[Marxism] Jay Naidoo open letter to COSATU

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Sep 9 06:41:23 MDT 2012


An open letter to Cosatu

     Jay Naidoo
     4 September 2012 01:42 (South Africa)

To my colleagues at Cosatu,

I have no authority to tell you what you must do, I know. But my 
conscience as one of your founding leaders begs me to reflect on the 
state of our country and nation.

The Marikana massacre is a deadly body blow to the democratic social 
fabric, and it leaves my heart heavy with sadness. The weight of the 
disappointment is staggering as I think back to my political initiation 
as a teenager, listening to the powerful political narrative of Steve 
Biko. “We have nothing to lose but our chains.” He presented a bold, 
courageous and impossible vision of a free South Africa. We were 
inspired as a generation to stand up and be counted irrespective of the 

So where are the courageous leaders of today?

The 1976, the Soweto student uprisings were our Tahrir Square. We were 
smashed, but we came back and kept building on the foundations of the 
sacrifices of Nelson Mandela and his generation. We painstakingly 
nurtured a mass movement. The eighties saw the flourishing of internal 
mass struggles led by COSATU and the UDF that pitched us into battle 
with a brutal Apartheid state. It took us 18 years to make our 
liberation movement, the ANC, the majority party in our Parliament and 
place Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first democratically elected 

Now, 18 years later, we commemorate a new massacre under the watch of 
the supposedly democratic government we elected. I, like many South 
Africans, am devastated.

Yet it can’t be denied that the writing has been on the wall for some 
time. Why did we choose to ignore the facts staring us in the face?

I was part of the leadership that led COSATU into an alliance with the 
ANC and SACP. It had a clear objective. We were making a commitment to a 
profound transformation that struck at the heart of Apartheid – the 
cheap labour system and its attendant diseases of joblessness, poverty, 
gender violence and inequality.

But those same diseases remain, and we desperately need a frank, 
no-holds-barred clinical analysis of our condition. It goes something 
like this: inequality has grown. Formal employment has shrunk. A single 
breadwinner supports up to eight dependants. The content of migrant 
labour remains as deeply entrenched as ever, as subcontracted labour and 
casualisation continue to marginalise the workers' families.

The education system hopelessly fails the poorest in our townships as 
half of our children, mainly of the working poor, are left with almost 
no skills to speak of even after 12 years of school. They can’t get jobs 
and many of them are unlikely to do so at all in their lifetime. Our 
schools have become havens to sexual predators: perverted teachers or 
male pupils robbing our girl children of their innocence. The growing 
majority of this dispossessed youth cannot see anyone representing their 

That’s what I’ve gathered from conversations I’ve held with young people 
throughout South Africa. All they see is the arrogance of a ‘blue light 
brigade’ that believes it has some divine right to rule. They see a 
criminal ‘Breitling brigade’ that grows fat on looting the public 
coffers, stealing tenders and licences, and pocketing public funds 
budgeted for textbooks, toilets and libraries.

This is not the programme of transformation for which our leaders – 
beacons such as Elijah Barayi and Emma Mashinini – sacrificed so much. 
This is not the future for which Neil Aggett was murdered by Apartheid 
police. This is not the future for which Phineas Sibiya, an outstanding 
shop steward, died a fiery death in a burning car at the hands of 
Inkatha vigilantes in Howick.

Now is the time for fearless debate. Power has to be confronted with the 
truth. The Marikana massacre shows all the hallmarks of our Apartheid 
past. Violence from any side is inexcusable, but deadly force from a 
democratic state is a cardinal sin. It strikes at the heart of democracy.

The COSATU Congress is important for many reasons, but mainly because it 
will draw a line in the sand between justice and injustice. But it needs 
leaders with the courage to hold up the mirror. And it needs to ask the 
critical question: whether leaders have lost touch with the membership 
and the poorest in our country.

I am reminded of our visit to the Soviet Union in 1990. We wanted to 
understand how a powerful state claiming to represent the working class 
could fall prey to the crass corruption that represented the worst 
excesses of crony capitalism.

It was obvious to us. There was no democratic participation. The 
nationalised economy and state enterprises were simply the feeding 
troughs of the voracious elite. The past symbols of socialist solidarity 
and social justice were a sham, appropriated by a rapacious class of 
party apparatchiks. The labour movement was emasculated. It had been 
reduced to a conveyor belt of the political and predatory party elite. 
They were the 'yellow unions'.

I realised then that, had I been a militant unionist in the Soviet 
Union, I would have died a miserable death in a Siberian labour camp. 
There were no real unions in the Soviet Union. There were just obedient 
lieutenants who enforced the orders of their political masters and 
enjoyed the minor perks of financial hand-outs. It’s a slippery slope, 
and one we can’t afford to send South Africa down.

So today, let us ask ourselves if splinter unions are just the work of 
opportunists. Are we saying that seasoned trade unionists are so weak, 
pliant and intellectually inferior that they will risk losing their jobs 
and their lives – and for what?

I cannot believe that. Of course there is the Breitling Brigade, who 
will use workers and the poor as cannon fodder, given half a choice. But 
the fact is that there is a deep and growing mistrust of leaders in our 
country, and the expanding underclass feels it has no voice through 
legitimate formal structures. Violence becomes the only viable language.

So yes, there has to be trust. I remember more than 30 years ago when, 
as a naïve student activist entering the labour movement as a volunteer, 
I spent a day handing out pamphlets. That is, I spent the day trying to 
hand out pamphlets. I was outside the factory gates for the whole day 
and nobody took a pamphlet until an old SACTU activist took me aside and 
said, “Sonny boy. You look very committed. But no-one understands all 
your rhetoric. Workers cannot eat promises and political slogans. And if 
they talk to you here they will be photographed and victimised. So come 
home and I will arrange for some of the leaders to meet you.”

I understood then that the co-creation of a vision and ownership lies in 
winning the trust of the workers, especially the poor. Their trust has 
to be won every day. I am comforted that COSATU has done a labour force 
survey of its members’ perceptions of their union leaders, but it is a 
striking finding that many of the grassroots members are alienated from 
their leadership. This should be the core of the debates at the upcoming 
Congress. These perceptions need to be answered.

COSATU has a proud history. You stood firm when our government, in its 
insane denialism, condemned to death so many people living with HIV and 
AIDS, or remained silent on the human rights abuses of Zimbabwean and 
Swaziland workers. You mobilised amazing organisations such as the 
Treatment Action Campaign to make government accountable.

But where has the social activism gone to in our country? Has it also 
submerged below the morass of that the bureaucratic development industry 
breeds? You cannot escape your responsibility any longer – our society 
is fragmenting and our state becoming increasingly dysfunctional.

Our Constitution demands an effective government that is transparent and 
accountable. Our Constitution has laid the proud traditions of social 
justice, human dignity and social solidarity as the foundation of our 
democracy. Public institutions are there to serve the interests of the 
citizenry and not the narrow often corrupt interests of a predatory elite.

That is what we fought for. We need to stop being subjects and become 
active citizens. It is now incumbent on us all to stand up and bring our 
country back to the path of reconstruction and development. We promised 
a better life in 1994, and we need to deliver it.

As our founding father, Nelson Mandela, said, “Poverty, like Apartheid, 
is not an accident. Like slavery, it is man-made and can be removed by 
the actions of human beings.”

The key, now, is for those human beings to take the appropriate action. DM

     Jay Naidoo

Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, former Minister in 
Mandela Government and Chair of a GAIN a Global Foundation Fighting 
malnutrition in the World. You can also visit his Facebook Page or 

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