SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande, left, Cosatu president S'dumo Dlamini, centre, and President Jacob Zuma at last year's Cosatu May Day rally in Kimberley. Photo: Dumisani Dube

This month, South Africa is proudly celebrating 20 years of democracy. Then on May 1, workers all over the world will celebrate their special day. Six days later, on May 7, we shall be voting to decide who should govern our country for the next five years.

For the workers’ movement, all three events are linked. Cosatu firmly believes that the best way to celebrate our victory in 1994, and all the gains we have won since then, is to give a new and bigger mandate to the party which led, and continues to lead, the struggle for democracy and freedom: the ANC.

Some parties are offering radical-sounding promises but they have all failed to present anything better than the record of the ANC since 1994, and what the ANC now offers the workers and the working class as a whole in its 2014 manifesto. Others, like the DA, are out-and-out representatives of big monopoly capitalists and enemies of the workers.

Some argue that a trade union should not be bothered with political campaigns, but our involvement in politics is rooted in our history. After our birth in December 1985, Cosatu resolved to work with progressive, popular forces to end the oppressive apartheid system.

It was consistent, therefore, that after their unbanning, we formed an alliance with the ANC and the SACP, in order to crush apartheid and build a democratic, non-racial and non-sexist South Africa.

That did not mean, however, that Cosatu would cease to be independent. There was never going to be a blank cheque for any party. We would never be an ANC “labour desk”. We have insisted that our priority was, is and always will be, an independent, democratic, workers’ organisation.

We must never forget, however, just how evil colonialism and apartheid were. Colonialism stole the country’s wealth, exploiting our natural riches and the cheap labour of migrant workers, to develop an economy that maximised the profits of the ruling class of the imperialist power. Apartheid denied the majority of South Africans all basic human and democratic rights. It forced them to live and work where the government ordered, barred them from better paid jobs and even told them who they could or could not marry.

Now, thanks to the ANC, we have a democratic constitution and laws that guarantee human rights and freedoms. We can vote, join any party and protest against the government. We are protected from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, and from discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, disability, religion or sexual orientation.

Workers have won important constitutional guarantees, including the right to fair labour practices, the right to form and join trade unions, strike and picket, and the right to collective bargaining.

We have also won concrete measures to improve our lives at home:

n People receiving social grants have increased from 3 million to 16 million.

n Over 3.3 million houses have been built, for more than 16 million people.

n About 12 million households now have electricity, 7 million more than in 1994.

n Some 92 percent of South Africans have access to potable water, compared with 60 percent in 1996.

We have made tangible gains in industrial jobs. Motor vehicle exports increased from almost nothing in 1995 to 239 465 in 2010. Through the Clothing and Textiles Competitiveness Improvement Programme, the government has stopped the employment decline in the sector and helped to create more than 12 505 permanent jobs.

Through government incentives, more than 61 376 jobs have been created, more than 8 180 new decent sustainable jobs in companies that received state incentives.

Only the ANC has a track record of being a reliable ally of workers since its inception in 1912, and its 2014 manifesto commits the party to do more.

The paradox is, however, that we are seeing an unprecedented wave of strikes and community protests, clear evidence that millions of South Africans feel they have been left out of the new South Africa, that while they have human rights and political freedom, these have not been matched on the socio-economic front.

This was well summed up in the final declaration of Cosatu’s 11th national congress in 2012: “Workers are demanding that the people shall share in the country’s wealth (as promised by our Freedom Charter). Our members are speaking through our structures, demonstrating their lack of patience through wildcat strikes and service delivery protests.”

At the heart of all this discontent are the underlying problems of unemployment, inequality and corruption. In economic terms, the biggest beneficiaries of the first decade of democracy were white monopoly capital rather than workers.

While most of the poorest South Africans are less poor than before 1994, the richest South Africans are far better off, which has massively widened the wealth gap. Our attempts to make the second 10 years of democracy a decade for the working class and the poor have largely failed.

These protests explain why we must insist that in the third democratic decade we achieve a fundamental transformation in our economy, to build a South Africa that will be democratic, united, non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous, in line with the Freedom Charter, and the concept of the national democratic revolution.

“The Freedom Charter,” said the ANC in its 52nd national conference resolution on strategy and tactics, “is a vision to reconfigure society on a more equal basis, and this requires radical changes in society… We cannot be content with the transfer of political power from the minority to the majority. State and mass political power must be used to advance the social and economic transformation of our society.”

We must constantly ensure that, while supporting our ANC allies, we are on course to fulfil this pledge. We will never be able to achieve this goal while we continue to suffer from the massive triple crisis of unemployment, poverty and inequality.

Today, by the more realistic expanded definition, which includes discouraged work-seekers, unemployment stands at a massive 34.1 percent.

The 2010 Human Development Report revealed that 44 percent of South Africa’s workers live on less than R10 a day. This only just pays for a loaf of brown bread.

The Gini coefficient, which measures inequality, stood at 0.64 in 1995 but increased to 0.68 in 2008, which made us the most unequal society in the world.

The minister of finance has acknowledged that 50 percent of the population lives on 8 percent of national income in South Africa and recent estimates suggest that the top 5 percent of earners earn 30 times more than the bottom 5 percent.

While the poor still live in poverty and squalor, we are producing too many greedy billionaires, who conspire to fix prices, and corrupt businesses, politicians and public officials, who manipulate tenders to enrich their business interests.

The public protector’s report on security upgrades to Nkandla is just the latest exposure of outrageous profiteering by service providers and gross maladministration by state officials and lack of oversight by political representatives.

So while continuing to support our allies, Cosatu will never stop speaking honestly about the state of the working class 20 years into our celebrated democracy. We must never be threatened into silence when we see the triumph of individualism and selfishness among the leadership and membership of our formations.

The solution to all these problems remains a fundamental restructuring of our economy, away from the exploitative economy we inherited from colonialism, based on the expropriation of our natural resources and cheap migrant labour. We have to replace this with a modern economy based on manufacturing industry.

This is why we are campaigning for the achievement of what we have called our “Lula moment”, inspired by the policies adopted by the former president of Brazil.

So we are again calling to workers and their families to vote ANC. Only the ANC has the interests of workers and the poor at heart and has fought, in the face of hard opposition in Parliament, for the advancement and protection of workers’ rights.

Only the ANC has a vision to continue changing our country away from the apartheid and colonial legacy.

Finally, Cosatu urges workers to go in their thousands, first to the May Day rallies on May 1, and then to vote on May 7. They must not be denied their basic democratic right to vote because a greedy employer forces them to work.

That is why we continue to demand that these and other holidays should be non-trading public holidays, so that no one except genuinely essential service workers can be obliged to go to work.

* S’dumo Dlamini is the president of Cosatu.