South Africa

Vavi beats the drum. Anyone listening?

By Greg Nicolson 18 October 2012

You might be wondering if Zwelinzima Vavi will continue to call the government’s attempts at economic transformation a failure now that Cosatu has endorsed Jacob Zuma for a second term as ANC president. Yes, he will. But will it make a difference? By GREG NICOLSON.

There was a time when Cosatu’s general secretary might have run for a spot in the ANC’s leadership. His courage to call a crisis a crisis built his moral standing in the minds of a broad group of South Africans, and many wanted him to take a position where he could directly influence the party and government he is unafraid to criticise. 

Those days are gone, for now. Zwelinzima Vavi will remain at Cosatu for another term, while his criticism looked as though it might be smothered to protect President Zuma. 

But in a lecture on Wednesday night Vavi showed he clearly will not shut up. He said he was honoured that he, “a son of the working class”, was chosen to deliver the Unisa Annual Moral Citizenship, Safety and Human Rights Memorial Lecture before performing an autopsy of the economy and its injustices.

“Eighteen years after (the end of Apartheid), we have failed to make anything close to similar progress in the economic transformation of our society. We have quite clearly not implemented those Freedom Charter demands.… Not only have we not achieved any of these goals, but we face a triple crisis of growing unemployment, poverty and inequality, each of which in many respects are even worse than in 1994.”

Like always, he came with statistics. Between 1995 and today the expanded figures on unemployment have risen to 36.2% from 31%. Over the last four years the unemployed have stayed unemployed for longer and the number of discouraged job seekers has risen by 100%, to 2.3-million. Poverty has increased. Inequality has increased. Incomes are heavily skewed in favour of white workers and service delivery is woeful. 

Vavi called for the restructuring of “the whole edifice that produces wealth and reproduces poverty at the same time” and warned that “a greedy criminal elite is systematically robbing the poor and sabotaging efforts to improve the lives of the people.

“But what of the poor? For how long will black working class mothers continue to die in maternity wards while giving birth? For how long will innocent newborns continue to lose their lives because a simple sanitiser to disinfect the wards in which they are born was not procured? How long must the queue for breast cancer patients continue to extend while they are on a waiting list for radiation?

“What life chances does a child who spends most of her school day cleaning filthy school toilets have at success? For how long must black children continue to reel under the pressure of schools with no libraries and no laboratories? What kind of society is this?”

His speech was not hopeful but urgent, an impassioned plea for change. “The hammer blow of revolution is no longer a distant reality. I am also certain that those who today conveniently claim neutrality and sit on the fence while blatant injustice is being committed on the people will not be spared from the wrath of the poor.”

Vavi was careful not to mention it, but the target of his wrath is of course the failure of government and in particular the failure of the current ANC leadership. His criticism on the same day Cosatu announced it will support Zuma for a second term shows he won’t listen to those telling him to quiet down. But it also shows the jam Cosatu is in. The revolution that fermented in the mines started without labour’s leadership and the unions are hurrying to catch up.

But now that Cosatu has endorsed the same ANC leaders that failed to address the situation, will Vavi’s criticism make any difference? On the surface, it may seem rather hypocritical. In its Central Executive Committee decisions on Wednesday, Cosatu acknowledged the Polokwane resolutions had not been implemented by the ANC. It now wants an agreement with the party that the resolutions will actually be implemented before Mangaung comes and goes.

Whether Cosatu gets the assurance or not, it seems Vavi believes enough in his cause and his ability to inspire South Africans to keep shouting from the rooftops. Revolution is coming, he said, “Which side are you going to be on?”

“In choosing sides, we must contend with the weight placed on our shoulders by our conscience. We must be guided by our conviction that there can be no fault in striving for a South Africa where peace, justice and equality are not only the subjects of fantasies but an everyday reality for all South Africans.

“We can no longer continue to be spectators in a game that will ultimately determine our future. We all have to play a role in restructuring the entire edifice of South African society that systematically and deliberately produces beggars and slaves to poverty! To use Martin Luther King’s analogy, we must all make our contribution to ensuring that the whole Jericho Road is transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.” DM

Read more:

  • “Dear Zweli, just don’t do it!” on Daily Maverick
  • “Cosatu congress: Vavi’s time of reckoning and the elusive ‘Lula moment’,” on Daily Maverick

 Photo: Zwelinzima Vavi (Jordi Matas)


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