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It is hard not to like Zwelinzima Vavi. He passionately expresses views that most reasonable South Africans strongly endorse: he decries the parlous state of our education system; he warns us of the dire implications of unemployment, poverty and inequality; and he is scathingly critical of government corruption.
He expressed such views again on 17 October when he delivered UNISA’s Annual Peace, Safety and Human Rights Memorial Lecture in Johannesburg. According to his hosts, Vavi was chosen to deliver the lecture because he had "stood out as an exemplary leader espousing values and a vision for the best interests of our society…"
Well, what are Vavi’s values and vision? Are they in the best interest of society - and how do they resonate with Cosatu’s actions?
Vavi has in the past been rightly critical of our shocking education performance. And yet one of the main causes of the crisis (there are several others) is the undisciplined role played by Cosatu’s affiliate, the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu). According to the National Diagnostic Report, teachers in black schools (nearly all Sadtu members) spend only 3.5 hours per day teaching – compared with 6.5 hours per day in integrated former Model C Schools. Sadtu resolutely opposes performance agreements for school principals and has seriously damaged the prospects of matric writers by calling disruptive teachers’ strikes.
In his lecture, Vavi warmly endorsed Abdullah Omar’s exhortation that "resistance to oppression and tyranny is never over and we are required to constantly renew our commitment to the cause of development, equality and freedom". And yet Cosatu and its SACP allies are committed to the establishment of a socialist (i.e. communist) state in which there would be about as much freedom as there is in Cuba. At its 10th Congress in 2009, Cosatu committed itself "to build Marxism-Leninism as a tool of scientific inquiry," and to "build a socialist movement coalescing around the SACP." At its 2006 Congress, Cosatu asserted that "the dictatorship of the proletariat is the only guarantee that there will be a transition from National Democratic Revolution to socialism". How does Mr Vavi square this with his professed commitment to freedom - or with the democratic values in our Constitution?
Vavi is indignantly critical of the rampant corruption. All South Africa’s problems, he said, "are made worse by the parallel crisis of corruption and crime, squandering of public resources and woeful incompetence..." Why then is Cosatu not insisting on the election of leaders with unblemished records at the ANC’s National Conference in December?
The dissonance between Vavi’s words and reality reach their climax when he deals with unemployment and inequality. Our unemployment crisis has several causes but Cosatu itself is, without doubt, one of the main culprits:
Unemployment, in turn, is one of the main causes of inequality. Vavi complains - quite correctly - that inequality "has now risen to a level that has made us the most unequal society in the world" in which "80% of South Africans receive just 25% of the national income."
Predictably, Vavi cites the "racial dimension" as one of the main manifestations of inequality. But this is decreasingly so: half of Cosatu’s members now earn more than 25% of whites. Nor are many of Cosatu’s members the downtrodden proletariat that he depicts. The package of Lonmin rock drill operators before the recent strike was not R5 600 as Vavi claims, but R11 308. Their new package of almost R12 500 is higher on a PPP basis than average incomes in the Czech Republic, Israel and Poland, and twice as high as average incomes in competitor countries like Chile and Malaysia. It is also higher than the incomes of half the white population.
Vavi proclaims that "Cosatu must be the champion of the interests of the poor; it must be the voice of the voiceless, the downtrodden and marginalised in our democracy."
But in reality, it is not. Cosatu is, and always has been, the champion of the interests of its own members, whose median income is over R5 000 a month, compared with the national median income of R2 800. The real inequality divide is between those who have jobs and the 40% of the population who are unemployed. Many Cosatu members - and particularly those who work for the public service - are part of the top 20% who earn 75% of the country’s income. It is not true that Cosatu is the "champion of the interests of the poor": their interests lie in opening up the labour market, in effective service delivery and in ensuring rapid and sustained economic growth - all causes that are being undermined by Cosatu.
Mr Vavi is clearly an intelligent man who is deeply committed to addressing the critical problems that confront South Africa. In his more introspective moments does he ever wonder whether Cosatu’s ideology and actions might not, perhaps, be responsible for many of the problems that he so passionately criticises?
Written by Dave Steward, executive director of the FW de Klerk Foundation