COSATU General Secretary Solly Phetoe’s Address: SACCAWU 12th National Congress

22 November 2023

Programme Director,

National, Provincial and Local Leadership of our dedicated Affiliate, SACCAWU,

Leadership of the Federation and our allies, the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party,

Distinguished guests and delegates,

THEME Consolidate Class Working Unity and Power for Total Emancipation

Thank you for inviting the Congress of South African Trade Unions to join this important congress. Please accept the revolutionary support of COSATU as you deliberate.  SACCAWU has wisely chosen to hold this historic congress under the theme of “Consolidate working class unity and power for total emancipation.”

Your Federation of Makhulu Ledwaba is proud of how you have built the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers’ Union into the formidable union it is today. 

SACCAWU has proven itself to be a reliable vehicle that defends the interests of its members and champions working class struggles in its 48 years in its various formations.  It is a union rooted in democracy and owned by workers at the shop floor. 

SACCAWU was painstakingly built by workers in supermarkets, hotels and businesses across our towns and cities.  It has grown whilst other struggled.  It is the leading retail, commercial and hospitality workers’ union and has made positive strides unionising food and agriculture workers.

The union has led with foresight against difficult odds.  The retail and hospitality sectors are fragile and have seen a massive increase in casualisation, outsourcing and labour broking at the cost of thousands of permanent jobs.  Through SACCAWU’s strategic interventions the rights of thousands of retail and hospitality workers have been saved, working conditions improved and collective bargaining defending. 

Whilst some prefer to lament, SACCAWU has led.  Its participation in the industrial master plans with your sister affiliate SACTWU, has seen local retailers commit to increase locally produced clothes in stores from 40% to 60% of their products.  These and other interventions, particularly our buy local campaigns, have helped save and create thousands of local jobs and businesses.

During COVID-19, SACCAWU worked tirelessly to ensure workers in its sectors were paid and received relief from the Unemployment Insurance Fund.  It ensured members and their families were mobilised to vaccinate against the pandemic.

Some have chosen to abandon the non-racial vision of the Freedom Charter in pursuit of narrow nationalism and reckless populism.  SACCAWU has instead embraced and ensured that its membership reflect the diversity of the nation. 

South Africa has benefited from the legions of leaders this mighty union has produced, including Emma Mashinini and Duma Nkosi and countless other liberation giants. 

It is important though comrades not to take for granted what you have achieved through many decades of blood, sweat and tears. 

Yes, SACCAWU is a formidable machine.  But it can easily be destroyed in a single moment of insanity, in one divisive congress or the election of a divided or compromised leadership. Divisions along regional or factional lines may be momentarily entertaining but they can destroy the union the day after the excitement of a congress dies down.

These are not idle words or scare mongering.  COSATU has seen the pain of once mighty unions destroyed when comrades seek office not to serve workers or build the union, but to rather serve themselves and feed their lifestyles.  It takes years to build unions, and days to destroy them.

We have seen the devastation that has destroyed once strong and united unions when corrupt elements have been allowed to loot union investment funds.  Do not for a second believe that this cannot happen to you.  The funds must remain there to benefit members and their families, to sustain the union, to reduce unemployment.  They must never be used to enrich leaders or individuals.

It is easy to attach labels to each other, to gossip and demean each other.  Yet SACCAWU needs all of you.  We need all of you.  COSATU needs a strong, united, a focussed and determined SACCAWU.  Whilst you may not have the largest membership in COSATU, your presence is felt by the maturity, the foresight, the dedication and the work ethic you have brought to COSATU.

The relationship between SACCAWU and COSATU has been built over many years of struggle and has grown stronger through each year. We have been enriched by the sterling work SACCAWU has done in the Bargaining Councils, the master plans, at NEDLAC, with government, in the Alliance, at Parliament, in the public discourse and most importantly on the ground with workers.

SACCAWU has led on behalf of COSATU in many critical debates from customs enforcement to protect local jobs, to public procurement to tackle corruption, from mobilising workers to vaccinate to save lives, to working with the UIF to save jobs.  Indeed, we have learnt much from SACCAWU. 

It is because the tireless support that we receive from yourselves, that the Federation of Ray Alexander has been able to achieve many victories on behalf of our members and the working class, both before and after 1994 and as we speak.

Ours is to provide solutions and not lamentations.  This is the COSATU which was in the trenches with the ANC and the United Democratic Front ensuring we achieved our hard-won constitutional democracy in 1994.

This is the COSATU of John Gomomo that drafted the progressive labour laws that guarantee workers the right to strike, to paid time off, to maternity leave and the right to work in a safe workplace.

Our armchair critics lament and say don’t tell us about the victories of the past when workers are struggling today. 

Well, it is your COSATU working with SACCAWU that achieved the National Minimum Wage in 2019 raising the wages of 6 million workers, in particular home textiles, certain categories of clothing, farm, domestic, construction, retail, hospitality and many other vulnerable sectors. 

Whilst our critics sat comfortably at home during the pandemic, it was SACCAWU and COSATU that worked day and night to ensure that over R64 billion reached 5.7 million workers across the private sector who had lost wages. 

Some may chant slogans of gender equality, but it was COSATU that went door to door at Parliament to ensure that maternity leave benefits and cover were substantially increased and that for the first time we have paid parental and adoption leave.

When the nation was witnessing corruption at the Public Investment Corporation, it was COSATU that forced Parliament to amend the law to require worker representation on its Board and a workers’ mandate for how its funds are invested.

In 2020 SACCAWU tasked COSATU to engage government to allow financially struggling workers early access to their pension funds.  Today we have legislation before Parliament creating the two-pot pension regime that will provide workers early access to their pension funds when it comes into effect and access to one third of their annual contributions once a year going forward. 

We are working hard with Parliament and Treasury to ensure this critical relief for workers happens in March 2024.  When it does, SACCAWU needs to action a mass financial education campaign to help workers understand their rights and responsibilities.

Do not be shy about these victories.  It pains us when Affiliates do not claim these and use them to recruit and mobilise workers.  COSATU is strong because SACCAWU is strong.  We need a strong SACCAWU so we can remain a strong COSATU.

We often lament about the state of the Alliance and indeed it has experienced many challenges over the years, some due to our own failings as the movement, and others due to subjective socio-economic and other external factors.

At times it is easy to dismiss the relevance of the Alliance, to be emotional and ask what has it delivered?  Yet we should not take lightly the strategic foresight that our predecessors exercised when the Alliance was built painstakingly over many decades in the most difficult of times. 

The founders of not only COSATU but also SACCAWU saw the strategic importance of the Alliance in not only being a vehicle to defeat apartheid and liberate the nation, but also to lay the foundation for a socialist society.  They understood the strengths and limitations of each of the Alliance partners, us included, and appreciated the value in building that unity in struggle.

National Democratic Revolution and 2024 Elections

Next year marks 30 years since the birth of our democratic breakthrough and the seventh electoral contest in a democratic dispensation. While the breakthrough signified many breakthrough  and achievements for reversing the legacy of colonialism and apartheid, many of our people continue to be exclude from the gains, NDR, led by the ANC in the current conjecture is facing many difficulties, with increasing signs that any prospect for socialism is only viable if the working class is the leading detachment of vanguard that give and define the revolutionary character of the NDR.

We together with our working-class ally, the SACP, have resolved to that to defend the gains of our freedom and to advance the NDR, working class must unite in campaigning behind a reconfigured alliance.

In the upcoming elections, workers must ensure a definitive electoral victory for the Alliance, to defend and advance our democratic gains, our position is to work flat out to ensure that the Alliance led by the ANC secure an absolute majority nationally and provincially, to this effect, the federation should mobilize for the outright victory of the liberation movement. 

COSATU’s Central Executive Committee has developed a draft program, entailing incremental phases of campaigns, the federation must also undertake in our campaigns towards 2024 elections, the phases must include engaging with our members robust review of the ANC 2019 Manifesto, identifying gaps, then engage our provinces, affiliates, our partners, and communities.

Reconfigured Alliance

COSATU 14th national congress reaffirmed and endorsed the resolution of our 13th National Congress of the reconfigured alliance.  Our starting point is that the reconfigured alliance must start with the Alliance as the centre of our revolution, driving policies formulations and implementations, direct deployment and hold cadres accountable, mobilize our people as their own liberators.

A reconfigured Alliance remains the only viable vehicle to advance the NDR.  Its role needs to be clearly articulated because in our view, it represent  the most concentrated expression of the unity of the disparate motive forces of our revolution, In this COSATU must work with even closes with our working class ally to build a powerful socialist movement of workers and poor, as the key strategic task to reconfigure the Alliance.

But we must diagnose the many weaknesses of the Alliance and what do we mean by a reconfigured Alliance?  How will we assert the Alliance as the political Centre of government?  How will we ensure the state implements decisions of the Alliance?  How will the Alliance extend its influence over spheres of provincial or local government where it is not the majority party?  How will we retain the Alliance as we navigate an era of coalition governments?

The movement has been in power for nearly 3 decades.  We are showing significant wear and tear.  We need to reflect on the state of the National Democratic Revolution, to assess where it has achieved its objectives and where it has not.  We need to reflect on what is our vision for not only the next administration, but beyond that. 

We are all frustrated, hurt and angry when our comrades let us down in government.  But we must also be honest, the ANC and the Alliance remain the best and only vehicle to advance working class struggles and improve the lives of our members.

We are going to the polls in 6 months’ time.  Do we have an elections program?  An elections machinery?  Or are we content to head into our most difficult elections where polls indicate we may not win a majority nationally and in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape and possibly other provinces. 

Are we participating in by-elections?  Recently the ANC lost its majority in the Sol Plaatje Municipality in Kimberly on Wednesday for the first time.  We lost a by-election in Msukaligwa in Mpumalanga.  Are we assisting the ANC in these elections? 

Or are we content to sit on the sidelines?  Are we prepared to place the lives and jobs of the working class in the hands of the opposition parties?  Where we have lost like in Tshwane, what is our plan to win the voters back to the movement?

We have much to discuss and most importantly we have much to action.  Words matter, but most important is for us to action what we want. 

Workers are depending upon us here to defend their jobs and improve their lives.  We dare not fail them.

As I am preparing to close, we welcome progress made working with Parliament and Treasury to agree with workers that the two pot pension reforms will be implemented next year on 1st March 2024.

The CEC yesterday resolved that we must intensify our solidarity support to the people of Palestine, support our government on the action taking against the Israel.

Allow me on behalf of COSATU to pay tribute to the outgoing leadership.  You have served SACCAWU and COSATU with distinction.  I want to pay special appreciation to the President, comrades Louise Thipe, and the General Secretary, Bones Skulu. 

We are honored by your contributions.  You were handed the baton to lead, and you led.  When times were tough, you did not falter.  When others sought to divide us, you stood for unity.  COSATU will continue to tap into your wisdom and experience.

The workers of your sectors and at large, COSATU and the entire nation are better off having such a dedicated and visionary union.  We wish Congress well and know that we will continue to work closely with SACCAWU as we seek to build a better life for all and a South Africa that belongs to all who live in it. 

Thank you.  Amandla.