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A taste of COSATU

Cornelius Sibeko, a 32 year old worker from the Bison Board paper mill in Piet Retief, visited Johannesburg for the first time in July this year. When he left, Sibeko said his four days in Johannesburg were the most important in his life.

It was not the tall buildings or the nightlife in the big city that Sibeko found exciting — it was meeting 1500 comrades from all over South Africa at Cosatu’s Second National Congress at Wits University.

Sibeko, or Mugabe as he is known in Piet Retief, is a shop steward in the Paper Wood and Allied Workers Union (PWAWU). He was sent by the workers from the forests and paper factories in the Piet Retief area to be their “eyes and ears” at the Congress.

After the Congress Sibeko spoke to Learn and Teach. He told us what the Congress meant to a worker from a small town like Piet Retief:


“I tasted the strength of Cosatu for the first time at the Congress,” said Sibeko. “I saw President Elijah Barayi and General Secretary Jay Naidoo in the flesh and blood.

“When I came to the Congress, I thought it was going to be difficult for me because I come from a small town. I had the same feeling when the union first came to Piet Retief in 1983. I believed that unions were only for workers from the big cities like Johannesburg — and not for a place like Piet Retief.”

“The Congress was an eye opener for me. I learned that all workers, from every city, dorp and farm, are welcome in COSATU. We all have the same kind of problems and we are fighting the same struggle.”

“I am proud that I was part of a meeting that spoke about the future direction of COSATU and the workers’ struggle.”


Sibeko said the workers in Piet Retief will be pleased when he tells them about the Congress. He said the decisions of the Congress will have much meaning back home.

“The workers will be happy with the decision to stop the bosses collecting rent for the government.

Thandukukhanya Township in Piet Retief, where I come from, was the first township to boycott the paying of rent in the Eastern Transvaal. We are still not paying rent. Some of the members of the rent committee are also PWAWU members.

“The decision to carry on with the ‘Hands Off Cosatu Campaign’ and the ‘Living Wage Campaign’ will help us to defend ourselves from our enemies. We were kicked out of our office in Piet Retief after Cosatu House and other union offices were burned down. Now every PWAWU member’s house or hostel room in Piet Retief has become our office.

“A decision was made at Congress that Cosatu must come up with an education programme for workers. It is a good thing. Workers of today are students of yesterday. I went through this Bantu education, and I know it is not right.”


Sibeko was pleased that Congress adopted the Freedom Charter as a “guiding document”. The Freedom Charter was agreed to by the African National Congress and other organisations at the Congress of the People in Kliptown in June, 1955.

“The Freedom Charter is history,” said Sibeko. “We have decided to follow our parents who drew up the Charter, fought for what it stands for, and even died for it.”

He was also happy to hear about a union for domestic workers.

“The new union for domestic workers — the South African Domestic Workers Union — was praised by many speakers at Congress. It is time that we stand up and organise the women of Piet Retief into a strong domestic workers’ union.”


Sibeko said that he would tell the workers in Piet Retief how leaders from the UDF and the South African Youth Congress (SAYCO) praised COSATU at the Congress. “They praised COSATU for its growth and for the way it fights for the workers of this country,” said Sibeko.

And he would tell them what Rev. Frank Chikane, the new General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, had to say. “He told us about the role of the church in the struggle and the difficult times we are facing. People like Rev. Chikane make us see that the good will always win against the bad.”

Sibeko said the workers back home would laugh when they heard how everybody cheered when President Barayi said: “I am here to bury Botha, not to praise him.”


“The government says COSATU is bad. But messages from all over the world were read at the Congress. All the messages wished us well in our struggle.

“The Congress was long and tiring,” said Sibeko, as he got ready to go home. “But I am going home feeling stronger than before. I am ready for the struggle ahead.”


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