By Robin Campbell
The CSAAWU national congress occurred on the 24th and 25th November 2017. A major event as part of the congress was the key note address by Mr. Zwelinzima Vavi, the General Secretary of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU).
The address opened with an account of the Vavi’s childhood, growing up in Hanover in the Northern Cape. He recounted his experiences as a young child growing up on the farms, a situation similar to those in attendance at the congress. He remembered his experiences as a victim of child labour, going on to explain that his own family was subject to abuse and evictions. This highlighted his personal stake in farmworkers rights, and represents a major motivation for his work as part of SAFTU. He has firsthand experience of the injustices faced by farmworkers.
Vavi expressed excitement at CSAAWU’s decision to join as one of the founding trade unions of SAFTU. He was thankful for the voice and contributions that CSAAWU brings to SAFTU. He goes on to explain that SAFTU has decided to make CSAAWU their priority, with the intention of empowering farmworkers to stand on their own against injustice at the national level. This is in line with CSAAWU’s own aspiration to become a national union, expanding beyond of the bounds of the Western Cape. He would like this congress to act as launching pad for a nationwide campaign to confront farm owners who refuse to embrace the ethos of a new South Africa.
“I want to, hopefully, go to my grave one day with farmworkers able to stand their own, to represent their own interests.”
Vavi explained that around 95% of agricultural workers are not members of any trade union. This is much higher than the overall figure of workers in South Africa, where 76% of workers are not part of trade unions. He reminded those in attendance that they form part of a larger worker force consisting of e.g. taxi drivers, truck drivers, domestic workers etc, that have been ignored by the established trade unions.
Vavi went on to speak out against the established trade unions, “[Established trade unions] … have become increasingly a home for relatively well paid staff with medical aid, provident funds and relatively secure employment.” Here he called attention to COSATU in particular, highlighting the politicking that goes on within the union, with people willing to overlook workers’ rights in order to promote themselves into parliament.
A large part of Vavi’s address served to highlight the plight of farmworkers in the Western Cape and South Africa.
Vulnerable workers like farmworkers need trade unions more than anyone else, due to the appalling conditions in which farmworkers live and are abused. He noted that although many of the laws surrounding farmworkers rights have changed since 1994, too often are farmworkers still faced with challenges reminiscent of those faced during apartheid. Farmworkers are still abused and taken advantage of by racist farmworkers even 23 years into our democracy.
Vavi said that the SAFTU congress demanded an urgent moratorium on farmworker evictions, and demanded that the state provide better housing for those living on farms. SAFTU resolves to mobilize the campaign to end abuses and end the fraudulent attempts to form cooperatives that serve only to benefit employers.
Those in attendance were encouraged to use their power as black people and workers to boycott the produce of farm owners who abuse the rights of farmworkers and who prevent farmworkers from joining trade unions. To this end, Vavi called for support for victims of unfair dismissal by Mbaba Farms in Mpumalanga.
Vavi went on to highlight how hopeless the situation can be for farmworkers, saying: “Farm workers feel so powerless, even when they report beating, murder and rape at the hands of their bosses, they often find the very perpetrators manning the police stations. They are often even beaten more for daring to report their bosses.” He mentioned the ease with which Department of Labour inspectors are often bribed to overlook injustices and abuses.
Vavi spoke out against the low pay received by farmworkers. He highlights how those responsible for production cannot purchase that which they have produced, because it is either too expensive or exported to world markets. He also spoke about the malnutrition effecting farmworkers children as well as the incredible food wasting that occurs while 14 million people in SA go to bed on an empty stomach. Attention was also brought to the effects of land degradation by chemical fertilizers, spread of genetically modified organisms and reliance on multinational food companies, and the effect of the drought in the Western Cape on farmworkers’ job security.
Land ownership was another issue raised by Vavi. Land in South Africa is owned primarily by white people, and while the government is supposed to be redistributing land, only 10% of commercial land has been redistributed or restored to black South Africans in the 23 years since apartheid. Who owns SA? – the same people who owned the country before 1994.
“This congress must decide what to do to highlight the plights of farmworkers in the Western Cape.” Vavi suggested that, if need be, the congress should make a call on SAFTU to submit a special section 77 notice that will allow solidarity between all workers of SA. He called for a change in the priority of government, such that the challenges facing farmworkers are addressed.
Vavi went on to draw an interesting parallel between current events in Zimbabwe and the current state of South Africa. He reminds those in attendance that even those with absolute power can be over thrown in a matter of days, and that this should serve as a warning to those in power in South Africa.
“We want militant unions! We want fighting unions!”, Vavi stressed, saying that workers must mobilize and unite, in spite of their differences. Farmworkers must remain united in order to confront their true oppressors. He implored the congress to develop a program of mass mobilization and militant action.
“Trade unions such as SAPAWU and SATAWU, once militant and powerful unions have been destroyed by officials pillaging workers money and manipulating the democratic structure of the union.” said Vavi, in relation to corruption. He said in no uncertain terms that SAFTU was determined to avoid going the way of those unions, and was taking a line of absolute intolerance toward corruption.
Finally, Vavi called for strict support for and adherence to the 16 days of activism, encouraging no violence against women and children. “SAFTU is adamant that there must be no let-up in the campaign to end the daily violence and sexual assault against women and children.”