COSATU 38th Anniversary Celebrations
03 December 2023
National and Provincial Leadership of COSATU,
Leadership of our Alliance Partners, the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party,
Most importantly, workers and the membership of COSATU,
It is an honour for us to gather here today as we celebrate the 38th anniversary of the day that Elijah Barayi, Chris Dlamini and so many others gathered those many years ago to launch this giant, the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
This was not an easy act, but the product of years of struggle, from the mine workers strike in 1946 to the Durban strike in 1973 led by municipal and many other workers.
The launch of COSATU was not only about improving the working conditions and wages of workers, but also a death blow to an apartheid regime, in pursuit of a non-racial, non-sexist South Africa as so eloquently articulated in the Freedom Charter.
It is easy to become despondent, and ask what have workers achieved since that day in 1985? At times we take for granted that today we live in a constitutional democracy, where the right to form a trade union, to strike, to collective bargaining, to work in a safe environment are protected in law.
It is natural that we become used to living in a democracy where we are free to express ourselves without fear of arrest or assassination. Let us not forget that COSATU House was bombed by the apartheid police in 1987 and many trade union leaders were assassinated, including Neil Aggett, Rick Turner and so many others.
Today, not only can we organise workers and freely determine the political direction of the nation, but we have seen many from the trade union movement elected to government to continue working class struggles.
Whilst we must be proud of our struggles and those who came before us, we dare be complacent, when four out of ten South Africans, and six out of ten young people cannot find work. We cannot be proud that despite all our achievements since 1994, we remain a society deeply scarred by apartheid, poverty and inequality.
Yes, government has done well on many fronts to roll out public services to those communities who were once denied them because of their race and class, but we must not forget how many of these hard-won working-class victories are being eroded by the cancer of corruption and criminality that has spread across society.
Before 1994, we struggled to access electricity, water, public transport, decent education amongst others. Today, that struggle remains, but now our class enemy is a rampant capitalism that places profit above the lives of workers, an elite who believe taxes are there to feed themselves and not the poor, a culture of mediocrity that forgets the dire conditions that working class communities face on a daily basis.
The generations of Ray Alexander and Oscar Mpetha were tasked to defeat the demons of racism and oppression. This generation gathered here today, has been tasked to defeat the crises of unemployment, poverty and inequality, crime and corruption, loadshedding and cable theft. These may be different, but they are no less a threat to the lives of workers.
We have travelled a long way from the dark days of apartheid when workers were treated little better than slaves, when for millions the only hope of earning something to buy food was to become a domestic worker or a gardener.
Today the doors of learning have been opened with billions being spent on educating working class students at our universities under NSFAS. Mothers and fathers now have the right to paid maternity and parental leave.
More recently a National Minimum Wage was passed into law raising the wages of 6 million workers in particular farm, domestic, construction, hospitality and retail workers.
During COVID-19 COSATU, government and social partners at Nedlac worked to release over R64 billion from the Unemployment Insurance Fund to help 5.7 million workers across the private sector take care of their families.
NUM in the mining sector to SACTWU in our clothing factories, our health workers in NEHAWU, DENOSA, SAMATU, SAEPU and PAWUSA and our teachers in SADTU, led campaigns mobilising millions to vaccinate to save lives and livelihoods.
The Federation has worked tirelessly since 2020 to convince government and Parliament to allow financially struggling workers early access to limited portions of their pension funds. This has not been an easy journey yet as we speak there is legislation before Parliament that will soon be passed into law allowing workers to tap into part of their pension funds in 2024 and once a year from then on.
COSATU has for many years championed the call for a basic income grant. Today with the roll out of the SRD Grant, with all of its imperfections, the foundation for a BIG has been laid and the discussion is now on how to enhance it.
Healthcare is a constitutional right, but this right has been commodified leaving millions to die of preventable, curable and manageable illnesses. Parliament is now seized with passing the National Health Insurance Bill laying the foundation for a single healthcare system to provide quality care for all, a pillar for our socialist vision. Industry is fighting to stop this progressive Bill. We must strengthen our defence of it.
COSATU has always understood that working class struggles, in particular against the excesses of capital, require a working class that not only wages struggles on the shopfloor but also in the political arena. It is this consciousness that led COSATU to join the Alliance with the ANC and the SACP.
It is correct that workers and indeed all of us are angry with the blunders and failures by many in our movement and the state. Indeed we are deeply opposed to the reckless neo-liberal austerity budget cuts and policies of Treasury.
But we appreciate that the Alliance, in particular a reconfigured Alliance, remains the only viable and progressive political formation dedicated to championing working class struggles, with a history of working with the trade union movement and a track record of delivering critical victories to workers, from our progressive labour laws to the 60% of the budget aimed at uplifting the poor.
We will not be seduced by parties with no history of struggle or delivery. COSATU is clear, we will work flat out to ensure the Alliance, led by the ANC, is returned to office with a decisive majority nationally and provincially in 2024. We dare not risk the gains of 1994.
COSATU remains resolute in defence of the rights of not only teachers but all workers to assist the IEC to ensure the 2024 elections will remain free and fair. No political party will be allowed to intimidate teachers or any other worker from playing their part in nourishing our democracy.
The Federation applauds the recent court victory by SAMWU declaring the ban on municipal workers exercising their right to hold office in a party unconstitutional. This is the COSATU of John Dlamini that never shies from defending workers!
The Federation of James Motlatsi has always been guided by the principles of working class and international solidarity. We cannot remain silent when workers in Cuba and Venezuela are subjected to sanctions, when women and children are being butchered in Palestine, when human rights activists are being assassinated eSwatini.
We must intensify our solidarity campaigns, just as generations before from Mozambique to Lesotho showed solidarity with our struggles at great cost to themselves.
The challenges facing our members and their families are daunting. They require all of us to be united. If workers are divided, they will be defeated. If they are united, they may be victorious. The tasks we have been given need us to be on the ground, our shop stewards to be well trained, our unions to be well oiled machines.
If we are distracted by fights for positions, or abusing investment funds, or purging those we believe to be threats, then workers will look elsewhere for those willing to lead.
The many victories we have won at Nedlac, Parliament, in our bargaining councils will be little more than nice English words, if we do not empower our members to exercise these hard won rights.
Parliament recently overhauled our criminal legislation to protect women, children and other vulnerable persons from gender-based violence and sexual harassment. We need to be working with government and employers to ensure workers understand their rights and responisibilities and that we hold those who violate the rights of others are held accountable and face the full legal consequences. Let us ask POPCRU, SADTU and others to help lead such campaigns.
COSATU’s voice is heard across the nation, but we cannot be happy that 38 years into democracy, only 1 out 4 workers is unionised and half of these are within the Federation. The call of Mark Shope and Nana Abrahams for one federation, one country, one union, one industry, remains more relevant today than ever. Let us all work to grow our unions. This is only path to defending workers and improving their lives. No one else will do it for us.
We must prioritise support for Affiliates operating in difficult sectors, from CWU to CEPPWAWU, from AFADWU to SACCAWU, from SASBO to SATAWU.
Programme Director, allow me to conclude by thanking COSATU in KwaZulu-Natal for organising this wonderful celebration. This is not a day for speeches, but a chance to celebrate our struggles, honour our fallen comrades, to rededicate and reenergize. It is a moment to prepare ourselves for 2024 and the many battles we will wage and win!
Thank you. Amandla!