Defiantly fighting intolerance

2010-06-06 11:08

The decision of the ANC national working committee (NWC) to bring

disciplinary charges against me for raising Cosatu’s concerns at the lack of

urgency in investigating corruption allegations is a blatant attempt to censor

debate on this crucial issue.

If taken forward it would strike a savage blow against free speech.

The right of all South Africans to express their views without fear is one of

the cornerstones of our constitutional democracy.

Once any government starts

limiting freedom of expression, you can be sure that other human rights – to

vote, to demonstrate and to strike – will be next in line for attack, and we

will be on the road to dictatorship.

Cosatu, for 25 years, has always stood for a socialist society

wherein the country’s resources are owned and controlled by all the people

equitably, but we have always insisted it must be a democratic form of socialism

in which free speech and all other human rights are sacrosanct and all citizens

are actively involved in the country’s political, social and economic life.

Democracy and human rights are not a luxury but the oxygen of all

social and political bodies.

If you remove them, the whole body starts to seize

up. Even a socialist economic system cannot function efficiently if there is no

room for public debate on how to take society forward.

That is exactly what happened in the Soviet Union.

As human rights

were suppressed and public debate became impossible, economic growth which had

been spectacular in the early years stagnated and the whole structure of society

began to disintegrate.

Here in South Africa we saw the reverse of this process after the

collapse of apartheid dictatorship, which also banned public dissent and also

suffered from economic stagnation.

The flowering of democracy and public

engagement after 1994 contributed to dramatic advances in the quality of life as

a whole.

Unfortunately, however, public discussion was stifled after the

government adopted conservative macroeconomic policies which led to the high

levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality we have today.

If there had been more opportunity for public discussion of these

policies we could have reversed them sooner.

But the print media, 95% of which

is owned by just three giant companies, supported these pro-business, neoliberal

policies, gave them their editorial support and few platforms to any who

disagreed.

The one institution which ought to have been at the centre of the

debate, our public broadcaster, the SABC, was turned into a mouthpiece of the

Mbeki government and even banned commentators who expressed contrary views.

Those who dissented, including Cosatu and the SACP, were attacked, marginalised

and ridiculed.

Sadly for Mbeki, however, the rank and file of the ANC also felt

excluded from the debate and staged the revolt of Polokwane in December 2007.

With the election of a new ANC leadership we saw a new flowering of debate and

public engagement.

Recently there has been far more open discussion on policy options,

which is already bearing fruit in the adoption of much better policies by some

government ministers, such as the Industrial Policy Action Plan 2 by Trade and

Industry and Economic Development.

There has also been an unprecedented amount of public discussion

around the appointment of the SABC board and the National Planning Commission.

There are, however, ominous signs that freedom of expression is

coming under attack once again. The SABC has become such a contested terrain in

this process.

The move by a tendency within the ANC leadership is to stifle

debate on corruption allegations by disciplining the general secretary of Cosatu

and silencing the voice of the workers.

For the record, I did not accuse anyone of corruption.

The CEC of

Cosatu expressed concern at the countless allegations of corruption levelled

against ministers and other ANC leaders.

Not once have we heard the president

and/or cabinet announcing that these allegations will be subjected to an

investigation to determine whether they are true or not.

Without this happening a perception will continue to deepen in the

minds of communities that our movement and its government are soft on

corruption.

If those pushing for disciplinary and legal action were allowed to

succeed in silencing anyone who expresses concern on the basis of individual

membership of the ANC, then the next in line will be the Cosatu president,

followed by virtually every other president and general secretary of all

Cosatu-affiliated unions, as all are members of the ANC as well.

In the end, every member of the ANC in the union will be forced to

choose if they want to remain in the unions or be so-called “pure” ANC, ending

decades of the tried-and-tested tradition of dual membership in the

alliance.

This will apply not only to Cosatu but will extend to all members

of the SACP and the mass democratic movement.

The alliance as we have known it

will be history, as will the ANC whose historic bias towards the workers and the

poor is not automatic.

The overwhelming majority of the ANC leadership will never seek to

go down this route.

The ANC was founded to fight for the basic freedoms such as

right to an opinion, right to assembly and right to associate. Only a few will

push for the opposite direction of dictatorship and intolerance.

I can promise that this mighty trade union federation representing

more than two million members will never be silenced by a small minority.

There

is a greater need than ever for vibrant debates and public dialogue and

engagement – on corruption, unemployment, poverty and inequality, the state of

our schools and hospitals and many other burning issues.

Cosatu – as a leading social player armed with revolutionary values

and morality, and the conscience of the nation – will remain in the front line

in the war to protect freedom of speech and all the other hard-won rights

enshrined in our Constitution.

No amount of death threats and threats to muzzle us, even by using

the courts, will deter us.

» Vavi is the general secretary of Cosatu.


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