COSATU President’s Opening Address: COSATU National Gender Inaugural Conference

Comrade. chairperson,

Leadership of COSATU, 1st Deputy President Mike Shingange and the collective National Office Bearers

Members of the Central Executive Committee and leadership of the Affiliates,

Alliance leadership present

Provincial leadership of COSATU

Invited guests both National and International

officials, and our members of the federation,

Comrades it is indeed a real pleasure to address you today as we open this historic gender conference of the Federation. It has been a long time in coming.

The challenges facing women, not only our members and their families, but women workers across the nation are immense.

Women are under siege, not only from the pandemic of gender-based violence, but also workplace discrimination.

Unemployment is higher for women.

Yet the responsibilities women face are not less than those faced by men.

 A great deal of work has been done in preparation for this conference.

The research package provided outlines the stark socio-economic realities facing women, the girl child, and the LGTBQI plus communities.

Our task as we meet over these next few days is not just to commiserate about these challenges. Nor is it solely to elect leadership to lead the National Gender Coordinating Committee [NGCC].

Our most important task is to leave here with a clear plan of action on what we as COSATU at all levels, from the local to national, from provinces to Affiliates, are going to do over the next few months as we head to our National Congress in September and more importantly the next few years to champion, lead and advance the causes of gender equality, emancipation and empowerment.

The challenges facing women, girls and the LGBQIT plus communities are immense.

The levels of gender-based violence in South Africa are a living nightmare for our people. We cannot be proud that it is estimated that half of our women and girls are raped in their lifetime.

We cannot feel proud that when our girls go to school, daughters go to university, wives go to work, that they will at some point be exposed to sexual harassment and violence.

We are proud that our Constitution speaks to gender equality and prohibits discrimination including for gender and sexual orientation.

Yet we are failing that progressive Constitution when we see incidents of corrective rape of members of the LGBQTI plus communities.

Our unemployment rate is a ticking time bomb. We cannot sustain a society where 45% of working age adults are unemployed. Yet the stats are worse for women, for women in rural areas, for women with disabilities.

A nation where 75% of young people are unemployed cannot rest easy.

Government has made massive efforts since 1994 to try to overcome the legacies of apartheid and colonialism. 60% of the national budget is spent on the social wage.

This includes free housing, basic education, school meals and tertiary education for the poor. It includes social grants and the SRD grant dispensed to 27 million of the poor.

These must be applauded.

Yet we are also seeing these hard-won gains being eroded by the decade of state capture and corruption, by collapsing State Owned Enterprises and Municipalities, by a ballooning national debt and the result austerity cuts to the budget.

It is no exaggeration to state that these are the most trying times for our people and vulnerable communities in particular since 1994.

We have made gains on the legislative front at Nedlac and at Parliament.

Our Constitution, the product of many decades of struggle and whose inspiration is the Freedom Charter, is bold and progressive and places equality, including gender and sexual orientation at its heart.

It recognises the right to a better life for all and the obligation upon the state to improve the lives of citizens and assure them of their socio-economic rights.

In September 2020, Parliament passed the three Gender Based Violence Amendment Acts. These will be powerful tools in the fight against Gender Based Violence. They tighten search and seizure, arrest, bail, testimony, sentencing and parole conditions in favour of the complainants.

They prohibit the employment of persons convicted of Gender Based Violence crimes from positions of authority over vulnerable persons. They require government to populate a National Register with all persons convicted of sexual offences.

The Employment Equity Amendment Act was recently passed by Parliament and is now before the President for his assent.

It will help strengthen existing employment equity laws. Companies wanting to receive state tenders must be in compliance with this Act and the National Minimum Wage Act.

The Compensation of Injury of Duty Amendment Bill is nearing the final stages of Parliamentary approval. It provides for the inclusion of 900 000 domestic workers under the Compensation Fund.

It also recognises post-traumatic stress which many women workers experience, as a condition that workers can claim compensation for.

The National Minimum Wage Act came into effect in 2019 at R20 an hour for the NMW with farm workers pegged at 90% or R18 and domestic workers pegged at 75% of R15. Farm workers were equalised to the NMW in 2021, benefitting more than 800 000 farm workers.

Domestic workers equalised to the National Minimum Wage in 2020 which is now R23. This has benefited the more than 900 000 domestic workers.

This is a 53% massive increase for domestic workers in 3 years in the midst of an economy in a recession. Farm workers have seen a 27% increase in these three years.

Engagements are taking place with government for those sectors of the EPWP and CWP workers who have not equalised with the National Minimum Wage to do so over the near future. Some of their sectors have reached the National Minimum Wage.

The Civil Unions Amendment Act came into effect two years ago. It requires Home Affairs officials to officiate any same sex couple seeking to marry.

The Labour Laws Amendment Act came into effect in 2017. It provides 10 days paid parental leave for fathers and mothers in the cases of surrogacy and same sex partnerships. It provides for 10 weeks paid leave for 1 parent when legally adopting a child 2 years and younger.

The other parent is entitled to 10 days paid parental leave.

The National Gender Based Violence Council Bill is now before National Economic Development and Labour Council [Nedlac]. It provides for the establishment of a Council composing of government and civil society to oversee the nation’s efforts to combat Gender Based Violence.

 Government ratified International Labour Organization [ILO] Convention 190 on Combatting Sexual Harassment and Violence in the World of Work in 2021.

We must now go through our legislation to ensure that all of its progressive provisions are captured in law.

We must develop training programmes for members to ensure they are empowered.

We must wage campaigns at the workplace to hold employers accountable for a safe working environment.

We have won important victories on the socio-economic front at Nedlac.

Covid-19, our economic and governance crises have required all to champion social dialogue and social compacts.

We worked closely with government and business to ensure that over R64 billion was released from the UIF to ensure that 5.5 million workers in the private sector had money to take care of their families.

This was credit free and constituted more than 40% of the UIF’s assets. It was the largest source of stimuli into the economy.

We have put pressure on government to distribute and extend the R350 SRD Grant which has benefited more than 10 million unemployed persons.

With all of its many challenges, painful delays and the small amount, it has still provided badly needed relief to the poorest of the poor.

It needs to be fixed, to be extended and to be raised to the food poverty level. It provides a foundation for a basic income grant.

The Presidential Employment Stimulus has been allocated R18 billion this year and has helped to provide more than 500 000 work opportunities to young graduates and workers, enabling them to earn at least the National Minimum Wage, gain experience and gain confidence. Engagements are taking place to expand it to create at least 1 million work opportunities.

Government has allocated R35 billion under the Bounce Bank Scheme to help SMMEs. We need to encourage women entrepreneurs to apply for such funding.

We have been discussing the need to accelerate land reform, be it for rural residents seeking to set up their own farms, or urban residents seeking land to build a home or business on.

What we need to be saying louder is that women, farm workers, rural residents and residents of informal areas should be at the front of that queue.

 These victories and demands will remain progressive words on paper, unless we wage campaigns to ensure they become a living reality for workers across South Africa.

Comrades if we are to be honest, then we need to undertake serious introspection on our organisational capacity to wage battle.

When last did COSATU and all its Affiliates undertake a real national strike that shut down the economy?

Many, many years.

Our October 7 Day of Action and our May Day events do not shut any sector of the economy down, let alone the country. Affiliates struggle to wage sector wide strikes.

Some reasons are beyond our control, e.g. workers who are highly indebted and simply cannot afford to lose a day’s wages.

Others are because we have allowed a gap to grow between us and our membership.

Others are because our organisers are more interested in quoting philosophy and the palace politics of the ANC.

We need to learn from the recent strike that NUM led at Sibanye and others from SARS and UNISA to the clothing and textile industries.

What are the key lessons we must learn?

Are workers aware of the current campaigns that Affiliates are waging? Are we aware? What are the timeframes, steps, interventions and indicators for those campaigns? If we don’t know, then there is a problem.

We receive complaints from members about Affiliates who ignore their pleas for help all the time. We receive complaints from the CCMA about shopstewards who are poorly prepared to represent their members at hearings.

Besides lunchtime pickets at COSATU House and Nedlac during the 16 days of activism, what is our programme on the ground not in hotels against Gender Based Violence?

Have we made sure all Affiliates are empowered to help implement the three Gender Based Violence Amendment Acts?

Or the Employment Equity Act?

We have scored important victories like the National Minimum Wage, the UIF TERS, parental leave, etc but Affiliates with a few exceptions are not training their members, shopstewards and organisers on the technical aspects of those laws.

Instead, we are outsourcing their implementation to the good heartedness of the employer and a Department of Labour’s handful of inspectors.

Instead of using these victories to recruit members and wage new battles, we are allowing them to die a natural death in legal textbooks.

We have become so used to the hotel and conference lifestyle that we have forgotten how to be activists on the ground, in Motherwell and Umlazi.

There are pockets of success that we must pick up on. Last week Limpopo went on a recruitment drive in Lephalale. Gauteng went on a recruitment and vaccination drive of farm workers near Pretoria.

This is what back to basics must look like.

We have elected leaders of our Gender Committees in all Provinces. We will be electing leaders of our national gender committee.

We are elected comrades to lead our gender campaigns. To be on the ground. To ensure all Affiliates, all members and all organisers are mobilised. We are electing you to develop a vibrant and militant programme that will make a difference not to parrot slogans.

We are not electing comrades so they can become Councilors, Member of Provincial Legislatures or Member of Parliaments. If comrades are here for that, they are in the wrong conference.

Whilst we wage campaigns in South Africa, against Gender Based Violence in Mitchell’s Plain and for safe working conditions in the mining industry, let us not forget to show solidarity with those workers struggling around the world.

We were proud when the Free State organised donations for Cuba.

KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Gauteng have been raising the cause of eSwatini time and again.

Recently we held pickets and supported billboards on the struggle of the Palestinians.

Let us do likewise for Venezuela, Western Sahara and many other countries where workers are under siege. Let us continue to raise gender rights at Southern African Trade Union Coordination Council [SATUCC], International Trade Unions Confederation [ITUC], World Federation of Trade Unions [WFTU] and the International Labour Organization [ILO].

Comrades allow me to conclude, that

 Our tasks here this week are critical.

We must not leave here only having said revolutionary words, but more importantly to leave with a comprehensive programme of real action, that will inspire workers, that will capture the attention of the public, that will motive government and business into action and that will make a difference in the lives of workers on the ground.

I am hopeful that we will live up to this task.

I thank you.