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The Congress of South African Trade Unions, on Freedom Day 2010, celebrates 16 years of freedom and democracy. On 27 April 1994, after decades of colonial and apartheid dictatorship, we proved to ourselves and the world that South Africa was now a democracy.
Human rights are enshrined into our constitution and laws and we live in a non-racial democracy where the government is elected by and responsible to the majority of the citizens.
We have laws that protect workers' rights and are supposed to oblige employers to treat their workers fairly and grant them minimum standards of pay, benefits and health and safety provisions. Millions have acquired new homes and education for their children; more and more receive social grants, health care and receive running water and electricity.
We must however always remember, as we celebrate our freedom, that it was not won without struggle and sacrifice. Thousands of members of the liberation movement were arrested, jailed, tortured, exiled or even sacrificed their lives to help free our nation from racist tyranny.
In particular we dip our flags in honour of two of our greatest leaders, Oliver Tambo and Chris Hani, who both passed away in April 1993 and thus narrowly missed the chance to witness the democratic breakthrough that they did more than most to bring about.
We also remember Solomon Mahlangu, the Umkhonto we Sizwe guerrilla cruelly hanged by the apartheid regime on 6 April 1979, whose prophetic dying words were that his blood would nourish the tree of freedom.
We also mourn the passing of Violet Seboni, COSATU's 2nd Deputy President, on her way to campaign for the latest ANC victory on 3 April 2009, whose courage and dedication to the workers' cause continues to inspire us.
While we have much to commemorate we also have a lot still to achieve before we can say that all South Africans are really free. We cannot ignore the 58% of South Africans who live in poverty who cannot really benefit from political freedom, as they face a daily struggle to survive.
How can the 30%-35% of the working population who cannot find work and the millions still living in squatter camps fully celebrate their 'freedom' as they struggle to find ways to earn a decent living and live in a proper house?
We also have to shrink the massive levels of inequality which have made South Africa the most unequal society in the world. Such inequality mocks our struggle to build a free, fair and equitable society. Neither can we celebrate freedom when our society is scarred by such high levels of crime and corruption.
We suffer from the gross exploitation of workers, as capitalists seek new ways to enrich themselves at the expense of working class and dodge around the labour laws. There is a continued restructuring of the working class into a two-tier labour market.
The first layer of workers enjoys most of the rights contained in the constitution. They are covered by collective bargaining and enjoy better work security and better pay.
The second layer are super-exploited workers without any rights or freedom. For them joining a union is a personal risk and upward job mobility is an illusion. It is a large and growing army of workers employed in low-paid, temporary, casualised jobs or employed through the enslaving labour broking system.
The sweatshop regime continues unabated, which is why claim that our labour laws are ‘too rigid' is nonsense. That is also why one of the clarion calls for this Freedom Day is for the banning of labour brokers, the human traffickers who we are determined to get rid of.
Gross inequalities in wealth distribution, health and education remain along racial lines. The fault lines of the apartheid economy remain largely intact.
In the main it is black children whose educational experience is marked by poor learning infrastructure, classroom overcrowding, high dropout rates and unsafe schools. There are equally glaring discrepancies in the quality of health care, with a first-world service for the wealthy in the private sector and a third-world service for the poor in the public sector. White South Africans are blessed with 23 more years of life than their black counterparts.
The highest levels of poverty and underdevelopment are also still concentrated in the former Bantustans. The black working class, despite government provision of thousands of new houses, are still located far away from workplaces, forcing workers to spend a lot of the little wages they receive on ever-rising transport costs.
Workers bore the brunt of the recent capitalist crisis, caused by the greed of capital. In the first nine months of 2009 we lost 959 000 jobs, a new record, and workers lost a staggering R17 billion, further worsening the poverty and inequalities in our country. That is the underlying reason for all the angry service-delivery protests in our poorest communities.
The plight of workers is still worst of all on farms, where many employers think they still live in apartheid South Africa. They treat their workers no better than slaves, ignore the labour laws, abuse and even murder workers who stand up for their constitutional and legal rights, evict families from their homes and even refuse to let workers bury their family members on farms where they have workers all their lives. There is no 'freedom' for these citizens of the new South Africa.
Also denied the full fruits of our freedom are the millions who suffer from HIV/AIDS and other deadly diseases - many of them diseases of poverty. COSATU congratulates the government on their historic new campaign to persuade every South African to get themselves tested for the virus, and to get antiretroviral treatment to everyone who needs it. We urge all our members to get themselves tested.
As COSATU always says each year on Freedom Day, laws on their own will never guarantee our freedom. The only way for workers and their families and communities to win real and total freedom for workers and their families is for them to get organised in strong, fighting trade unions, a strong tripartite alliance and civil society formations.
We must recruit and organise all those workers in low-paid, insecure, dangerous and unhealthy jobs. We must drastically improve our own union and civic organisations, so that they recruit more members and give them better service.
COSATU urges every worker, and all South Africans to celebrate Freedom Day actively, by attending the many events around the country. Then on Saturday 1 May, we urge workers in their thousands flooding into the May Day rallies that COSATU is organising around the country.