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Violet Seboni Memorial Lecture by Ebrahim Patel, Minister of Economic Development PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 25 August 2014 16:25

Date: 25 August 2014

Press Release: Immediate

 The Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (SACTWU), one of the COSATU-affiliates,  today held a Memorial Lecture in honour of our late Deputy President and COSATU Deputy President, Violet Seboni. The Memorial Lecture was delivered by Minister of Economic Development, Ebrahim Patel, at Constitution Hill, Johannesburg. The event was attended by over 400 trade unionists, members of the Seboni family, members of Violet Seboni’s church, COSATU National Office Bearers, and national leadership of SACTWU.

 

The occasion was also used to announce a new SACTWU initiated fund in honour of Violet Seboni  – the Violet Seboni Development Fund. According to SACTWU General Secretary Andre Kriel, “this R1m strong Fund will finance local projects in education and training, in empowerment of women, and in economic development, over the next five years”. The money was raised by SACTWU, Zenzeleni Clothing, the TCIA Clothing Group, the Bargaining Council for the Clothing Industry, the Independent Media Group, HCI and the SETA for our sector.

 

Violet Seboni passed away tragically in a car accident near Ventersdorp on Friday 3 April 2009. She was on her way to deliver a general elections message at an ANC Women’s League event.

 

She was born on 18 September 1965. Violet never knew her parents,  was raised by her grandmother and later by her grandmother’s friend. After high school she went to look for work in the clothing industry. Violet was a single mother and a garment worker who raised her two daughters, Lesego and Lesedi, on the modest wages that millions of women across the world earn. These women work long hours to sew our clothes, make the caps we wear, the bed linen we sleep on, the towels we dry ourselves with, only to earn very little wages to feed and support their families. 

 

In 1999 Violet was elected as the first female Chairperson of SACTWU’s East Rand branch. In 2001 she was elected as Treasurer of SACTWU’s Gauteng region and then as a SACTWU Deputy President. In 2003 she was elected as COSATU Deputy President.  She held these two latter positions until her death, and as her daughter, Lesego has said, ‘she died with her boots on’. Violet died during the 2009 general election campaign, whilst travelling to an election meeting of the ANC Women’s League in the North West Province. It is therefore appropriate that we celebrate her life during Women’s Month.

 

In his lecture, the Minister noted that in twenty years after democracy we have made significant progress, but we still have many challenges to address.  He highlighted some of our areas of progress. These include: solid institutions of democracy and important freedoms – “to speak, to assemble as citizens, to join trade unions and to strike when needed, to pray as we choose...We are able to approach the courts for justice when we are aggrieved. We have a free press, able to report on the matters of the nation”. Beyond the rights we have won, the Minister also highlighted socio-economic improvements post 1994. Including that: the economy is larger than it was under apartheid, with almost 6 million more people who are working today than in 1994;  access to education has expanded greatly, with eight million learners now attending no-fee schools, and 9 million learners are receiving daily meals at school that are provided by government. Mini-bus  taxis - which Violet used to get to work every day - are now being assembled in Springs and eThekwini. In the past these were imported. In Gauteng, in the last five years alone, 112 984 houses have been connected to electricity.

 

The challenges facing South Africa, which Minister Patel highlighted, include amongst others: the triple-challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment; the problem of insecure and temporary employment; service delivery and inefficiencies in municipalities; and the practice of cartel behaviour and price fixing amongst companies in the private sector.

 

“Since the adoption of the NGP, the economy has created an additional 1,4 million new jobs, mainly in the public sector, finance, transport and mining. Total employment is today over 15 million,” said Minister Patel.

 

Violet Seboni would have taken a lead role to campaign against and address these challenges.

 

We pay tribute to our heroine: straight talker, principled leader.

 

Issued By

Andre Kriel

General Secretary

SACTWU

 

A full copy of Minister Patel’s Violet Seboni Memorial Lecture delivered today is available below:

 

Violet Seboni Memorial lecture by Ebrahim Patel, Minister of Economic Development, 25 August 2014 at Constitution Hill, Johannesburg.

Family of the late Violet Seboni

Sidumo Dlamini and Themba Khumalo, Presidents of COSATU and SACTWU

General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and office bearers of Cosatu

National Office Bearers of SACTWU

Members of the Diepkloof Methodist Church

Leaders of the Gauteng region

Shop stewards

Invited guests and members of affiliates

 

A Memorial Lecture is an opportunity to pay tribute to someone who lived a life that was extraordinary; it is also a moment to reflect on the contemporary challenges that our society faces.

Some people put their mark on history in ways that are large and widely-known, people like Shaka, Makana, Moshoeshoe, Mandela, Hani.

Some make their mark mainly recognized by those they worked with directly who saw something unusual in the person.

The English poet Thomas Gray wrote 260 years ago about a visit to a graveyard where many unknown ordinary people were buried and he remarked that in their lives they may have had much to offer but fate and circumstance prevented their talents from becoming known to others.

He said: ‘Full many a flower was born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air”

Violet Seboni falls in a different category: yes, I will concede that history did not bestow on her the role of a Nelson Mandela but no, neither was her life lived in the shadows unseen in society, her sweetness was not wasted in the desert air.

She was an extraordinary leader of workers who by her actions  made her mark on her organizations, Sactwu and Cosatu and her work in the Tripartite Alliance.

She was gifted, strong, articulate and passionate about what she stood for, she was one of a team of shopfloor activists who together with so many others in her time was part of a powerful movement which changed society.

The bare facts of her life is known to many in the audience today.

She was born on 18 September 1965.

 

On the same day, the spectacular celestial comet – the Ikeya-Seki – was seen in the skies above the earth. It was a rare sighting. The comet only comes into view from earth every few hundred years. The rest of the time, it is travelling on its very long journey through space.

 

It was one of the brightest comets seen in our generation, an auspicious start to the turbulent life of the young girl.

In December 2007, Violet and I were at the Polokwane Conference of the ANC. During the many days there we took walks across the grounds at the University where the Conference took place and I asked her about her family. While delegates debated policy and the developmental state, and cast their votes for a new ANC president, I listened to her story – of her parents she did not know, reared as she was by her grandmother and later by the family-friend of her grandmother, of her own children that she passionately loved.

 

Violet went to primary school and later to Madibane High School in Diepkloof, where she developed a love for netball and a passion for activism. After high school, she became pregnant and her first daughter was born. She went to look for work in the clothing industry.

 

Her story, of a single mother, a garment worker, is the story of many millions of women across the world who sew our clothes and the caps we wear and make the bedlinen we sleep on at night, the curtains that we use to create privacy in our bedrooms, the towels we use to dry ourselves, women who rely on the modest wages that they earn, to feed their families.

 

Violet has two daughters Lesego and Lesedi who were the joy of her life.

 

In 1999 she was elected as the first female chairperson of the East Rand branch of SACTWU. She brought a new energy to the branch at a time when there were many battles to save jobs and to fight for a living wage.

 

We all recall seeing this young, strong woman who showed an organisational maturity beyond her years.

 

Two years later that recognition of leadership qualities by her fellow shop stewards led to her election as treasurer of SACTWU’s Gauteng region and then to her assumption of duties as a SACTWU Deputy President and in 2003, as COSATU Deputy President, two positions she has held until her death, until, as her daughter Lesego said, she died with her boots on.

 

She was a member of the national clothing wage negotiations team, an activist in the fight to defend the rights of workers in the Labour Relations Act and an internationalist who was once deported from Zimbabwe where she had been on a trade union mission.

 

She led COSATU during stormy and difficult times, presiding over many complex moments of debates of the COSATU CEC and Congress and truly came into her own as a tough fighter but also one who prized the unity and internal democracy of the Federation.  She was very close to many of leaders assembled here today. I remember how fondly she always spoke of Zwelinzima Vavi, her other General Secretary; of the respect she had for Sidumo Dlamini, her other President. 

 

At her funeral in April 2009, I spoke as her SACTWU General Secretary and said:

“This talented, strong garment worker was dealt a hard hand by history but she drew on an inner strength that we will always remember. In a different world, Violet would have been given an easier life, completed a university degree – perhaps she would have been a partner in a law firm, perhaps together with her friends and comrades, Busi Msimango, Tshepo Makhene and Glacier Maduna, fighting human rights cases in the Constitutional Court. But destiny gave her a bigger job – it made her a clothing worker and a trade unionist and gave us her talent and her energy.”

 

It is fitting that today, five years later, we have the Violet Seboni Memorial Lecture here at Constitution Hill. This venue was a prison and briefly a defense post for the old Boer Republic, it saw prisoners such as Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, activists in the defiance campaign and accused in the Treason Trial, white workers who went on strike in 1922 and activists who defied the states of emergency in the 1980s ; today it proudly houses our highest court, the Constitutional Court that protects the basic rights and freedoms of the South African people.

She died during the 2009 general election campaign, whilst travelling to an election meeting of the ANC Women’s League in the North West province. So it is fitting therefore too that we celebrate her life in Women’s Month with this Memorial Lecture.

Twenty years after democracy, where do we stand as a society?

We have made very significant progress across a wide front and we have very serious challenges that we must still address. Let us look at some of these areas of progress first.

We have solid institutions of democracy and important freedoms, to organize, to speak, to assemble as citizens, to join trade unions and to strike when needed, to pray as we choose, rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights in our constitution. We are able to approach the courts for justice when we are aggrieved. We have a free press, able to report on the matters of the nation.

The economy is larger than it was under apartheid, with almost 6 million more people who are working today than in 1994. The Gross Domestic Product is almost double the size it was 20 years ago and the growth rate is almost three times higher than it was in the last 20 years of apartheid.

Access to education has expanded greatly with 8 million learners now attending no-fee schools and 9 million learners are getting daily meals at school, provided by government.

 

Investment in improved health-care systems has seen many more clinics built, nurses and doctors employed and medication made available. The big crisis that is HIV is beginning to be contained through the world’s largest ARV programme, after years when we were in denial about the disease.

Public transport systems are being improved.

Here in Joburg, the Rea Vaya system is under construction with more than 100 000 people, many of them factory workers, using it every day. But we are also using the opportunity to make the buses for the system locally, in the Marco Polo factory in Germiston and Busmark in Randfontein.

The taxis that Violet Seboni used every day to travel to work used to be imported in the past. In the last five years we worked closely with two investors and now the country assembles mini-bus taxis in Springs and eThekwini.

We are manufacturing trains in factories in Koedoespoort near Pretoria and Nigel.

What this shows is how government is taking a basic concept that many trade unions have fought for, the concept of localization, or local manufacturing, and making it real and concrete.

Twenty years of democracy has seen a large expansion of electricity. Let me illustrate this by reminding ourselves that the first electricity was installed in a house in South Africa as long ago as 1890. Between that date and the dawn of our democracy, 5,2 million houses were connected to electricity. Since 1996, an additional 7,2 million homes were connected to electricity. In other words, we did more in less than 20 years of democracy than what was achieved in 104 years of colonialism and apartheid. Soweto was a dark city under apartheid, today electricity is generally installed throughout the township.

In Gauteng, in the last five years alone 112 984 additional houses were connected to electricity.

Jobs are a central concern of trade unions. Violet Seboni died during the first recession that the democracy experienced. It was caused by the financial crisis that started in the United States and rapidly spread across the world, becoming the biggest downturn in the global economy since the 1930s. We lost a large number of jobs during 2009, in what Cosatu aptly described as a ‘jobs bloodbath’, a phrase that Violet used often.

Faced with this huge challenge, government developed an economic strategy in the form of the New Growth Path, which was adopted in October 2010, almost twenty months after the death of the remarkable woman whose life we are celebrating today.

Since the adoption of the NGP, the economy has created an additional 1,4 million new jobs, mainly in the public sector, finance, transport and mining.

Total employment is today over 15 million.

The industry that Violet Seboni worked in has been buffeted by the harsh winds of globalization for the past 20 years or more, as the economy opened up after the sanction years of apartheid and as China entered the global trading system.

One of the first things we focused on in 2009 was to begin the rebuilding of the industry. The steps we took included:

·         Increasing the tariff protection on 35 items of clothing to allow the companies to reorganize their factories

·         Providing new incentives for local producers through a competitiveness programme and loans from the Industrial Development Corporation, the IDC. Together, these were worth R5,1 billion

·         Creating a Training Layoff Fund that can be accessed by companies as an alternative to retrenchment, that has been used by 14 factories in the sector to save 1 500 jobs

·         Linking access to government incentives with full compliance with tax and labour laws

·         Taking action against illegal imports, with raids on warehouses, better inspections at the harbours and confiscation of about R1,8 billion worth of illegally imported goods from the industry in three years alone

·         Committing that all government agencies will only  buy locally-produced clothing, textiles and footwear

 I have highlighted some of our success stories of what we have achieved during the period of the democracy, particularly in the past five years. 

But we have not completed all that we aim to do and the triple-challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment remains. Let me look at some of the challenges.

While we celebrate the rise in jobs numbers, we are not expanding employment in the core productive parts of the economy such as manufacturing, mining and agriculture. And too many jobs are temporary jobs.

It is for this reason that we say that we need to transform the economy by addressing its structural and systemic features.

One area we are dealing with is the monopolies and cartels that fix prices among themselves, abuse their market dominance, over-charge consumers and weaken our capacity to industrialise.

The Competition Commission has exposed a large cartel operating in the construction industry that illegally fixed prices for the soccer stadiums and roads in Gauteng and elsewhere.

We are acting firmly against them. We have broken up the cartel, forced them to reveal information about where they met, who was involved and which projects were affected. We fined them R1,4 billion and are now in discussion with them for a further compensation for the state and for transformation of the industry.

In the next five years, government will take on the fight against monopolies and cartels with even greater vigour and will change the laws if needed to strengthen the capacity of the competition authorities to dismantle them.

Another area we are addressing is the need to improve the skills base of the economy.

Violet’s life shows the huge talent among our people that can be tapped more effectively. So we are now working on a major revolution in skills development. We want young people who leave school to go to college for extra skills. Not everyone wants to enroll at a university so we are expanding FET colleges where young people can develop critical skills needed in the economy. South Africa needs more plumbers, welders, production technicians, nurses and teachers. 

Our job as government, as trade unions and as parents are to work together to create opportunities for young people to be able to reach their potential. In the period ahead, we will be focusing more on vocational and technical education and ensure we have more opportunities for young people to get that first job or to get an internship where they get their first experience in a workplace.

The Youth Employment Accord that was signed in April last year will be a big part of our efforts to support young people to start their own companies, find their first job or gain their first work exposure. Sactwu has to be complimented. It has set aside R25 million to promote youth employment, skills development and empowerment and has assisted with placing 18 young people in internships in the industry.

Infrastructure development is a further big structural feature we must address.

In the past five years, we expanded the spending to build new infrastructure. In all, government invested about R1,1 trillion in new infrastructure, from schools, hospitals, to power stations, dams and transport systems.

We will expand this further to ensure that we develop the capacity to generate much higher levels of electricity and expand the quantity of drinkable water.

The challenges however at local level with water, sanitation, electricity, good quality clinics, remain very big. In too many cases are our people given poor services. We will need to fix the municipal level, from getting reliable electricity accounts, to making sure that every citizen has decent and dignified access to sanitation and water.

What these point to is the fact that the struggle to build a society in which all of our people have better lives is on-going and that the next five years must be a period of radical transformation.

In 2005, Violet Seboni addressed a meeting on trade policy and she recognised the importance of workers taking up their issues. She said:

“It is therefore comrades, that I do not wish you good luck for today, since I do not really put my faith in good luck. Instead, I wish you good struggle, since a struggle it is. And we expect to see you all… at our demonstrations against job losses and poverty”

 

Part of the struggle we wage is to build a more effective state, one that delivers. It means improving the skills of public servants but also the accountability of political leaders to local communities.

I recently reread the speech that Violet was due to give when she travelled to North West on that fateful day in 2009 and I want to share her unuttered words with you. She said

“The politics of the belly have destroyed many liberation movements in Africa.”

 

By this she meant the tendency of leaders to focus on their own needs, on how they can benefit, at the expense of the people we serve. The fight against corruption is not only a moral issue. It is also about making sure that monies raised through taxes and other means are used to grow the economy, to create jobs, to provide education and health facilities, to provide basic grants to those in need, not to line the pockets of a small group of politically connected individuals. The other side of the coin of corruption is indifference to inequality – when we no longer care about the bellies of our people and many stay poor while some are very comfortable.

 

Her final speech also said:

 

Comrades, you can change but you must never sell your soul

and principles. No matter what, the unity of the workers

remains paramount. Any talk to divide the workers is a shame

and worse if that is done by former worker leaders.

 

She spoke of a period when there were efforts to divide Cosatu, after the removal of its then President Willie Madisha.

Today, COSATU faces again challenges on its unity as it grapples with policy debates about the future of the country and the role of the Federation, the working of the alliance and the impact of government; as it deals with breaches of its founding principles and how to manage diversity of opinion and debate. Such debates and differences of opinion are not new. Neither are the fact that they are very passionately felt. This has been a feature of COSATU throughout its history, from the very first Congress that I attended.

The manner in which COSATU resolves its current challenges will be critical to the impact that trade unions will have on public policy. A divided union movement, at war with itself and engaged mainly on massive competition between unions on the shop-floor, will dissipate its energy, its impact and effectiveness at a moment in our history when workers can ill afford it.

Leadership is not found mainly in how articulate a leader is, how good and stirring the speeches are, how flowery the rhetoric, how biting the criticism of that which we do not like or extravagant the promises of what we will do in future. A key feature of leadership is wisdom and maturity: the ability to see the long-term needs of a movement beyond the hurts and slights of the moment and identify today, in these circumstances, what is required to achieve the best interests of those we lead and then to work tirelessly to that goal. 

COSATU has in the past had enormous stores of leadership, giants who led the organization and its affiliates, from shopfloor leaders to national leaders. That deep well of leadership has not dried up, absolutely not. Inside the Federation, there are people of wisdom and courage who can help it navigate the difficult moment and stay intact. We have experienced, strong, wise leaders such as Zwelinzima Vavi and Sidumo Dlamini who have the ability and skill to keep the Federation together, focused on fighting for the rights of workers. This talented leadership’s legacy cannot be a divided organization but instead it must be a strong COSATU, the parliament of workers, with many viewpoints but a common disciplined platform to fight for social justice. 

It is often said that those who die in a good cause live on in the struggles of those who continue. Sometimes we can take steps to recognize more visibly the contributions of those who are no longer with us, to keep alive their name much as the body has departed.

As I bring this Memorial Lecture to a close, I am proud therefore to announce that SACTWU has set up a living memorial to the life of Violet Seboni.

The union has raised R1 million to start a Violet Seboni Development Fund that will finance local projects in education and training, in empowerment of women, in economic development, over the next five years. The money has been raised by generous contributions from a number of sources. The donors include SACTWU, Zenzeleni Clothing, the TCIA Clothing Group, the Bargaining Council for the Clothing Industry, the Independent Media Group, HCI and the SETA for the sector.

 

In my funeral oration to this extraordinary woman in 2009, I said

“We remember that smile, the laughter, the voice that led us in song, the rough beautiful diamond, Violet, that you were. Many older people would have been proud to have achieved what you did in your 43 years on earth.”

 

Those words still describe how we remember Violet Seboni. It is just sad that Violet was not here to enjoy her grandson, young Aklegang, who she would have proudly brought to union meetings and taken many pictures with.

 

We have great memories of Violet Seboni!