Statement of the SAFTU NEC meeting
November 23, 2017
SAFTU backs 16 days of Activism
November 25, 2017

Address by SAFTU General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi to the Congress of the Commercial Stevedoring Agricultural & Allied Workers’ Union (CSAAWU)

Comrade John Daniels, General Secretary Trevor Christians, Treasure Peter Presence, the rest of the National Office Bearers team, members of the National Executive Committee.

Delegates this august congress, distinguished guests


Comrades and friends

Thank you very much for inviting me, on behalf of the national officer bearers and the members of the South African Federation of Trade Unions, to address this important congress.

At a personal level I feel completely at home amongst you. I too was born in the farms of the Northern Cape in a little town called Hanover. I too don’t know the date and the year I was born. Just like you I was born at home and never saw the door to the hospital, clinic or school until much later in my life. I too became the victim of the child labour system. I too know the meaning of being paid in kind. I too witnessed the abuse of farm workers including my own parents and other family members. My family too was the victim of evictions and I know what it means to sleep on the road side under the donkey card in the coldest of the Northern Cape winters.

You can’t imagine how I feel to address a congress of farmworkers. One of the areas I always felt not good about is that I did not do enough to help organise farm workers, so that they too have a voice to counter the untold abuses you have to suffer at the hands of often racist and backward narrow-minded bosses who still yearn to roll back the clock to the darkest days of apartheid colonialism.

It is within this context that we were so excited by your decision to be one of the 24 founding affiliates of SAFTU. We were so happy to see you forcefully claiming your space and standing your ground, insisting at every step of the way that farm workers be prioritised by the new federation. Every one of your members who spoke made important and relevant contributions! We want this voice all the time and I must confess we miss that voice in the meetings of the National Executive Committee which you have missed due to a combination of lac of resources and preparations for this congress.

Your union speaks for one of the most vulnerable sections of the working class, workers who are the core of the vast number of super-exploited and marginalised workers, which SAFTU has decided to make its priority.

Around 95% of agricultural workers are not trade union members, even worse than the overall high figure for South Africa of 76%. As well as farm workers, they include domestic workers, taxi drivers, waste-pickers, workers in hotels and restaurants and the growing number to workers whose jobs have been casualised and those being exploited by labour brokers.

These are the workers ignored by the established trade unions, which have become increasingly a home for relatively well-paid staff with medical aids and provident funds and relatively secure employment. COSATU in particular is now overwhelmingly a union for public-sector workers. But if today’s trends continue it will soon not be a home of any kind of worker.

Yet these vulnerable workers like your members need trade unions more than any others. You do not need me to tell you of the appalling conditions under which farm workers are exploited and abused, and yet are defenseless against ruthless bosses.

Farms are the parts of South Africa where the least has changed since 1994. As I have just said, many of your employers still dream of the days of apartheid or even colonialism, when workers were little better than slaves. Under apartheid farmers were enforcers of the racist laws which threw black workers off their land and allowed the farmers unlimited powers and denied their employees any human rights.

We are happy that the tot system, which entrenched a culture of alcohol abuse, and child labour have been outlawed. Yet the legacy of both persists to this day. Racist farmers continue to abuse farm workers and farm dwellers 23 years into the democratic breakthrough. They use all kinds of tricks to confiscate worker’s cattle, horses and goats, including by getting their animals impounded, only for the farmers to forcibly buy the best of them at the price determined by themselves as the buyers.

One of the ways they carry out these dispossessions is imposing a quota which they enforce through positioning themselves to be the buyers. How painful it is for the workers to see cattle that yesterday belonged to them suddenly belonging to the very man abusing them. I know this from practical experience and not through reading books.

The SAFTU congress demanded an urgent moratorium on evictions of farm workers and demands that the state restore their dignity by building better houses for dwellers many of whom live in houses that are no better than pigsties and go hungry even though they are the producers of food. We resolved to mobilize a campaign to end the abuses they suffer from and fraudulent attempts to form “co-operatives” which are just fronts for the employers.

This congress must be a building block in the launching of a nationwide campaign to confront the bosses who refuse to embrace the ethos of a new South Africa. We have power as black people which we are not using. We must return to the culture of selective consumer boycotts to punish verkrampte farm bosses by boycotting their produce. We must mobilise our communities not to buy goods produced by bosses who won’t allow workers to associate freely, including by joining unions of their choice and who abuse their worker’s rights.

From this platform we call on all workers and citizens to pledge solidarity with workers who were employed by Mbhaba Farms in Mpumalanga which dismissed them and vowed that they would rather divorce their wives than to allow workers to join the union of their choice. We call for a boycott of their produce until all the workers dismissed in 2015 are reinstated unconditionally.

There can be nothing more humiliating and degrading than when farm bosses refuse farm workers the right to bury their loved ones who had worked for the very farm bosses for decades.

This day farm workers are routinely beaten up, “mistaken for baboons”, shot at in cold blood, evicted and dismissed without a hearing, made to work long hours without compensation, made to work daily including Sundays and public holidays, etc.

At times farm owners are so powerful and farm workers so powerless that even when they report murders, beatings and rape at the hands of their bosses they find the very perpetrators manning police stations as police reservists and who beat them even more for daring to report them. The Department of Labour inspectors at times are so easily bribed to look on the other side in the face of these abuses.

Most of the farm workers are still to smell the freedoms the constitution promises. They still to be liberated from the semi-feudal slavery of the old days. You are still paid a pittance. The sectoral determination for farm workers is just over R3000 a month, R25.39 an hour, even lower than the poverty national minimum wage agreed at Nedlac of R 3500.

And I am sure that hundreds of workers are lucky even to get that minimum, given the precarious nature of the work, seasonal cycles and the massive unemployment levels, 36.85% by the broader definition, which has created vast numbers of workers desperate for any kind of income at all.

According to Oxfam, 28.4% of South Africa’s population are at risk of going hungry; 26% are hungry on a daily basis; and half of all South Africans do not have sufficient access to affordable, nutritious and safe food to meet basic health requirements.

In addition, malnutrition is the major underlying cause of death in 64% of deaths of children under the age of 5; one in five children are stunted because of malnutrition, and many more are deficient in the minerals and vitamins necessary for optimal development.

These hunger-related indicators of extreme poverty are despite the fact that South Africa is officially food secure i.e. it produces enough food to feed the entire population. But every year R61.5bn worth of food is wasted along the production to consumption chain.

Given that 47% of all workers earn below the proposed national minimum wage of R3500, it is hardly surprising that 14 million go to bed on empty stomachs every night.

These appalling conditions reflect the nature of the industry as a whole. Land ownership is still in overwhelming in white hands, and only a small number of black or ‘coloured’ workers have the money to buy land under the ‘willing buyer-wiling seller’ regime, which still prevails.

The ANC government is supposed to be redistributing land to address this legacy of dispossession. But, according to government itself, only around 10% of commercial farmland has been redistributed or restored to black South Africans in the 23 years since formal apartheid ended.

The Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, Gugile Nkwinti, has conceded that “not nearly enough reform has occurred since 1994” and admitted that the government’s land audits have not even been able to reveal fully who owns and uses the country’s agricultural land. “Our biggest challenge,” he told Parliament, “remains the answer to the question, ‘Who owns South Africa’?”

I am sure your members will answer that is certainly not the workers who own South Africa! In order to implement genuine land reform, SAFTU demands the redistribution of land without compensation.

The industry is also far too much geared to exporting to the world market rather than feeding South Africans. Many of the products your members grow and harvest will never get to their dinner tables because they are far too expensive or sometimes not even on sale at all, as they have all been exported to wherever they can make the biggest profit.

The classic contradiction of capitalism identified by Karl Marx years ago, that workers can’t afford to buy the commodities they produce, is especially relevant to farm workers, who spend all day producing food but then have no food to put on the table when they get home because they are paid so little.

We also have the problem of land being degraded though the overuse of chemical fertilizers, which pollute the soil for future generations, and the spread of genetically manufactured organisms, which are marketed by big multinational corporations like Monsanto, which tie farmers to only using their products.

All these problems require the intervention of strong trade unions, which can ensure that the workers voice is heard. Our future depends on a fundamental transformation of the economy, as envisaged by the Freedom Charter which said “Restriction of land ownership on a racial basis shall be ended, and all the land re-divided amongst those who work it, to banish famine and land hunger … All shall have the right to occupy land wherever they choose”.

We are nowhere near that situation today. As this week’s meeting of the SAFTU National Executive Committee noted: “South Africa is being plunged into a horrific economic meltdown. Unemployment, at the real rate of 36.85% is six times the world average; more than half the population live below the poverty line and inequality is the widest on the globe. A new, looming threat of a ‘junk’ rating by ratings agencies threatens to push the economy over the cliff into a free-fall.”

That is why we have obtained a Section 77 certificate to enable us to launch mass campaigns early next year, around demands for a new growth path and a transfer of wealth and power from the rich elite who have caused this crisis to the majority of the working class and the poor.

The NEC also condemned the role of the ANC government, who have totally failed to carry out any such policies, and, on the contrary, have imposed neoliberal, free-market policies which has increased the wealth and power of the ruling class and thrown millions workers into poverty.

In particular SAFTU has condemned the scandal of corruption and the looting of the public purse, which has robbed the country of billions of rands. The NEC observed however that It is not, as often wrongly portrayed, a problem of one family and a group of a few political leaders who have betrayed the movement which put them in power.

‘State capture’ has involved a wide network of global corporations. As well as McKinsey, KPMG, Bell-Pottinger and SAP, researchers in the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project have found evidence that more than 20 international banks sent money to or received money from Gupta-linked companies.

Corruption is an inherent feature of monopoly capitalism, a system that is structurally corrupt, a system which enriches a few by exploiting workers, swindling consumers and colluding with each other to fix prices and maintain their profits and power over the state.

Corruption is a problem that even spreads into the trade unions. COSATU unions, including CEPPWAWU, SATAWU and SAMWU, have been wrecked as a result of officials pillaging the workers’ money and then manipulating the democratic structures of the union to maintain their positions.

SAFTU is determined to avoid such a fate. It has taken a line of absolute intolerance of corruption. It is something that, as Amilcar Cabral said, arises from  “the struggle against our own weaknesses”, but that is all the more reason to take a stand of zero tolerance of any moves to steal workers’ money for personal enrichment.

Finally I cannot fail to mention two important dates. Tomorrow is the first of the 16 Days of Activism on 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 assaults on women and children.

The police and courts must wake up and stop treating this as a secondary issue. Perpetrators must be arrested, charged and prosecuted and there must be no impunity for those found guilty.

The NEC affirmed its decision to set up a SAFTU gender structure which will lead a campaign of 365 Day of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children and wage a war against patriarchy, sexism and homophobia, which are at the root of the violence and sexual abuse which is so widespread.

The other date is 1917, when the Russian workers overthrew not only the Tsar and feudal aristocracy but the emerging capitalist system. The lesson for South Africa workers is that it is even more necessary for us to overthrow our diseased and rotting capitalist system, and free the workers and the poor from poverty and exploitation.