDP enjoys the support of the DA and big business. “It fails to take forward key progressive policies which have been adopted since the 2007 Polokwane Conference, through the ANC`s 2009 Manifesto, at various Alliance Economic Summits, or through aspects of policies such as Industrial Policy Action Plan (IPAP) and the National Growth Path (NGP), including:

  1. The need to fundamentally transform the structure of our economy, and promote a new path of growth through redistribution;

  2. The need for a massive concerted push to industrialize our economy, and that of the region;

  3. The need to place the creation of decent work for all at the centre of economic policy and;

  4. The need to place redistribution, and combating economic inequality and poverty, as a fundamental pillar of economic development.

The NDP does none of these things. The NDP’s economic proposals represent entrenched economic interests, and an attempt to consolidate existing power relations.” As well as showing what is wrong with the NDP, Neil points to the alternative – the radical restructuring of our economy, what the ANC Conference called “the 2nd Phase of the Transition”, to achieve on the economic front a transformation equivalent to the political gains we have made since 1994.

The government already has many good policies in place to begin to achieve this transformation, like the IPAP, the National Infrastructure Plan and parts of the NGP. Yet the economy is growing at a slower and slower rate. The SA Reserve Bank has now reduced its estimate for growth in 2014 down to a pathetic 1.7%.

The main reason for this faltering growth is that we remain trapped in a wrong growth path model that simply reproduces unemployment, poverty and inequalities. We have not restructured our economy or ended its domination by mining, finance and the heavy chemicals complex. As we speak we are deindustrialising and moving further and further away from the decent work agenda based on sustainable jobs that pay a living wage. One of the biggest reasons for this is the conservative macroeconomic policies of the SARB itself, and its masters in the Treasury, which are constantly putting the brakes on the expansionist, developmental policies promised by the ANC 2007 Polokwane conference. These policies include high interest rates, tariff reductions and a refusal to tackle the strike of capital by compelling the wealthiest South Africans to release the R1.2 trillion in social surplus which they are refusing to invest in the economy. To change this situation our most urgent task is to implement the core decisions of the COSATU 11th National Congress, which rested on Four Pillars:

  • Abolition of the apartheid wage structure and forward to a living wage

  • Radical socio-economic transformation, so that the people shall share in the country’s wealth!

  • Build strong worker-controlled unions: Organize or Starve!

  • Creating our own Lula Moment: driving the second phase of our transition!
    Congress further resolved that these will only succeed if we implement economic policy changes, including:

  1. Decisive state intervention in strategic sectors of the economy, including through strategic nationalization and the use of various macro-economic and other levers at the states disposal

  2. An overhaul of our macro-economic policy

  3. Treasury to be urgently realigned and a new mandate to be given to the Reserve Bank, which must be nationalized

  4. The National Planning Commission to be given a renewed mandate, to realign the NDP, in line with the proposed radical economic shift.

  5. Aspects of the New Growth Path to be realigned in line with the new macro-economic framework.

  6. All state owned enterprises and state development finance institutions to be given a new mandate.

  7. Urgent steps to be taken to reverse the current investment strike and export of South African capital – including capital controls and measures aimed at prescribed investment, and penalizing speculation.

  8. The urgent introduction of comprehensive social security.

We shall however fail to achieve any of this if we do not also build a strong, democratic and worker-controlled SACCAWU and a powerful, united COSATU. Congress resolved that we have to:

  • Organize the unorganized, particularly farm workers and other vulnerable and super-exploited workers.

  • Improve service of all members, through training of shop stewards and organizers.

  • Capacitate and educate our local and provincial structures as the engines of the federation,

  • Update and take forward the 2015 Plan.

  • Set new recruitment targets and monitor our successes and failures.

We were instructed to go back to basics. For SACCAWU recruitment must be at the centre. There are tens of thousands of unorganized and vulnerable workers out there in the shopping malls, hotels and casinos, who desperately need your help. Go out and recruit them. But it is no good recruiting them and then leaving them high and dry. You need to focus on workplace issues, good organization and effective service to the members. You must also insist on the highest standards from union staff and officials, with zero tolerance of ill-discipline, late-coming and poor service. We also need to focus on how best to strengthen and unite our movement and meet the expectations of our members, as articulated in the 2012 Workers Survey – with job security and living wages as priorities.

We need to act decisively to combat practices which lead to disunity and divisions between different groups of workers and within or between unions. We have to reject the new alien cultures of factionalism, rumour-mongering and character assassination which sadly afflict our movement and threaten to paralyze us. We must be independent, worker-controlled and radical unions acting strictly on the basis of a mandate solely by the resolutions of the Workers’ Parliaments – the National Congresses – and by the needs and demands of the class. We must be a strong, fighting force, fearlessly exposing the exploiting bosses, corrupt politicians and incompetent officials, demanding better wages and working conditions, while never losing sight of our goal of a united non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa and a peaceful, socialist world. This congress can`t fail, for there is just too much at stake.


ASIJIKI SIYAPHAMBILI – so did we learn from OK Bazaar strike in 1986!

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