The indispensable role of progressive civil society
This is COSATU General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi’s, opening address to the Equal Education National Congress in Tembisa on 8 July 2012.
Thank you very much for the invitation to deliver the opening address to your National Congress, which will be confronting one of the biggest challenges we face as a nation – how can we implement the promise in our Freedom Charter that “The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Opened!”
I must first of all congratulate Equal Education for the excellent work you have done to highlight the crisis in our education system, and to promise COSATU’s continued support for the even better work I am sure you will be doing in the future.
Progressive Civil society organisations like yours have a vital role to play if we are to liberate our people from the desperate poverty in which far too many of them live.
Three days ago we celebrated the tenth anniversary of one of the biggest success stories of our democratic era —the historic judgement by the Constitutional Court on 5 July 2002 in favour of the Treatment Action Campaign, which “upheld the constitutional right of all HIV positive pregnant women to access health care services to prevent mother to child transmission of HIV”.
Who will ever forget the Irene Grootboom landmark case when the highest court in our land —the Constitutional Court— defended the rights of the homeless? Regrettably Irene Grootboom died without the promised decent shelter.
Just recently we saw the success of SECTION27 in obtaining a court order to compel the government to urgently deliver outstanding textbooks to Limpopo schools.
These three examples highlight the indispensible role of progressive civil society, and the trade union movement, as the moral conscience of the nation, stepping in where the state is failing to deliver essential services to the people.
How important it is today to make these examples of both progressive civil society and the courts defending the rights of the defenceless, at a time when paranoid minds in our society regard any civil society organisation and any court as having a counter revolutionary agenda.
COSATU has consistently argued that civil society is a contested terrain, within which the main contending class forces seek to win organisations over to advance their interests. It therefore represents a wide range of views and interests. There are right-wing and pro-capitalist organisations like AfriForum or the Free Market Foundation, as well as progressive, pro-poor and pro-worker groups like yours, the TAC and SECTION27.
We must not appoint ourselves as paragons of virtue and declare everyone within civil society as counter revolutionary or give them this or that label. “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.” (Mark Twain)
If we had accepted this new gospel of “counter-revolutionary civil society”, this conference would have not taken place this week, civil society formations would have dissolved themselves, and COSATU itself would have become nothing but a conveyor belt whose responsibility would be limited to repeating new meaningless political phrases. We congratulate you for standing steadfast and refusing to submit to this political blackmail.
Last week we attended the National Summit on Social Cohesion, held most appropriately in Kliptown, the birthplace of the Freedom Charter. I made the point that we shall never reach the goals of that historic document, and build a cohesive, united society, until we have rid South Africa of the triple curses of high unemployment, widespread poverty and vast inequalities.
How can people in poor communities like Tembisa, the unemployed and the working poor on our farms and in our factories, mines and shops, share a common bond with CEOs like Whitey Basson of Shoprite Checkers, who took home R627.53 million in salary, perks and share options in 2010, and all the other employers who exploit workers daily?
The wealthiest 20% of the population, still mainly white, earns 70% of the national income, while the poorest 20%, overwhelmingly black, survives on just 2.3%. Three out of every five households live on R3,500 per month or less, while the poorest 2% live on R1,500 or less, which is barely enough to live on, given the rapidly rising cost of living.
These stark inequalities and injustices are reflected in every area of our society —access to decent housing, healthcare, and transport and, most importantly to you here tonight, in education.
Yet again the Freedom Charter gives us a good check-list of tasks against which to assess our progress, or lack of it, in meeting its goals on education when it demands that:
- The aim of education shall be to teach the youth to love their people and their culture, to honour human brotherhood, liberty and peace;
- Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children;
- Higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit;
- Adult illiteracy shall be ended by a mass state education plan;
- Teachers shall have all the rights of other citizens;
- The colour bar in cultural life, in sport and in education shall be abolished.
The ANC governments have certainly effected a number of very important advances in education and training, including:
- Increased access to primary and secondary schooling, with the participation of girls being among the highest in the world.
- Pupil-to-teacher ratios improved from 43:1 in 1996 to 32:1 in 2006.
- A mass literacy campaign is now covering more than 500,000 of our people who could not read and write.
- In higher education, since 1994, 140,000 students have benefited from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS)
- Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) have been established to increase skills development in all sectors of the economy, despite the challenges.
- The formulation of relevant skills accords recently, through the New Growth Path processes
- Worker education is for the first time part of the national skills discourse
While we welcome these advances, the reality is that most of the Freedom Charter’s aims have yet to be realised. I am sure there is no need for me to remind members of Equal Education that, notwithstanding the advances of the past 18 years, education is certainly not free and equal for all, and that we have huge inequalities in our education provision. The content and quality of our education still remains far below what the Freedom Charter promised us.
As the recent scandal in Limpopo brought home so tragically, the children of the poor remain trapped in inferior education with wholly inadequate infrastructure. 2,400 schools, mainly in rural areas, have no water supply, 3,600 have no electricity and 1 000 schools have no ablution facilities. Only 7% of schools have libraries, only 5% have stocked science laboratories and just 1% of the schools have internet access.
All this is symptomatic of an ineffective and dysfunctional education system. Yet education takes up the largest share of government spending, at 21% of non-interest allocations, and receives the largest share of the additional allocations. Neighbouring states with far less resources have far better education outcomes than South Africa. For 18 years we have not seen fit to get to the bottom of why we are in this situation.
As I pointed out at last week’s COSATU Education and Skills Conference, the problems of inequalities are not unique to education. We see the same kind of two-tier structures in the provision of healthcare, public transport, housing and all basic services - first-rate services for the wealthy who can afford to pay for them, second-rate services for the poor majority.
That is why we are so opposed to the commodification of basic services. As the Freedom Charter states, they should be every South African’s birthright.
Under capitalism, education reflects, reinforces and replicates the values and practices of the ruling class, which is based the domination of one class – the capitalists - at the expense of workers in particular and society as a whole. Even within this reality, it is the task of the working class, organised in various formations such as the Equal Education campaign, to put demands on the capitalist system and to stretch it to its limits.
The campaign for education for the majority was a central feature of the struggle against apartheid in general, most notably in the 1976 uprising. Education and training was also considered critical to advance workers’ control in the workplace, in their organisations and beyond.
Many important principles grew out of these struggles against the apartheid state and its education and training system, which informed the strategies and practices of the organisations of the liberation movement as a whole. Some of the key principles, forming an integral part of what we call “People’s Education”, were:
- The need for an integrated and free education and training system.
- The need for unity between student, community and worker struggles for education and training, as part of the struggle for a democratic and just society.
These principles continue to be of paramount importance today, because, scandalously, after 18 years of democracy, our education system still reproduces both racial and class inequalities over and over again. The struggle for the transformation of education and training is far from over. Apartheid will not necessarily end, and our people will not necessarily experience real freedom, until free, equal and high quality education becomes a reality.
As part of its contribution to this struggle, COSATU has signed two accords with government and business that are of critical importance: - The Basic Education Accord, premised on the realisation that our education system is not producing expected results, and - The Skills Accord, aimed at expanding and improving training.
The challenge however is to turn these worthy expressions of good intent into concrete changes in our schools, colleges and universities. There are only a few and scattered excellent examples of action to implement the commitments contained in these accords. This goes to the core of the weaknesses of COSATU and civil society generally today.
The starting point must be to have a change of mindset among all those involved in education, and that is basically all of us, but particularly teachers, parents, governing bodies, government officials and private companies delivering services. We must wage a war on the kind of gross incompetence we witnessed in Limpopo and in many other provinces. If officials are not doing their job their heads must roll. We cannot tolerate a culture of mediocrity, and mortgaging our children’s future.
SADTU and other teachers’ unions, contrary to the slanders heaped on them by the Democratic Alliance and others, have shown the way forward, in their ground-breaking Code of Professional Conduct, which commits their members to adhere to the highest standards of good conduct, and professional service.
The vast majority of teachers are totally committed to their work and many achieve miracles given the lack of resources they have to contend with. Yet as long as we do not root out the rotten apples that continue to give the profession a bad name we will continue to have our image influenced by the conduct of the few.
In congratulating you on the good work you are doing, I have to reflect on what I think are the serious challenges we face ideologically as progressive formations of the working class. We should harbour no illusions about the bourgeois character of the democracy we will live in. We therefore need to unrelentingly pursue a struggle to stretch the limits of this democracy by demanding equal and quality education that meets the needs of our people. This demand is integral to our historical perspective on redistribution of resources and transformation of society.
The first point I want to reflect on is that, in pursuing this struggle, we should not expect hugs and kisses from all quarters, including from some quarters that we would ordinarily think are part of the progressive forces.
This is a struggle, and if we are to consistently pursue it, it is important that all progressive working class formations fiercely defend and deepen their independence from interference by our class opponents.
This is the only way we can genuinely stretch bourgeois democracy to its limits, whilst at the same time raising the consciousness of the working class. We should be firm and principled, and be confident in the victory of our forces even when those whom we would ordinarily call our comrades call us names.
Secondly, we should admit that since 1994, there have been serious challenges faced by progressive organs of civil society which were aligned to the democratic movement. Weaknesses in these formations also contribute to the growing social distance between some of our leaders and what the majority of our people experience on a daily basis.
This observation applies to COSATU as well. Just to give an example, we should have been the first to know that textbooks had not been delivered in Limpopo. We have structures operating in the education system and the public sector, but because of weaknesses in those structures, weaknesses which also reflect the political consciousness among us, our comrades, were not alive to the reality of the situation we were in.
This is just one expression of the social distance between some of our structures and our people. Equal Education therefore plays an energising role that should activate our broader structures, including our civic movement and trade unions, to be conscious of their task.
Furthermore, in relation to the textbook saga in Limpopo, we are unequivocal that the buck stops with the Minister, the Premier, the MEC and even the President. But truth be told, there is no political party, trade union, student organisation, etc. that is blameless.
The central question remains: where were members of all these formations when for six months so many children were without textbooks? Whatever the answer, one thing is certain — the children of the elite and the middle strata were not affected. Had the children of senior trade unionists, educators, politicians and business people been among those affected, this scandal would have been nipped in the bud. In fact the entire education system would have long undergone significant change for the better.
The majority of the working class and the poor are not “movers and shakers”; they are forgotten, yet they were the ones who defied the bullets of the apartheid state, but who now see power monopolised by both the black and white elite. This elite, some of whom were once in the trenches with the working class, has since kicked away the ladder of development, condemning the vast majority to continued injustice.
It is in this context that all of us who have power to be heard but did not know about this textbook calamity, should hang our heads in shame, and admit that there is indeed a social distance between us and the people who put us in the positions we hold.
As the General Secretary of more than 2 million workers across the length and breadth of this country, I offer our unconditional apology to the affected children and parents. This fiasco is a national own goal; it shows once again the real price that the working class and the poor pay when their leaders are defocused from the daily challenges that our people face.
It shows how the consumption by divisions, internal elite bickering and palace politics can generate a national tragedy. This is the very reason why the forthcoming 11th COSATU National Congress has no choice but to focus, line by line, on the provisions of the Freedom Charter and how far we are from those, and to then provide a concrete programme on what organised workers should do to change the dire socio-economic conditions of our people.
Indeed, there is an urgent need to systematically co-ordinate the activities of progressive civil society formations, and to press for the full implementation of the Freedom Charter unrevised.
Accordingly, we need to take forward the work we started in the 2010 Civil Society Conference, revisit our resolutions from that Conference, and develop concrete campaigns.
Equal Education builds on and stands on the shoulders of giant formations such as the National Education Co-ordinating Committee. Part of your task is to alert the broader working class movement about developments in the education system on the ground, and to help strengthen other working class formations that operate in your space, to advance the class struggle.
Without systematically co-ordinating our activities, it will be difficult to win the struggle for a just society. What we need is a 1) a strong, vibrant COSATU that fiercely defends its independence and the independence of other progressive working class formations, including progressive religious formations, 2) a transformed and diverse media, a critical part of which must be to propagate ideas and to reflect on the material conditions of our people from a working class perspective.
Without these critical ingredients, I doubt if we will ever overcome the continued reproduction of unequal class, race and gender power relations.
Your activism is a breath of fresh air in many respects. It reminds all of us of our duty to serve our people. It reminds some of us who have the privilege to lead, not to take the mandate of the people for granted.
Some of us are now embedded, and caught up, in palace politics, concerned about who should get this or that position, who should be replaced by whom, and so on, whilst the crisis of apartheid and neo-liberalism continues to visit indignities and injustices on the working class and the poor.
Equal Education sets an example that refocuses our attention on what matters the most — the need to improve the lives of our people. I hope that more of our structures, which are active in the education struggles, will actively participate in your campaign.
Equal Education must also not relent on the struggle against corruption. We should insist that anyone caught with their fingers in the till must be initially suspended and then brought before the courts to face the punishment for what is nothing less than theft from our poor communities and sabotaging the future prospects of our learners.
In conclusion, we need to work together —government, trade unions and the broader progressive civil society formations like yours. Defending and building an effective education and training system is not simply the responsibility of those involved directly in education. This is a critical social responsibility, and all of us must make an effort to ensure that our education system is preparing our children, and indeed all levels of all ages, for a genuinely democratic, just and equitable society.
This is the challenge we all confront as we move towards the COSATU 11th National Congress later this year! I wish you a highly fruitful week of debate.
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