South Africa: COSATU's Zwelinzima Vavi's Ruth First Memorial Lecture

Ruth First with Joe Slovo (left).

Zwelinzima Vavi presents the 2010 Ruth First Memorial Lecture, Wits University, Johannesburg, August 17, 2010. Vavi is secretary general of the Congress of South African Trade Unions. Ruth First  (May 4, 1925–August 17, 1982) was a South African anti-apartheid activist and communist born in Johannesburg, South Africa. She was killed by the apartheid regime with a parcel bomb in Mozambique in 1982, where she worked in exile from South Africa.

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I will always cherish this moment. It is such an honour to deliver the annual lecture in memory of Ruth First.

The theme is "How policy is affecting the marginalised and its impact on poverty".

As we recall the immense contribution of Ruth First to our struggle, let me begin with a quote from Karl Marx, which describes Ruth First's life. In a letter to his father in 1837, Karl Marx says: "If we have chosen the position in life in which we can most of all work for mankind, no burdens can bow us down, because they are sacrifices for the benefit of all; then we shall experience no petty, limited, selfish joy, but our happiness will belong to millions, our deeds will live on quietly but perpetually at work, and over our ashes will be shed the hot tears of noble people".

I want to thank the Ruth First Committee for organising these annual lectures to commemorate this hero of our people, so that her deeds will live on quietly but perpetually at work.

Ruth First shared our passion against exploitation and oppression. Her disdain for capitalism and her striving for social justice are amongst the lessons that we as workers continue to draw from her legacy, 28 years after her brutal killing by the apartheid state.

Her contempt for private ownership of the means of production, for exploitation and for all forms of oppression is evident in all of Ruth First's undertakings -- from her journalistic writings to her scholastic works.

National liberation and the defeat of class exploitation were for her two sides of the same coin. Her hatred for colonialism, apartheid and imperialist domination informed her dedication to the many liberation movements in the continent, including South Africa, Namibia and Mozambique.

Ruth First was a firm believer in the dictum that classes make history and that there is no substitute for mass work and mass power.

The overriding lesson we continue to learn from her is that capitalism and imperialism have inflicted immense misery on humanity. Many obituaries written after her death highlighted the fact that Ruth First's work -- from her incisive account of the forced labour practices in the Bethal farms and the narrative about the nexus between mining and agricultural capital -- demonstrated her empirical yet meticulous understanding of the inner workings of the capitalist system and its manifestation in the African continent.[1]

Her work on both these subjects, and her activism in the national liberation movements in the continent, lends truth to the notion that no such a thing as class objectivity exists. Ruth First's journalistic and scholastic commitments were inseparable from her activism and her hopes and aspirations to see the working class driving its own liberation and the time when capitalism would become a subject only for historians.

As the role of the media is on the lips of most South Africans these days, we ask a question and pose a challenge to the journalists academics of today: How many journalists and academics have taken forward the legacy of Ruth First? How many on a daily basis, battle against poverty and inequalities and fight for economic justice as she did?

I wish Ruth First could wake up even if just for a day to see for herself the unspoken and continuing ravages of the colonialism of a special type that during her life she theorised and gave us tools not only to analyse but also change.

Today I want to speak about the Ruth First's dedication to the defence and advancement of the working class, which is ever more important given the class offensive waged by the capital in various terrains, including the media.

Ruth First would be shocked to learn that 16 years after our emancipation we have not moved decisively away from an economic system she died fighting against.

She would be happy with our new constitution and to learn that her husband [Joe Slovo] became the first minister of housing in a government led by the African National Congress (ANC), the party in which she played such a critical role to ensure that it earned its stripes as a working-class-biased liberation movement. She would be angry that her husband wore a political crown without economic jewellery.

Yet as a Marxist-Leninist herself she will wonder if Lenin's words can be proven correct or incorrect in the South African case -- "A revolution is impossible without a revolutionary situation; furthermore, not every revolutionary situation leads to revolution."

She would be angry that after 16 years of democracy, South Africa has still to adopt a new growth path and that we are still no better than most, if not all, other African countries who gained their independence from the colonial rule since 1957. She will be disappointed to read about how the apartheid growth path we still rely on today reproduces the same conditions that she dedicated her life to fighting against.

Can you believe that the government only produced its Industrial Action Plan in April 2010? All these years we have been negotiating trade deals not informed by what we want to achieve. Scandalous!

She would be shocked we have unemployment among Africans, which was estimated to be 38% in 1995 and that it stood at 45% in 2005, that 48% of South Africans live below R322 [US$44] a month and 25% of the population now survives on state grants.

She will seriously ask whether it was worth all the sacrifices she made when she learnt that in 1995, the Gini coefficient stood at 0.64 but it increased to 0.68 in 2008, which has made South Africa now the country with the biggest inequalities in the world.

She would join the picket lines in support of the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) members currently on strike in the automobile sector as well those in the public sector when she learns that each of the top 20 paid directors in Johannesburg Stock Exchange-listed companies earned 1728 times the average income of a South African worker in 2008, whilst state-owned enterprises paid 194 times an average worker's income.

Approximately 71% of African female-headed households earned less than R800 [$109] a month and 59% of these had no income. As we celebrate women's month, she would have to face the reality that income inequality is still racialised and gendered: an average African man earns in the region of R2 400 per month, whilst an average white man earns around R19,000 [$2600] per month. Most white women earn in the region of R9600 [$1312] per month, whereas most African women earn R1200 per month.

She would not believe her eyes when she read the survey of 326 companies by Phillip Theunissen, which showed that despite talk of recession, company CEOs were still able to double their annual earnings.

She will ask if we have not gone insane to tolerate the outrageous and obscene Bank CEO pay packages. Nedbank CEO Tom Boardman earned R43 million [$5.9 million] last year, Standard Bank CEO Jacko Maree R18 million [$2.4 million], R2 million [$270,000] and Absa CEO Maria Ramos R13.5 million [$1.8 million].

We will tell her that today almost all the top 20 paid directors in JSE listed companies remain white males. In the private sector, top management is 60% white male, 14% white female, 9% African male and 4% African female[2]. Coloured and Indian males account for an average of 4%, while females account for an average of 1.4% of top management in the country. In other words 74% of top management of the South African economy is drawn from 12% of the population.

She would learn that the crisis in education persists and the quality of education is declining: 70% of matriculation exam passes are accounted for by just 11% of schools. Only 3% of the children who enter the schooling system eventually complete with higher grade mathematics. Of the 1.4 million learners who entered the system in 2008, 24% were able to complete matric in the minimum of 12 years.

On the health front she would learn that the health profile of the population has deteriorated. In 2006, a black female South African expected to live 12 years shorter than a white male, and an average male in Sweden expected to live 30 years more than an average black South African female[3]. The life expectancy of South Africans was the highest in 1992, at 62 years. Ever since then life expectancy fell to 50 years in 2006[4].

Although we rank 79th globally in terms of GDP per capita, we rank 178th in terms of life expectancy, 130th in terms of infant mortality and 119th in terms of doctors per 1000 people. The situation seems to have worsened since 2006. The life expectancy of a white South African now stands at 71 years and that of a black South African stands at 48 years, according to the South African Institute of Race Relations survey in 2009.

If Ruth First were to have the opportunity to leave again and then return to her grave, she will share with the first minister of housing that there has been progress in the provision of housing. Seventy-four per cent of South African households live in brick structures, flats and townhouses. Nevertheless 15% of households still live in shacks, which amount to 1.875 million households. A major challenge is the quality of human settlements; 46% of South African households live in dwellings with no more than three rooms, 17% of households live in one-room dwellings. Among Africans 55% live in dwellings with less than three rooms and 21% live in one-room dwellings, whereas at least 50% of White households lives in dwellings with no less than four rooms.

She will smile broadly to learn the households with no access to water infrastructure fell from 36% in 1994 to 4% in 2009. Access to sanitation also dramatically improved over the same period, from 50% to 77%. Access to electricity also improved from 51% to 73%.

All of these rather depressing statistics will make her recall one of Lenin's most popular quotes that, "No amount of political freedom will satisfy the hungry masses." Telling the poor to be patient about land redistribution while golf estates, lavish town house apartments and shopping malls are popping up everywhere is to insult the intelligence of the working class!

It is ruthless to urge farm workers to persevere under racist and exploitative living and working conditions. The working class will not wait forever for change. The poor will find new ways of challenging capitalist domination and an attack on their living standards!

Ruth First would have joined the many service delivery protests against the low quality of services, lack of services general government neglect and cut-offs. Over 5 million people experienced cut-offs, according to a survey conducted in 2006. The interaction between income inequality, unemployment, precarious work and cost-recovery policies limit the extent to which the majority fully enjoy access to these services.

But what will annoy Ruth First most is that despite this mounting and unfolding catastrophe, she would have heard some of the leaders who were at some point serving with her in the central committee, assuring private capital, locally and abroad during their endless trips, that the economic fundamentals are in place and the country will stay the course despite mounting evidence that this market fundamentalism is dismally failing humanity.

She will read the newspaper headlines and be ashamed that she was once a journalist who dedicated her life to fight the injustices. In the midst of the human crises and suffering she will read the headlines of the Johannesburg Star today "Lover killed priest over cash". Tragic as that story is, she would wonder if it is more important than the socioeconomic challenges afflicting millions.

She would look at the state of the ANC as it prepares for its NGC and read the discussion papers that highlight so succinctly the challenges that glorious movement of hers is facing today.

She would, after reading the chapter on the pitfalls of national consciousness in Franz Fanon's book The Wretched of the Earth, wonder whether it is not possible for the liberation movements to avoid the trappings of power that have derailed so many in the African liberation movements.

Tears will roll down her face to see the youth movement of Anton Lembede [the ANC Youth League] at war with itself and in the news for all the wrong reasons. She would ask if the youth of today has not too soon forgotten about the struggles against injustices, only to join the race to be rich and in the process see leadership position as giving them access to power for narrow accumulation.

Seventy-three per cent of all unemployed people are below the age of 35 and yet we hardly ever see a protest march led by the youth to demand a new growth path and that the crisis of youth unemployment be addressed.

Ruth First would read today's Sowetan and Times newspapers reporting the new housing minister's battles against graft in the department with a smile and a hope, that many in the ANC are committed to a corruption-free administration.

But after reading the ANC discussion papers, the auditor's reports and other state documents she would be shocked that graft and crass materialism has taken over some of the former freedom fighters. She would be shocked that these have completely forgotten about what the National Democratic Revolution all about.

She would ask where her South African Communist Party (SACP) is, and why it has not led a united working class in a struggle to change the direction we seem to be taking. She would ask where all other democrats have gone to after reading about the proposed Protection of Information Bill that, if it goes through in its current form, will make a mockery of her work as a journalist committed to fighting injustice.

What type of a society are we building? South Africa can change. We deserve a change in direction. We can turn our situation around. We can unite behind a new vision. We have shown during the FIFA World Cup that we are capable of uniting behind a single goal. We can unite now to make Ruth First appreciate her contribution in building our democracy and our country.

Let the 28th anniversary of the death of Ruth First reignite our passion for economic justice, our hatred for inequality and our impatience with reformism.

Thank You!


[1] This point is made in Marks, S, "Ruth First: A Tribute", Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 10, no. 1, Special Issue on Women in Southern Africa , October, 1983, pp. 123-128.

[2] See the Employment Equity Report (2008/2009).

[3] World Development Report (2006): Equity and Development.

[4] World Development Indicators, 2009.