Thank you for your invitation to the South Africa Federation of Trade Unions to address this important congress. I bring revolutionary greetings from our more than 700 000 members and best wishes for a successful congress.
Of all the many civil society groups in South Africa the TAC will always stand out as exceptionally effective agitators, researchers and campaigners. You have never limited yourselves to statements and speeches. You have always turned words into deeds, taken to the streets and the courts, and organized civil disobedience, to bring a real change to people’s lives. We shall never forget that historic day in 5 July 2002 when you forced the government to start distributing ARVs.
In a relatively short time you, more than anyone else, turned South Africa from a country led by Aids denialists which led to at least 330 000 avoidable deaths, into the country with the largest ARV programme in the world.
But you did not stop there. You have continued to campaign day after to day to monitor the distribution of ARVs and demand action when supplies fail to get through, and to deal with numerous related problems facing people with HIV and other life-theatening illnesses.
You do not need me to tell you of course that the battle is still far from over and that indeed we now risk moving backwards. The SA National AIDS Council estimates that 283 young women are still infected with HIV every day and the epidemic continues to cause up to 300 deaths a day, most as a result of Tuberculosis.
Other non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure and mental illness, are increasing rapidly. South Africa has the highest prevalence of diabetes on the continent, affecting about four million people. Rates of high-blood pressure are also high in many communities. But the health system is unprepared either to prevent or provide treatment for these epidemics.
The work on HIV/AIDS and these other conditions is bound to be affected by the economic slump which we have been plunged into. As a result of the ANC adopting neoliberal, capitalist policies, and the looting of public resources by corrupt business and political leaders, something which I shall return to, economic growth has ground to a halt.
Unemployment is at 36.6% by the more realistic expanded definition, one of the highest levels in the world; StatsSA’s latest quarterly report revealing a quarterly decrease of 48 000 employees between December 2016 and March 2017.
As SAFTU said: “Bad though these statistics are, they cannot reflect the human misery that follows the loss of an income for those 48 000 wage-earners”. Given estimates that every wage-earner supports as many as 15 dependents it means that over half a million more people now face dire poverty.
Just two days ago StatsSA reported that poverty has been rising. Its latest “Poverty Trends in South Africa” report shows that the poverty headcount increased from 53.2% in 2011 to 55,5% in 2015, when 30.4-million of South Africa’s 55-million citizens – three million more than in 2011 – lived below the upper poverty line of R992 per person per month. One in three South Africans lived on less than R797 per month, with more women affected than men, and children and the elderly hardest hit, while racial inequalities continue to define poverty as largely a black African problem.
This will aggravate health problems since poverty invariably leads to higher levels of disease, less access to medical treatment and people having a less healthy diet.
The economic crisis is also very likely to lead to budget cuts and an even longer delay in implementing the long-promised national health insurance system, meaning the continuation of the two-tier health service delivery, with luxury treatment for he rich while the poor have to ensure long queues, delays and infection-ridden and under-staffed hospitals.
All these problems are made even worse by the ongoing crisis of corruption, tender manipulation and price-fixing. The health sector has not hit the headlines or featured in Gupta emails to the same extent as the state-owned enterprises, but TAC knows about this problem all too well, as a result of all the excellent work it has done to expose crimes by the big pharmaceutical companies.
The Competition Commission is currently probing three multinational pharmaceutical manufacturers - Aspen Pharmacare, Roche and Pfizer - for suspected excessive pricing of their cancer drugs. Aspen is already under investigation by European authorities over the same allegation.
Cases like this support SAFTU’s view that corruption and financial crime are not confined to the Guptas, Zuma and his family and cronies, but that there is a much wider network of big capitalists monopolies, who collude to fix prices, fiddle contracts and tenders, evade taxes, syphon money out of the country and bribe officials to given them profitable business.
These are not victimless crimes and the health sector is one where the victims - the sick and the poor - suffer most, and even fatally, because they cannot afford the medication they need to say alive.
I hope and trust that TAC and similar groups in other areas where corruption is rife, like Equal Education, will never stop its whistle-blowing on these business criminals and this needs to be co-ordinated into a national campaign to expose, prosecute all those guilty of these crimes.
We also have to unite to build a society in which healthcare, education, public transport, housing and all other vital services are decommodified and run democratically by publicly funded and elected boards with a mandate to provide the best possible to service to all, regardless of people’s ability to pay.
SAFTU will do everything it can to ensure that TAC continues. We know that you have no millionaire financial backers and were even faced with closure. This must no be allowed to happen; we cannot afford to lose such an important national institution. Have a successful Congress and never give up the work you are doing.