THE Limpopo textbook "fiasco" was a national "own goal" and showed how the working class and the poor suffered when leaders "defocussed" from challenges ordinary people faced daily, Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said in his opening address at the Equal Education National Congress in Tembisa last night.

Mr Vavi acknowledged weaknesses had emerged in progressive civil society organs and Cosatu itself in the past 18 years. He acknowledged the union federation should have been first to know that textbooks had not been delivered in Limpopo.

"Weaknesses in these formations also contribute to a growing social distance between some of our leaders and what the majority of our people experience daily. We have structures operating in the education system and the public sector, but because of weaknesses in those structures, weaknesses which also reflect the political consciousness among us, our comrades, were not alive to the reality of the situation."

He said Cosatu was unequivocal that "the minister, the premier, the MEC and even the president" were to blame. Equally, no political party, trade union or student organisation could not be held liable.

"The central question remains: where were members of all these formations when for six months so many children were without textbooks? Whatever the answer, one thing is certain - the children of the elite and the middle strata were not affected," he said.

"Had the children of senior trade unionists, educators, politicians and business people been among those affected, this scandal would have been nipped in the bud. In fact the entire education system would have undergone change for the better."

Those with the "power to be heard" who did not know about the textbook saga should "hang their heads in shame" and admit there was a social gap between those in power and those who put them there.

"It shows how the consumption by divisions, internal elite bickering and palace politics can generate a national tragedy," he said.

Mr Vavi said there was an urgent need for Cosatu and progressive civil society formations to press for the full implementation of the Freedom Charter, especially its provisions on education. This would be the federation's focus at its national congress in September.

A "strong, vibrant Cosatu that fiercely defends its independence" and a "transformed and diverse media" were required to accomplish this struggle for a "just society".

"Your activism is a breath of fresh air in many respects. It reminds all of us of our duty to serve our people. It reminds some of us who have the privilege to lead, not to take the mandate . for granted," Mr Vavi told Equal Education delegates.

marriann@bdfm.co.za