IN modern societies such as South Africa today, by far the most important class struggle is between labour and capital.
Leaders of both workers and employers come and go, but the same basic struggles between these two classes continue.
It is appropriate to mention this at a time when so much attention is quite wrongly being paid to leadership contests.
Whether the US election is won by Barack Obama or Mitt Romney or who wins the ANC's six top positions at Mangaung is not unimportant, but it will not in itself make any fundamental difference.
That will depend on policy changes and mass action by ordinary citizens to implement those changes.
This is relevant to the big talking point of the moment - the Marikana mine massacre.
Individuals and organisations must be held to account for such a monumental disaster.
We trust that the judicial commission of inquiry will identify those responsible and they will be punished appropriately.
In the mining industry a handful of huge multinational mining monopolies make billions of rand of profits, extracted from the labour of workers who toil in the most wretched, unhealthy and dangerous conditions underground, for wages that come nowhere close to the value that their labour creates for their employers.
The rock drill operatives (RDOs) at the centre of the dispute perform a more dangerous, unhealthy and difficult job than anyone else in the world. They face death every time they go down the shafts.
Yet their monthly earnings are just R5600.
Compare that to the earnings of Lonmin's financial officer, Alan Ferguson, who earns R10,25m a year, or R854581 a month, 152 times higher than an RDO.
Those who clean our public spaces in Metros earn R13,51 and R10,07 an hour in KZN. Domestic workers earn a meagre R1639,82 in metro areas.
Farm workers who toil under all conditions of weather and seasons earn R1503,90. Hospitality workers earn R2240,60.
The security guards who stand in cold wintry nights for 12 hours earn R1828. All of these workers will say we are under siege from this cruel system.
Unemployment today means nearly four out of every 10 South Africans have no job or adequate social security. Black people who this month will remember Steve Biko, the champion of black consciousness, will tell us of their continuing humiliation by poverty.
Though poverty has declined in the past 18 years, it still remains widespread, with 57% of individuals living in poverty in 2001.
Black people are asking about the promised redistribution of wealth.
Today there is effectively distribution from the poor to the rich, represented by the reality that the top 10% of the rich accounted for 33 times the income earned by the bottom 10% in 2000. This gap is likely to have worsened when you consider that we lost 1,17 million jobs due to the global economic crisis of 2008.
In 2008 the top 20 directors of JSE-listed companies, who are still overwhelmingly white males, each earned an average of R59m a year, while on average an employee earned R34000 in 2009.
Women in general, black women in particular, remain second class citizens in our male dominated society.
They will tell us that they remain the worst victims of poverty and the main victims of HIV-Aids, which they get mostly from their bullying and untrustworthy husbands and boyfriends.
Women will tell us that they are under siege because the health crisis is disproportionately on their shoulders.
They will relate the gory stories of mothers who suffer watching their daughters dying from HIV-Aids. Women constitute the majority of the 1000 people dying every day and are the overwhelming majority of the 1450 people being infected by HIV each day.
Because they have the worst jobs and are employed mainly as casuals, they will tell us they form the bulk of the 90% of South Africans who do not have medical aid and therefore use the crisis-ridden health institutions.
Regrettably, everything in our country retains the apartheid pecking order - the apartheid train with three coaches. This is reflected in the imbalance in terms of life expectancy.
A white person born in 2009 expects to live for 71 years, whereas an African born in the same year expects to live for 48 years.
Mineworkers know that South Africa takes first prize as the most unequal society in the world.
The richest decile earns about 94 times more than the poorest decile. Africans, who constitute 79,4% of the population, account for 41,2% of the household income from work and social grants, whereas whites, who account for 9,2% of the population, receive 45,3% of income.
The poorest 10% of the population share R1,1bn, while the richest 10% share R381bn.
Our country is trapped in a developmental paradigm that has simply reproduced these conditions for 18 years now.
So ask workers if they are under siege and they will definitely say "yes, we are under siege by greedy bosses who exploit us ruthlessly every working day, when we put our lives on the line every time we go underground" .
How we wish that Chris Hani could return today to witness the unending pandemonium and dog fights for positions.
How we wish he could see how his comrades are rolling in cars worth millions while rock drillers in Marikana and at other mines resort to desperate measures to try and get their demands met.
Lonmin executives may well claim that they too are under siege, from militant workers who make 'unreasonable wage demands', at a time when the world demand for platinum is falling, profit margins are threatened and potential foreign investors could be frightened away from South African mining.
So the answer to the question "who is under siege?" is that it all depends on which side of the class divide you are sitting - business or labour - and both expect politicians to rescue them from the perceived threat from the other.
Vavi is Cosatu's general secretary. This is an edited version of his speech at the Sowetan Dialogues this week