An Open Letter to Cosatu


To my colleagues at Cosatu,

I have no authority to tell you what you must do, I know. But my conscience as one of your founding leaders begs me to reflect on the state of our country and nation. 

The Marikana massacre is a deadly body blow to the democratic social fabric, and it leaves my heart heavy with sadness. The weight of the disappointment is staggering as I think back to my political initiation as a teenager, listening to the powerful political narrative of Steve Biko. “We have nothing to lose but our chains.” He presented a bold, courageous and impossible vision of a free South Africa. We were inspired as a generation to stand up and be counted irrespective of the cost. 

So where are the courageous leaders of today?

The 1976, the Soweto student uprisings were our Tahrir Square. We were smashed, but we came back and kept building on the foundations of the sacrifices of Nelson Mandela and his generation. We painstakingly nurtured a mass movement. The eighties saw the flourishing of internal mass struggles led by COSATU and the UDF that pitched us into battle with a brutal Apartheid state. It took us 18 years to make our liberation movement, the ANC, the majority party in our Parliament and place Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first democratically elected president.

Now, 18 years later, we commemorate a new massacre under the watch of the supposedly democratic government we elected. I, like many South Africans, am devastated. 

Yet it can’t be denied that the writing has been on the wall for some time. Why did we choose to ignore the facts staring us in the face? 

I was part of the leadership that led COSATU into an alliance with the ANC and SACP. It had a clear objective. We were making a commitment to a profound transformation that struck at the heart of Apartheid – the cheap labour system and its attendant diseases of joblessness, poverty, gender violence and inequality. 

But those same diseases remain, and we desperately need a frank, no-holds-barred clinical analysis of our condition. It goes something like this: inequality has grown. Formal employment has shrunk. A single breadwinner supports up to eight dependants. The content of migrant labour remains as deeply entrenched as ever, as subcontracted labour and casualisation continue to marginalise the workers' families.

The education system hopelessly fails the poorest in our townships as half of our children, mainly of the working poor, are left with almost no skills to speak of even after 12 years of school. They can’t get jobs and many of them are unlikely to do so at all in their lifetime. Our schools have become havens to sexual predators: perverted teachers or male pupils robbing our girl children of their innocence. The growing majority of this dispossessed youth cannot see anyone representing their interests. 

That’s what I’ve gathered from conversations I’ve held with young people throughout South Africa. All they see is the arrogance of a ‘blue light brigade’ that believes it has some divine right to rule. They see a criminal ‘Breitling brigade’ that grows fat on looting the public coffers, stealing tenders and licences, and pocketing public funds budgeted for textbooks, toilets and libraries.

This is not the programme of transformation for which our leaders – beacons such as Elijah Barayi and Emma Mashinini – sacrificed so much. This is not the future for which Neil Aggett was murdered by Apartheid police. This is not the future for which Phineas Sibiya, an outstanding shop steward, died a fiery death in a burning car at the hands of Inkatha vigilantes in Howick.

Now is the time for fearless debate. Power has to be confronted with the truth. The Marikana massacre shows all the hallmarks of our Apartheid past. Violence from any side is inexcusable, but deadly force from a democratic state is a cardinal sin. It strikes at the heart of democracy. 

The COSATU Congress is important for many reasons, but mainly because it will draw a line in the sand between justice and injustice. But it needs leaders with the courage to hold up the mirror. And it needs to ask the critical question: whether leaders have lost touch with the membership and the poorest in our country.

I am reminded of our visit to the Soviet Union in 1990. We wanted to understand how a powerful state claiming to represent the working class could fall prey to the crass corruption that represented the worst excesses of crony capitalism. 

It was obvious to us. There was no democratic participation. The nationalised economy and state enterprises were simply the feeding troughs of the voracious elite. The past symbols of socialist solidarity and social justice were a sham, appropriated by a rapacious class of party apparatchiks. The labour movement was emasculated. It had been reduced to a conveyor belt of the political and predatory party elite. They were the 'yellow unions'.

I realised then that, had I been a militant unionist in the Soviet Union, I would have died a miserable death in a Siberian labour camp. There were no real unions in the Soviet Union. There were just obedient lieutenants who enforced the orders of their political masters and enjoyed the minor perks of financial hand-outs. It’s a slippery slope, and one we can’t afford to send South Africa down.

So today, let us ask ourselves if splinter unions are just the work of opportunists. Are we saying that seasoned trade unionists are so weak, pliant and intellectually inferior that they will risk losing their jobs and their lives – and for what?

I cannot believe that. Of course there is the Breitling Brigade, who will use workers and the poor as cannon fodder, given half a choice. But the fact is that there is a deep and growing mistrust of leaders in our country, and the expanding underclass feels it has no voice through legitimate formal structures. Violence becomes the only viable language. 

So yes, there has to be trust. I remember more than 30 years ago when, as a naïve student activist entering the labour movement as a volunteer, I spent a day handing out pamphlets. That is, I spent the day trying to hand out pamphlets. I was outside the factory gates for the whole day and nobody took a pamphlet until an old SACTU activist took me aside and said, “Sonny boy. You look very committed. But no-one understands all your rhetoric. Workers cannot eat promises and political slogans. And if they talk to you here they will be photographed and victimised. So come home and I will arrange for some of the leaders to meet you.”

I understood then that the co-creation of a vision and ownership lies in winning the trust of the workers, especially the poor. Their trust has to be won every day. I am comforted that COSATU has done a labour force survey of its members’ perceptions of their union leaders, but it is a striking finding that many of the grassroots members are alienated from their leadership. This should be the core of the debates at the upcoming Congress. These perceptions need to be answered. 

COSATU has a proud history. You stood firm when our government, in its insane denialism, condemned to death so many people living with HIV and AIDS, or remained silent on the human rights abuses of Zimbabwean and Swaziland workers. You mobilised amazing organisations such as the Treatment Action Campaign to make government accountable. 

But where has the social activism gone to in our country? Has it also submerged below the morass of that the bureaucratic development industry breeds? You cannot escape your responsibility any longer – our society is fragmenting and our state becoming increasingly dysfunctional. 

Our Constitution demands an effective government that is transparent and accountable. Our Constitution has laid the proud traditions of social justice, human dignity and social solidarity as the foundation of our democracy. Public institutions are there to serve the interests of the citizenry and not the narrow often corrupt interests of a predatory elite. 

That is what we fought for. We need to stop being subjects and become active citizens. It is now incumbent on us all to stand up and bring our country back to the path of reconstruction and development. We promised a better life in 1994, and we need to deliver it.

As our founding father, Nelson Mandela, said, “Poverty, like Apartheid, is not an accident. Like slavery, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.” 

The key, now, is for those human beings to take the appropriate action.  

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