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SA: Cyril Ramaphosa: Address by South Africa's President, inaugural Elijah Barayi Memorial Lecture, University of Johannesburg, Soweto (15/05/24)


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SA: Cyril Ramaphosa: Address by South Africa's President, inaugural Elijah Barayi Memorial Lecture, University of Johannesburg, Soweto (15/05/24)

President Cyril Ramaphosa
President Cyril Ramaphosa

16th May 2024


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Programme Director,
Minister of Employment and Labour, Mr Thulas Nxesi,
Ministers and Deputy Ministers,
Premier of Gauteng, Mr Panyaza Lesufi,
President of COSATU, Ms Zingiswa Losi,
Acting Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg, 
Dr Mpoti Ralephata,
Representatives from labour and business,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning.


It is an honour to be invited to speak about my comrade, mentor and friend, Elijah Barayi.

It is significant that this inaugural lecture is being held during the 30th year of our freedom.


The achievement of democracy was a cause to which Elijah Barayi dedicated his life.

It is a tragedy that he never got to see the dawn of freedom break over the horizon.

We lost him thirty years ago, just three months before South Africa’s first non-racial election.

Yet what a great legacy he left behind. What a powerful voice that lives on.

Elijah Barayi’s life was a testament to bravery and to standing firm on principle even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

It takes a hero to go against the norm and to stand for what is right even when those around them remain silent or look away.

Elijah Barayi was a hero of the anti-apartheid struggle.

He joined the ANC Youth League as a teenager in the early 1950s and was active in the Defiance campaign.

Speaking years later about his arrest for leading a march against the pass laws he said: “I was delighted to go to jail.”

There would be many more jail sentences, including under the State of Emergency. After he was released, he was continuously harassed by the police, forcing him to leave his home town of Cradock.

He sought refuge on the mines, first at State Mines in Brakpan, then in Carletonville on the West Rand.

He was a hero and champion of mineworkers, the most oppressed and exploited class of workers throughout colonial and apartheid rule.

He recruited himself into the National Union of Mineworkers that we formed in 1982 and rose from being a shaft steward to being elected vice-president of the union.

Elijah Barayi, the son of a municipal worker and a domestic worker, was a hero of South Africa’s working class.

At the launch of the Congress of South African Trade Unions in December 1985, he was elected as the federation’s first President.

Those of us who were privileged to have witnessed history being made will remember it well.

We remember the rally at Curries Fountain in Durban, where more than 10,000 people sang in unison: U-Cosatu-Sonyuka naya ’masingena enkululukweni…

We remember the electrifying speech that Barayi made at the Congress.

“You have six months to abolish the pass laws,” he told the regime.

He demanded the release of President Nelson Mandela, that the Bantustans be abolished, that the state of emergency be lifted, and for the army to withdraw from the townships.

It was, as one prominent international publication called it, a declaration of defiance.

It was this defiance that was to become a defining feature of COSATU in the years that followed.

Elijah Barayi’s impact extended far beyond our borders.

He forged alliances with labour movements and other like-minded people around the world, garnering support for the anti-apartheid struggle and bringing global attention to the injustices being perpetrated in South Africa.

From its establishment, COSATU said that the struggle of workers on the shopfloor could not be separated from the wider struggle for liberation.

We said that by their very nature, industrial issues are political.

Elijah Barayi was instrumental in getting the National Union of Mineworkers to be the first COSATU union to adopt the Freedom Charter.

His union activism could not be separated from the struggle for national liberation.

I have told the story many times of how he would ask all candidates interviewing for positions with NUM if they knew the Freedom Charter.

If they didn’t, they weren’t hired.

As we look back on 30 years of democracy, we can see very clearly how the relationship between workers’ struggles and the fight for broader political and social change have shaped our country.

We can see how workers have contributed to defining our constitutional order.

The Constitution with its Bill of Rights is the bedrock of the democratic society we have been striving to build since 1994.

It is centred around the right of every South African to have their human dignity respected and protected.

When the first COSATU congress demanded the right to strike, for benefits to be guaranteed to the unemployed and those threatened by retrenchment, for better occupational health and safety, and for the rights of female workers to be given particular protection, it was heralded as revolutionary.

Thirty years into democracy, we have several progressive labour and social protection laws, together with a robust system of collective bargaining driven by strong institutions such as Nedlac and the CCMA.

The right to engage in collective bargaining is enshrined in the Constitution. It has played a crucial role in improving worker rights and secured fair compensation, reasonable working hours and safer working environments.

The Constitution enshrines the right to fair labour practices; to form and join a trade union and participate in its activities; and the right to strike.

We have the Labour Relations Act and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act to protect and advance workers’ rights.

We have laws to safeguard the health and safety of workers and a Compensation Fund to support workers who are injured or sick.

The first COSATU Congress resolved to lead a campaign for a legally-enforced national minimum wage for all workers.

Just over five years ago, after extensive engagements among social partners, we introduced the National Minimum Wage, improving the lives of over six million workers.

Tied to the national minimum wage, the Congress called for the abolition of general sales tax on essential items. As government, we continue to implement value-added tax zero rating as a pro-poor policy.

In 2001 we established an Unemployment Insurance Fund, which has been a lifeline for vulnerable South Africans who are out of work.

The Fund proved itself to be agile and adaptable during the COVID-19 pandemic, when it administered a relief scheme to support both workers and employers affected by the economic disruption caused by the pandemic.

The first COSATU congress called for a national programme of public works to provide jobs for the unemployed.

Since 1994 we have built a number of mass public employment programmes to provide income support, skills and training for South Africans who are out of work.

These include the Expanded Public Works Programme, Community Works Programme, and most recently, the Presidential Employment Stimulus.

We have also just recently launched a new phase of the Labour Activation Programme, which is focused on creating decent and sustainable work opportunities in many sectors across the economy.

Over the past thirty years, we have used Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment, preferential procurement, the Black Industrialists Programme and worker share ownership schemes to transform patterns of ownership and control in the economy.

I recently participated in a conference on the state of worker share ownership.

In South Africa today, more than 500,000 workers are part-owners of the companies they work for.

Mineworkers, farmworkers, workers in manufacturing and other sectors today share in the fruits of their labour through worker ownership schemes.

As a country, we have come a long way in giving effect to the rights of women workers.

We passed the Employment Equity Act to redress racial and gender discrimination in the workplace and continue to progressively implement affirmative action policies that favour women.

We have laws protecting women against sexual harassment in the workplace.

By law, no employer can discriminate against a woman on account of pregnancy. Women are entitled to a minimum of four months of maternity leave and can apply to the UIF for paid benefits.

The principle of equal pay for work of equal value is enshrined in law.

These achievements form part of the legacy of Elijah Barayi.

They need to be protected and advanced.

This is particularly important at a time when collective industrial relations are in decline in many parts of the world.

Trade union membership has been going down over time, including in our own country.

According to statistics from the Department of Employment and Labour, union membership fell by approximately 11 per cent last year.

This is taking place at a time of greater automation, increasing casualisation of labour and more workers moving to the informal economy.

Internal divisions, governance issues and the ability of unions to service and organise workers have also contributed to this decline.

This is something that must be addressed with urgency.

Strong trade union membership is vital to consolidate the gains of social protection, industrial relations, occupational health and safety, and workers’ rights.

There some in our country who are calling for hard-won rights, like collective bargaining, to be curtailed and for the minimum wage to be scrapped.

As a society committed to transformation, we cannot allow this to happen.

We have a collective responsibility to build on the achievements of democracy and to work with greater vigour to overcome poverty, unemployment and inequality.

Despite the progress we have made over the last 30 years, the legacy of apartheid continues to define so much of our society.

Inequality is exacerbated by high unemployment, poor economic growth, service delivery failures, corruption, crime and violence.

While we have seen great advances in access to education and health care, the poor and the working class remain at a great disadvantage.

Resolving these challenges requires concerted action from all sectors of society.

Building a future that promotes decent work and social justice necessitates that we deepen our collaboration as government, business, labour and civil society.

In this effort, trade unions must remain at the forefront.

Labour is key to the success of our industrial policy, which aims to revitalise key industries, create and keep more jobs locally, and promote beneficiation of our vast mineral resources.

The support of labour is important for our continued investment in economic and social infrastructure.

Strong, organised labour is the most effective counter to the so-called construction mafias that are wreaking havoc and deterring investors.

Labour must be the driving force behind a progressive and just transition to a low-carbon, climate resilient economy and society.

We must continue our collaboration as we strive to ensure that this transition is indeed just, and that it takes the rights and livelihoods of all affected workers and communities into account.

Later today, we will be signing the National Health Insurance Bill into law.

The NHI will fundamentally transform the lives of millions of South Africans. It introduces the principles of equity, solidarity and social justice into a healthcare system that has been for years characterised by high levels of inequality.

We want labour to be at the forefront of popularising the NHI, of engaging with communities and employers alike on its benefits, and of partnering with government towards its implementation.

The level of organisation that was detailed in the resolutions of the first COSATU congress must be brought to bear as we work together to improve the delivery of services in our communities, especially in rural areas.

As government, we remain committed to reducing the outsourcing of municipal services, and we once again call on labour to work with us to develop internal capacity to deliver quality services.

While we work to overcome the injustices of the past, we are looking to the future.

As technological advances and globalisation reshape the landscape of work, we need to be able to foster innovation and entrepreneurship while safeguarding workers' rights and promoting social dialogue.

We need to invest in technology, infrastructure and education to enable sustainable and inclusive economic growth and job creation.

At the same time, we must strive to democratise the governance of work.

In South Africa, this means strengthening and adapting labour laws, institutions and regulatory frameworks to protect workers' rights, promote fair competition and ensure social justice.

We need to build a more inclusive and resilient labour market that will support a just transition, greater digitalisation and other drivers of change.

The children born at the dawn of our democracy are today 30 years old.

The democratic changes we won in 1994 and the progressive policies we have implemented since have lifted millions out of poverty and despair and improved their material condition.

Yet we know that life is hard for many South Africans.

Many young people are without jobs. Many families struggle to survive.

As long as the divisions in our society persist, as long as some people lead lives of quality and dignity whilst others suffer at the margins of the economy, our mission remains unfulfilled.

We owe it to the memory of Elijah Barayi, to the South African people and to the generations to follow that we continue to work to overcome this inequality.

We have achieved much. We have come far.

Now is the time to set our sights on even further horizons.

Now is the time to intensify the struggle for economic equality and shared prosperity for all.

It is fitting, as we do so, that we recall the life and the contribution of Elijah Barayi.

It is fitting that we recall his courage and his dedication, his defiance and his selflessness.

As we confront challenges that may at time seem insurmountable, we are encouraged by his resolve.

Let us honour the memory of giants like Elijah Barayi by renewing our commitment to building a better, stronger South Africa.

As we draw inspiration from the life and times of the man we honour here today, let us deepen our resolve to advance freedom and social justice everywhere.

I thank you.


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