Defend Truth


Olivio Dutra: A politician rich in values, not money and ambition


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and former chair of Gain, a global foundation fighting malnutrition in the world.

To find a politician that serves the people today is rare. They are part of a dying breed, slaughtered by the treadmill of political and human greed.

I met one, Olivio Dutra, recently in Porte Alegre, Brazil. Dutra is a humble human being and founding member of the Workers Party (PT) in 1980, alongside Lula and Paulo Freire, the eminent education and mass literacy activist who changed the approach to education across the world, and even in South Africa.

Even today, people greet Olivio with love: the street vendor, the shop assistant, the security guard, the children and retired grandfather Luis in the home where we were having a dinner with him. That love reflects a deep respect for his integrity during his years in active politics. It is well earned, I learnt. He has a Mandela-esque quality about him.

In the ’70s, Dutra was a bank worker, rising to head of the local union in Porte Alegre. He was arrested by the military dictatorship for organising a major public sector strike. Climbing the ranks of PT, he became the mayor of Porte Alegre in 1988. “Public finance” he vowed, “was the lifeblood of democracy. But the people were excluded by the bureaucracy, while business was involved in influencing and often deciding on infrastructure budgets and lobbying for tenders and tax breaks. That needs to change.”

He insisted that the technocrats go to public meetings and listen to the people; put first their priorities. That public participation paid off, as it gave Olivio the mandate to introduce farsighted reforms that improved public transport and urban social housing, giving land titles to landless people, improving public education, employing more teachers and improving social security. Porte Alegre became a model of transparency and accountability in public spending.

After his successful years in Porto Alegre, Dutra went on to become the Governor of Rio Grande state and then to powerful portfolio of Minister of Cities in the first Lula Cabinet. It was steely dedication of cadres like him that strengthened the PT’s reputation of being a people’s party, capable of governing Brazil.  

When he left politics, he went back to his job in the bank and to the same apartment in Porto Alegre’s working neighborhood that he has occupied for 30 years. He refused a city or state pension and today lives on his pension as a bank worker.

As the Governor, he gave active political support to the World Social Forum that brought together thousands of activists from social movements in 2001 to build a counter-narrative of the 99% to the narrative of the 1% at the World Economic Forum. Still active in politics, he attended the recent World Social Forum in Tunis, which he describes as a “non-partisan and non-governmental movement” that is “an important meeting place for the exchange of experiences, building solidarity and building a global network; not an organisation and not giving directions with no political statement at the end of the meeting.”

His advice echoes my own instincts: “Civil society, and especially the social movements, must be independent of the political party and the State, or they will become compromised. Leaders will trade favors with political elites and divisions which have nothing to do with worker issues will soon splinter the movement.”

His warning was correct – the CUT in Brazil and Cosatu in SA have been weakened because of factionalism.

His analysis of the PT is even more interesting for us in South Africa. In 1980, Lula led the massive metalworkers’ strike in São Paulo that shook the foundations of the military junta, which reacted with the same brutality as the Apartheid regime did. Its leaders were jailed and 40,000 workers were dismissed.

Lula, attempting to mobilise public opinion, went to the National congress to seek support. He found only closed doors and literally no one who had a working class background. Angered by the lukewarm response, Lula and his comrades vowed to build a worker’s party to represent the working class and social movements.

As Dutra recounts: “The PT was established as an umbrella organisation; a coalition of intellectuals, liberation theologians, union militants, landless and urban movements. The time was ripe. Brazil was bursting with social activism. Grassroots movements were exploding against the stifling oppression and brutality of military dictatorship that dominated political landscape for close to two decades.”


Clearly none of them saw the Communist party of Brazil as a viable vehicle. It was an atrophied bureaucracy, more interested in dogma than organising the discontent. Dutra again: “The PT was built from below, because there was a political vacuum. It was diverse, plural and with many tendencies. It was both a strength and a weakness.”  

Today he describes himself as oppositional within the PT. “The institutionalisation of the PT is removing the organic connection with the people. Our goal has become winning power, in the towns, cities and nationally,” he reflects. “We have become bureaucratic and alienated from our mass base, with the people only mobilised when an election is being held.”

The historical mission that defined the PT was a fundamental structural and systemic change to the power relations seem to be overtaken by the need to hold onto power. If that sounds familiar to you, it is because much of the same process already happened here in South Africa.

According to a prominent liberation theologist, Frei Betto, “Recognition must be given to the progressive social policies of the Lula legacy that lifted 36 million people out of poverty and created 15 million jobs; but in the favelas the majority still live in poverty, dependent on precarious work and lacking basic services. They may have refrigerators, TVs and other consumer goods, but the system still traps them in a cycle of poverty and inequality continues to be a challenge.”

It seems that the political and economic turbulence hitting Brazil is set to continue. Austerity programmes will bite into the social progress made as the poor pay for an economic crisis they had not caused and rich demand bailouts and more tax breaks.

Olivio reflects on the demonstrations around the Fifa Soccer World Cup hundreds of thousands of young people took to the streets condemning the wasteful expenditure on fancy stadiums and holding placards demanding FIFA quality health, education and public transport. Similarly, this year, millions of Brazilians took to the streets demanding an end to corruption that has implicated high ranking executives in the state-owned company Petrobras.

He believes that what is urgently needed is a radical commitment to “structural agrarian, political, tax education and urban planning reform in Brazil. This was the project we set out to achieve when we launched the PT.” I gather from his reflections he thinks it remains unfulfilled.

While he admires grassroots PT activists who continue to organise at a grassroots level, he feels that most of the political representatives are unseen in the favelas that loom large in every city. It appears that many vested interests see the Party as a springboard to economic opportunity, undermining the moral and ethical foundation of the PT as a party of the poor committed to building an egalitarian society and tackling the legacy of inequality of the past.

Like us, Brazil is a complex society. Both our struggles were won by mass struggles fought by our people, led by credible movements with a tried and tested leadership and a coherent political vision that we set out to implement in government.

Where is that radical social transformation project today, both in SA, Brazil and the world?

We are immersed in the unchartered reality of a globalised world, where the power of global capital is unprecedented and where today, the 1% controls more wealth than the 99%. Is this the “new Apartheid” that divides the world into insiders and outsiders? Have we understood the consequences of an Internet Revolution that has had a bigger impact than the Industrial Revolution on how we organise our lives, society and even the very nature of work?

We need the calibre of leaders like Olivio Dutra to listen, inspire and share experiences with the next generation to fulfill their historical mission of finding their voice, their struggle and the world they want. I find that one of my most rewarding experiences. I gather that he feels the same way. DM